August 2023, Literary

If It Tastes Bad, It Must Be Good For You

By Seán Malone and John Sweetman

As kids, we attended schools that were a quagmire of communicable diseases, where various ailments were freely communicated, just like today.   

Pink eye … ringworm … head lice … measles, and so on, including various rashes, itches, and the common issues of sniveling, coughs, and sometimes more serious issues of croup and whooping cough.

Our second grade teacher, Mrs. Vanhouse, told us that hankies were a source of disease, and that washing did not remove the danger of our spreading sickness. We should not use hankies, but only scraps of cloth that would be thrown away after use. I remember that Bobby Billings and Mike Kennedy both followed her advice and came to school with rags in their back pockets.

Hand-washing was strictly mandated by our teachers, who had us wash our hands with Twenty-Mule Team borax, a white powder dispensed from metal containers above the sinks. It felt like washing our hands with sand.

We were at the mercy of treatment by a variety of family members who frequently prescribed “medicine” of mysterious components that always tasted awful. Cod liver oil was horrible, as was some black cherry concoction made with Angostura bitters from Swedish neighbors: “A spoonful of sugar did NOT make the medicine go down, thank you very much Mary Poppins.” Getting a cough always resulted in some preemptive dose of some ugly spoonful administered by one’s tyrant mother or grandmother. Surgical procedures such as removing splinters were the responsibility of a dad or grandfather.

Before we were administered a spoonful of any ugly, foul-tasting cure, the advice was “it will be good for your gizzard.” Some of this “medicine” may have been efficacious, but even as kids we knew what gizzards were. We knew we didn’t have them, and furthermore we hated them. They were the tough-gnarly things that, if we found them in chicken stew, were secretly passed to a dog under the table.

There was kind of a reverse Zen karma thing to this idea of “if it was horrible tasting, it must certainly be good for you.” Much later on in life, we still ponder this paradox as we enjoy stinky pickled herring, varieties of pâté, and worst off, the dreaded Marmite. We can only enjoy these away from the women, and outside, with an occasional ceremonial cigar. 

It also turns out that too much of a good thing can result in a bad thing! That took a longer time to realize because we simply enjoyed the good things. Too much of a good thing caused red bumps to appear, usually around the tummy. The confusion between “hives” and “flea” bites has been a source of contention as long as there have been little green apples … and strawberries and cherries. 

Seán was visiting with the Bruners, an elderly couple who raised chickens down by the Cove store. Mr. Bruner had an old black van that he would fill with eggs and produce for the ferry ride to the Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Finding a good summer job was hard for a 12-year old, so when Mrs. Bruner asked Seán if he wanted to pick cherries, he readily agreed. Bruner’s Bing cherries were so big and sweet, Seán began eating them by the handful. After a couple of hours, Mrs. Bruner came down to the orchard to see how he was doing. He had eaten so many cherries, his bucket was only half-full, and she fired him.

Seán woke up the next morning with little red bites all over his chest and stomach. At first, he thought that they were flea bites, which we were prone to pick up from our dogs or cats. But that wasn’t the case. He had the “hives.” Mom consulted her medical book and found that Seán was allergic to cherries. She handed him the bottle of Calamine lotion and told him to rub it all over his itching bites, and to repeat the treatment in a couple of hours.

Seán writes: Fast forward to 2023 and my little log cabin on Indian Point and the two pounds of black cherries that I had picked up at Thriftway.

My little dog, Duffy, picks up the occasional flea and I give him a pill to discourage them. They don’t like Duffy anymore; so, when he comes to bed, the fleas jump off Duffy and onto me. I wake up in the morning with two or three bites, and fold back the covers to spray the bed with insect spray, which cures the problem.

In a moment of Déjà vu, I remembered my picking experience 71 years ago in the Bruner’s orchard. I realized that the red bumps were an allergy, not the fleas. It turns out that Duffy doesn’t like cherries, so if he gets red bumps, it’s got to be fleas.

August 7, 2023

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