"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
In the fall of 1963 we lived on
the homestead in Anchor Point, three 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 ‘50s 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
"Charlie's getting a shot at
school tomorrow, Lance, same as us," I said, later during dinner. I peaked 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
"I am not," Charlie said. "Mom says I'm just getting medicine...for
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
"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.
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
"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
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.
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 five years old.
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's
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
"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
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 hiccupping 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.
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
"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
"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
Within the next few months, we
would receive jabs more painful than any Mrs. Bergland 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.