Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Case of the Missing Finger

by Ambrose Blake (Tom Emch)

Almost everybody has ten fingers (including thumbs).  I don't know anyone with eleven, although I do know a number of people with less than ten.  A former colleague had eight; two had been amputated on his left hand in a peculiar alignment.  Without trying, he was constantly giving people the sign of the cuckold.  Another friend has only nine, having lost one on a butcher's block struggling with a particularly tough chicken leg and a very sharp knife.  And yours truly has just nine and a half fingers.

Nine and a half is really all you need if you're not a touch typist.  It's even an advantage sometimes.

First of all a missing finger is a conversation piece, and somewhat of a curiosity among the ten-fingered set.  "How did you lose it?"  I'm asked at parties.  Immediately I have the floor and all eyes are turned on me, waiting for an unusual story.  This is quite an advantage for someone who is usually ignored at gatherings.

"Which story would you like?"  is my standard rejoinder.  I lost the half finger in 1935 and for years, when asked questions, I told it just the way it happened.  Then one day I realized that people would believe any story I told them.  So I started to improvise.  The stories got better, more polished, and today I have a repertoire that is just short of astounding.

Fingers are very important to the species.  H. Allen Smith, the humorist, pointed out that we would be living in quite a different world if we didn't have fingers.  Toes would have to do all the tricky work, and the world would be minus a lot of outstanding violin music.  Pianos would be non-existent, but there would probably still be art masterpieces.  We would have developed a race of people with very talented toes.

But as it turned out we have pianos and Beethoven and Chopin and Jascha Heifetz, and when we go to the dentist, he doesn't have to use his toes to...   Well, let's skip that.

Everybody knows about the value of the opposed thumb, the gripper.  And the index finger.  This is the one the Anglo Saxons called the "toucher".  The middle finger, of course, is the longest and most useful on the freeways.  If someone honks his horn and tries to get you over into the slow lane, you simply raise the middle finger of your right hand and jab it in the air.  There is an Italian expression that goes along with this gesture, but I've forgotten it.

The next finger is the ring finger.  Once it was believed that there was a nerve that went from the tip of this finger directly to the heard.  And thus it was appropriate to signify a bond between two hearts with a ring on this finger.  In some quarters, it is also known as the "stirring finger."  I can't imagine why because if you try it in your scotch and water it doesn't work nearly as well as the index finger, particularly if you use ice cubes.

The last finger is called the "little finger," logically enough.  Here again I'm indebted to Smith for pointing out that the little finger is the only one that fits well into a nostril or an ear.  Try it.

Fingers are useful to nervous people who drum them, and to executives who tap them to get the attention of subordinates.  And if you've got a mouthful of spaghetti and meat sauce and someone asks you the way to the men's room, an index finger makes a handy pointer.

Children find more uses for fingers than adults; finger painting, making mud pies, writing in the sand, scratching enemies and getting into the cookie jar, to name some.

When they grow older they use fingers to play musical instruments (the five-hole flute, for instance) and to write home for money and to learn about the opposite sex.  Entwined fingers are big with teenagers.  Fingers are also good for typing (you need at least two), and for throwing an inside curve ball.

But to get back to how I came to have only nine and a half fingers, it happened this way.  Possibly.

My parents had imposed on me the cruel and usual punishment of piano lessons.  Unless you're eight years old and male and it's a beautiful spring day, you can't understand just how cruel piano lessons can be.

I had stuck with it grimly, through all the exercises and some of the beginner pieces until one day I was handed a simple Chopin etude.  "Simple" is what the piano teacher called it; she had been playing Chopin for forty years.

Three lessons later I still hadn't come close to what the composer intended and I knew I never would.  That's when I hit on the "final solution" to the dreaded piano lessons.

When I tell this story, there's invariably a gasp from the audience and I usually let the story hang unfinished.  It's very effective.

"You don't mean you cut it off yourself?" they ask.

Or it's:  "Oh, you couldn't!"

I just smile because I know the story isn't true.  Depending on the audience, I have another story, also untrue:

In make company, particularly right after World War II, I would hint broadly that it was a combat wound.  Men who had been really wounded didn't pay any attention to me, but the stateside GIs would listen respectfully.

I told how I was in a forward observation post in the Pacific, in a shallow foxhole when, suddenly, a large snake slithered in beside me.  I made such a commotion trying to get the snake out of the hole that I attracted enemy fire.  And when I finally got hold of the snake and held it up to throw it aside, I caught a bullet on the end of my index finger on my left hand.

Looking back, few believed this story, but it did get me an occasional free drink.

Actually I had lost the finger years before and the military wasn't interested that I was minus half a finger.  After all, it wasn't my trigger finger, they said.

Another story about how I lost my left index finger at the second joint I can only allude to because this is a family newspaper.

It begins on a beach near Havana in 1947 and involves a Cuban girl named Maria, who was not as virginal as her name.  The next scene is in a room at the old Florida Hotel, near the waterfront.  Maria and I have words, then we fight and in the ensuing altercation I end up with half a finger gone, and Maria is in tears, bandaging me up.  "Don't know if she still has the finger," is the way I conclude this tale.

Almost nobody believes the story, including me, but it fires the imagination of the listener and it usually makes a hit.

Okay.  Okay.  Enough of the baloney.  You want to hear the real story:

It's dull but true.  On my eighth birthday, I received as a present a good jackknife.  Showing off this marvelous weapon to my pals, I jammed it into a tree and the clasp closed over my finger and severed it.  I recall that all my good pals were scared and ran home.  I was left to pick up the severed finger-end and hold it in place until I was taken to a doctor.

The doc said he couldn't save it, sewed it up and sent me home with a piece of candy.  I never had a chance to thank him.

That missing finger has gotten me hundreds of free drinks over the years; it has made me the center of attention at scores of cocktail parties; I've learned how to do tricks with the stub that amuse some people.

And I don't miss the end of the finger one bit.  I was even able to tap this story with two fingers and one thumb on the space bar.

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle