Sunday, March 21, 2010

Humpty-Dumpty Phobia, or How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Accept Baldness in My Fellow Man

When I was a little kid -- aged three, four and five -- the worst injury my friends and I could ever conceive of happening to a person was "cracking their head open."

We somehow understood that the human head was important to a person's well-being. We also intuited that the head was not impervious to injury. I'm unsure exactly when the scientifically accepted term for our fear -- "cracking your head open" -- became part of my lexicon, but I always recognized it as a phrase of weight and gravity.

There were vague stories from friends' old siblings who went to school, about kids cracking their heads open in the asphalt school yard, or on the tiled gymnasium floor. The mental image I had of someone cracking their head open was nothing so simple the cranium crumpling like an egg shell.

No, I realized the human head was pretty solid and sturdy, which only added to the lofty seriousness of someone cracking their skull open.

In kindergarten, while sitting making crafts one day, a girl seated at my table revealed her plan if she ever cracked her head open. She said, "If I ever crack my head open, I'll do this --" and pantomimed dipping her first two fingers in the crack of her skull and bringing those fingers to her mouth. She went back and forth a few times, showing how she'd save her own blood by cleverly putting it back into her body via her mouth.

It seemed like a good plan to me -- at the time.

There was a time when I witnessed a pair of kids crack their heads open.

I was on vacation with my parents and my Uncle Rollie's family in Clearwater, Florida in the winter of 1974. There were a few hundred yards of beach between the front of our modest hotel and the Gulf of Mexico. Where the sand began, there was a concrete pad on which some rudimentary playground equipment was set up for children to play on: a covered slide and some monkey bars.

My family and I were eating lunch at a picnic table near the playground equipment when some kids playing on the monkey bars fell off. Of course, the monkey bars were positioned so that anyone falling off of them had a good chance of landing on the cement lip of the expansive patio in front of the hotel -- which, of course, was half a step higher than the cement pad of the playground. It was the 70s, when safety was optional: many cars still didn't have seatbelts, people smoked in hospital and on air planes, aerosol cans were the disco of the cleaning and hygiene aisles of supermarkets.

The kids fell and each cracked their heads open on the edge of the cement patio.

Uncle Rollie was up from his seat in an instant. I don't believe I actually saw the kids fall, and I don't think I even knew what was happening until I focused on why Uncle Rollie -- a school teacher -- had raced off toward the crying that suddenly came from the playground area. He and another man -- possibly the kids' father, though I don't know for sure -- each picked up an injured child and ran with them. Where? I have no idea. There might have been some sort of medical facility nearby, or maybe they raced the kids to the father's car so he could get them to a hospital.

I never asked and it was never explained to me.

I do recall Uncle Rollie returning to our picnic table and wiping blood from his fingers with a napkin. There was a fair amount of blood on his hands; more than I'd seen on any of my scraped knees or elbows up to that time.

* * *

It was seeing Vincent Price in the 1960s Batman series, as the bald villain, Egghead, that put a whole new spin on my fears of cracking one's head open.

His bald head seemed so horribly vulnerable to injury. Sure, Egghead's henchmen took the bulk of the beating at the hands of Batman and Robin, but all it would take was merely tripping Egghead to make him crack his head open. His episodes in the series were excruciating for me.

Another TV bald guy who caused me anxiety was Telly Savalas, star of Kojak. I wasn't old enough to watch the show, but Telly Savalas was on the covers of magazines and in Diners' Club Card commercials. I also came to know of him through general television osmosis and seeing ads for the next episode of Kojak.

I wondered if, while running around, chasing crooks, Kojak ever fell down a flight of stairs and cracked his head open. (That was another apex of injury: falling down stairs. It was the worst thing I could imagine happening to a person. Not being shot, not being ravaged by disease, or hit by a train, but falling down a flight of stairs.) It wasn't long before I was obsessed with the idea of Kojak injuring his painfully vulnerable scalp. In fact, I soon became consumed with worry about all bald men.

I mean, what in the world would happen to a bald guy if he fell down a flight of concrete stairs?

The thought was more than I could handle. It gave me the same kind of morbid chill as contemplating what it would be like to drown.

It got to the point where I became afraid of bald men because their hairless pates were just waiting to be cracked open. If I saw a bald man in the grocery store, I'd cling to my mother's leg, or grasp the strap of her purse. and turn my face away from the poor, doomed man and his hairless, time-bomb skull.

At some point, I came to believe that as men went bald, they became more careful, agile -- like the way a blind person's hearing improves with the loss of their sight. This helped me with my Humpty-Dumpty phobia.

Soon, I came to not only see the grace and dignity of baldness, I coveted it. My Uncle Don was bald and by the time I was five, I thought that was the coolest look imaginable. So cool, in fact, that one day I took a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer, grabbed a handful of hair at the front of my head, and cut it off. I planned on replicating Uncle Don's pattern baldness had my mother not halted me with a shriek of horror.

She asked what in the name of gawd I was doing. To which I replied, "I want to look like Uncle Don."

For some reason, my mother didn't cancel our appointment later that week at Sears Portrait Studio where my brother and I had our pictures taken. There I was, with sizable chunk missing from the front of my hair.

But in that photo, I smiled as though another piece of 1970s marketing wisdom had dawned on me: "Hair is for protection!" And for the foreseeable future, I had a prodigious mop wreathing my head, standing between me and cracking my head open.

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