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Grand Prize -- creative writing: 'The Old Road: Measles 1963'

  • Author: Cass Crandall
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published May 17, 2015

Grand Prize winner and first in Nonfiction Open to the Public category

"Charlie," I whispered, "we're getting shots at school tomorrow. All of us kids are getting one, even you. And it's going to hurt!" We had been playing "cowboys" in the closet of my newly finished bedroom with its double bed, "for when guests come," lavender-checked bedspread, matching curtains and freshly painted walls. My little black-haired troll, Cowboy, wore a hat, vest, red kerchief and six-shooters. Charlie's troll was larger and wore nothing but a blue kerchief around its neck. He had called the white-haired, pink-eyed troll "Whitey" during the shoot-out.

"Not me," Charlie drawled. "Me and Whitey are gonna take our guns and head fer the hills. We'll blast anyone who comes fer us."

"You can't take Whitey anywhere!" I yelled. "He's mine. And besides, his name's not really Whitey, you dope." Remembering the vaccinations scheduled for the following day had all at once caused me to lose interest in our make-believe game.

In the fall of 1963 we lived on the homestead in Anchor Point, 3 miles out the newly graveled North Fork road. Our one-room log cabin, where we'd lived for the past five years, now had a two-story addition with two big bedrooms upstairs and a bathroom, kitchen, dining room and smaller bedroom downstairs. Dad was putting in the finishing touches, a large rock fireplace and oak floors for the cabin, which was to be our new living room. But he'd recently gone to Anchorage to work for a few months, as he frequently had to when salmon season was poor.

The public health nurse in our area, Mrs. Bergland, was giving vaccinations at Anchor Point Elementary the following day. Mr. Green, our school principal, had announced her visit on the intercom that afternoon, and it hadn't left my mind for more than a minute since. Playing "cowboys" with Charlie had only been a temporary distraction.

In the late 1950s and early '60s, hundreds of thousands of children were contracting measles every year. Nearly twice as many died from measles as polio. After exhaustive research and several mistrials, the first measles vaccine had finally been licensed for use in early 1963. Public health officials across the United States, including Alaska, were racing to administer the vaccinations in an effort to curb the virulent disease. I knew the shots were important, but the thought of sharp, glistening needles horrified me. At the time I would rather have suffered through the terrible rash and taken my chances on living or dying.

"Don't call your brother a dope, Sis," my mother said, exhaling a puff of cigarette smoke through red lips as she stepped into the room. "Come set the table for dinner." She gazed around, admiring her handiwork. In addition to painting and outfitting the room with lavender bedspread and curtains ordered from the Sears-Roebuck catalog, she'd recently refinished a white upright piano. The piano and bed took up most of the space in the small bedroom, which is why Charlie and I were playing in the closet.

"Charlie's getting a shot at school tomorrow, Lance, same as us," I said, later during dinner. I peeked at my little brother through my bangs as I shoveled mashed potatoes over the peas on my plate to hide them. Mom let us dump mashed potatoes sometimes but never the peas.

"I am not," Charlie said. "Mom says I'm just getting medicine… for croup!"

Charlie had had croup a number of times and often kept us up at night with his barking cough. It seemed he was always under a plastic tent with the humidifier running. One time he had had to be taken to the hospital in Anchorage and was there for nearly a week inside a tent with an oxygen bottle hooked to it. When Dad, Lance and I visited, he was tiny in the white hospital bed but grinned as he labored to breathe. Just now, though, the little rat was watching me.

"Mommy, do we have to eat these peas?" he asked. "Cass just buried hers under the mashed potatoes." Charlie always called our mother "mommy" when he wanted to butter her up.

"I was gonna eat 'em," I said, kicking at Charlie under the table.

"You haven't had croup for months," Lance scoffed. "This is for measles, dummy. They use a gigantic needle and they hold you down... like this," he reached across Charlie's chest with one arm and pinned him to his chair. "And then they stab you…. like this!" he punched Charlie in his skinny little bicep.

"Owww!" Charlie yelled. Lance and I snickered.

"Stop that, all of you!" Our mother got up from the table, lighting a Pall Mall from the pack she kept within reach. "I'm making a list for when your father gets home, and it's getting longer by the minute!"

"When's Dad getting home?" I whined, hurrying to get up and scrape my plate before Mom noticed the peas. "I miss him."

"I do too!" Charlie shouted. "Don't you, Lance?"

Lance, however, had drifted off to the living room and buried his nose in a model airplane magazine.

A hard pinch

The next afternoon, following lunch recess, the first and second grades went first. We third and fourth graders occasionally heard shrieks or crying in the direction of the front office where Mrs. Berglund's table was set up. The pungent odor of rubbing alcohol permeated the school building and made it hard to concentrate on lessons. Mrs. Steelman had given up teaching us anything and had gotten out colored paper, scissors, and jars of white glue for us to work on while she read aloud from "Little House on the Prairie." Reading aloud was our favorite activity and normally reserved for after last recess, but today, Mrs. Steelman thought it might help soothe our jangled nerves.

"You know that stuff is made out of horses, don't you?" Billy Thurmond whispered, leaning across the aisle. I was taking a big whiff from the open glue jar. The smell of school glue was delicious, almost candy-like, as captivating as the smell of freshly mimeographed paper. "They put the horses in a big pot of boiling water and boil them down, even their hooves and eyeballs, and pretty soon you have glue!" Billy turned away and hunched over his own desk, his mission accomplished.

"Nu-uhh!" I thumped the glue jar down. On my desk was a patchwork of black, brown and yellow paper glued in the form of what could be construed as a horse, if looked at from far enough away.

In 1963, the still new Anchor Point school building contained four classrooms of children, housing first through eighth grades, two grades to a room. Billy and I were both in third grade. He sat in the row next to mine, while Angie Olsen sat at the desk in front of me. Angie and I were often together since in addition to being friends, her last name began with an O, while mine began with a P. Mrs. Steelman organized her classes according to alphabet for rapid nose counts when we lined up for trips to the washroom, recess, occasional fire drills and for buses at the end of the day. Since Billy's name began with a T, he was always close enough to pester us and was constantly getting into trouble. It was rumored he had a crush on me.

"Mind your own work, Billy," said Mrs. Steelman, glancing up to survey the room. Just then, we heard a quiet knock. Everyone froze as the school secretary put her head in the doorway.

"Your turn, Mrs. Steelman!" she called, and closed the door. All eyes turned to our teacher.

The hair on the back of my neck prickled and goose bumps rose on my arms. In later years I would come to know this as the pilomotor reflex, when tiny muscles contract, causing the hair to stand straight up. It's the body's reaction to cold or fear and a symptom of the "flight or fight" response. At that moment I wanted to flee -- from the room, from the school, from the very town itself.

"Okay, line up in front of the door!" Mrs. Steelman called briskly, rising from her chair. We slowly rose to our feet and trudged to our places in line, the boys jostling each other and pushing a little, the girls giggling nervously.

Angie and I took our places, she behind Mary Ann Hanson and me in front of Suzanne Rozak. "I saw Stinky in the bathroom. She said it didn't hurt a bit!" Angie told us. Stinky was Angie's little sister. One can only guess why the poor girl's family had nick-named her Stinky in the first place, or why they continued to call her that after she entered school, but try as she might to be called by her real name, Carol, everyone still called her Stinky. "She didn't cry or anything," Angie went on. "She said it felt like this." She pinched my arm, hard.

"Oh, yeah, that's not bad," I said, even though the pinch had hurt and made my eyes water. I rubbed my arm and took a deep breath.

"Okay, class," sang Mrs. Steelman. "Let's go!"

Our two lines, third graders in one, fourth graders in the other, marched funereally down the hall behind our tall, erect teacher, the sharp smell of alcohol growing stronger as we neared the office. Arriving, our lines became ragged as we drifted close to the table in fascinated dread, like wildebeests bunching together on the bank of a crocodile invested river. Mrs. Berglund was ready for us. She had cotton balls, vials of vaccines, a large, clear bottle of rubbing alcohol, boxes of syringes and hypodermic needles laid out in neat order on the table in front of her. The school secretary sat frowning beside her with a clipboard, taking names.

My friend Norma Booth was one of the first to go. She and I played tetherball almost every recess. Often the skin of our hands would become so roughened and dry, our fingertips would crack and bleed, so one of the side aspects of our game was to see who could get the most blood on the ball. Norma was champ. She could bleed from nearly every finger and still play, getting little splotches of blood all over until the white ball took on a polka-dot pattern. Norma flopped down on the chair as though this was something she did every day, and looked completely unconcerned when the nurse swabbed her arm, bare below the puffed sleeve of her dress. "This will pinch a little," Mrs. Berglund said.

We leaned in closer and held our breaths, but Norma barely flinched as the needle slid into the soft white flesh. When it was over she hopped up. "That didn't hurt," she said. She grinned a broken-toothed grin and sauntered off back to the classroom.

Some kids chose to look at the needle as it plunged into their arms, others looked away. The boys thought looking away was for sissies and jokingly kept score on which of them did or did not look. The girls debated the merits of each as the line pushed me ever closer to the table with its terrible, fearsome instruments. I felt an urgent need to use the restroom and wondered if I was going to pee my pants right there in public, as I had once done when I was 5 years old.

But then, too soon and not soon enough, it was my turn. I sat down on the little chair beside the table, rolled up my sleeve with trembling fingers, and felt the shocking cold of the alcohol. I took a deep breath and looked away, feeling a small pinch as the needle pricked my arm. Then, anticlimactically, the ordeal was over. Tears of relief welled up and I hastily blinked them away.

Before we knew it, it was time to go home. Boys and girls began pulling on coats and hats, getting lunch boxes and homework out of desks, and lining up for buses. Some of the boys were half-heartedly punching each other in their "shot arms" to make each other yell, but most of us felt rather subdued, grateful the difficult day was nearly over. And besides, we knew Mrs. Berglund was still there at the end of the hall, waiting for our younger siblings to be brought from home by parents. The alcohol smell still permeated the building and walking past her table brought unpleasant associations, especially for those who'd broken down and cried.

Lines of children were filing out of classrooms and into the hallway when towheaded Charlie strode in the door farthest from the office, holding Mom's hand. He wore red flannel-lined denim overalls tucked haphazardly into black rubber boots. His grey and black cardigan sweater hung open and his boots were on the wrong feet. He skipped along like a black-footed duck. Recognizing me in the crowd, he grinned hugely. "Hi, Cass!" he yelled. "I'm coming to school to get medicine!"

"Hi, Charlie." I waved half-heartedly, embarrassed that Mom had let him out of the house with his boots on wrong.

As he got closer to the office, Charlie slowed and tugged back against Mom's hand. She got a firmer grip. I knew he was beginning to smell the antiseptic aroma of alcohol and felt sorry for him as his head rotated this way and that, looking for the source of the smell, or an escape route. A soft, moaning, nooo… no… oh nooo… escaped from my brother's open mouth. The noise grew louder, until it filled the air and raised goose bumps on my arms and the back of my neck for the second time that day. Soon, everyone could hear it. All activity ceased while the school kids watched the little boy being drug down the hallway by his mother.

Mr. Green, the school principal, heard the noise and dashed out of his office to see what was happening. He hurried over to help Mom, grabbing Charlie's other hand. I watched in helpless sympathy as he and Mom lifted, dragged and pulled my little brother down the hall to where nurse Berglund waited, her needle primed and ready.

Charlie's expression by that time reminded me of an unfortunate incident that had occurred a couple of weeks earlier when I had tied my three baby goats to each other so that I could lead them all together. Not knowing any better, I had tied slipknots. Soon, every move they made pulled the rope tighter around their necks until their eyes began to bulge. After several panicky moments while the baby goats worked hard to throttle each other, and I worked feverishly to free them, I gave up and screamed for help. Lance came sauntering out of the house and cut the ropes with the knife he always carried since joining Boy Scouts the year before. He'd taken their motto "be prepared" to heart, at least where knives were concerned.

Charlie's hazel eyes were wide and staring; snot and spittle flew and his small face was turning purple. His arms were held fast by Mom and Mr. Green, but his legs thrashed, kicked and bucked. A continuous, pathetic bleating noise came from his mouth.

Just then, Charlie seemed to give up. His body slumped, head lolled, and he allowed himself to be drug down the hallway. Mr. Green shifted his hand to get a better grip and Charlie came alive. He tore free and took off, running as fast as any rabbit pursued by a coyote. A cheer rang out from the crowd of school kids.

"Go, Charlie, go!" we yelled. Only a short time earlier we had all wanted to do what Charlie was doing… run like crazy! But instead, we had filed quietly along as meekly as sheep, some blubbering before the shot and some after, but all of us feeling violated and helpless. By that time in our short lives we had already been thoroughly indoctrinated to line up and take the medicine life handed out, to march in step fulfilling our obligations and destinies. Charlie was rebelling and we cheered him on.

Down the hall, Charlie ran straight past the gaping mouths of Mrs. Berglund and the school secretary, and out through the double doors. Precious seconds passed as Mom and Mr. Green looked at each other accusingly and then they were out the door and after him. Just outside, they split up, Mom going around the short side of the school to the left; Mr. Green taking the long side to the right.

The crowd of school kids stampeded out the door as well, homes and school buses forgotten, lunch buckets strewn the length of the hall. We poured out of the school in a stream; seventh and eighth graders shoving the rest of us back so they could be first out. We spotted Mom, speed walking past the playground equipment and turned to look the other way. "There he is!" someone shouted. Sure enough, there was Charlie, running for his life, tripping now and then in the black rubber boots that were on the wrong feet and a little too big. Mr. Green was jogging a little ways back and put on a burst of speed as he rounded the corner towards us. The crowd of kids parted to let Charlie through, but none of us had the courage to close ranks again, so Mr. Green came on, closing the gap between himself and the now tiring Charlie. But Mr. Green was winded too. We could hear his breath coming in gasps as he jogged through our midst, red-faced and grinning a little self-consciously.

Charlie might have made it to freedom; at least we wanted to think so, but wily Mom proved his undoing. A chain smoker, she had slowed to a walk almost at once and doubled back, hiding around the corner of the building. As Charlie rounded the corner, she reached out and grabbed him, swinging him high into the air. "Gotcha!" she yelled, as his black rubber boots came flying off. Mr. Green sat down right there in the schoolyard to pant. The crowd of kids groaned and went to pick up their discarded items and get on the buses. Charlie buried his head against Mom's shoulder, defeated.

When Mom turned him over to Mrs. Berglund, Charlie was quietly hiccuping and sniffing but not crying any longer. Mom had found his boots and put them on the correct feet. He allowed himself to be positioned on the chair, his sweater removed and his sleeve rolled up. Mrs. Berglund swabbed his arm and picked up the hypodermic. Charlie lifted teary eyes and looked at the needle as it sank into his skin. He didn't quiver.

Time to go

Later that night I found Charlie rooting around in my closet. I noticed one of Dad's backpacks bulging suspiciously on the floor beside him.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Nothing," he muttered.

I spied Whitey in his hand and snatched the troll away. "Are you going somewhere?"

"I'm gonna go find Dad. I hate Anchor Point and I hate Mom," he whispered.

On any other day I would have jumped to my feet and ran off down the hall yelling for Mom. Charlie had scared us a number of times when we hadn't taken his threats to run away seriously enough.

"You know Anchorage is a long ways away, right?"

"I know." He heaved a sigh, as if the whole world rested on his thin shoulders.

"You almost made it today." I grinned at him. "Did you hear the cheering? If Mom hadn't doubled back you'd be halfway to Anchorage by now."

"Yeah," he smiled a little.

I handed Whitey to him. "Here, you can have him if you want. But you'd better stay home so we can play 'cowboys' some more. Dad'll be home before we know it."

"Okay," he said. He picked up the backpack and spilled the contents out on the floor. A half loaf of bread tumbled out, followed by a can of B & M baked beans, a spoon and a six-shooter cap gun.

"You forgot a can-opener," I told him.

Within the next few months, we would receive jabs more painful than any Mrs. Berglund could give. My baby goats disappeared one day while I was at school, only to reappear on our supper plates later during the winter. In November, Mr. Green used the school's intercom to call our teacher to the office. When she returned a few moments later, she cried as she told us the President of the United States had been shot. Why would anyone want to shoot the president, we wondered? And why would Mrs. Steelman cry for someone she'd never met? The following March, we felt the earth's own version of a roller coaster ride and later heard that much of Anchorage had crumbled into the sea. Thankfully, Dad had come home by then. Earthquake drills were added to our schedules, but instead of lining up and filing outside as we had learned to do to escape fire, we reviewed the "duck and cover" procedure. We climbed under our desks just as we did to protect ourselves from atomic bomb blasts, in case the building should fall on our heads.

Over the many years since, a number of my classmates have succumbed to diseases or accidents. Cancer, car crashes, heart attacks, alcoholism and drugs have taken a toll on our small group, but none of us have died from measles.

Cass Crandall of Homer won the Nonfiction Open to the Public category and the grand prize in the Creative Writing Contest.