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Omaha Magazine

Otis Twelve: Lockjaw

Feb 21, 2024 01:54PM ● By Otis Twelve
otis twelve not funny lockjawy march april 2024

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

When I was just a little kid, I was really afraid of getting lockjaw. Though, it must be said, my fear was not instinctive. It was, like most fears we humans wallow in, acquired.

I remember stepping on an old, rusty nail one summer at the farm. The flaky, red spear went straight through the thin sole of my brand new white Keds sneakers and into my big toe.

Now, it must be said, farms are very dangerous places. The risk of dismemberment by auger–fingers usually–being crushed by a tractor, or blinded by an ill-tempered rooster while gathering the eggs before breakfast are real. In fact, it’s a miracle that farm kids ever survive into adulthood at all, and those who do frequently turn into wild risk takers willing to throw caution to the wind and gamble their lives away by taking over the family farm after mom and dad have moved to town to be closer to their weekly pinochle game.

It's just true that farmers think of danger and risk in a whole different way than us sophisticated urban dwellers, who think we are the tough ones.

Anyway, there I was, a sweet, innocent city boy, with a bloody spike protruding from the top of my shoe, crying for help. My grandfather, Johann, soon appeared in his Jack Rabbit bib overalls with a plug of Day’s Work chewing tobacco peeking out of the breast pocket. He looked down at me.

“Kann man Dich nicht mal fünf Minuten alleine lassen?” he said.

I took comfort in his words. But only because I didn’t speak German and didn’t realize he was being a bit cross with me.

Grandpa knelt beside me, and he took my foot in his massive hands. Reaching to the underside of the bloody footwear, he grabbed the rusty nail head like it was a sewing needle and pulled it out of my foot in the blink of a teary eye. He carried me to the pump in the barnyard, and after removing my shoe and reddened sock, he rinsed my bloody toe in the cold pump water that gushed out with every plunge of the lever.  The chill of the well water numbed the pain, stopped the bleeding, and grandma wrapped my toe in gauze before she gave me a glass of fresh milk.
It was all so wonderful.

Then my mother came to pick me up at the end of the week, found out what happened, and began screaming.

“Lockjaw! He’ll get Lockjaw!”

“Lockjaw?” I thought. That sounds scary. And, of course, it is scary if you get Tetanus, though I didn’t know that was the real name of lockjaw, and to be honest, Tetanus is not as scary a word, is it? But lockjaw? That is so descriptive.

Mom rushed me to the clinic and got me a Tetanus shot. I never got lockjaw. But ever since that day, I’ve been very frightened of having my or my children’s jaws locked. I think I have driven them to get scores of Tetanus shots for even the most minor of wounds—rusty or otherwise.

I remain surprised that I have yet to know anyone who has ever gotten lockjaw. Yet, I still remain hyper-vigilant and to this day have never been able to bring myself to buy another pair of Keds.

Listen to Otis Twelve host “Morning Classics,” weekdays 6AM—10AM, on KVNO, Omaha Classical Radio, 90.7 or

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
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