I am old enough to have been born before most modern vaccines were available. The only usual ones I got were for polio, a drink as I remember it, and small pox. I got a bunch of others, too, that were perhaps less usual, at least for kids growing up in southern Massachusetts during the fifties. I got vaccinated against cholera, yellow fever, and typhus.
I did not get a penicillin shot the time that Missy Blake’s sister came down with scarlet fever right after Missy’s birthday party. Mom felt there would be plenty of warning if that were really necessary, but, she said, she wanted the penicillin to work if it were every really necessary, that to get one just in case was frivolous. Apparently it was necessary when I had my tonsils out in second grade. I remember quite clearly fighting the nurses and screaming bloody murder as they tried to give me a shot in the butt.
A penicillin shot (three actually) was again necessary when I got measles. I’d caught those, in the usual way, from my younger sister. I was nearly twelve and she was five. We were living in Jordan (now the West Bank of Palestine) in a city called Al Bireh, right next to Ramallah where I went to school. After Christmas, we had packed up the Chevy station wagon we drove, a three-seater with the third seat facing backwards, along with Ken Shirk and his family, and headed out, across the desert, to Bagdad. We stayed in a hotel, hired a driver, and rode out to see different sights.
Gretchen started getting fractious (which I felt was a clear bid for attention) and by Sunday morning had started running a temperature. Mom and Dad headed out for the Embassy to see a doctor. The trip coincided with a military parade through the center of town, challenging the driver to find alternate routes there and back, and alarming my Mom with the potential for a coup. They made it there and back, with the tentative diagnosis of measles. The doctor couldn’t be sure, and wouldn’t confirm, or write a script. The word “quarantine” was whispered as we started to pack.
Back across the desert, we drove all night, with Mom wedged into the back seat with Gretchen moaning and occasionally puking. The moon was full, and I admired the stark scenery and wondered about life on other planets. I don’t suppose I was nearly as entertaining as I hoped. I certainly didn’t appreciate the problems associated with bringing a potentially diseased person across borders, but the party line was that she really just had a bad cold and we were returning home for her comfort.
But it was measles and Stephanie caught them, too, since she and Gretchen shared a room. They got gifts galore (at least that is how I remember it) from the faculty and the students. They ran fevers, they puked, and got better. Then I got sick, just as they were getting well enough to return to school.
It was my first experience with fever dreams when I actually knew what was happening. Images expanded and shrank alarmingly. Colors changed. Positives became negatives. Had I only known, it was trippy. As I got sicker, blankets went up over the French doors onto the balcony. My lamp was switched to a 15 watt bulb. I remember Dad sitting on my bed, hunched over the lamp, blocking the light as I turned toward the wall, and reading from Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and then Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. I know I was in no shape to pick out books, and I certainly couldn’t read myself, so they must have been his choices. I slept a lot and did not even struggle when I got the first penicillin shot. With two more in the next ten days, I was on the mend and eventually back at school.
Then came the chicken pox. This time I recognized the fever dreams as soon as they occurred. And just like with the measles, my sisters came down with them first, and reaped the present glory. This time, however, it was more a matter of keeping calamine lotion and goopy daubs of baking soda and oatmeal on the blisters. Constant reminders not to scratch nearly worked, and I was left with a small scar at the top of my nose which disappeared ages ago. I was in charge of my own reading and had free range of our library as long as no one might see me. I did read an abridged version of Lorna Doone, but also read O Ye Jigs and Juleps, Seventeenth Summer, Cheaper By the Dozen, and a whacky mystery whose title I can’t remember about a guy who witnessed a murder during a train wreck and encountered the murderer in the jungles of Brazil years later.
It was spring and Easter was nearly upon us. Dad was playing Joseph of Arimethea in the Easter Pageant held in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I was well enough, though somewhat scabby, to attend the play. I wore a sweater with long sleeves and a scarf pulled down over my forehead. I wonder if I might not have been mistaken for an acne spotted teen.
We returned to the States in August, and by early November I had come down with the mumps. Those, for me, were just like an extra sore throat. The tonsils had long since been removed, as had my adenoids, so there wasn’t much left to swell in my neck. The most memorable thing of this childhood illness, besides it being really at the end of my childhood, was a card from my grandfather who commented on my “fat little face being even fatter.” The irony was, that my face wasn’t really fat, and although my neck swelled a bit, I looked more like a weight lifter than a balloon.
Some might say I was lucky it wasn’t worse. Some might say I was unlucky to get the dreaded three so nearly into adolescence. I had been raised on stories of people who had gone through terrible illnesses as children to become hearty, nearly indestructible ancients and people who had lived charmed lives until one small illness as an adult and they were felled like a white pine by lightening. My grandmother talked about my grandfather who had been brought down in the prime of his youth. He was, it turned out, days before his seventieth birthday. To come from people who considered seventy youthful in the ‘40s, puts a perspective on disease. This same grandmother had buried a first husband and son in an epidemic over a century ago. She had fought off influenza, shingles, and blindness caused by poisoned dogwood. “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” she used to say. “The first hundred years are the hardest.”