Kid vs. Machine: Wishing the Consumer Product Safety Commission Was Around When I Was a Child

Safety is something that we’re all responsible for but when design flaws in products make it to consumer markets for lack of thorough testing or simply passed over by manufacturers then the threats to individual safety loom much larger.   Ask the three parents of children who died from the Infantino SlingRider.  An informed public is a responsible public but don’t always expect manufacturers to be transparent in the information they provide to consumers.

child safety

Child-proofing your home and the accouterments that inhabit it is a concern that should be taken seriously.  I can only wish at this late stage that such care had been given this due diligence when I was a child.  But of course back in “ancient times’” there was seemingly less to worry about other than putting your eye out with a Red Ryder BB Gun.

Safety hazards abounded none-the-less back in 1950’s when I was growing up.  It’s just that people weren’t as cognizant about them as we are today.  Caveat emptor was the norm for manufacturers of products sold back then and gullible consumers allowed themselves to buy into that notion.   The Consumer Product Safety Commission was some twenty years away before the interests of consumers would override most manufacturers concerns about profit losses for their part in putting dangerous products on the market.    Never mind either that a child reaches an age of reason long after his or her curiosity has led them to venture into things that can do great harm.

Some things can happen that truly are the individual’s fault for negligence though inexperience and naiveness allows some exemptions for young children.  My respect for electricity came at a very young age when I left one hand unaware on the frayed wiring end of an extension cord as I plugged in the other end while attempting to “witness” electricity.  Climbing trees and walking across 2nd story floor joists in a gutted house taught me to have respect for gravity.  How I suffered no (noticeable) neurological disorders from such falls is still a mystery to me today.

No noticeable scars either remain from these early childhood mishaps to remind me that I pushed the envelope too far and that my parents were slackers when it came to making sure I was up to no good.  Compared to today’s kids we had an enormous amount of freedom in the 1950’s.  That can be both a good or bad thing.  Smothering children with a watchful eye can inhibit emotional growth but has its advantages when small kids push caution to the wind, which brings me to my tale of woe.

There was one incident however that did physically scar me.  I also received subtle hints years later from my mom that she was still feeling much remorse and guilt for her role in it, but is something I never held against her.  It all came about from a product that at the time had already claimed numerous victims.  Yet the concept of a recall was foreign to many in the late 1940’s, early 1950’s.

I was eighteen months old and we were living in a federally subsidized housing unit in south Dallas, in an area known as Oak Cliff.  It was an older housing unit, probably constructed sometime during the early Depression years, and was scheduled for demolition within a few short years after we moved out around 1952.

Dad with Barbara, Ed and me in 1949 Barbara, Richard and Me circa 1951-52

At the top is a 1949 photo of me with my older brother Ed and sister Barbara with Dad outside of the Lara Union government-subsidized units we lived in at the time.  The picture below is of sis and me about two and half years later with younger brother Richard, (center) about a year before we moved away from Lara Union.

It was in these early years before mom had to find “gainful employment” to keep us above the poverty level that dad was gone all day working while she stayed home with the three kids they had at the time.  Richard, the youngest, was not yet a part of the family but was soon to become the fourth and final pregnancy my mom would undergo.  At eighteen-months old the time would have been in June, 1950.  I was given very little detail of the events of that day the accident occurred so my presentation here can only imagine in part how things unfolded.

wringer washing machineIt’s a warm sunny day and mom is doing the wash in an old-style wringer washing machine, similar to one pictured here.  These machines were a serious safety hazard and I was to become one of its many victims.  Like the old housing units we lived in, shortly after this incident occurred, these machines too would become a thing of the past, being outlawed for home use.

Apparently mom was outside momentarily hanging the last batch of clothes on the line, leaving us kids to  our own devices inside.   There was I’m sure no reason for her to think any harm could come to us while she was doing this relatively brief, routine chore.

I had obviously worked my way into the kitchen area where the wringer washer had been placed back in those days.  Laundry rooms were not part of the construction of housing units built sometime in the 1930’s.  The machine must have been noisily churning away with the latest load of dirty clothes and likely drew my attention to it.  I can almost see myself pounding on the white porcelain-coated tub trying to get some kind of response from it.  When it became apparent that the machine was not heeding my pleas for attention I took other action to gain some response from this object that shared the same home I did.

My recollection here is fuzzy but it seems that mom told me years later that I managed to move a nearby chair up against the washing machine and drew myself up on it so I could be at a height advantage.  One that allowed me to see other parts that weren’t always that visible at floor level for a toddler – like the wringer rollers where clothes were inserted for squeezing the water from them before being hung out on the clothes line to dry.

It is also not clear to me this day whether mom left the rollers spinning as she ran the last load out to hang or that I had somehow tripped the lever myself in my touchy-feely curiosity to experience this wondrous machine.  Whatever the cause though, that rotating motion must have led me to further explore this device with my right hand while holding onto the machine with my left.

The loud shrill that mom must have heard from me as she hung clothes outside had to curdle her blood.  When she ran back inside to see what was happening there she found me screaming at the washing machine with my right arm caught between the two spinning rollers, stuck at a point just a few inches past my wrist.  The ringers only expanded so far and were now churning away at my arm, pulling the skin back as it continued to do what it was designed to do.

Apparently she had the presence of mind to reverse the rotating action to free my arm and after getting a neighbor to stay with my older brother and sister, sped me off to St. Paul’s hospital on the other side of the Trinity River some 8-10 miles away.  Eighteen months earlier when she gave birth to me in this same hospital, little did she realize then that she would be bringing me back under such dire circumstances.

The arm was salvageable, the bone still being soft enough to prevent breakage.   But the skin needed to be repaired.   The state of cosmetic surgery at the time was far from what we have today.  Grafting skin was the procedure they used to make the necessary repair.  The decision to use skin from my abdomen was used after an earlier unsuccessful attempt to use my upper thigh.  They would secure my damaged arm area to that part of the abdomen where they would remove the skin and allow the tissue to adhere.  After several weeks of this they then cut away the abdomen skin, stitched it to the arm and then sutured up the exposed abdomen area.  Both scars would be visible for life.

handicapped cowboyThis picture was taken shortly after the arm was saved but skin grafting from the abdomen was still a couple of months off

The one on my stomach wasn’t too troubling to me as I grew up because it was never visible in public unless I went swimming.   But the scar on the arm was extremely pronounced, protruding like a huge bump from the rest of my appendage.  It was something I became self-conscious about, having to talk about it frequently each time the kids I would come into contact with spotted it.

Fortunately I never ran into the cruelty that children are capable of exhibiting when they see something of a freakish nature with other children.   For the most part I recall a degree of sympathy with each and everyone who were transfixed by its appearance.  Nor did it seem to be a deterrent from girls liking me either, not as much as the low esteem I had developed from being made constantly aware that I was physically different from “normal” children.

Inevitably I became accustomed to it as if it was something I was born with.  The trauma of the actual event was erased from memory and this made it easier to deal with when people would inquire as to what happened.  I even used it to impress Vietnamese villagers I came into contact with while serving in Nam back in 1968.  After informing them I was from Texas and how everything was bigger in the Lone Star state, I would humor them to believe that even the mosquitoes were monstrous sizes as my “mosquito bite” on my arm attested to.

battlescarMe today with my Texas-sized “mosquito bite”.  Though this mirror reflection from the computer camera makes this appear to be on my left arm, the scar really is on my right arm.

Over the years I have run into other people who had similar scars from their encounters with the wringer-washer their family had.  It also allowed me to be empathetic with people who were often chided by others because of some disturbing feature about their appearance.  If I ran into children who had been bruised emotionally from such interactions with other kids I would show them my scar and let them know that physical deformities which you have no control over are not what makes you who you are or what you can be.

The wringer-washer is now a part of that history that reflects how little value manufacturers often gave to the potential threats their products might pose with the public who bought their goods and services.  It may not have been the known threat like the Ford Pinto was back in 1977 or the Chevrolet Corvair from 1960-63 whose design flaws caused the deaths of trusting consumers, but to many of us it remains a testament to the fact that consumer safety protections are not something that anyone should sneer at.

I’m not a big fan of the term “consumer” because it tends to commercialize us as a society by obscuring our more complex humanity.   So when I say I am a consumer advocate it merely refers to that part of me that guards against efforts by manufacturers and commercial snake oil salespeople who hawk a product or service that often puts safety behind the glitter of what they market.  It’s disconcerting when I hear pro-corporate stooges assert too easily how most accidents and deaths from products are always the consumer’s own carelessness.  These often baseless charges serve only to absolve manufacturers of any wrong-doing, unintended or otherwise.  One can only hope that they don’t have to learn their lesson the hard way as I did or others whose outcomes were much more life-altering than my experience was.

10 responses to “Kid vs. Machine: Wishing the Consumer Product Safety Commission Was Around When I Was a Child

  1. Yeah, and it is all those damned regulations that are killing jobs! And, I too remember those washers and the ironing machines, etc. Of course, the farm kids had it much much worse. They died in droves running around threshers, etc.
    Sensible safety regulations are all to the good.

    • You’re so right Stephen. Farm accidents and deaths are probably equal to or greater than the percentage of non-farm accidents and deaths. So much room for error here with heavy duty equipment and small children learning the trade at a very young age.

  2. I shudder to imagine a world without these regulations, though you don’t have to do much imagining if you pay attention to the news about tragedies happening in other countries that lack decent regulatory bodies. Imagine the horrors we don’t even hear about! I say “Bravo” to these regulatory agencies and the regulations they enforce. My life is made better by it – consumers lives are made better by them. Too many business owners forget that their spouses, children and friends are also consumers who need protection from lousy designs and dangerous machinery.

    • I think what most people also overlook, even those who complain about too many regulations, that once these sensible regulations are in place they serve as an impetus to force manufacturers to take a hard look at their product before they put it out on the market. Many companies have come up with some innovative safety features but if it were not for agencies like the CPSC providing the impetus to do so on behalf of people who buy their products, we are likely not to see any genuine efforts on the part of the private sector to work in the interests of those consumers they ultimately rely on to stay in business.

  3. Great story, great scar! Damn big government stopping kids these days from experiencing such wonders! [Shakes head]

    I was impaled by rebar as a kid; straight through my side. An open building site promises too much fun not to explore.

    • “An open building site promises too much fun not to explore.”

      Sounds a lot like my dare devil walk across 2nd story floor joists in an old gutted home. My older brother had already made the cross over so I couldn’t back down, even though I was about 5 years old. Fell about 8-9 feet before I made it half way over.

      He paid the price a few years later when he slipped on the mossy edge of a cement water over spill box and hit head first about 5 feet down. I had to run back and get my dad and that was the first time I saw the old man sprint like a cheetah. I was in awe of him.

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