Thursday, October 20, 2016

Holding on to a marble

Scoutmaster Minute delivered to Troop 320 on September 15, 2014

My dad was the captain of paramedic units for the City of Cincinnati. When I was about 15, I used to take the bus downtown to his office at the Fifth and Central fire station to have lunch with him. On the particular day I am talking about we were eating Skyline Chili, and because my dad is a man of few words and doesn’t talk when he is eating, we were listening to the emergency services dispatch radio. A call came through dispatching a police car to the Longworth Facility, which was a care center for the mentally challenged. While we were eating, a second police car was dispatched, then a fire truck, then an ambulance, and then the emergency rescue team. My dad stood up, put on his “lid,” because a firefighter in “class A” never went out without his hat. He jerked his head in a come on gesture and I jumped up from my seat and scurried after him to his red car. 

We rode with the siren on listening to even more dispatch calls. In 10 minutes we pulled up to the outside of the center. The driveway and lawn were covered with emergency vehicles, doors open and lights flashing. People were everywhere, writing on clipboards and talking on radios. My dad walked past all of them, straight into the building and down a hallway without talking to anyone. I half ran to keep up with him. Inside the building were nurses and doctors, all standing in groups talking urgently and writing things down. My dad passed them, straight into a large room with a concrete floor. Up high on the concrete walls were small rectangular windows. Along the wall under the windows were a line of beds. The room was full of people. All the people were in motion; talking, gesturing, running around. In the middle of the room were a group of men with a hose, a measuring tape and a large concrete saw. In the middle of this group of men was a crouching, bald man in hospital gown. His hand was stuck in the floor drain.

My dad walked straight across the room to the man crouched over the drain. He crouched too. He looked at the man. The man was crying. His arm going into the drain was red, abraded and shiny where people had tried to pull his arm out. They had iced his arm. They had greased his arm. His arm was scraped up where it had rubbed against the drain grating. My dad looked at his arm. Finally, he spoke. He asked “Why did you put your hand in the drain?” The man answered in a gravelly voice, barely more than a whisper, “I dropped my marble.” My dad was silent for moment, then he said “are you holding on to your marble now?” The big man opposite nodded. My dad nodded too. He said, “Let go of it.” The man looked at my dad for a minute, and my dad repeated “Let go of it.”
The man pulled his hand up out of the drain.

My dad stood up and walked straight out of the room without speaking to anyone and I scurried after. On the way back to the fire house we made some jokes to each other about the guy in the mental hospital who lost his marble. By today’s standards, those remarks would not be considered politically correct.  But my dad’s comments made a huge impression on me. He said “In spite of his lost marble, that guy wasn’t the dumbest one in the room. Imagine them going to cut up the concrete to get his arm out!”

I think about this incident often. I think about how the problem was resolved so easily by asking the right question. Each of those busy people had his own solution, without considering the man at the drain. It also speaks to the way mental illness is often perceived. No one considered asking the man questions because he was considered of diminished capacity. But mostly, when I am confronted by a problem I can’t figure out, or someone calls me stubborn in a disagreement, I step back and ask myself “am I holding on to a marble?”

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