I recently happened across one of those “Who Remembers?” websites that feature relics from yesteryear: barber poles, paper dolls, typewriter erasers, flashcubes, and the like. The page from the website that caught my attention showed photos of a jar of Vicks VapoRub, a can of ginger ale, some chicken noodle soup, a box of saltines, a sofa, and a scene from The Price is Right. The whole thing carried the title of “What being sick looked like as a kid in the 80’s.”
Not to be outdone in the nostalgia category by some whippersnapper of a Millennial, I immediately boomerized the page by creating my own postdated list of “What being sick looked like as a kid in the 50’s.” So there!
Before I reveal my list, I will define a few Scott Family parameters. It must be understood that we grew up with a father who suggested Bag Balm as the panacea for much of what ailed us during our River Road years. The fact that the dented green tin of salve was stored in the barn, compounded with the uncertainty of just when my dad had last applied a liberal layer to some cow’s udder often effected an unbelievably quick healing.
Counterbalancing my father’s earthy, home remedy was my specific, probing, by-the-book mother. Six turns in the maternity ward over a period of twenty years had precluded her goal of becoming a registered nurse. Although her nurse’s training at the Springfield Hospital was shortened by a year, she was well-prepared to nurse the lot of us through years of the flu, as well as all the childhood communicable diseases and any number of injuries ranging from momentary boo-boos to emergency-room-worthy traumas.
It is not surprising, then, that the first item on my list would be a thermometer. When any child – usually while standing next to our sleeping mother in the middle of the night – plaintively complained, “Mommy, I don’t feel good,” her first questions were quite professional: “Where does it hurt?” and “Is it a sharp pain or a dull ache?”
And then it was thermometer time. She wiped down the slender instrument with alcohol before thrusting it under the ailing tongue with brisk orders to hold it there. Oh, what any of us would have given for today’s gadgets that record temperatures by means of one swipe across the forehead. By the way, Mother’s standard rule: a lack of fever sent us to school – no if’s, and’s, or but’s.
In the event of a legitimate bout of some “epizoodic,” we usually retired to the living room couch or sometimes to our parent’s bed; our upstairs bedrooms were not heated. Sustenance during the course of the illness, be it a bad cold or the latest flu going around, was liquid to settle stomach queasiness and toast to maintain our strength.
During my preschool years, Mother plied me with hot tea. Unfortunately, I have never particularly cared for tea of any temperature or flavor. Imagine my flu-weakened excitement when a new, young doctor suggested 7-Up for such situations. Pop! Yes, pop! Carbonated beverages of any brand were a rarity in our house; so 7-Up, with a straw, no less, was a truly remarkable health development.
Normal breakfast toast was a slice of Wonder Bread covered with butter. But Mother cut illness toast from corner to corner. The very presence of diagonal toast on a saucer was almost enough to kickstart the healing process. To this day, when a restaurant omelet arrives with a side of diagonal toast, my mind slides right back to childhood.
Most of my elementary school absences stemmed from struggles with asthmatic bronchitis. For years, I had to let the condition run its course through my system. Mother, however, believed that her special treatment would alleviate my labored breathing and shorten my recuperation time.
She slathered my chest with a generous coating of the pungent Vicks VapoRub, a staple in our bathroom medicine cabinet. She then covered the goopy area with a clean cloth diaper and proceeded to apply heat with a hot iron. Mother swore by the technique, but I was really glad that the doctor began to prescribe sulfa drugs when I was in the fifth grade.
Somehow poor Mother shepherded an entire brood of stairstep daughters through chicken pox, measles, and mumps. It was always a siege as these childhood diseases worked their way through the family. She even survived four of us suffering from scarlatina at the same time – all over the living room.
There was one more very important object, ever present during our childhood sick days: the white enamel wash pan. The moment any of us indicated even the slightest level of upset stomach, the wash pan was positioned on a chair next to wherever we were reclining.
With sincere apologies to readers perusing this article over breakfast, I must mention that we never used the word “vomit” during our years as kids. Back then, we regularly threw up – with occasional upchucking. And that is why the wash pan was always nearby.
So, my dear Millennials, savor your cherished memories of slurping chicken noodle soup and downing soda crackers as you watched The Price Is Right from the sofa. I prefer to wax nostalgic about thermometers, Vicks VapoRub, diagonal toast washed down with 7-Up…and yes, even the white enamel wash pan.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.