Monday, September 10, 2012
My Mother warned, "Jimmy, don’t jump on the bed! If you fall, you’ll split your head open!"
Turned out she was right. I went off-balance, fell forward, and split my head open when it slammed into the edge of the headboard. I cried, there was blood, and My Dad drove me to the nearby Carney Hospital in Dorchester, where I received four or five stitches in my forehead. Later, after the stitches were removed, I found that I had gained a scar that would remain visible until much later in life when it blended into all of the other wrinkles on my forehead.
The thing is I hadn’t literally split my head open. My skull did not crack. My brains did not spill onto the floor. What had happened was that the skin on my forehead was cut; that’s all. Still, that was what folks called it then – splitting your head open.
It was the era of weird terminology concerning medical issues. Heads were split open with such frequency one would have thought our neighborhood was populated entirely with overripe melon-headed children. On the other end of the age spectrum, I had an elderly aunt who "took a shock". You might imagine she had inadvertently stuck her finger in a light bulb socket, but you would be wrong. She had suffered a stroke. And, of course, unwed teenage girls were never pregnant. They were said to have "gotten in trouble."
(Now they star in reality shows on MTV. The same can’t be said for the current crop of shock-takers and head-splitters, but there’s always an open spot on somebody’s network schedule, so all hope may not be lost for them.)
Those were the days, my friend; we thought they’d never end, for we were young and sure to catch something. And when we did, and were laid up in bed with it, most of the other mothers in the neighborhood sent their children to visit, maybe even to crawl into bed with you, in hopes that they might catch it, too. That way, they could get it over with and not have to worry about it anymore. Measles (Is there a more cruddily descriptive name for an illness?), chicken pox, the mumps, you name it; if one kid got it, everybody else tried to get it, too, never mind the discomfort, possible disfigurement, and, oh what the hell, death. It was like some sort of insane contest to see whether or not your child had what it took to survive. Also, in the words of many a chain-smoking father sitting by the bed in a sickroom and filling the air with clouds of cancer, it built character.
(Speaking of smoking, it stunted your growth. That was the dire warning we received if we were caught puffing a cigarette. Never mind that it rotted your lungs, blew up your heart, could lead to amputations due to poor circulation, and otherwise KILLED you. No, we were told to worry that we might be 6' 1" instead of 6' 3". They could have at least told us we might take a shock if we kept smoking.)
The cures for many of the ills we suffered were no better than the ridiculous names we gave them. If you split your head open, but not so much so that your parents felt the need to have it stitched back together, they were likely to apply Mercurochrome to the wound. Some of you may never have heard of Mercurochrome. That’s because the stuff has been outlawed for decades now. It was a bright red liquid containing mercury. Parents would swab this poison on their kids just as readily as they’d baste a turkey with butter. And the kids were damn glad, too, because the only other options were rubbing alcohol or iodine, both of which made it feel as though your mom had set fire to you. At least Mercurochrome didn’t sting much. It did tend to tattoo you, though. A wound painted with that stuff would invariably leave your skin red for weeks after the treatment, at least if you had bright white skin like I did.
And if you had bright white skin, you tended to sunburn, which was OK because some parents thought you’d get used to second-degree burns and be better off for it. A face full of big freckles was considered cute rather than an indication of the likelihood of skin cancer later in life. And if the sunburn hurt, your parents rubbed Noxzema on it. Noxzema, which I believe is still extant, was a MENTHOL-based cream. Yes, I’ve got to say that there was nothing quite so wonderful for the pain of burnt skin as rubbing menthol into it. Even better was when the coolness wore off, at which point you were left with a face and chest full of warm, drippy, greasy, white goop.
(And after a few days, your skin would peel off as though you were a rattlesnake during moulting season. There were those kids who tanned, and more power to their now-wrinkled and leathery faces. I may have had a scar on my forehead, freckles, permanently red-stained knees, and a stink of Noxzema, but at least my face doesn’t now resemble an old catcher's mitt.)
I shouldn’t be so vindictive. I had it better than a lot of kids. For instance, I know for a fact that every child in Korea was starving. My Mom told me. She said that they’d be happy to have my creamed corn. I told her that if they wanted it, why didn’t she pack it up in a box and send it to them? That very logical reply wasn’t what she expected. She laughed, bless her. Had she had less of a sense of humor, I might have been spanked (which is a subject for debate, these days, but was so accepted a practice during MY childhood that ANY parent in the neighborhood could tan a kid’s behind and not only would he or she not be arrested for it or sued, but your parents would usually thank the other grown up while apologizing for your less-than-sterling behavior. And, as a kid, you could expect another beating if you complained about it in any way.)
I may be giving you the impression that my parents were some sort of troglodytes. That wasn’t the case. My Mom and Dad were, for the times, unbelievably loving and enlightened. They never inflicted real pain on me (at least on purpose, as the Noxzema and rubbing alcohol and other things, despite the hurt, were meant to PREVENT pain in some way or another.) I knew some folks who really wailed on their kids. They took a belt in hand and left welts on them. It wasn’t questioned unless serious permanent dismemberment of some sort took place; for instance, if they split the kid’s head open.
Nowadays, kids wear helmets and pads and gloves and look like they’re ready to take the ice in the NHL as they ride down the street on their tricycles. And any parent who took a belt to a kid would be up on charges. We slather our kids with sunblock and cigarettes are unavailable to anyone without an I.D. proving that you’re old enough to be an idiot. Are we better off as a society? Probably. But those kids aren’t building any character, I can tell you that. How do you think they’re going to handle it someday when they take a shock? You can’t rub Noxzema on your brain, you know.
Soon, with more better stuff.