About a year ago, in the middle of a short holiday at my folk’s place down in the bush, I drove over my son with a Land Rover. It was a very good day.
There was, of course, that white-knuckled, loose bowelled, heartbeat free moment that every decent parent should be familiar with when you think “Oh my God, I’ve killed my son! All the books said we weren’t supposed to do that!”, but a second later he popped up looking as white as a sheet and a little battered, and I thought, with huge relief, “Thank Heavens! I’ve only maimed him!
After that, things just got better. It turned out I hadn’t even maimed him. We considered driving him in to the nearest town for X-rays, but within half an hour, he was running around like a maniac, and only limping when he thought we were watching, and I could start to enjoy the moment. And enjoy it I did, for a couple of reasons. Perhaps I should start by explaining what had happened.
My folks’ place is a shareblock, a large farm collectively owned by about 100 or so families. It’s covered by a network of dirt roads, and unlike most big-five reserves, the members are free to drive themselves around in their own vehicles. And what vehicles they are. There is a microbus with the roof and windows sawn off called “The Tub”. There is a Volkswagen Beetle, called “The Scarab”, also free of roof and windows. In fact all the vehicles have no roof or windows. There are Toyota Land Cruisers, Nissan bakkies (pickups) and vintage Jeeps. And there are Land Rovers.
We always had Land Rovers. These are not the shiny, new, air-conditioned, electric-windowed travesties that soccer moms drive around the suburbs. These are the beasts, the huge square blocks of steel and rubber with a turning circle of 5 miles. They don’t go fast, but they do go anywhere. Our one at the moment is an army-surplus monster from a bygone age. It is a thing of surpassing beauty.
And my son? I was driving up to the workshop (the Beast was leaking smoke) with my daughter and son, while my wife followed in our city car. The front seat of the Land Rover is a wide bench seat. My daughter was strapped into her car-seat right next to me, while my son sat on the other side of her, next to the passenger door. As we drove through a dry river bed, I heard a click and a shriek as my son disappeared from view. And you know the rest. Except to say that it was providence that we were going through a dry riverbed at the time. The riverbeds in the bush are generally wide strips of loose sand, like coarse beach sand. We drove over his leg, but it must have pushed down into the loose sand, and he emerged unscathed.
And why was this good? For a couple of reasons. First of all, because it means he’s one of us. When we asked him, as caring, sympathetic parents do, what the bloody hell he thought he was doing, he explained that he had stretched his arm down on the outside of the car and felt the door handle. Which he then opened. Because, he said, he “wanted to see what it did”. He was seven. Not three. He had seen a door handle or two before. He knows what they do. Generally. He just needed to see what this one did. Specifically. I dare say he must have been surprised to find that this one somehow caused the door to open. I don’t hold it against him though. It’s genetic.
My father had a lifelong sensitivity to beestings. This was because, as a child, when he was stung by a bee (not an Africanised killer bee, but its granddaddy, an African bee), instead of pulling out the sting, he sat down and watched the venom sac on the sting slowly pump poison into his arm. Because he wanted to see what it did.
When I was small, alone in the garden, I crawled under a heavy folding table and released the latch that was holding it up. Because I wanted to see what it did. Remarkably, it held the table up. Until someone released it. Then it collapsed, as the designers had intended. On top of me. I was stuck for what felt like hours, until someone heard the screams. I was not cured.
A few years later, I set fire to a plastic cigarette lighter. Because I wanted to see what it would do. It exploded in a ball of green and blue flame. Which was what I was hoping for. What I wasn’t hoping for was the still burning glob of molten plastic which shot out and landed on my bare foot and burned its way through my skin. I was not cured.
Just a few short years ago, I threw a cup full of petrol onto a fire that didn’t seem to want to burn. Because I wanted to see what it did. It did nothing. Until I threw in a match. I’m not (that) stupid- I know all about petrol, so I stood fairly far away and threw the match. What I didn’t know was that there was obviously enough heat left in the dead looking fire to turn the petrol into a low lying vapour that spread over the whole patio. As I threw in the match I was surrounded by a blue sheet of flame, like some sort of magical tablecloth. It was beautiful. And I wasn’t using the hair on my ankles for anything important anyway. I’m still not cured.
These are just isolated incidents from a lifetime of amateur scientific enquiry. The best sorts of discoveries are the ones you bleed for, or bruise for, or burn for. And now it seems my son is going to be just as good at learning as my father and I were. I couldn’t be more proud. Although I will be hiding the matches and taking out some extra insurance.
I wasn’t just happy because my son has an instinctive understanding of the scientific method. I was happy because I was witnessing the start of a brand new family tradition. He is not, you see, the first in his line to fall out of a moving Land Rover. I’ve done it too. More than once.
The first time was fairly pedestrian. Our Land Rover at the time had a metal framework at the back for the passengers to hold onto. To get in and out, you had to climb over it. We had stopped and disembarked for some reason, to examine some tracks or insects or some such. As I climbed back in, my father simultaneously asked if we were all ready and let out the clutch. In his defence, he had four small children, and had come to realise that we were never all going to be ready, for anything, ever, so it was more of a formality than a question.
The Landy shot forward. I didn’t. I shot down. It was quite a fall, about two metres or so, and took what felt like an inordinately long time. Luckily, as I hit the ground head first, I was distracted by the back wheel going past just inches from my head, so it didn’t hurt as much as it could have. After that I was distracted by my parent’s apparently overwhelming interest in what the bloody hell I thought I was doing.
There is a certain kind of person who refers to any bad things that happen to them as life lessons. What a sad and limiting approach to life. Having learned absolutely nothing, I managed to somersault off the back of the Landy again about a year later. It was awesome. There was blood. There was an angry yellow-black bruise. When I got back to school I was a legend. I walked on water until Nolan Jacobs put his hand through a glass window and tried to pull it back out again.
I grew up a little, and stopped simply falling off the Land Rover. Not that things got any better. You see I grew into an international crime fighting superhero. The first time this led to a problem was when I decided to hit the ground running. Literally. As the Landy pulled up to the front of the house, I timed it so that I could jump off, legs spinning like Wile. E. Coyote, and dash past the vehicle in a cloud of dust. To fight crime.
I did not fight any crime that day, but I nailed the Wile. E. Coyote part. My feet stopped the moment they hit the ground, while the rest of my body kept moving. I ended up ploughing a neat little furrow through the dirt with my nose. My response to the inevitable “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” question was robbed of a little gravitas by the fact that I was covered from head to toe in rich brown dust except for the two short streaks of red emerging from my nostrils.
The high point in my crime-fighting career came when my father, with a car load of guests, parked under a tree with a branch that was sent by the gods to lead little boys into temptation. It was straight, and hung over the car like an invitation. I stood, reached up, and grabbed a hold of it. It was smooth. It was cool to the touch. It was thin enough to get a decent grip on. A plan sprung instantly to mind. I would hang from the branch like Batman lurking in the shadows, and as the vehicle moved slowly forward, I would drop neatly into my seat as it passed below. To fight crime.
The vehicle did not move slowly forward. With his customary simultaneous “Is everybody ready?” my Father shot forward like a bottle rocket. I clung on for dear life while my feet bounced up and over the faces of a couple of guests, and then they were all gone, disappearing round the corner in a cloud of dust. I was left hanging about three metres up, quietly trying to remember if this had ever happened to Spiderman, for a minute or two until the vehicle reappeared. Clearly, my parents saw this sort of thing as one of the perks of parenting. “What” they asked, grinning up at me as I hung, red-faced, three metres up a lonely tree in front of a crowded vehicle of spectators, “the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?”
And now I find myself in a rather odd position. You don’t want your children to get hurt. You want to keep them safe. I will growl and snap and cajole and threaten to keep my son in his seat. I might even give him a second or two after asking “Is everyone ready?” before pulling off. I will pull off slowly, and drive over bumps gently.
But a small, quiet part of me will always be ready to leap out and pick up my son from the dirt. I will push his hair out of his eyes and wash away the blood. “What”, I will ask, eyes filled with compassion and concern, “the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?”
And it will happen. Maybe not soon, maybe not with Land Rovers, but with fire, or water, or electricity, or wild animals, or hammers. It’s inevitable. Because my son is the sort of person who opens doors just to see what will happen. I wouldn’t have it any other way.