Thursday, May 17, 2012

It Started with a Book...

For those who lived through it, 1969 was a memorable year for a remarkable diversity of reasons ranging from the exhilarating to the truly terrifying. Unimaginable scientific achievements such as the Apollo 11 moon landing and iconic cultural events like the Woodstock festival stood in stark contrast to the Manson family murders, Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick scandal and the continuing horrors in Southeast Asia that seemed destined to never end.

Personally, 1969 goes to the top of the list of years for which I would prefer a do-over, mostly because of an accident and subsequent injury that would forever change my life. I was 12 years old at the time and it was the week before Halloween. It was a crisp autumn evening and my family and I had just returned from a trip to the grocery store. I went back outside to get the last few bags of groceries from the car and, as was my custom and right as a kid, I jumped down the two cement steps to the front walk rather than taking them one at a time.

However, on this particular evening, my foot got stuck under one of the wrought iron railings that bordered the stoop as I made the leap. As I realized that my foot was caught, I instinctively turned to try and catch the rail to stop my fall. The unfortunate result of this maneuver was that because the foot was caught fast, the lower part of my leg couldn’t move while the rest of my body had turned almost completely around in a desperate attempt to arrest my inevitable fall.

I guess my foot must have come loose at some point because I hit the ground pretty hard and immediately felt a searing pain in my right leg. I called for help and my parents came running out. Helping me to my feet, it soon became apparent that I couldn’t put any weight on my right leg at all. The scary part was that the leg no longer had any stability whatsoever.

After being helped into the back seat of the car, we hightailed it to the nearest hospital and, after being fitted with an inflatable cast by a nurse to give the injured leg some support, I was wheeled into the emergency room for a battery of diagnostic tests to discover the extent of the injuries. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, the ER doctor came into the treatment room to tell us that he wasn’t really going to be able to determine anything conclusively until the orthopedist they had called arrived to take a look. I remember my mother asking, “Can’t you tell us something?”

“It’s quite a mess,” he said and walked out.

Eventually, the orthopedist, bearing an armful of x-rays, came in to speak with us. In what can only be described as a late 60’s version of a PowerPoint presentation, he stuck the films that showed my right knee onto the light box and began to describe exactly what “quite a mess” meant in graphic detail. As it turned out, I had torn just about everything in the knee joint and when my parents asked what the treatment was – up until this point, the assumption was that I had simply broken my leg – I heard the doctor utter a word that sent a chill up my 12-year-old spine.

“Surgery. I’ve already scheduled it for first thing in the morning,” he said and then began having my parents sign the necessary form.

Needless to say, I was petrified since the most traumatic medical treatment I had ever received up to that point was a vaccination. I was taken to the children’s ward – I would have been spared that indignity if I was but a year older – and was given something to help me sleep. It apparently wasn’t nearly strong enough because I remained awake, alone and afraid until dawn. Finally, a nurse appeared and preparation for the surgery began.

Fortunately, the pre-surgery medication must have worked because I remember waking up with my parents by my bed and a huge plaster cast from thigh to ankle on my right leg. The orthopedic surgeon showed up shortly after to deliver more thrilling news. The surgery was successful though it took significant amounts of metal – plates, pins and screws – to put everything back together again. However, it was going to be about three weeks before I could go home (it was 1969, after all) as the knee had to heal sufficiently enough to undergo the rigors of learning how to walk with crutches. This was necessary because the cast was going to have to stay on well past the Christmas holidays.

My parents were happy that I was going to be OK but I was devastated by the news that I was going to have to stay in a hospital bed for three weeks. When I was a kid, I used to go stir crazy when I had a cold and was stuck in a bed for just a day or two. Three weeks sounded like a life sentence. I was also going to miss Halloween.

The first few days were, indeed, interminable. The other kids on the ward were much younger and came and went quickly due to much simpler maladies such as tonsillitis, usually in a day or two. My parents visited just about every day, sometimes separately, sometimes together, and one day, my mother brought a couple of books she thought I might like to help pass the time. One was a history of the space program which was a hot topic due to the first lunar landing that past July. In fact, just a couple of months earlier, my family and I made the trek into New York City to watch the ticker tape parade that feted Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins after their return from the moon.

With all due apologies to NASA, the other book was much more interesting as it was a magic book. Magic was a strong interest of mine, having been introduced to it by a pitchman named Dan Tsukalas at a local fair a couple years earlier (interested readers can read more about this wonderful man here.) However, most of the magic that I had managed to acquire in those days was the kind you either bought from joke shops or from magic pitchmen. I had a Svengali deck, a Nickels To Dimes set, a Color Vision box – plenty of magic tricks – but no real honest-to-goodness magic books.

The book had a bright red dust jacket and the title was boldly printed at the top: Scarne’s Magic Tricks. I was actually impatient for my mother’s visit to end so that I could dive into its contents. After all, the cover promised that inside awaited “famous tricks of the world’s foremost magicians selected by John Scarne as best for performance with simple props and without sleight-of-hand.”

After she left, I hurriedly opened the book to the table of contents and was excited to learn that there were 201 tricks described. This was going to be great! I turned the pages past the Publisher’s Note and the Foreword – kids didn’t read that stuff – and began reading the first trick. The title was intriguing – “The Talking Mirror” – and the effect’s description sounded promising. I was disappointed, though, as I read through the description and discovered that I had to paint the reverse side of a small mirror white. That would have to wait at least until I got out of the hospital.

The next trick, “Coin Through Handkerchief,” seemed workable even under the circumstances and I made a mental note to borrow a handkerchief and a coin from my father on his next visit. The next trick, however, stopped me in my tracks. “Smoking Sleeve” it was called and was accompanied by an illustration of a man blowing cigarette smoke up one of his sleeves and the smoke traveling out of the other sleeve. The piece of rubber tubing that was used to do the dirty work was indicated by a dotted line.

Clearly knowing the limitations of being 12 – and in a hospital – I skipped over that trick, also, and began to open the book at random places. Tricks involving goldfish, bananas, cigars and matches quickly convinced me that this book was a waste of time and I tossed it on the side table and buried myself in the astronaut book. Later that day, one of the nurses was making her rounds and after asking me if I wanted yet another glass of ginger ale (I still can’t drink the stuff to this day!), she noticed the Scarne book and asked, “Do you do magic?”

“A little,” I replied sheepishly.

“Do you do any of the tricks in this book?” she asked. I told her that I had just started reading it.

“See if you can learn one and show me tomorrow.”

I thought, “Oh sure, honey, just lend me a cigar and a bowler hat,” but only managed to say, “OK.” As she left, I picked up the book again and started to comb through the contents a little more carefully. Finally, after some time had passed, I came across Trick #74, “Scarne’s Think of a Number.” I pulled out a sheet of paper and a pencil and weaved my way through the mathematical effect and was amazed that it worked. I did it again and it worked again. By the time the next day dawned and the same nurse happened by, I was ready.

“Do you have a trick to show me?” she asked and I replied that I did. To say I performed the trick would be an overstatement but I managed to somehow stumble through it to a successful conclusion. To my delight, she uttered the words that are music to the ears of any neophyte magician.

“How did you do that?” she asked. I ecstatically replied that I couldn’t tell her. She then told me that she was going to be off the next day but upon her return, she expected to see another trick. And that’s how it went for the remaining time I was in the hospital. I would learn any trick from the Scarne book that was performable from a hospital bed with things that were to hand and I was rewarded with an enthusiastic spectator who sometimes brought other staff over to see the latest miracle.

I got out of the hospital just before Thanksgiving and I hobbled around on crutches until the cast eventually came off shortly after the new decade began. It would be years later, though, until I would figure out that while Mr. Scarne was very generous about mentioning that the book contained “famous tricks of the world’s foremost magicians,” he was less so when it came to actually mentioning their names or their specific creations in the book itself.

Still, however, I can’t help but remember this book fondly – that same volume sits on my shelf to this day – as it pinpoints where, in my understanding, magic stopped being about magic tricks you could buy at the local joke shop and started to be about actually learning how to be a magician, a pursuit that continues to this day.