in which a trip to the apple orchard takes a sinister turn

My current route to campus passes a local elementary school, and last week as I drove by mid-morning I noticed a line of school buses idling on the curb next to a line of third graders idling on the sidewalk. The crumpled brown bag lunches, the parent volunteers herding the rabble, the vibrating energy of the scene: Oh yes, people. It was field trip day.

I love field trip day.

As most do, I suppose. During a recent job interview dinner, the conversation led to a sort of one-upmanship in field tripping stories. Those who had lived in the more exotic corners of the States had, of course, far superior stories. Florida allows a certain degree of contact with gators, apparently. Image

My own stories are of a tamer variety. The wildlife I encountered in my days exploring the suburban landscapes of Cary, Illinois and Franklin, Tennessee offered few opportunities to encounter wildlife outside the common spectrum of squirrels, deer, and roadkill. My most vivid field trip memory, in fact, was a trip to an apple orchard in the early days of elementary school.

After the indignity of being “partnered” with a classmate and forced to hold said classmate’s hand en route to the waiting bus, and after the cruise through the streets of Tennessee — a journey unfailingly punctuated by at least one threat of carsickness — we arrived. We were first ushered into a makeshift movie theater, where we sat on overturned apple crates to watch a film on the varieties of apple featured in the orchard. The film was dated, speckled with lint and scratches and played at a volume that could overpower the clacking of the spinning film reel.

Each apple was given a pair of cartoon eyes and a personality. The red delicious is, apparently, an egoist. He is very proud of his “three bottoms.” A titter drifted across the young audience.

Once we were armed with spare paper grocery bags and released to the trees like the monkeys we were, life was easier and less organized. Weaving between low branches and kicking spotted, brown Macintoshes at one another, we were loose-limbed and increasingly sunburned, stopping every now and then to seize up in that stiff-spined, paralytic posture that overtakes any elementary school student in the presence of a bee.

But while I remember the early moments of the trip — the dark green plastic seats of the bus, the misanthropic basset hound that slept slumped against a storage shed, the difficulty of opening a plastic baggie full of grapes when one’s fingers are sticky — what I remember most is what happened when we returned to the sterile, fluorescent classroom. Sitting at my desk, writing the obligatory “three complete sentences” about my orchard experience — how do you spell “bottoms”? — I watched as a friend got up from her desk, gained permission for a trip to the bathroom, and headed for the door. Which quickly slammed on her fingers.

There was a strange, suspended moment of complete stillness and then: Oh sweet Jesus yes that is one of her fingers on the floor. ON THE FLOOR. Her finger is on the floor.

My teacher, a woman of impressive composure and strong stomach, scooped up the rogue finger, wrapped it in a paper towel, stuck it in a plastic cup full of ice, and handed it to its owner, whom she promptly sent off to the emergency room. I do this all the time, her demeanor suggested. A disembodid finger? Pshaw!

The finger! It was reattached! No lasting harm done.

Except, perhaps, to my delicate psyche. The heavy door, the careless slamming, the total panic: all of these happened post-field trip, at school, but the two events of that day — a trip to the orchard and a lost digit — were indelibly linked and impressed upon my second-grade brain. Now, while I associate field trips with the sweet thrill of leaving behind the routine of spelling lists and math pre-tests, I also know them as the death trap they really are.

Dark things can happen, my friends, when you slough off the warm, protective cocoon of your average school day.