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Break a Leg in the Graveyard! (Read a Book)

Updated: Jun 3

David Driemiller, "Morning sun burns off the fog over the knoll," Fairview Cemetery, Hiram, Ohio (

It must have been on Friday, October 8th, 1971 that I broke my leg in the graveyard in the village of Hiram, Ohio--which sounds a bit Gothic, I know, but be patient...

I was eight years old and a friend and I were out walking on an autumn day with my mother, Judith, and a friend of hers. We had just walked up a dirt road outside of town, called Ryder Road, that cut through beautiful farmland on both sides. The Ryder Road route was a standard stroll for faculty brats like my brother and me and for Hiram College students, alike, whether to go running or to have a space for meaningful conversation on the move. And on the way back to town that day we cut through the village graveyard, at the corner of Ryder Road and Route 82, as was usual. Most of the kids who grew up in Hiram, of course, had spent time wandering in Fairview Cemetery over the years, looking for the oldest gravestones and puzzling out the corroded names and dates of the deceased, some of which, as I recall, went back to the 1830s. Of course, students would also go to the graveyard at midnight to tell ghost stories or to scare a friend who was reluctant to go to a place of the dead after dark.

When you wandered in the graveyard in Hiram, you found headstones for men who had fought in the Civil War and headstones for people who had streets in town named after them, such as Peckham and Dean. It was a little history lesson on the village and its inhabitants.

And as you might expect, many of these old gravestones from the 19th century were not in the best condition.

David Dreimiller, "The gravesite of the Allyn family," Fairview Cemetery, Hiram, Ohio (

One old gravestone was in particularly bad shape, as I soon discovered. This particular stone was a sort of obelisk, sitting on a platform, perhaps four or five feet high (hard to recall after 50 years), and having every appearance of being sturdy and immovable. My friend and I were running around the headstones and climbing on some of the larger ones. My mother and her friend were sitting on the side of a hill chatting.

As my friend and I ran around, I jumped onto the base of this particular gravestone, reached around to grab the other side of it, and hung with one arm from the stone as if I were holding onto a tree. It was a big mistake.

Whatever had held the obelisk to its base was no longer doing its job, and as I hung from it, the gravestone came loose and fell right onto my leg, giving me a good knock on the head on the way down. The knock on the head wasn't a big deal, but it opened a wound over my eye that bled like hell and looked really serious.

It was the gravestone on the leg that was serious. The large, heavy, stone fell onto my leg and caused an open compound fracture, which the National Institutes of Health describe as "An injury where the fractured bone and/or fracture hematoma are exposed to the external environment via a traumatic violation of the soft tissue and skin." The lower leg bone was broken in more than one place and bone splinters actually broke through the skin. It must have been disgusting to behold.

So, there I was, trapped under this gravestone--of all things!--leg shattered, bleeding profusely from a knock on the head, no doubt crying out in pain, in shock from the trauma...And there was my mother, a loving and sensitive soul, suddenly confronted with her son crying out in pain and lying under a gravestone. She was about 30, maybe 5'4" and 120 pounds, so not particularly big or strong--but she popped up and ran over to me like lightning, grabbed that enormous stone as it lay on my leg, and tossed it aside like a toothpick. It was Mother Nature's own power boost, as she later told me, since if anyone had asked her to move that stone under normal circumstances she would have labored to budge it at all.

My mother's friend, I believe, ran home to call my father, and he drove to the graveyard and loaded me into the car. We drove to the nearby town of Ravenna, to the old Robinson Memorial Hospital, which was downtown, and the doctors put a cast on my leg from the top of the thigh to the end of my foot, leaving only my toes free to wiggle. (There was probably more to that procedure than just fitting a cast, what with the bone splintering through the skin, but I wouldn't know!)

Old Robinson Memorial Hospital in 1938

I must have been drugged to the gills in the ER to deal with the pain, and I spent a few days in Robinson Memorial under the care of doctors and nurses. One of the nurses, whom I remember quite fondly, upon hearing that I had broken my leg in a graveyard, remarked to my mother that it sounded like something out of Tom Sawyer--a wonderful and astute observation that has stood the test of time.

And I would have stayed longer in the hospital except for one thing: my birthday is on October 11th and my parents thought it would be nice for me to turn nine at home instead of in a hospital. The doctors agreed that I was doing well enough to go home, and I returned to my family home on Dean Street in Hiram, across from the college library, where I was established on a foldout couch in the living room, painkillers still coursing liberally through my veins. I stayed there on the couch for some time since it was hard to climb the stairs to my bedroom with that heavy cast on my leg.

I stayed in that cast for five or six months. It was that serious. I have no memory of my 9th birthday, since I was probably still spaced-out with the painkillers, but I do recall that friends of my parents came by to wish me well--I can only imagine that, in a village of 900 people, my odd and somewhat macabre experience in the graveyard was common knowledge.

One visitor I particularly recall. He was an older gentleman named Warren Taylor. He had taught English for many years at Oberlin College and, after retiring from Oberlin, had taught some classes at Hiram. While many of the people who taught English at that time had more of a Beat vibe, he was a tall, elegant, man with long white hair, tweed jackets, and a rather grand, old fashioned, manner. He and my father used to have long conversations about literature and I recall Mr. Taylor leaning on the mantlepiece and emphasizing his points with a waving finger. Mr. Taylor brought me a birthday present and dropped by occasionally to see how I was doing. A fine old gentleman.*

After a while, when I was less drugged out, my teacher from Hiram Elementary began to bring me school work, thereby returning a bit of drudgery to daily life--I was always a reluctant student! And this sense of returning to drudgery reminds me that this period on the couch was actually not such a bad time. Quite the opposite, in fact. I remember it as a time of freedom and exploration.

I got some books from the school book sale--must have chosen them from a list--and read them over and over. One of the books was called Adventures of the Greek Heroes, which was a kids book about Greek mythology.

Another was a book I recall only as an adventure story in which some Finnish children fled the Nazi invaders on sleds and skis. Another was about a Boston kid evading the Redcoats during the American Revolution. Or something like that!

I also remember reading some other wonderful old books at this time--maybe I already had them and just applied myself to them on the couch with special vigor--from a British press called Ladybird Books. These were small hardcover books with beautiful painted color illustrations. My favorite Ladybird book was Julius Caesar and Roman Britain.

There was another Ladybird book called King Alfred the Great, which I also loved. My parents had bought some volumes of the Time-Life History of the World series, and I used to spend a lot of time with the volumes on Ancient Greece and Rome, Ancient Egypt, the rise of Islam, and the book about the coming of the Vikings--which I vaguely recall was entitled The Fury of the Northmen. There was another illustrated book about knights in shining armor with great images of The Black Knight and Crusaders fighting in battles against the Muslims in the Holy Land.

Of course, it wasn't all books. There were also toy soldiers I used to set up--leg in cast sticking out to one side--in grand battles between a mélange of plastic soldiers from World War II, the American Civil War, Viking warriors wielding a battle ax, knights with swords and longbows, and American Indians with tomahawks and Winchester repeaters. They came together in one big battle with cannons and Jeeps and horses and catapults and swords and bows and rifles all mixed up together. There may even have been a tank or two, but I can't be sure.

So, not such a bad time, really. A break of the leg bringing a break from the drudgery of school, time to let the imagination go wild, reading and imaginative play, time to be home with the full and loving attention of my mother...If anything, those months healing my broken leg were a time I recall quite fondly. My brother remembers it the same way.

If anything, this little break from the routine discipline of schoolwork, and a dive into the freedom to think and do what matters most to me on my own, presages a lifelong propensity to work best independently and outside of institutional boundaries. I didn't do well within the strictures of schools or academic departments. [I can feel the walls closing in even thinking about it!] You might say that my work as an independent scholar, Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo, was born on that foldout couch on Dean Street.

And then, of course, besides the books and the toy soldiers, there were the movies. Classic movies on TV that opened my eyes to yet another world of the imagination. But that is for another time...

(Many thanks to David Dreimiller for providing his wonderful photos of Fairview Cemetery for this post.)

*Thanks to David Anderson for correcting my memory--I had originally called Mr. Taylor Charles rather than Warren--his correct name.

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