Timing is Everything

It’s another humid day in Nebraska.

The cicadas are groaning their rhythmic buzz. Every creature capable of sweating is doing so.

Dogs are camped out under trees with their tongues hanging out the side drool dripping to the browning grass around them.

Lawn mowers are cutting down what is left of the grass before the August heat turns it all brown.

Kids are playing in backyards immune to the heat and humidity. This was an era when there was more to do outside than in regardless of the weather.

Where am I through all of this?

I am laying on the cool linoleum kitchen floor, shirtless and almost pant-less, trying to soak up any fun that might be coming through the green screen door that separates me from freedom and friends. According to Mom’s records I am eight years old at this happening and covered in chicken pox.

Butch, and some of the other neighborhood kids are on the other side of the door. I am quarantined from them and anything exciting. I was the first to bring chicken pox to the neighborhood, who shared them with me is still a mystery.

This day is one of those childhood days that all of us can recall in some way. A day that sticks with you for some unexplained reason.

Butch had his army men set up on the chipping green slats of the back porch. He was set for the attack that was never going to happen through the screen. It was like those prison movies when you see the visitors talk through the visiting screen and they want so desperately to pass something through.

Butch and the others could escape to the whole neighborhood when the playing turned too boring, my only retreat was deeper in the house.

This is not where a kid should be on a summer vacation day.

I will admit with no hesitation, it didn’t take long in my young academic life to genuinely hate school. The chicken pox during summer vacation was, in the properly formed conscience of an eight year old, a cruel joke being played by the virus gods. Wasting good days inside when school was looming on the not too distant horizon was worse than the itch and threat of “don’t scratch, or you will be scared for the rest of your life,” that went along with the pox.

I must have listened to the threats and followed Mom’s prescription of care because I can’t find any evidence of scaring, or maybe that was just an idle threat just like the other I often heard, “this will go on your permanent record.”

I would like to know where those records are today, I have some amending to do.

I survived the chickenpox with no visible effects but there was a deficit in my vacation days which I will never get back. I think as a kids we should have been allowed to take equivalent days off in the school year if we were stricken during summer vacation with any of the common childhood trip-ups, kind of like maternity leave for minors.

This was not to be the end of the cruel tricks.

The German measles found me at the start of Thanksgiving vacation. I looked like I was used for target practice by an army of elves. Red hits covered me from top to bottom. Now instead of having free reign of the house, I was confined to the darkened bedroom because, as you know “you can’t be in sunlight and have the measles. I guess it’s a vampire kind of thing.

Now I am wasting Thanksgiving vacation and in no real mood to eat my favorite holiday meal.

I do have one fond memory of the measles.

Dad came home one night with a chart that had plastic fish representing the ocean going creatures attached to it. Each fish had a description beside it and Dad sat on my bed, reading the bio of each fish. For some reason, the plastic blue tuna from the chart has survived many a purging of past toys and mementos. I pull that fish out every now and then, and I can still see Dad sitting on the end of the bed holding each fish up as he reads their deep see exploits.

With the measles and chickenpox under my belt I am now up to about ten days that some school system owes me.

But the tally is not over.

Someone decided that it would be a great idea to remove my tonsils. I think doctors in those days figured if you had more than one sore throat a year, yank those tonsils out. I will acknowledge, I used to get some burning sore throats, so I was all for anything that might relieve them. Plus, the idea of the ice cream and Jello diet was not real offensive to me.

But,

I would like to know who came up with the scheduling for the surgery. This one I can tell you the exact date. It was November 20, 1964 one day after my birthday and seven days before Thanksgiving. Now, you might be thinking that this was getting me a few days out of school and you would be right, but it was also taking me from my second favorite thing next to summer vacation, snow.

The morning after my birthday the folks woke me well before the sun came up. A beautiful snow storm moved in during the night. Flakes were parachuting to the ground like an invading white army. They landed on every flat surface and piled one on top the other forming white pillows just waiting for a kid to plow through.

Dad pulled “Black Beauty” to the side of the house while mom and I waited on the back porch.  The flakes were coming down even heavier. The street light on the corner cast a cone of white through the snow with its light. Black Beauty plowed her way through the new snow up to 18th street down Harlan then west to the old hospital. We were the only car on the road at this hour in this kind of weather.

Either the hospital was very full, or someone thought it would be clever to put a ten year old kid in the maternity ward with the wailing and groaning of expectant mothers. I was stuck over in the corner of the room protected by a rolled up curtain divider. I had a window to my right where I could watch the snow spin in small cyclones up in the corner of the building. The only good thing was the promise of ice-cream when this was over and the absence of the prickly needle sore throats.

If you have had your tonsils out, you know the promise of ice-cream and comfort is a bold face adult lie.

When I woke from surgery, ice-cream was the farthest thing from my list of desires. My throat felt like I swallowed a bucket of nails followed by a good swig of alcohol. (Not that I would really know what that would feel like but I can only imagine.) For this, I was missing a good snow and burning school days.

Let’s raise the tally to about fourteen extra vacation days that I am now owed.

The summer of 1965 brought another round in the hospital. Once again, I couldn’t ignore or put off the curse thrown my way so I was convinced there was a conspiracy among those deities to ruin my vacation time.

Back to summer.

While spending the afternoon at the public pool I began to feel cramps in my side. I figured it was the predicted, “if you eat and go swimming you will get cramps and die,” warning. For some reason, thirty minutes was the required waiting period before you jumped back in. I probably had a box of those thin salty pretzels and a cherry coke, my favorite pool snack at that time and ignored the thirty minute warning.

When the cramp hit, I climbed out of the pool and stretched out on the warm cement decking figuring that waiting the full thirty minutes would solve the problem. And you know, after waiting awhile, I didn’t feel too bad. Back in I went.

Before I could swim to the opposite side of the pool where you could hold onto the side and watch the pony league baseball games going on down at the fields, I was hit with another cramp. This one made me realize something more was going on.

I made my way to the bath house, turned in the tarnished oversized safety pin with my basket number and pulled my tennis shoes out for the walk home. Why I didn’t ride my bike that day is still one those unanswered questions. By the time I reached Harlan Street, (Death Drives a Red Ford Fairlane 9/7/14) I was doubled over like someone had gut punched me and was stumbling like a town drunk.

Walking into the house mom could immediately tell there was something wrong. Two clues was my bent posture and the fact that I cut a day at the pool short. Her first question was the always famous mother question, “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” That wasn’t fixing this.

I spent the rest of the evening on the couch then to bed later in the evening. The next morning, I wasn’t feeling any better so after laying around on the couch again, off to the doctor we went. We walked to the doctor office because dad was working and mom did not drive at that time.

After waiting our turn in the packed waiting room, which always smelled of a mixture of antiseptic and cigarette smoke, we were finally escorted back to one of the white washed exam rooms.

Sidebar: This was an age when you never made an appointment to see your family doctor. You just showed up and unless you walked in carrying one of your appendages or you weren’t breathing, you took your place in the waiting room. It was also a time when many people, over the age of eighteen, smoked. About the only place exempt from cigarette smoke was Sunday Mass. Even then you would get a whiff of smoke as someone pitched their last smoke before coming in or those that thought they were being clever and stepped out during the homily for a smoke.

Back to the story:

The doctor walked in, cigarette hanging from his lips dressed in a long white lab coat covering what was probably his hunting or fishing clothes. The doctor never addressed me by name, instead I was Tiger, a name I am sure he used for every boy that perched on his examining table.

He started poking around on my stomach. Again, “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Even at this age I was beginning to think this was every adults answer to health concerns.

“Does this hurt Tiger?” as he pressed on my belt line.

If I was an adult I probably would have responded, “Hell yes it hurts and you can stop anytime.” But I am sure with mom watching over me, my response was more like a nod and a grimace.

Taking a drag on his cigarette and fumbling with that contraption every doctor and nurse slings around their neck, “I think we better send you to the hospital, looks like appendicitis.”

“What??? I just ate too close to going swimming. I will never do that again. What do you mean hospital?”

I soon learned I didn’t have a say in the direction this was going.

Dad was called from work to run us up to the hospital. This was not a real inconvenience since the Post Office was across the street from the doctor’s office.

At this point I am hurting too much to really care and within a short period of time I am once again stretched out in the operating room counting backwards as they smother me with some mask. The same doctor that diagnosed the problem was the same one that cut the appendix out of me. That wouldn’t happen today.

I woke up with the same kicked in the gut pain I came in with. This was the tonsil lie all over again. I thought the surgery was to take the pain away, not add to it. I also gained a nice four inch belly scar that I have carried with me as a memento of the occasion. (Who needs tattoos, this is real battle scar.)

Now I am laying in a hospital bed. No air-conditioning. It is August when the humidity and temperature are often the same number. The annual 4-H Horseplay Days are in full swing. I am not only missing the rides, food, parades and rodeo, I am burning precious summer vacation days. Because of the lack of air-conditioning the windows are open and I can hear the rodeo callers at night and I can watch kids walking past the hospital with cotton candy, bags of popcorn and cheap carnival prizes. What did I do to the vacation gods?

I was in there for a week. Today, you are in and out in less than a day for the same operation.

So now we will add seven days to the total along with another seven for the days I was confined in the house before I could get the stiches out.

I’ll finish this off with one more example of wasting good vacation days with a malady that could have waited until September.

As a family, we never took vacations to exotic locations or areas of adventure. We had many day trips to the zoo, or hikes through the Barada Hills or maybe a picnic to a state park somewhere. It changed when the folks decided to visit relatives in Columbia, MO. This would be the farthest reaches of our vacationing experience. It was no ordinary day trip. This trip required planning and multiple overnight stays. We had hit the vacation big leagues.

Well, you can see it coming, about half way to Columbia I started to feel funny. Not car sick funny, just not right. Tightness in my neck, headache, and I am sure a few other indications I can’t recall at this time. I was not making anyone’s vacation pleasant at this point.

When we finally arrived at our Aunt and Uncle’s house in Columbia, the diagnosis among the mothers was that I had the mumps. One of the experienced mothers suggested I try the pickle test. According to legend, if you have the mumps, you won’t be able to tolerate the zing of a pickle.

Again, if I was an adult I am sure my reaction to the pickle test, once administered, would have been much different than that of my thirteen year old self. Let me say, it was a long time before I could eat a pickle again. Medical science proved beyond any doubt I had the mumps.

So, while the rest of the family toured beautiful Columbia, I stayed in the house, wrapped like a patient that just had teeth pulled, listening to boring stories from my uncle about his business, fishing trips and why he wanted to move from Columbia.

I did get a couple of good car models out of the deal which uncle and I put together to pass the time.

But, now I burned a vacation and missed out on yet another opportunity to legally and without argument, skip school.

When I graduated from high school, one last cruel joke was played on me by the forces that govern our lives. I was awarded the perfect attendance certificate for never missing a day of school. I am not proud of that honor and I think that someday, when the time is right, I will make them take it back in return for the twenty plus days they really owe me.

Oh well, school days, mumps, measles and chicken pox are all just part of growing up.

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