Proud Flesh 

I have always trusted people with scars. In fact, it seems a bit suspect that a mortal could reach forty without a single ding on the epidermis.

It took one hundred and twenty stitches to close up my father's right thigh. The scar was a beautiful thing, long as a ruler, the skin there soft and pale. He had two versions when he told me about how he got the scar, both of them embellished until they became my favorite bedtime stories. I would touch that indentation with awe, imagining him brave and young, while he began to tell his story. In one version, the scar came from a bayonet wound, dealt him during hand-to-hand combat during WWII. This was a romantic story in which my mother showed up in an army Jeep and a white nurse's uniform and stitched him up, right there on the battlefield. I never sought to confirm later whether actual bayonet battles were conducted on Australian soil.

The second version was more mysterious. He would just nod his head gravely, adopt a theatrical baritone and say: "When I came to, they told me the bone was shattered, that they would have to cut me open. They had to put a gold plate in there to hold everything in place. And there it remains to this day."

Here I imagined a dinner plate made of solid gold lodged forever inside Dad's leg like a wayward flying saucer. I wondered if it made that leg much heavier when he went up steps or ran. Many years later, my brothers told me that they had heard that my father's scar was from a football accident he'd had in college. The plate came from a bunch of heavy guys knocking him down and heaping themselves upon his leg, my brothers said. I'm glad Dad decided I was young enough to appreciate the more exciting renditions.

I have always trusted people with scars. In fact, it seems a bit suspect to me that a mortal could reach the age of, say, forty without a single ding marring his or her epidermis. Scars seem noble, and of course are the source of many great stories. I see them as a visible badge of bravery or endurance, proof that at one point, that person was either adventurous or foolhardy enough to get up close and personal with some of the more ferocious protrusions life has to offer. Barbed wire, glass, animals' teeth, jagged rocks--you don't encounter scar-makers such as these while sitting in an easy chair in your living room.

My own best scar is almost as long as my father's was, and I, too, house a plate in my body, though it is neither gold nor round. The scar forms a straight line from my shoulder to my elbow, curving inward slightly, some surgeon's signature, only for the last quarter inch. It's a much tamer mark now, flattened and freckled with every passing year, but in the months following the surgery, it was chelated and jagged and looked positively Frankensteinian. I got this scar when I was a little more game for anything; it was part of a package deal that came with falling in love with a man who was in love with hang gliding. This man was one of those who love a challenge, and he was a study in coordination. There was no sport that, given twenty minutes to figure out what was required of his body, he could not command with more than passable proficiency. Kevin had scars on his knees that looked like the puckered, tied-off ends of balloons. These had come from misjudging the distance to the ground when jumping off fences. And he had beautiful, hieroglyphical systems of divots and nicks on his hands from nail-banging and earlier hazards.

When we weren't riding around on his motorcycle, or a chair-lift, or on bicycles through vacant lots in San Francisco at night, we were riding horses at his friend's ranch. I had ridden before, but this first time at the ranch the horses hadn't been ridden all winter. My hands were almost bloody just from the reins digging in as my steed galloped full-tilt for almost an hour. And when the horses finally slowed down to drink from a creek, there was my friend, still in his saddle and ready for the next new dare.

Society makes quick, almost unconscious judgments about people who have multiple scars. They are either thought of as reckless or impetuous, suicidal or just accident-prone. While Kevin thought nothing of leaping off cliffs at Ft. Funston, catching thermals that kept him soaring and so euphoric that he couldn't stop grinning once he landed; and while he assured me that the sport was fantastic fun and less dangerous than driving a car, I was, luckily, quite clear about the fact that I was a beginner and should learn closer to the ground. After several weeks of lessons, I was just about to try my first solo flight off some dunes at Dillon Beach.

"Always keep your eyes on the horizon," my instructor warned. "Don't look at the ground. Easy moves, nothing extreme or panicky, and you'll be fine." And I was, during the first few flights, gloriously and confidently fine. "Baryshnikov legs," he shouted, running alongside me and steadying my craft as I took long, leaping strides across the sand until suddenly, I was lifting into the air, rising, flying, laughing, and trying to breathe all at the same time.

The beach below got farther and farther away, but I wasn't focusing on it. I was in a world of wind and soaring, a place of both profound serenity and heart-racing exhilaration. I was seeing the ocean from above without being contained inside any loud metal machine. It was strange to trust that little pulls with only my fingertips could steer these mighty wings, that such small gestures could have any sway against a force as powerful as the wind.

I don't think I panicked when I suddenly dropped twenty feet, roughly and without warning, as if some jealous troll on the ground had yanked me down. And I know I kept my eyes on the horizon, calmly, as I had been instructed, as I tried to correct the problem. Perhaps this is why I was doubly shocked that as I flared, straightening my arms to foist my craft upward so that I could land on my feet, the ground arrived too hard and soon, as if I had been spat out of the sky flat onto my stomach, and left there with sand grating my cheek.

"You okay?" my teacher called, running down to me. More annoyed and embarrassed than anything I hollered, "Fine!" It was then that I realized that my craft sat on my back like some huge bully of a bug, and I could not get up. I had never broken a bone in my life, so I did not know that I would be given a brief reprieve from the pain for the next few hours while all the nerve endings in my broken left arm kindly went into shock. Since the firemen who showed up at the beach were jovial and encouraging, I eventually stopped guarding my arm against intrusion in a fashion that had seemed quite effective for my dogs, by growling and baring my teeth when the fireman tried to move the injured limb. I allowed them close enough to dig some of the sand out of the way and slide a splint under it like some careful spatula under a broken egg.

The hospital workers' attitude was less friendly, more along the lines of "Oh, here's another adrenaline addict stupid enough to try to fly." They said it was a spiral break, my humerus. The next day, I heard that a hang glider had broken his neck at Dillon Beach and that it was now closed to hang gliders due to dangerous winds.


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