Whatever illness I suffered as a small child would always grind my life to a halt as I endured the agony of whatever the ailment was. Nausea was claustrophobically ghastly and while my stomach swirled I couldn’t imagine any fate worse than what I was experiencing at that moment. A headache would lock my brain in a shell of brittle torment and toothache would do the same to my mouth. Each of these afflictions took over my soul and stopped my life for however long it lasted.
Self inflicted wounds like scabs on my knees, though a constant reality throughout my childhood, were not as bad as actual illness. In our early years at 10 Seymour, when any of my siblings or I became unwell, my mother Beth was the perfect nurse, getting us tucked up in bed, taking our temperature with a thermometer and, if it was necessary, calling on the doctor to pay a visit.
I don’t remember ever disliking a single one of our visiting doctors. They were always friendly men who arrived wearing a smart sports jacket over a crisp white shirt with a coloured silk tie and carrying one of those magical looking leather bags which opened outwards on both sides from the top and appeared to have an entire pharmacy within. Beautiful clean little packets of pills, syringes, and tiny vials, all stored in neat hermetically sealed compartments. It looked like everything the doctor would ever need was in that magic bag. I didn’t like having injections but I never suffered from a fear of doctors and if a shot was necessary I simply braced myself and looked the other way.
One of the first injections I remember having was the polio shot which was the breakthrough serum developed by Dr Jonas Salk. It was quite a big deal as there was a serious polio epidemic at that time and when the Salk vaccine was determined to be effective it was decided to give it to first and second graders. I was in the second grade and my brother Jim was in first.
The most exciting thing about it was the fact that we got to leave our classroom at Homestead and travel over to Strawberry School. Any excuse to leave school was always exciting. It happened early in June, 1955 and my teacher was Mrs Dempster. We were all herded onto a yellow school bus in the morning along with my brother’s class. This may have been the very first time I ever went on a field trip, as we called them, and it was exhilarating to be leaving the classroom and going somewhere different. I didn’t enjoy going to school much. Mrs Dempster was a scary woman with a habit of administering corporal punishment to a regular selection of students whose parents had ticked the box which gave her permission to spank their children.
So getting out of that torture chamber, even just for a morning, was a wonderful treat. We knew we were going to have an injection but that was still a bus ride away which, to a seven year old, was kind of like saying it wasn’t going to happen at all. The ride to Strawberry School on the other side of Highway 101 was a great novelty and our mood was upbeat. The sun was shining and all was well. Once we got to Strawberry we simply stood in a line to get our shot from a nurse in a white uniform. When the moment arrived I simply grimaced and looked away. Before I had time to think, it was over.
But the reality of what was happening was impressed upon us and we all knew that being inoculated was important. The worldwide polio epidemic was very serious indeed. Two of the Hallinan boys, Butch and Tuffy had both been struck down by polio and Danny also suffered a milder attack not long before we were all vaccinated. So even though I was very excited about riding the school bus over to Strawberry, I was aware of the significance of Dr Salk’s breakthrough serum.
But other conditions plagued me while at school like my eyesight. I didn’t get glasses until I was in the third grade which meant that much of my early years at school were spent sitting in the front row squinting at the blackboard for I was very short sighted and could barely make out what was written. I think that my headaches, which were frequent, came about because of this eye strain. The healthcare plan we had was patchy as my father Blackie didn’t begin working as a ship’s clerk on the San Francisco waterfront until later in the 1950s. I think we must have been sponsored for Permanente health care by someone else in the Longshore Union because all four of us did make visits to Kaiser Hospital in the city and that is definitely where I had my eyes tested for my first pair of spectacles. I didn’t like wearing them but had to concede that I could now see what was written on the blackboard. They also improved my enjoyment of movies at the Sequoia.
They were horn rimmed glasses and I didn’t like the look of them. They went back in my shirt pocket when I wasn’t gazing at the blackboard or watching a movie. I believe this on-again-off-again business contributed to my headaches. My three best friends, Glen Pritzker, Alex Robertson and Billie Bowen all lived up above Tam High either on or near Morning Sun and one day I went home after school with Alex where we played games and read comic books. When I left his house to walk home I already had a headache. It was a hot afternoon and the bright sunshine made it worse. From Alex’s house I had to first walk down into Homestead Valley and by the time I hit ground level at Reed Boulevard my head was throbbing much worse than usual. I turned up Ethel to Montford and then began the climb up the big hill on Molino, a task I always found daunting but on this occasion it was doubly awful as my head pulsated with waves of hurt which became worse the closer I got to home. By the time I finally arrived at 10 Seymour I was walking so slowly as each footstep exacerbated the now very severe pain. When I entered our house my mother could see that I was not well and before long I was tucked up in the double bed in my parents’ room. It was still light outside as I lay there in a state of such severe agony that the slightest sound would reverberate through the inside of my skull and I could hear every tiny noise being made in the house. My sisters chattering with my mother down in the kitchen, cars driving past on Molino which was many yards away from our house.
When I woke up the next morning I was in my own bed and the pain was gone. I’m pretty certain that what I experienced was a migraine and, though I was to carry on having headaches up through my early twenties I never had one that bad again.
The injuries which caused me to have scabs on my knees seemed to be a constant reality throughout my childhood. One scab in particular was the worst because it existed on my upper lip just under my nose and seemed to take forever to dry up and fall off. I was cycling to Alto School one morning during the sixth grade and, as brother Jim and I never rode our bikes down the big hill on Molino, I pedalled my bike down Janes Street instead with its twists, turns and hairpin bends. The street joined Montford at the end and at this time on this stretch there was a long straight wound in the road surface. I was going at quite a clip and, not noticing this gash in the road, cycled right into it. My wheels were immediately trapped inside this long slit and as it tapered off to nothing it stopped my front wheel dead and I flew over the handlebars head first onto the pavement. Ouch! The shock, pain and embarrassment of this incident was severe and the rest of my ride to school was a bit sombre. I don’t remember any blood on my upper lip but it was painful and moist. By the next day however I had a scab which started off the colour of my flesh but after a few days became dark and looked like a Hitler moustache. It’s my recollection that it stayed on my upper lip for at least a month which was a long time for a twelve year old boy.
Because I spent so much of my youth playing out on the Pixie Trail I became aware of certain effects the weather would have on my body. Coming out of the sun on a very hot day into the shade of our house would cause an immediate burst of perspiration on my forehead. Little individual bubbles of sweat would appear at the same time and I would rush to the bathroom mirror to observe them up close as I made dramatic expressions with my face. This would put me in mind of films I had seen at the Sequoia like King Solomon’s Mines. I would stare at myself for the longest time not interfering with the beads of sweat until they gradually grew so large that they burst and ran down my face like tears.
One time I was out on the Pixie Trail with my friend Johnny Lem. There was a high road and a low road and I was down below while John was up above. We were unable to see one another though we could hear each other’s voice clearly. He must have thrown a rock which, amazingly, hit me square on the top of my head. It hurt and I complained loudly and his apology was immediate. However I didn’t think a great deal of it until I became aware of liquid running down my nose and dripping off its tip. It was blood. I was bleeding from the top of my head. The pain of the rock had gone so I began walking briskly home. I knew that at this time my mother would be washing dishes at the kitchen sink which overlooked our front porch. I began to rehearse my performance. I was fairly confident that I was really okay but this was too good an opportunity to act the part of a seriously wounded man. I began to limp as I staggered up the hill towards Seymour Avenue. The blood was now all over my face and continued to drop in dusty splats onto the dirt pathway. As I approached the wooden turnstile on our road I extended my arm as if I needed to grasp onto it like someone who was dying. I was playing this one for all it was worth. I staggered through the stile along our road and turned down our steps towards the front porch where, as I suspected, my mother’s jolly face was visible in the window. Poor Beth never stood a chance. The sight of her little boy covered in blood and limping weakly gave her such a shock. But Beth was a trained nurse and immediately put my head under the tap and within moments the bleeding had stopped, bringing my performance to an end.
However the agonies of illness were no fun at all. The only good part was being able to stay home from school and listen to the Art Linkletter Show on the radio. When I was home sick, Beth would usually make a trip into town and buy me a comic book but regardless of how detailed a description of the comic book I gave her she always got me the wrong one. So my pedantry gave me as much agony as my ailments in a childhood beset with minor traumas. That having been said I never ever wanted to be in another family. The Myers household was definitely where I belonged.
2 thoughts on “The Agonies of Childhood”
As always, a really enjoyable, lively and spirited read…and, again, as always, so evocative of childhood…be it The Bay Area of California, or, in my case the outskirts of Blackpool, Lancashire. Thanks…
As usual, a very enjoyable read. Fun for me because I knew all the people you mentioned and all the places you also talked about. Similar stuff happened to me as well and I accidentally inflicted pain on my friends. Like the time I snapped a low hanging tree branch into Johnny Lem’s face when he was chasing me for whatever reason. This swinging tree branch hit him right below his nose and upper lip. Lots of blood and a trip to get stitches. It left a scar in the shape of a tiny rocket 🚀 ship.