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Say ‘Hello Dolly’: a boy’s appendicitis chronicle

Hello Dolly bars helped with the pain on an appendectomy.

Chautauqua was/is a boy’s paradise, the endless forests, fields, barns, rusty structures, abandoned buildings, treehouses and slingshots, fish and small game. There was very little feminine infrastructure; few dress shops or tea rooms, fabric stores or art classes. School was where girls ruled.

Have I said how much I dreaded school? So much it made me sick. Somatic dread. As summer was winding down — there was always a day in mid- to late August when the wind shifted slightly and brought a scent of the north to us, swept down across the Laurentian Shield with the smell of pine and deciduous tree leaves turning to amber and umber. It made me shiver like the willow leaves on those early autumn winds. It was the smell of school days returning.

School began the first Tuesday in September, after the Labor Day holiday, our last chance to romp with our Buffalo cousins until Thanksgiving. A few days before, Marc Welch and I had stumbled across a pile of black locust posts meant for the nearby grape vineyard of the Merritt family. Marc and I were fast friends in those days of second and third grade, before sixth grade, when he became cool as a talented basketball forward and I was relegated to the oddballs and misfits table in the cafeteria.

We clambered up and across the pile. Marc climbed up and over without incident, but I was startled when the posts shifted and started to roll. That stirred up the literal hornet’s nest — which fittingly enough was our school mascot. Marc lit out as he had a head start, but as fast I could run in those days and as motivated as I was, I couldn’t outrun that swarm of hornets. They were buzzing around me like a cloud of kamikaze, darting into my ear canals, up my nose, down the back of my neck into my shirt, stinging me in this frenzy of pain. I ran all the way home, where Marc had already alerted my mother. She pulled my shirt over my head and grabbed tweezers to start pulling out the pulsing venom sacs, which seemed to have a life of their own. I remember her telling me that hornets only had one sting each, which didn’t feel reassuring. I was burning with an intolerable pain. I don’t remember shrieking, but I must have been.

She counted more than 40 stings as she bathed the reddened sites with cold water, then ice cubes, then applied a paste of baking soda. It helped. And within a relatively short time, I was feeling fine, almost exhilarated, as if I had somehow proven myself. I was covered in baking soda paste, flaking off in a mist every time I moved. The welts subsided by the next day.

“You know you’re lucky you’re not allergic like your sister Betsy. If she got stung like that, she’d probably die. Your throat constricts and you choke to death,” she said. “The ambulance drivers carry big needles with atropine that they stick right into your heart.” I don’t know if that was true, but it definitely scared me anytime I saw my sister Betsy outside and bees were present. Which was pretty much all summer. Western New York was also bee’s paradise. I pretty much forgot all about that atropine moment until I saw “Pulp Fiction” 25 years later.

But that rush of feeling for having faced down danger and survived was exhilarating.

The next day was Monday, the first day of September, Labor Day, the day before school started. That evening we were watching Shirley Temple in the “The Bluebird.” I remember little about the movie except that she was playing a naughty girl who gets her comeuppance. Comeuppance being mandatory in those days. Before the movie was over my stomach was cramping up with nausea. My mom dismissed it as the jitters before school started, but it didn’t let up.

Not one bit. Hours of retching. Of a feeling so dense and miserable, that if presented with a big red button that if struck would end my life, I would have hammered that button like Keith Moon on a drum set. I stumbled from my back bedroom, heavy with the scent of sick, to my parent’s bedroom. As the fifth of six kids, they had all but forgotten I existed. I bothered them at least two or three times before they finally bundled me up and took me to the emergency room at Brooks Memorial Hospital. It was 3:18 a.m. when we got checked in, which I only know because my mother mentioned it was also the very moment at which I entered the world eight years earlier. She was slightly superstitious, all exhortations to the contrary aside. What a sign of suffering the fates would have given her had I left the world exactly the moment I entered it?

The retching pain was unbearable, but the wait was worse. My mother hovered as I was placed on the gurney, she clutching my hand as she was scrambling alongside as orderlies hustled me into the operating room. I don’t remember much but I clearly remember my father sitting with his head in his hands in the waiting room outside the half wall of glass, as the doctor talked with my mother, their heads practically touching as he confided in her. Whatever he said was not reassuring as she burst into sobs. Racking sobs. Thanks mom. I felt like that was it for me — I barely had a chance to get my life going and now my appendix was going to burst and I was going septic, to painfully writhe in a fever until my organs shut down.

The nurse told me to count backward from 10 as she placed the anesthesia mask over my face. One inhale for nine. By eight I was spinning into oblivion. By seven I was gasping awake, as if newly anointed in a baptism. It was hours later. My appendix had burst; the doctor’s warning and my mother’s fears not irrational at all. The sponges on the cart, plump with my blood, still remained in the OR as I swam toward the surface of awareness. I remember seeing the ruby red ridges of my wound — the gash of it, the coarse monofilament of the stitches like a thick fishing line meant for big game marlin, slashed from the right side of my pubic bone to my belly button — garish and cross-hatched — before falling asleep again into the opiate bliss of oblivion. Thank god for the milk of the poppy is all I can say. Between that and antibiotics nothing has ever reduced more misery — not even HBO. Not even my mom’s grilled cheese with tomato soup.

As I recovered, I could not believe my luck. The one day that I got deathly ill happened to coincide with the first day of school? An entire month off school to recuperate? No lottery winner has ever felt as if fortune smiled more broadly upon him. I don’t know if those hornet stings had anything to do with it; the appendix is a mysterious vestigial organ — probably meant to screen us from the poisons of the natural world, the trial-and-error of figuring out which plants are safe and which are not. Who knows? Not me.

I kept pestering my dad about what would have happened had I been a frontier boy 100 years prior. Would I have died? Maybe, he said. Which I took to mean, probably. How could anyone stand the pain of being sliced open without anesthesia? Bite the bullet?

Maybe another chapter of this book we will go into the lessons of Ignatius Semmelweiss and Joseph Lister. Or Alexander Fleming. At that time I could only imagine my great good luck in being born when I was in the post-antibiotics, post-sanitary era. My dad said that in the old days, you were given a chug of whisky and a piece of leather to bite down upon as the doctor worked his scalpel through your skin, tissue, muscles into your viscera. The pain unimaginable. Get away from me with all the “good old days” malarkey.

When the pandemic closed down our schools, I was rooting alongside those kids. The boisterous boys like me were camping in tall cotton, as my Kentucky grandpa used to say.

The girls, however, for whom school was the life’s breath, I do feel that they missed out. School is for girls, after all. For all of COVID-19’s parlous effects on humans, I think the most dire effects were felt among the youth, especially the girls.

I wonder how it will play out — that collective trauma — for the girls born between 2000 and 2018? Will they be emotionally stunted? Lack empathy? Or, conversely, have so much that they are paralyzed with indecision?

Boys I think will be fine. Our natural exuberance is not easily quelled. Men can handle isolation; think of Admiral Robert Byrd, one of my childhood heroes, spending months alone in the Antarctic. Or the Buddha, reflecting beneath the banyan tree for 40 years. In isolation we dream up worlds that are just as real as anything we can touch. Girls need the interaction, the playing off each other, to define themselves. I adore girls. Always have.

My first reciprocated crush took place during my recuperation. I was encouraged to walk up and down the hallways, hauling my IV drip rack like a schmatte hustler working his racks up and down the lower East Side, my hospital gown flapping open to show my little butt, a vertical smile.

She would smile at me every time I passed by. I would smile back, more like a shy grimace though. My mother described her as “flaxen hair with cornflower blue eyes.” Somehow I knew exactly what she meant. Her hair had lovely whitish streaks throughout, signs of her summer in the sun.

Looking back, I think mom was proud that such a pretty girl would have a crush on her shy, painfully awkward son. We were both 8 years old and I couldn’t help but stare at her. Her perfect face, her chin so gentle and quiet, her lips rosebud full and quick to smile. Several times I got embarrassed as I passed by and she caught me staring. So it was a surprise when the attending nurse told me that the girl, let’s call her Laurie, wanted to play checkers. I didn’t know what to say. My mom, to her credit, “Get down there right now! Don’t keep that girl waiting!” She escorted me down to Laurie’s room, the next to last (penultimate as I didn’t learn for about another 40 years or so) in the ward, a private room. We played checkers. I let her win, until I realized that she was trying to let me win. It was a classic standoff, the excesses of politeness — like a four-way stop where everyone is “no, after you.” “No, after you, I insist.” Once we got down to business, though, it was pretty much a draw every game. Turned out, we were both competitive.

Laurie had had her tonsils removed. And so she left the recovery ward after one or two days. I doubt these days any insurance company allows hospital stays for tonsillectomies. We promised to write each other. We did for a surprisingly long time. Mom even arranged a play date. Laurie’s mom was a bit skeptical of her daughter spending time with hillbilly spawn, but my mom could put up a good front. She aspired to what we used to call “lace curtain Irish.” She was Welsh, however, but her middle class pretensions were very front and center. Certainly, the “play date” — such a phrase did not exist in the 1960s — would be on Laurie’s turf. It was unimaginable that we would ever host anything other than the closest family with the mess and clutter and clamor in which we lived.

I don’t remember much, but yes, I remember lace curtains, the broad dark wood of the staircase landing with tall windows bringing in light as though splashed in by the bucket load. We played checkers, of course, and she read me passages from her favorite book, “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” I was fascinated. And now I live within eyeshot of the Channel Islands. After that, though, the slender reed of our similarities ended. But we clearly adored each other; I was too embarrassed to tell my sisters I had a girlfriend, but a couple of my cousins were let in on the secret. Of course I got smacked around for my softness. “You like girls? That’s so gay!”

Hospital food was a novelty for me. Like eating Swanson’s TV dinners. In fact, it probably was. I remember a rough puck of what passed for Salisbury steak with overcooked peas and gluey mashed potatoes. The soggy mass of what passed for cornbread; jiggling jello with no discernible flavor other than red dye 40, it was the first time I realized that our family ate so much better than every one around us. That despite our poverty, we ate like royalty. My mother could be an energy vampire, mercurial, prone to moodiness, contemptuous of pretty much everything that interested me, but damn that woman could cook. And she saw the situation and would not let it stand.

She brought me a tin of my favorite confection — her “Hello Dolly” bars, wrapped in waxed paper, also known to connoisseurs of sweetened condensed milk as the “Seven Layer Bars.”

HELLO DOLLIES RECIPE

Ingredients

2 sticks (one pound) unsalted butter, melted

3 cups (about a 13 1/2 ounce box) graham cracker crumbs

2 cups (about 12 ounces) dark or semisweet chocolate chips

2 cups (about 8 ounces) pecans, roughly chopped

3 cups sweetened shredded coconut flakes

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

Those bars, nothing fancy, a very middle-brow confection, were to me the surest sign of love and tenderness. I remember receiving two shoeboxes full when I was at boot camp during mail call, a week or so into the most extended misery of my life. All of a sudden I had 40 best friends. And a few of them have remained so to this day. Thanks to my mom for her timely gift, which pierced the loneliness of 40 forlorn and afraid boys on the verge of manhood with the taste and comfort of home.

My recuperation was a young boy’s fantasy. No schoolwork. I would ride with my dad on the first half of his mail route, to where our Walnut Street crossed King Road and the Mead Family and their prosperous big farm, with its fancy farmstand, apple orchards and endless rows of grapes. Dad would deposit me on the dock of their pond with a cane pole and a bucket of worms, dug up in the compost pile of wood chips and mulch he used to cover certain sections of the garden, especially the blueberries which preferred a moist, acidic soil.

There I would sit dreamily, occasionally catching a decent bluegill or sunfish, hoping for a giant bass. Every so often, I would see their black-edged tails sinuously patrolling through the pond lilies, like a tiger in a forest. Legend had it that the Mead’s orchard manager, an avuncular black man named Willie, had caught an eight-pound bass in the pond, on a cane pole, fishing with a sunfish for bait. Every time I caught a sunfish, I would leave him to swim in the water, hoping that a giant bass would come out from under the dock or lily pads and attack that fish like a tiger attacks a wild pig.

Fishing if you haven’t figured out yet was the motif of my young life. It was more about the anticipation, the poring over Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and other local fishing magazines and newsheets for hot spots and record catches, gazing raptly through the old typeset cabinets in Jerome Miller’s bait shop in which the exotic trout flies were perched, the racks of lures like double-jointed Rapalas and Daredevils spoons, all the gadgetry and mystery and lore of the sport, that appealed as much or more than the long hours of nothing of the actual fishing.

I thank my Dad for teaching me how to fish and how to untangle lines and for showing me the famous Bradigan temper while doing so, and teaching me patience by your frustrated example. Thank you mom for those delicious Hello Dollies and bologna and fresh garden lettuce sandwiches we ate out on the boat on Mud Lake, the bait minnows swimming in the galvanized zinc bucket and the five-gallon paint bucket swimming with those incredibly delicious perch, worth every bit of the work it took to scale and fillet them.

My dad had his garden and fishing, either of which would have been enough to properly engage a man’s energies. He was lucky, and I was lucky to be his son.

The best part of those lazy mornings, though, was when the first bus run of the day would trundle by, picking up kids for their daily prison term, and I would wave as they passed by. I could see the boys with their faces pushed up against the glass, envy dripping from their sad eyes. I knew the idyll was coming to an end when my mother started picking up homework — mimeographed sheets of multiplication tables and English essays, breaking down sentences and early snippets of New York State history. The last part I didn’t mind so much, (the fabled origins of Schenectady’s town name — look it up) the rest I dealt with as summarily as possible, dreading each moment until I returned to class, bronzed by the sun and daydreaming by the window mightily of the endless forest stretched out behind the football field.

It may have been the best month of my life. Thank you appendix for your propitious bursting. And thank you Laurie, wherever you are, my first love.

Bret Bradigan is the editor and publisher of the Ojai Quarterly & Ojai Monthly in California. He also produces a weekly podcast, “Ojai: Talk of the Town.”

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