THE FRAYED FLYSWATTER GANG
(A true child's story)
by Ben B. Boothe, Sr.
I was in crisis. Trapped in our house with nowhere else to go, with inevitable pain coming at me, monsters of pain, just inches away. I anticipated the pain, anticipated the burning fluid flowing into my veins, delivered at the hands of one who I trusted and loved.
When I was a child of 10, out on the cattle ranch in the Lincoln Mountains near Weed, New Mexico, the monsters - objects of horror - came to me from time to time. My monsters were different from the movie monsters. Frankenstein, Werewolves, the Hand, the Blob and the Creature from the Blue Lagoon, that were frightening. But they were tame compared to my “monsters.” Non of them made me run to hide, heart beating wildly, like the frayed flyswatter gang.
In the 1950's flyswatters were made of woven wire, like window screens. But with use they became worn, frayed at the edges, little wires broken. They could be painful if applied to a child's posterior as my mom was apt to do. Like a gunfighter of the old west, my mom was handy, quick and accurate with a flyswatter.I found that the frayed flyswatter always appeared with allies. My mother, often brought other painful tools. A spoon filled with medicine, a glass hypodermic syringe with a 4-inch needle filled with penicillin. That needle by the way was huge, as big as spaghetti. And not Angle Hair, it was big like the real spaghetti. The Doctor said: “That medicine is thick, and you need a big needle to work it in.” But the hot and stinky member of the gang of terror was the smoking turpentine rag.
The turpentine rag, smoked and singed was the one that empowered the frayed flyswatter and the rest of the gang of terror. I think that the glass hypodermic syringe with the 4-inch needle was in league with them. Those were a terror to a 10-year-old boy, often sick with asthma and struggling to survive the dust storms of West Texas or the Cedar pollen of New Mexico.
Out on the cattle ranch of Weed, New Mexico, or our family farms near Lamesa and O'Donnell, in West Texas, Doctor Pain was sometimes inaccessible. He loved to pay golf on work days, and sometimes we had to wait for hours in his office when we were sick for him to finish his last nine holes. As a child with chronic asthma, my “spells” started with itchy eyes, progressed to congestion, then wheezing, sometimes I simply could not catch my breath. Then there was the uncontrollable coughing, which occasionally progressed into pneumonia. My mother went to Doctor Pain one day and said: “We need some help, can you give us some medicine and a good hypodermic needle, so we can treat Ben when we are out on the ranch, or when you are out of the office!” I noticed that she didn't say, “When you are out playing golf.” Doctor Pain considered the advantage of this. He would not be interrupted while playing golf if we already had the medicine. I noticed a smile on his face as he handed mom the syringe. So after that our refrigerator at the ranch or the farm or our little frame house in Lamesa, we always had that big glass syringe and several bottles of penicillin with little rubber caps, to stick the huge needle through, to fill up the huge glass syringe which would soon impale me. There were no plastic arms to practice on. Mom learned to use a syringe on my rump.... it was always sore from the flyswatter anyway. My teachers constantly scolded me for wiggling around in my seat, they had no idea how sore I was. It had a lasting - and penetrating - impact and today I still have a hard time sitting still.
I was often sick. The first stage of wheezing and coughing typically brought on traditional treatment from my mother and grandmother before resorting to Doctor Pain's remedies. They had three West Texas cures. Turpentine, Vicks Salve, and Rubbing Alcohol.
They were used as follows. For a wheeze or congestion, the first strategic attack was initiated by grandmother and mom (who together to me seemed like cackling witches) they smeared stinky Vicks Salve all over my chest, and just for fun they would poke a glob into each nostril. It was gross. Then on the old-cast iron stove-top, (or atop a gas stove in later years), they would heat a “rag” saturated with turpentine until it was singed and smoking and the witches would slap that hot smoking singed rag on my Vicks- covered chest. It burned and stung and stank, but they made me endure the fumes until the rag cooled off and then they would saturate it and heat it again.
I'm telling you, the heat, the sight, the smell, was a treatment reminiscent of what I have read of ancient torture. The agony of it brought the seed of an idea ... a primitive response ... the urge to run and hide.
For you who are into “dimensional thinking,” I tell you, that when your Grandma puts a hot smoking burning rag on your chest, you have come to a new dimension of sensation. You feel a new reality. I was into quantum physics long before it was popular in America, because those turpentine fumes sent me aloft, far far away it seemed.
After the primitive phase of treatment, and when I thought I could endure no more, then mom and “Mamo” (as we called grandmother) would approach with the syringe, holding the little bottle of creamy looking penicillin up high, poke the needle through the rubber lid and suck it all through that spaghetti sized needle, into the glass syringe. She would tap it two times, and say: “To keep the bubbles from going to your heart and killing you.” She lacked a comforting bedside manner to my thinking. The idea of a bubble killing me wasn't very encouraging, and to this day I always wonder how a little hidden bubble didn't get me. Indeed even when I drink champagne, now 60 years later, I wonder about those bubbles. She didn't seem to realize that death by a bubble seemed pretty tame versus jabbing a needle as big as a water hose into my rump and squeezing the thick, stinging penicillin into my posterior.
It was the “smokin' turpintine rag” and the syringe that drove me to try to escape. Not panic, and not hopeless desperation, just a determination to escape and “change that reality.” Even though I fought the urge, not knowing what would happen if I ran, one day, I simply had to run, and I ran and dove into a hiding place under the bed. They chased me, my mom with that syringe, plunger pulled back and ready to fire in one hand, the old frayed flyswatter in the other. Her choice was clear. “Come out from under the bed or I will swat your bottom raw.” It seemed to me that I had two choices. A raw swatted bottom or a needle-punctured bottom that included bubbles that might kill me. Neither was acceptable. I preferred the cold hardwood floor under the bed. I scooted a little further back on that hardwood floor, with bed-springs tussling my hair. With mom swinging that swatter under the bed trying to make contact, I must have had a look of sheer horror, as I cried out
“Mommy, do you have to hurt me, to make me well?”
A long silence followed, then I heard my Mamo say:
“Lord a mercy, what a cry. What are we doing Pauletta. Let that poor baby come out.”
In a moment Mamo and Mom started giggling and then laughing uncontrollably. I believe they saw the absurdity of the “swatter syringe attack” and what a sight it must have been. I didn't see the humor at all, as I wiped tears from my face.
They laughed me out from under the bed, and we all sat on the floor, the hugs and almost hysterical laughter was contagious, it soon got to me, and all three of us were laughing, but laughing tears. Cold terror had become warm comfort in their arms. My coughing seemed to ease away, my chest relaxed, the spasms were less intense.
That night I didn't have to take the shot, their hugs and laughter were like medicine. I slept beside my mom that night and dreamed with a child's imagination of of a giant monster flyswatter with frayed wires marching toward me with the syringe marching beside it, both frowning as a smoking, singed rag with red burning eyes and fumes spewing out, marched up right behind them. They were joined by what seemed like soldiers in a battlefield, three glass bottle-like soldiers. One of turpentine, one of Vicks salve and bringing up the rear, rubbing alcohol. Then I awoke, sweating and reaching to hug my mom a little tighter.
These childhood memories are an amalgamation of pain, fear and love. Ah yes, a mother's love, can have healing properties.
A crisis brought about by hot smoking rags and needle wounds bring on an urge to run. We often don't consider the anxiety, fear and determination of a young child facing pain and health problems. Those kids can have both fear and courage simultaneously. But treatments and cures can be empowered by love and concern. Now 60 years later, I can appreciate the fear that older people have of pain and “monsters” that come out in the dark of night as they approach the great abyss.
But a more important meaning for my life from the perspective of a 68 year old is not romantic or idealistic. Pondering and sharing this story with you helped me to understand why, in my lifetime, I have tended to be inquisitive, sometimes askance with a critical view of medical cures and practices. I study and ask my doctors many questions, often ruining their “Six minute per patient” schedule. I have learned to appreciate the honest doctors who admit what they do not know.
Many like me often are reluctant of new and 'unproven' cures. I have learned to appreciate those with the will and dedication to treat the sick, even though it is often ugly and stinky.
One day, as a 8 year old, I was visiting my other grandmother and told her that I had an ache in my leg. She was 55 then, but to my young eyes she seemed ancient. She laughed and said, “Ben, every person has pains, bruises, and sickness. They come and go. Learn to tolerate it, endure and just keep on living. You will find that your body and mind will heal most of those things.”
Years later, when I went to ancient Tibet, Buddhist Monks echoed her advice and said, “Put your pains in a closet, and lock the door. Know they are there, but don't give them any more attention.”
I have done that for years, often forgetting the aches and pains until someone unintentionally reminds me.
Of course when I go to a modern hospital and see how much improved the tools and cures are these days, I admire physicians for their craft. I have never seen a patient hiding under a bed in a Shriner Children's Hospital. Interesting and revealing that doctors call their craft a “practice.” I just never wanted them to “practice” on me.
Some physicians have admitted to me that they also “lock their pains in a closet.” It would be entertaining to imagine those pains wrestling the hypodermic needle monster, or Doctor Pain running from the turpentine rag and frayed flyswatter while stuck behind the locked closet door. It makes me smile to imagine my Mamo chasing Doctor Pain with that giant needle and giving him a jab in the posterior, bubbles and all just to hear him cry out!