There were three health and safety rules when I was a child:
1. Stay away from the power takeoff
2. Don’t share combs at school
3. Don’t eat the purple seed corn
That’s all. Seriously. I have no recollection of other parental decrees, though I learned a few extras through experience. For example, don’t stand behind a milk cow when she sneezes.
By contrast, when my own children were young, there were 356 rules, some mandated by teachers, but most imposed by parents who worried too much. I was always anticipating what might happen in the backyard, on vacation, in the house, on the bicycle, at the beach, at school, at 4-H archery club, on the playground, in the car, on the sled, at the neighbor’s house, in the kitchen, on the street, in the bus, with friends, when alone, on the skateboard, at the campground. My boys had helmets and knee pads and sunscreen and bug spray with them at all times. Sometimes even goggles.
Still, I was a totally chill mom in contrast to the mother of the boy who wore an SPF-100 long-sleeved shirt in the backyard pool. That mom probably had 487 over-the-top health and safety rules compared with my reasonable 356, I thought smugly.
If you’re a parent, you know that you can lie awake worrying about all sorts of scenarios and still you’ll never think of everything.
Rule No. 357 should have applied to me: Listen closely when they ask permission to climb something.
We had driven from Virginia to spend a South Dakota summer month with Grandpa and Grandma. I was chipping away at the chore list while the boys, ages 6 and 3, played in the farmyard. I heard the door slam and happy little feet trotting through the house to find me.
“Mom, can we climb up the lo...ft?” one of them asked. The word sounded like “loaf,” with a long “o” and perhaps a “t” at the end. The space between my ears and my brain translated it as loft, as in hayloft.
“Sure,” I said.
“We CAN?” Their eyes were wide. That should have been a clue, but I was distracted.
“Yes. Be careful not to fall down the hay holes,” I cautioned, and off they went.
Fifteen minutes later, my mother called me to look out the back window.
My heart stopped. The blood rushed from my head. Or maybe to it, I don’t know.
My little towheads were more than halfway up the outer ladder of the 60-foot silo.
My dad was already ambling toward the scene. “Boys, it’s time to come down now,” he calmly called to them as I rushed out the door. Thank goodness he was there to do the talking, because I would have yelled shrilly, and things might not have gone well.
“Mom said we could!” was the carefree reply from 40 feet up.
“That may be, but it’s time to come down,” Grandpa repeated.
You’ve seen the ladder on the outside of a silo. A 6-year-old can reach from rung to rung, but how does a 3-year-old? For that matter, how does a 3-year-old reach the bottom rung from the ground? (Dumb question, I know. His brother gives him a boost, then climbs up after him.)
Miraculously all four little legs and all four little arms made it down as sturdily as they went up. Grandpa promptly removed the bottom section of the ladder.
Later most of us could laugh about it. The kids even made up a jingle, singing in their best Southern accents: “Climbing up the silo, climbing up the silo. Boys, ya’ll come down now!” The tale made the rounds during coffee hour after church in Webster.
Still, sometimes I wake up from a nightmare, imagining a tragic outcome and thanking God that it didn’t happen.
We all know families who live with the consequences or deeply grieve a child or an adult injured (or worse) after one slip, one misjudgment, one hasty action, one inattentive moment.
After the silo incident I cannot cast stones. Things happen in the blink of an eye. There might be 356 rules, but there’s always a 357th that we forget to impart. All we can do is our best, but sometimes even our best is not enough, and no one is at fault.
The kid with the SPF-100 swim gear is in law school now. He will never have leathery skin and he’ll probably look 30 when he’s 50. And by golly, he will be educated on how to make rules and find loopholes.
My older son, now 6-foot-4 with legs long enough to scale two rungs at a time, was back for a visit recently. At church coffee time, I introduced him to an acquaintance at the table.
“Ah, yes,” the fellow said. “I remember when you climbed the silo.”