Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Car Trips, Emergencies, and Other Excitement

As my friends/classmates share their stories, I find that exact chronology is impossible. So I suppose it is best just to go with it. Memories stir memories!

This is a stab in the dark - my mind-movies are flashing on our re-arrival back on the Island after a mad dash from East to West in late 1946. That cross-country road trip was not one of America's new (so-called) "love affairs with the automobile." It was a harrowing, flight for life. The infant in my mother's arms was perilously pale and lethargic. My sister was nearly four, and I, almost six. Of course we did not understand what was happening. It was a game to us. We got to color and play word games; it was an adventure to sleep in the car as it sped along. We ate peanut butter sandwiches. Gas station stops included water for all of us and "going to the bathroom." My sister would not sit on ANY public toilet - especially terrifying to her were those that emitted a blue glow around the lid - she preferred to pee at the side of the road. I have not found what the blue toilet thing was all about but it was probably some sort of hygiene hoax on an unsuspecting and trusting public. Of course that is what we all were - "all" being the new "traveling" hordes of Americans experiencing the exciting novelty of automobile ownership. As I noted previously, WWII marked the beginning of the liberation of the middle masses of America. So here we were, my unorthodox family, driving from Pennsylvania to Washington state - before the war, that trip would have been a curiosity, an adventure. To my family it was a hope for life-saving. And in the parlance of the day, "family" in our case was immoral - two adults not yet divorced from their spouses, the woman with two children from her first husband and one tiny, desperately ill infant fathered by the man who was hunched over the steering wheel; he who had not-so-recently been set free dishonorably from the U.S.Navy. No record remains why but he proved his unworthiness over the rest of my youth.

Anyway, there were no overnight stays at a motel along the way - no money for that and in those days, motels were reputed to be unsavory anyway. And no quick in and out restaurants easily in sight of the highway. Any stop for groceries or aspirin meant locating a market in whatever town where the road led. Even supermarkets were still a novelty - that is, a retail establishment where all kinds of goods were available; like foodstuffs, diapers, toothpaste, even gasoline. So each type of purchase had to be made at different stores. The two-lane highway hair-pinned through steep mountain passes, were pocked with holes and bumps; not even entirely concrete but blacktop, too, and in winter (as our trip was), treacherous with snow, ice, and pools of rainwater. No straight-through, many lane freeways yet. Needless to repeat that it was a difficult trip.

The morning after our arrival back on the Island, I stood on Grandpa and Grandma's porch watching my mother running up the hill pushing my baby brother in a buggy. At the Winslow clinic, Drs. Bourns and Wilt treated all Islanders for many years. They were venerated lifesavers and could no wrong. I don't remember Mommy returning. I just recall the feeling that something very scary was happening. And my sister and I were coughing, coughing. The suffocating dread of whooping cough fell over the house.

"They took him to Children's Orthopedic in Seattle."

My Gramma told someone on the phone. Of course, it was a party line so the news spread swiftly. The telephone operator knew everyone on the Island, listened in on all the party lines (it was a known fact), and took no time spreading news - she believed it was her job.

Clearly, medical emergencies on the Island had to be even more emergency than emergency. Today, helicopters, speedy ambulances across the Agate Pass Bridge, and a sophisticated medical community right on the Island makes yesterday look antiquated to say the least. Nina tells a story, too. Once rescued from condom contamination, her family faced another, far more dangerous situation. In her words:

"Shortly after (we were saved from those nasty condoms) my father took ill in the night. He had been working terrible hours in the bomb factory (and then, at the Creosote plant), getting very little sleep, existing on coffee and cigarettes. His stomach was giving him terrible pain. My mother called the doctor (must have been Dr. Shepard - the other doctors were off to war). He came to our little row (Creosote company) house, examined my Dad and discovered he had a burst ulcer and was in great danger. That's where Captain Brisboe came in. The doctor asked him to take my dad on a stretcher into Seattle on his tugboat. It was the middle of the night; no ferries were running. Captain Brisboe arranged with the hospital in Seattle to meet his tug. So - my Dad made it across and was taken immediately into surgery. He was in the hospital for nearly three months. My mother had to hire private nurses to care for him because all the hospitals were filled with War vets. The savings my parents had from the Illinois job dwindled quickly away to pay medical bills. My father came home weak and depressed. It was into the fall for my father's recuperation. My mother spent most days at the hospital and when he came home, took daily care of my Dad. My brother and I came under the care of my aunt (also living in one of the Creosote company's row cottages). She fed us breakfast and then dismissed us to "go outside and play." We did. Bainbridge woods, beaches, everywhere, became our hideouts and playpens. We had a ball! I honestly do not think we understood my father was very close to dying."

Today excellent and immediate medical attention is taken for granted. And it was not but a bit over hundred years ago that medicine truly came into its own as a respected, reliable, indeed venerated, profession. We are fortunate in countless ways! And it is interesting to look back to those years. Nina's story is the first time I read about the necessity of hiring private nurses.

Also I need to note that Nina's father's medical crisis took place just before the war ended. It was late 1945 when our cross-country dash took place. Do Dr. Bourns was back from war and it was he who saved my brother - at least according to family lore. Six months after he was rushed to Children's Orthopedic, Paul (who later insisted - for several years - that his name was Ole Larson) came back home, a laughing,round-faced baby in excellent health. Everyone cried and laughed at the same time.

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