Butt-first: Not an Expedient Way to Enter the World

Now that I have made clear my gratitude about how my life has unfolded in my other article this month, I feel justified in expressing a complaint about a disability that has plagued me all my years. I have always had difficulty with spatial relationships, and anything related to understanding directions, whether traveling on foot or by vehicle.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that an epiphany occurred to me that seemed to explain my failures in correct navigation. I started life at its very beginning attempting to go the wrong way. I was the first C-section performed at Booth Memorial Hospital in Cleveland due to being in the breech position – attempting to move butt first through a very narrow passage in my mother.

Not that I consider the situation genetic; there isn’t exactly DNA for being directionally averse. Suddenly it wasn’t that I had been navigationally challenged for only 80 years, but rather 80 years plus nine months. I now think of myself as having a learning disability, and it dawned on me that “doesn’t it just figure” that I have little concept about where I am, let alone where I am trying to go.

On the other hand, the new awareness also led to another gratitude lesson, namely about how lucky I was to make it into the world alive. There had been no C-section births in my family as far back as anyone knew, so the account about my mother’s ordeal became a family legend. Breech positions in unborn children were at one time corrected by forceps if the doctor could grab the fetus and turn it around. It was a brutal and dangerous practice, but C-sections were also considered fraught with difficulties, especially since my mother had been a victim of many poor health issues from childhood on.

The doctor attending my birth gathered my father and Aunt Margaret in his office to explain the necessity of the C-section but made it clear that both my mother’s and my life were in danger (Enter: A great deal of gratitude toward Dr. Styles, another of those benefactors I never knew). He handed Dad and my aunt adoption papers for both to sign because Mom had indicated that Margaret was to adopt me if I lived but she didn’t.

The difficulties spatial relationships and simple navigation have given me began at home, and at their worst, extended to Europe. With drivers’ licenses during my youth beginning at age 16 (as I think I recall), I didn’t do much driving until my senior year back and forth from Mentor to Toledo University and then to “find” the high school where I student taught. Toledo is not an easy city to navigate because many of the major streets are not east/west or north/south. They are laid out like spokes in a wheel so “north of” or “south of” somewhere is dependent on knowing where the middle of the cross is. I was lost often in Toledo, but at least I gained a good awareness of west because Toledo itself was ALWAYS west of home and south of Lake Erie just like home.

By the time I married Chuck Reed in 1966, I did well at navigating Painesville, etc., when we moved there, and how lucky I was for 11 years to live exactly one mile from Riverside High – out the driveway, one quick turn followed by one more and next was the school. Chuck had quickly tuned in to how “directionally challenged” I was and truly believed he could cajole me into improving, which he also realized only succeeded in making me more tense. After several years. he accepted that my getting lost was part of the picture and was mostly tolerant.

That acceptance changed gradually, however, because of an aircraft accident he had in ’79, which forced me into doing most of the driving – many miles because he was in and out of doctors’ offices and medical centers for much of 29 years. He converted into the worst back-seat driver imaginable, to the point that he started “giving loud orders” even before we had gotten fully out of the garage. One morning when we had to go to an appointment in Cleveland, I stopped the car in the driveway and told him if he didn’t want me to have a nervous breakdown en route, he’d best close his mouth. He did, almost.

Back to the topic of getting lost at or near home, things became more of a challenge after we moved to Leroy onto 68 acres, most of which was woods except for immediately around the house. Plus, knowing that the Grand River was just a short walk “out back,” Chuck also knew our dog Ivan and I would be exploring the area often. However, we first excavated an 1800-foot- long sod strip for a runway, our main goal being the beginnings of a private airport. From that time on, Chuck told me that if we ever got lost in the woods, the deer trails all led back to the runway because deer prefer tender grass, not tall weeds. I spent much time on deer trails.

I really had little trouble finding my way around the property by the time Chuck passed away in ’08, but about eight years ago, one night I got completely disoriented in the upstairs after having lived in the home for 36 years. I had been awakened by my dogs barking in the back yard and intended to go to a window to see what might be out there. The second story of the house is a bit complex with three bedrooms, a small landing at the stairway top, a bathroom, an attic two steps down, many windows, six closets and seven doors.

It had been a completely cloudless night when I had gone to sleep; the moonlight illuminates the upstairs clearly, so I had not turned on the spotlight switch at the bottom of the steps (a hugely ignorant move on my part, as if I hadn’t lived in this area and known about its changeable weather). We have no streetlights nearby. So, expecting to look out the bathroom window to spot maybe a bear or herd of deer in the back yard, it was pitch dark from a heavy cloud cover that had moved in.

I cleared the bedroom door, but a kind of vertigo set in within half a second, and I had no idea where I was. I navigated the upstairs slowly for about half an hour, feeling my way carefully since two of the bedrooms have slanted eaves, perfect for head bonking unless one is a midget.  I must have touched half the windows and doors up there before ending up in one of the alcoves in the bedroom farthest from where I had started. I finally touched the top of a wicker cabinet and knew I was in the alcove of the large bedroom; however, there is no light switch close by. I reasoned that I needed to keep touching the left wall after clearing the bedroom door as the stairway is on the right. The hallway has two light switches, and I was saved.

Before leaving the topic of getting lost on my home ground, late one afternoon longtime friend Colby Dyer had stopped to visit, and we took a ride on our Gator to show him something in the front hangar. We talked for quite a while until dusk had set in, and when we went outside, heavy fog was all around, enough that when away from the side hangar lights and onto the Gator, we could see nothing. I tentatively backed up until guessing we were clear of the hangar, then went forward toward where I thought the runway was, intending to stay on it and go the long way around. The short way back to Colby’s car would have involved a muddy ditch, a slope toward the pond, trees and a garage.

We did fine to that point, not hitting anything, but we made a guess as to where to turn at the runway’s intersection onto the north/south runway -- very much a (pun alert!)  short-sighted move. Both of us were disoriented but knew we were still not close to the home driveway. My dog Arthur had been with us all along as he had claimed ownership of the Gator from the first day we had him; he had been running beside us, and Colby yelled at me, “Stop and let the dog in front of us; he knows how to get back.” Because the headlights sort of illuminated the half of Arthur’s fur that was white, we followed his image and made it back.

Only later the next day did Chris, my airport manager and buddy, admit he had been out mowing in the fog; being determined to finish, he almost turned the tractor over in the ditch by the road as the tractor had no better sense of direction that night than any of us did.

It was very odd that at the next gathering of school friends, I told both of the above stories, and not a soul was surprised. Only a few months before the Gator incident, my partner of five years, Ted, had passed away. Everyone who knew both of us agreed, Ted’s family included, that his sense of direction was worse than mine, hard to believe but true. When friends knew we had set off into new territories together, their comments were along the lines of, “That’s awful; we’ll never see them again.” Ted’s son Ted, Jr. and wife Laura moved from Concord to a different home south of Chardon; they got many calls from me asking about where I had made wrong turns trying to visit them.

There have been a whole series of navigating problems away from but close to home throughout my life, and mentioning just a couple briefly will suffice. One of them is the Great Lakes Mall, where I choose not to go any longer. When Sears was there way back, it had one of the few good hardware departments around, but it took only once for me to venture out into the rest of the mall to realize the whole thing was a maze. Forget it. In fact, when entering any store that has more than one door, I have learned to pay attention to what is right inside that door: “Men’s Harley Davidson sweatshirts” – got it. Mostly, however, except for groceries, I seldom go shopping.

Another confusing place to navigate is the Mentor Medical Campus on Mentor Avenue. Once after leaving a doctor’s office, I decided to walk inside to get lab work done the same day--big mistake: It took me many a hallway to find the lab, and upon leaving, I went out the nearest door with my car location a total mystery. Also, I had not dressed adequately; it was only about 50 degrees, and I am “coat averse,” so an hour later I was an ice cube after walking up and down almost every row of cars around all four sides of that building. Later, a couple friends agreed with me about the Mentor Campus’ maze-like layout.

Two other huge challenges to navigate are hospitals and schools, both of which have consumed a great deal of my time. These institutions, many of which were or still are very old, have been remodeled so many times that going into one during a given month leaves no guarantee that it will be the same the next month. Plus, my first teaching job was at the then new behemoth, Mentor High School, and almost my only recollection of the building is of wandering from place to place in a total fog for two school years.

Mentor’s size was the #2 reason why I moved to Riverside High, which has a logical layout of two floors with straight hallways except for a shorter, right-angle turn at the west end. (Getting lost so often in Mentor competed with my #1 reason for leaving Mentor: The most important subject taught at Mentor in the ‘60s was Football I, II, III and IV). All my life I have had a negative attitude about football at all levels, which has placed me at odds with about 90 percent of the country’s residents.

RHS did and does have minor challenges, primarily because of its back side, which has many  doors that were unlocked on school days. It took quite a while for me to orient my brain as to which door went where and which was the closest way to the office. There were many incidents in which my brain said, “Well, here I am in the auditorium instead of the access to upstairs.”

To compound it, a one-flight stairway went up to a small landing with an always- locked door at the top, as if it had no purpose whatsoever. Once, I even explored the hall and room from the inside and could not locate that door where it seemed it should be, finally concluding it was designed to drive me crazy, (and for those to whom this means anything, it seemed a miniature version of the Winchester House in California).

The reader might have noticed, from the above paragraphs, that a huge number of my lost miles were in Lake County. Just imagine what it was like when I tried going somewhere in BEACHWOOD, dangerously close to a big city-- let alone to ENGLAND and GERMANY. Veni, vidi, non vici. (I came, I saw, I did not conquer, but I knew taking Latin in high school would prove useful someday, and there it is.) Another interesting thing about taking Latin was when the subject of foreign languages came up in class, sometimes the kids asked me what language I had taken. Upon replying “Latin,” I could see running through their heads, “See there, she really is ancient.”)

Perhaps with this pause, some of you may have looked up the Winchester home in your encyclopedias. (Oops – that should be on the Internet, Smartphones or almost anything except a book). If so, and you now think Sarah Winchester was directionally challenged, wait until you “follow me” into Beachwood – yes, the one in Ohio.

See you for the rest of this journey in Part II.


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