“When the little red bumps appeared with a fever, Mom would segregate our dishes and silverware, so the rest of the family wouldn’t get the measles. If two of us came down with it, all three kids were stuck in the same room, to let the disease take its course. Mom made red bush tea with blackberry juice to help build our immunity. The itching was terrible and we weren’t allowed to scratch, while Mom took our temperature and told us we were lucky it was German measles and would only last for a few days. We rubbed calamine lotion on each other’s red rash to help relieve the itching and waited for the disease to pass with loud complaining at being locked up and unable to get out and play. If you got the deep pink lotion on your hands, it wouldn’t come off, you had to wash them.”
“Don’t come in here with muddy feet, go wash them off at the standpipe first,” Grandma Ada would admonish us not to track mud from the beach onto her oriental rugs. She was fastidious in all ways and very Danish about her housekeeping. When the lady at the beauty parlor wouldn’t cut Grandma’s hair because she had lice, Grandma was devastated and cried softly to herself all the way home.
All that I could see from bed, where I was stuck because I had had my tonsils out, was the garage and our little apple tree that only had one apple. I had a little American flag on a stick with a pointed top, painted gold and I was running on our hardwood floor with the top of the stick in my mouth, when I slipped on a corner and rammed the flagstick down my throat, irritating my tonsils, so I had to have them taken out. Day after day, gazing out the window, waiting to get better, watching my apple ripen. Mom came in with a cup of chicken noodle soup which she swore would help me to get better. She called it “penicillin soup,” and guaranteed results. After drinking the soup, I turned back to the window, just in time to see Kit Bradley grabbing my apple off the tree and running home with it. Mad as a wet hen, I yelled, but it was too late for herpicide.
I was running for the kitchen door to climb the hill to the school bus stop, when Mom stopped me. “Come here, I want to see your face,” she said as she tilted my face up to the light from the kitchen window. “What is that red around your mouth?” “It looks like impetigo.” And she sent me to the bathroom to get the gentian violet, a violent purple stuff and antiseptic dye which she applied to my mouth, making me look like a circus clown and no candidate for school as impetigo is highly contagious.
Walter’s folks had a chicken farm on the west side. They lived in a trailer that was so covered with blackberries; you could only see the doorway. Walter’s mom told him to take a bunch of chicken guts out and bury them. Instead, Walter threw the guts in the creek that ran through the place and so the story goes, caused the epidemic of yellow jaundice that raced through the wells on the west side of the island and we at Cove were right in line to catch it. Us kids knew it couldn’t kill you but it could cause brain damage and I had trouble enough getting good grades. Al Roen almost died from it and the yellow jaundice scare went on for months or even longer.
Sean’s experiences are pretty well typical of what all of us went through. There were a lot of scary afflictions going around that were deadly such as polio and whooping cough. Mumps, while rarely fatal had the added horror of ‘it will make you sterile’.
All of us at that age knew someone that had either had polio and was crippled or had died. Widespread panic about polio resulted in closed swimming pools and restricted summer camps. Many of these nasty things faded in the midcentury as effective vaccines were administered freely in schools before preventative medicine became a profit making system.
Some things were highly contagious but not fatal, but the treatments could be extreme. Four come to mind. Lice, impetigo, ‘pinkeye’ and the worst…’ringworm’.
Ringworm was a fungus that generally got one on the scalp. It was easily transmitted by stray cats that kids naturally picked up and adopted. Itchy places appeared on your scalp and hair started falling out. Quickly observed by alert mothers, the treatment was immediate and drastic. First hair washing with Fels naptha or worse, even.. homemade lye soap. Then a severe hair cut and close clipping of the affected areas leaving a collection of round bare scalp exposed. Then the worst came. Painting the areas with ‘gentian violet’ which usually came from the animal medicine section of the barn. The result was a spotty ugly scalp covered with purple stains that you had to wear like a badge of shame. Today it would not be so unusual as many have dyed their hair purple, but generally ALL of their hair, not just spots. You were advised when sent back to school never to loan or borrow another’s comb.
‘Pink eye’ was also highly transmissible although it was unclear to us exactly how it spread. The treatment was generally an eyewash of boric acid which while not painful, had to be done several times a day. We were strictly admonished, ‘don’t rub your eyes’ and don’t touch others. Sometimes half the school would come down with it.
Outbreaks of whooping cough would result in kids being kept out of school for a period if one family member got it. In those days kids did die of it.
As vaccines became standard our parents eagerly awaited the schedule at the schools because they had seen many children die or suffer from some diseases that are only faint memories today.
Every time I smell ‘Fels Naphtha’ soap or ‘Pine Sol’ it brings back those memories. I don’t think ‘Gentian Violet’ is available now, except at veterinary supply stores