The Trashcan Miscalculation


After retelling this adventure from our childhood, The Wife shook her head slowly and then asked with disbelief, “Why did y’all think it was a good idea to do that?”

My answer came with a sincere shrug, “Don’t really know. We were kids and thought it would be fun.”  

Sometimes stories come to me tightly wrapped in a dream or a long forgotten happy childhood memory. Already written, all I do is unwrap them by sitting down in front of the computer and typing. Like watching a movie, I just write what plays on the screen in my mind’s eye.

Unfortunately, this story has no tranquil dream origin. Its birthplace is that of a nightmare. A good childhood memory it’s not, and there was no happy ending — just lots and lots of pain. I’ve spent the last fifty-nine years forgetting the incident that branded me with a deep scar — until a few hours ago. 

When I awoke this morning, I had no idea I’d be writing this story. I was almost through with my morning routine: shaving, showering, and getting dressed when the story revealed itself. Sitting on a footstool, I was slipping on my socks, as I’ve done thousands of times before, but this time a beam of sunlight fell on my left shin.

The light highlighted the indention and faint scar, half an inch wide and four inches long, still visible after all these years. It also highlighted something else — the realization that some miscalculations in life can indeed be everlasting. 

For us kids growing up back on Flamingo Street, we were the happiest when playing outside. No matter what we were doing, riding bikes, picking up sticks and pinecones from the yard, hitting a paper wasp nest with rocks, or swinging across Cripple Creek, we tried to make a game of whatever we were doing. Most of the time our games were fun, but a few times they ended badly. The Trash Can Jumping contest was a good example of a childhood game gone horribly wrong.

Dad had built our house located at 110 Flamingo Street with his own two hands, adding many unique features both inside and out. During construction, nocturnal animals would roam our homesite for food left in unsecured trash cans, spilling trash everywhere. After months of this, Dad decided to put an end to the nighttime foraging.

He decided to install three sunken trash cans, hiding them under the side steps that reached from the ground up to the second-floor kitchen. He first dug three circular holes under the steps. The holes were four feet deep and about twenty inches wide. Then he sunk giant metal sleeves into the ground and poured concrete around them. After the concrete dried, he added an inner can with a handle so the garbage men could easily pull them out and empty them. Finally, with the addition of a heavy metal airtight lid operated by a foot pedal, he was satisfied no animal could accidently open the can, fall in, and get injured. 

Dad was wrong.

Around eleven Saturday morning, the garbage men backed down our driveway and emptied all three sunken trash cans. After they left, Older Brother Richard said, “I got a great idea. Let’s pull out the cans, leave the lids open, and see who can jump across the holes without falling in. Don’t worry! It’ll be safe; no one’s gonna get hurt.”

No, it wasn’t, and someone did.

Richard opened the first trashcan lid, and we each took turns jumping across. It was easy. Then he opened the second lid, and we had to jump across the two openings. Jumping across two was easy for Richard and Big Brother James, but for Twin Brother Mark and me? Mark made it across, but I barely did. That’s why my brothers started making fun of me. 

Richard opened the last lid.

We were arguing who would go first, when Mom called out from above that lunch was ready. I started for the steps. “You scared?” “Chicken!” and “I double dog dare you to do it!” were calls from my brothers as they pushed past me, climbing the stairs to lunch leaving me with a decision. Make the jump to victory or make the climb up to lunch in disgrace? 

I decided to jump.

With a ten-foot running start, sailing across the first open lid was easy. Grasping air, I grabbed an imaginary rope and swung across the second opening. Unfortunately, right above the third opening, my imaginary rope broke, plummeting me to the bottom of the can. Being wedged in so tightly I could hardly move was bad, but when the lid slammed shut above me, things went from bad to worse.

As if plunging my world into total darkness wasn’t bad enough, breathing quickly became difficult in the airtight can. I screamed for help, but even though they were in the kitchen eating lunch just twelve feet above, my brothers couldn’t hear me. I didn’t know what it was, but I was acutely aware of a throbbing pain emanating from my left shin and a wetness running down it into my shoe. I screamed for what seemed to be hours, but no one came. Finally, I just gave up, realizing that the trashmen would eventually find me in about a week or so.

My brothers would say later I’d only been in the trashcan for an hour before they found me. But for me it seemed like a lifetime. I’d almost made it across the third and final opening before losing the arch in my jump. On the way down into the can, my left leg hit the far metal lip, causing a four-inch gash in my shin. The doctor at the hospital said it had been peeled back like a banana skin. 

The next day, Mom had Dad fill in the three holes with concrete. 

Only six years old, I’d gotten forty stitches for my ill-fated jump. It was to be the most stitches received by any of us during those seven years we lived on Flamingo. I also got something else — a lesson about how a miscalculation in a harmless little game can go horribly wrong, leaving a memory — and scar — that can last a lifetime.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001.]