The Nurse’s Office
The card came in the mail. Before I disclose its contents, things need
be said about Brantwood and
The terror of the disease
discouraged many parents from sending their children to public pools.
Fortunately, she got a grip on her
fears so that I learned how to swim there, taking aquatic instruction on the
dog-paddle and other more advanced strokes.
This led, one lonely morning, to my survival. I was 100 feet from shore when I found myself
“over-my-head”, the term for any depth more than 6 inches greater than a young
swimmer’s height. The deep in this case was a mere five foot,
sufficient to drown me. I panicked. There
was absolutely no one to save me. No
Then came the miraculous, an
inexplicable inner calm, the kind I’d seen my hero cowboy Hopalong Cassidy get when a desperado drew his gun. My skinny limbs began that perfunctory canine
stroke learned in the urine warmed waters of the
Thank God! Mom had acquiesced, exposing me to the ravages of Polio. Had I been infected, I, nevertheless, might have survived, though in an iron lung. That would not have been the case without the dog-paddle I learned there. I would have drowned.
Incidentally, my Uncle Bob did contract Polio as a youth. It left him with an impaired ability to swallow. However, he is well into his 90s, at this writing, having long outlived all in my family who never got the disease. Again, heredity reigns.
Brantwood’s little Lords, of which I
was among, had no private school nearby to shield them from the influence of
the common elements, i.e., children from “across the Monon Railroad
tracks.” The options were the
The public links to education it would be,
Should a flood of biblical
proportions befall the
But what about that card that came
in the mail? It had to do with
There was the tattoo torture inflicted on every one. Protest was futile. It was for the miniscule chance that fate ordained a ghastly accident, a torrential blood spurting from a wound, each spurt syncopated to the final beats of an expiring heart.
“If only we knew the child’s blood type, perhaps, there might still be time to save the tyke. “
“Doctor, this child is from
“Yes. Nurse check his right side. They tattoo all of ‘em there, just like prairie cattle.”
“Ah, ha, there it is!”
“He’s an A-positive type. Praise the Lord! We’d got a dozen pints of A+ in the cooler!”
“Thank God for those
And that was the justification for the pain each of us endured. I’d liken the pricks of the multi-needled tattoo “burner” to a small dose of the State’s electric chair. It sort of buzzed into your flesh, burning, pricking, injecting the vial blue ink subcutaneously beneath the epidermal layer.
That night, I undressed to the waist. With Mom’s hand mirror, positioned like a submarine’s periscope, I looked for the image stamped forevermore as that brand identifying me as a Lincoln Lion. `
“There it was.” But…
“It didn’t take.”
Somehow those needles didn’t make the vertical line in the plus (+) mark dark enough. You couldn’t tell if I was a + (plus) or – (minus) .
To this day, my fear remains of a hapless ambulance tech finding me prostrate, entangled amidst the carnage of my Explorer.
“Yes, there it is. He was one of those
No, the card wasn’t an official acknowledgement of my blood type, though they did give me one just before that branding.
But, considering what I know historically about my classmates, (A half century has passed.) to my knowledge, not one has benefited in the way the nurse said we would from getting that tattoo.
The dreadful process was confined to a dark closet in the nurse’s office. The juvenile subject sat rigidly erect. Gloved in latex, the nurse deftly raked a comb-like sickle in slow random swipes through the subject’s head-hair. Her other hand grasped some kind of light-ray device that looked like a prop from a Frankenstein movie. A supernatural appearing pinkish-purplish beam flooded her view of the scalp so that the entire room lit up as though nurse and subject were encapsulated in a pink Christmas tree light.
The comb-light apparatus was said to ferret from the scalp hidden vermin like lice, dandruff, and colonies of indescribable microscopic and , of course, potentially fatal bacterium cultures. But it was my mother’s dire warning which most terrified my tender psyche,
“Don’t wear another kid’s hat or you’ll get the RINGWORM!”
My deepest fear was the nurse’s surveillance beam uncovering amongst my crue-cut hair follicles, a full-blown, advanced, final stage, terminal, metastasized, untreatable, fatal case of that unspeakable contagion RINGWORM!
When the nurse gave her prognosis, I sighed in relief. The note sent home said only, “Jerry, has dry scalp. Try another shampoo.”
For yet another year, I was RINGWORM free!
That card mentioned earlier was not the scalp exam result. It was much more dire.
Those annual darkroom parasitic searches spawned unforgettable tales among the waiting victims. Perhaps, this was the genesis of that tapeworm story often told in hushed tones of disgust and derision. More likely it was a result of reading the tri-fold health education flyer sent home with each of us.
In this “worm-warning-tri-fold” was a sketch of the step-by-step tape-worm infection process. What began with walking out-doors barefooted, progressed through the stages of tape-worm infection, including maturation of the worm, and ultimate intestinal infestation in the host human carrier. The closest thing I could compare to the descriptive process would be those early 1960s lunar landing posters showing the launch into Earth orbit, trans-lunar injection (the journey to the Moon), and the ultimate Moon landing.
In comparison, launch for these tape-worms was your naked feet. Innocently stepping on a nest of their lava was the same as launching them into the cosmos of your body. Like the Moon mission, the second stage worms climb intravenously into and up your legs. Their mission success comes when the morbid beasts reach your bowels, i.e., stomach, colon, intestines, large and small, as well as your throat. At that time, comes the momentous words, “The tapeworms have landed!” along with the sequent pronouncement of the child, “Mom, I’ve Got a Problem.”
The ravishes of a tape-worm colony sucks the nourishment of Mom’s daily three course meals of salad, meat, and desert into growing longer and longer worms. The flyer said the tapeworm was a “parasite” but the person was a “host”. This had to be a lousy name for the affected person. My idea of a host was a person who invited a guest into his home. Certainly, no one would welcome the visit of a tapeworm.
But the horror story heard often
Despite enormous helpings of pig
jowls, collard greens,
liver, and wild possum meat, the “youngin’s” were “wasting away,” thin as an
Now, these southerners were more worldly wise than Brantwoodians, finding kindred wisdom among the Hammond-Hessville populace, not needing medication, surgery, or mechanical means for tapeworm deliverance, the extracting of the elongated beasts. “The milk-cure would save those kids.” These southerners must have been neighbors of Shep’s coarse Bumpus clan, but their remedy for tapeworm dated back to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Those pioneers knew well the medical benefits of the “milk-cure” just as surely as the fatal consequences of the “milk sick”, an early form of milk malignance that killed within a day of consuming the cow’s contagion.
Unknown to Brantwoodians, tapeworms cannot resist warm foamy milk any more than a Wabash Street Wino can cheap wine. That gaggle of southern kids kneeled down, side by side, mouths open wide so not to obstruct the passage of those tapeworms. A red wood picnic bench sat beneath their four open mouths. The process required each child to breathe solely through the nostrils of the nose. This prevented the trekking tapeworms from choking the hosts, i.e., the children.
A shallow pan was placed on the bench before each of the infected tapeworm carriers. From the kitchen came the irresistible tapeworm pottage, a porridge of warm foamy Pleasant View Homogenized Dairy Milk.
The return to Earth phase was
ponderous for the worm as well as the juvenile host. It was said, to consume several hours of
gagging, vomiting, choking, spitting, screaming and moaning. But, be assured, the mission was always
completed successfully. Needless to say,
I seldom walked bare footed outside
This had to be one of those “urban
legend” tales that today’s Internet blog-sites parrot. But in 1950, at
Again, a nameless family of unfortunates surrounded the Thanksgiving feast prepared by the clan’s mother. The center piece, as expected, was the 20 pound turkey, cooked hours overnight to a tender, juicy perfection.
Because of the family’s generosity, wanting to share their modest blessings, (After all, it was Thanksgiving!) they had invited a street person from the tawdry real estate under the Ridge Road Creek bridge. This child of ill-fortune is given the honored seat at the head of the table.
To begin, the perfunctory blessing is said over the manna placed before them. Then, the pitch fork sized turkey fork is lifted, poised to spear the big bird’s chest, preparatory to drawing and quartering the bird in traditional Thanksgiving butchery. That is when it happened. It was the guest interloper, not really his fault, but, nevertheless, just as terrible. There are sneezes and there are SNEEZES of which the event was of the awful latter case, a spewing, harking, quaking, inner rumbling of phlegm and expectorant blasting from the vagrant’s mouth, lips, and nasal passages with such force as to be the envy of the hosers of the BVFD, the Brantwood Volunteer Fire Department.
The glistening golden brownish
hairless chest skin of the family bird caught the brunt of the blast, instantly
bathed in the slimy, foamy saliva, mucus and general mixture of Mogen David and
less pricey imbibings. The
At once, the smiling facades of the hungry feasters darkened with thoughts not unlike those entertained by incarcerated felons awaiting their final meal. What choice was there but to lift the contaminated bird, its platter, along with the stuffing falling from its open neck wound from the table? The only alternative was for the fowl to be washed, reheated, and re-served? And so it was.
Dad enjoyed the conclusion of his tale, watching the grimace on my face when I asked, “What happened then?”
“That night the entire family, except for the vagrant, came down with the dysentery.”
I didn’t know what that word meant and didn’t want to show my ignorance so I found it in the dictionary. It meant “a sickness in the lower bowels, with diarrhea that becomes mucous and hemorrhagic.” Now, I didn’t know what hemorrhagic meant either. So I looked it up. The definition reveals just how repulsive Dad’s tale was. It meant a discharge of blood. “What a Thanksgiving that must have been!”
Enough of Dad’s fantastic stories,
the sad look on Mom’s face, her measured, carefully chosen words as she handed
me that card told me it was not the stuff of tattoos, hair lice, worms, or
stressed bowels. It had to be life threatening,
and it was… Next to Polio, the grim reaper stalking Brantwoodian youth in
the 50s was the dreaded malady Tuberculosis.
TB for short.
No one escaped those screening X-rays at
The 400 Lincoln Lions and Lionesses filed in line for several days hearing those words, “Inhale deeply young man. Hold your breath. Yes, its cold on your chest but only for a moment. Be patient.” The shutoff of the machine’s buzz, with the simultaneous and abrupt, “NEXT STUDENT!” told me it was O.K. to step back, put my shirt back on and leave.
Except for that icy contact with my bare skin, the test was no more bothersome than the shoe-fit X-ray diagnostic machine at the Highland Department Store. At least that X-ray-er showed my toes wagging in my Tom McCann’s while I watched. I didn’t need a card to come in the mail weeks later telling me my shoes fit.
The card came two weeks to the day the X-Ray-Mobile motored North onto Highway 41, perhaps, in route to Shep’s Warren G. Harding Elementary School in Hessville, 5 miles closer to Lake Michigan’s shores than Lincoln School. There, other mere youths in the prime of life might, also, receive the same card…”We have found a suspicious indication of a potential problem on your recent chest x-ray.
See your physician immediately.
At once, the scene of a choking,
convulsing Tiny Tim came to mind, immediately followed by Boy’s Town’s Father
Flanagan at Mickey Rooney’s bedside ministering last rites. I protested out loud, “Mom, I can’t have TB,
its winter. The
My official Doctor Kildare immediately became World Book page 8192 of volume 16 which was “T” among the lettered volumes of our set of Encyclopedias. Carefully, I studied its prognosis. I was not comforted by these words, “Tuberculosis is one of the most serious infectious diseases, and today…causes about one tenth of ALL HUMAN DEATHS…sometimes called THE WHITE PLAGUE because it is SO DEADLY…It may attack all INCOME GROUPS. (Even Brantwoodians!)
The worst was yet to come from my good Doctor World Book. “Many a child has been infected by careless spitting of others.”
“My God,” I thought, “Dad’s Thanksgiving story could have had a much worse conclusion than dysentery. It might have been TB infecting the family.”
Then came the symptoms, “chills, fever, pain in the chest, cough, labored breathing, and lung congestion.” (I had them all though it was likely from simply breathing the polluted “yellow-tinged air which hung over the steel mills.)
“So,” I wondered, “What stops the symptoms and heals the disease?” Again, my Dr. World Book Volume T, M.D. minced no words. Its “bedside” manner was as subtle as a root canal, “These symptoms last four to twelve weeks ending in DEATH. THERE IS NO KNOWN CURE.”
I was a “dead boy walking”! Likely, I wouldn’t make it to summer
On the World Book page was a 5X7
inch photo of that cumbersome x-ray machine, x-raying a young woman with a
nurse standing close by pushing the woman against that cold framework. The apparatus looked like something the
Merciless Ming would subject my hero Flash Gordon to endure. Closely, I studied the photo’s caption,
hoping against hope, for some hidden flaw in the process, “The X-Ray is a
“God no,” I wept, “That’s what the post card says, “a spot was on my x-ray.” It was over for me. If I’d only have had a less serious malady like a mile long tapeworm feeding on Mom’s predictable Thursday liver dinner, or a Ring Worm infestation that kept a nylon woman’s stocking over my hair for the rest of my life to keep me from infecting others, or if I’d only had lice, or bed bugs, or leeches, or pin worms…anything but TUBERCULOSIS!”
I read on: Sometimes victims survived a bit more than 12 weeks, but in such cases, “No child should live in a room where he can infect another with this dreaded disease.”
At once, the scene imaged before me. I was prostrate in a hospital bed, a plastic tent over me, attendants attired in defcon space suits bringing my last meal. I was a “Typhoid Jerry!” Knowing death certain within the school year, I felt my eyes begin to tear, “I wouldn’t even make 2nd Class Scout, I’d die a lowly Tenderfoot member of the Eagle Patrol.
About to close Volume 16, I noticed the following topic, “Tuberculosis Society of America.” One of their fund raising methods was offering Christmas stamps. “Small consolation,” I fretted “if I died within the 4 week window of survival, I just might become a listed victim for the year 1954.”
The saying goes, “A coward dies a thousand deaths but a brave man but once.” By the time of the scheduled retest on a hospital’s X-ray machine, I was well on my way to that thousand count. But my symptoms were not getting worse. Perhaps, the steel workers were striking and the open hearth pollutants had abated, but things were definitely improved.
The retest confirmed it. It found no evidence of Tuberculosis. I would not die a Tenderfoot after all.