Fall 2011

Leftovers / Arm

The return of Uncle Bud

John Baldwin

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

My uncle Bud Baldwin was mangled, as I am and many in my family are. A bloody childhood accident left me without feeling in or use of two fingers on my dominant right hand. Increasingly, it looks twisted and disfigured. Discouraged from various career aspirations because of the handicap, I chose to be a heart surgeon. I am a good heart surgeon—better than any other I have ever known or seen.

The crippled state of my family is, in the main, not due to the inexplicable cruelty of congenital defect, but rather the brutality of growing up in Texas, with its unrelenting sudden violence. As a baby, my uncle Bud contracted polio, leaving him short, with a bad limp. When he was twelve years old, his father died in a “blue norther,” while he was out looking for missing cattle. This sudden ice storm froze him in the field, just months after Bud’s younger brother Charlie, my father, was born.

Uncle Bud’s arm was torn off; he picked it up himself. It then disappeared for seventy years and came back, having sketched the arc of his life. In 1936, the “main road” from McKinney, Texas, was being widened as part of the Texas Centennial. This was Great Depression Roosevelt socialism. In that age of progressive government, Bud got a job with the Texas Highway Department. Even cripples could get work.

One suffocating day in 1936, Bud was working south of town. He and some other roustabouts worked a dragline, an excavator. His loose sleeve was drawn, perhaps by a rare breeze, into the blades of the mechanical beast. Quickly, gradually, and inexorably, it pulled his hand, then his elbow, and finally his whole arm—up to the shoulder—into its mindless jaws. Blood and bits of bone sprayed. Bud, not yet in conscious pain, stared at his arm, now attached to his body only by a strip of skin. His blood spewed with the rhythmic pumping of his heart. Someone put a tourniquet around the stump of his arm to stem the pulsing bright red blood. He borrowed a pocketknife and cut the thing loose with a quick slash across the pedicle of skin by which it dangled.

My dad was idling nearby, at a holding pool where livestock drank. He ran toward the din. “I’ve cut my damn arm off,” Bud blurted. Dazed, Dad herded their car down through the bottomland to the hospital. Fresh and clotted blood coated the car’s interior. You could smell it. Bugs buzzed. The doctors whipstitched the artery, the veins, and the skin. A hideous scar later formed; I always flinched at it when Bud went for a rare swim.

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