This is from the “My Life in Vignettes” series No.
Ozark Doctor and Chiggers
The year is 1956, and I’m in the Ozarks for three weeks. Three whole weeks with grandma at her Mother’s Café and Cabins. This trip my cousin Tom, from West Pullman is with me. I’m teaching him about all things wild in the Ozarks. You might remember my first trip down here on the Greyhound was in 1953. The bus trip didn’t go so well but I arrived anyway. I mentioned grandma’s new friend Lester Cutbirth. She calls him Cut. We’re at the junction as it’s called, Reeds Springs Junction. Elevation 2500 feet, 30 miles north of Branson Missouri. I love it here. It has a smell in the air that is sweet. First thing in the morning Tom and I walk down to Lester’s house. Grandma says we could borrow his .22 rifles to do some hunting. Squirrels and rabbits. There’s a winding gravel road down to Lester’s. He lives alone in a weathered farm house, with chicken’s running around. Lester’s wife died a few years ago and his kids are all moved away so he’s happy to see us. “Come on in Johnny, I’m makin’ some breakfast and you kids can join me. Who’s this young fella you brought with you?” “He’s my cousin Tom from Chicago,” I say. Breakfast at Lester’s was always the same. Two fried eggs, and burnt toast with homemade jelly. I loved it. His house smelled like cigarettes and coffee. “Grandma said it was OK we could borrow your .22s.” “You sure can, and I’d sure love to cook some rabbit or squirrel. I know you like that Remington single shot the best.” So here we are two 11 year olds, walking down the highway carrying loaded rifles, and it’s a natural part of the scenery.
Grandma says, “the fourth is getting’ close, you know what that means, Firecracker will be stopping by.” Firecracker was a lady midget who roamed the Ozarks selling fireworks out of the back of her panel truck. I loved the way she would spread out this display of explosives on an old quilt. Then light up a Camel. “This eight shot here, I guarantee they will hear all the way to Branson!” I prayed one of her cigarettes would never blow back into her truck while she was going down the highway. It would take them weeks to find all of her. Tom is mesmerized. He buys a brick of Black Cats, and some high octane rockets. I buy Roman Candles, Chasers, M-80s and Ariel Bombs. We’re set. We could re-create Pearl Harbor and it only cost $ 7.50. I introduce Tom to some of my old friends. There’s Nadine, she’s 14, and lives behind grandmas cabins on a turkey farm with her family. Ruth Ann Holt, who I have loved for many years, also lives on a farm down the road. That girl never wore shoes in her life. The soles of her feet were as thick as tennis shoes. She could literally run on glass if she had to. An Interstate highway was a thing of the future, so everyone heading south to Branson had to pass thru the junction. The junction was grandma’s cabins and her Mother’s Café. And across the highway was a service station, Lover’s Café, a grocery store and a souvenir shop. We loved to hunt squirrels. We’d sit on the wooded hillsides and wait. The Walnut trees were filled with them. That single shot Remington was very accurate. Always we would have 3-4 for dinner. Fried Squirrel was grandma’s specialty. “Perzus, if you get enough sometime we can have them on a special in the Café.” Let me explain Perzus, that was grandma’s nickname for me. My middle name is Pervus, but she liked to put the Z in there. Anyway while we were sitting down there waiting for squirrels we weren’t alone. In the Ozarks there are what’s called Chiggers. And if you sit in just the right place long enough they visit your shorts to dine. The bad thing is you are completely unaware that this is happening to you. Until you go to bed. “Tom, does your stuff itch like crazy? Are you kidding, I think we got bit by something.”
Let me tell you, boy parts that have been chewed on by Ozark Chiggers not only itch, but swell 5 times their normal size. Big bright red swollen bites that insanely itch. Why they chose that spot when there’s other parts, was a mystery to me then. “I have some Calamine Lotion for you.” So Calamine lotion goes on like were whitewashing a fence. I want to swim in it. “Can we drink it? Maybe it will work from the inside out.” So we switch to hunting Rabbits, at least we’re standing up. To hunt Rabbits in the Ozarks, you walk along back roads at dusk, when they come out to play with each other. This night I’m climbing over a barb wire fence and my foot gets stuck, and over I go. On the way down my knee gets a deep gash. “Are you OK? I think so.” “Something happened to my leg though, it really hurts.” I pull down my Levi’s and Tom says, “I think I’m going to faint.” I have about a 3” cut on my leg from the barb wire. Tom says: “you need to get back to grandmas and wash that off, you could get Tetanus.” As we’re walking back Tom explains to me what Tetanus is: “It’s when you get injured by something rusty. The rust gets inside and starts to rust some more. Then if they can’t get rid of the rust you get the Tetanus shot.” This kind of medical information has me worried. I can feel the rust starting to seize up my knee already, and it just happened a minute ago. I’m all but limping on one leg. “How much rust do you think got inside? I ask. “They say you can see rusty lines creeping along, heading for your heart.” I pull down my Levi’s again to take a second look. “I don’t see any rusty lines,” I say. “Grandma, I cut my leg out there on a rusty wire, look.” “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” she says. “Cut’s here, Cut, we gotta’ take Perzus down to Reeds Springs. Find the doctor and have him sew up this leg. Get a move on.”
It’s Saturday night at 8pm, we’re heading for the doctor’s office in Reeds Springs. Its six miles away. The town of Reeds Springs looks like it just was created for a Hollywood movie. There’s Main Street, saloons, a barber, blacksmith, a bank, grocery/gas station and a church at the end of the street. “Pull up here Cut, this is his office,” grandma commands. The sign reads: IN CASE OF AFTER HOURS EMERGENCY RING NEXT DOOR. Dr. Goldstein. Ring, Ring, Ring. An elderly woman slowly opens the door. “Yes, may I help you?” “Yes, you sure can my Perzus has cut his damn leg and can Dr. Goldstein have a look at it?” “I’m terribly sorry madam; Dr. Goldstein is imbibing down at the Rocking River Saloon at the moment. We drive away. “Cut, pull up here at the Rocking River, I’m goin’ in. Perzus you come too.” I recognize that smell immediately, stale beer, cigarettes, and hamburgers on a grill. “Is there a Goldstein in here?” grandma asks the bartender. “Yes mam, he’s the short gentleman in the corner playing Poker. The one wearing the cowboy hat and vest.” “Dr. Goldstein, would you please take a look at my grandson’s leg. He’s cut it on a fence and I’m worried sick.” With a very definite slur the doctor agrees to meet us back at his office after he finishes his hand. We’re sitting in front of the doctor’s office and Tom Says; “I bet you get the shot.” The next part actually happened, and when I think back I’m glad I didn’t miss it. The doctor rides up to the office on a horse. It looks like the horse Tonto rode. Then he rides up to the window and asks Cut if he would help him down off the horse. “I have these new boots on and their giving me nothing but trouble. Ordered them special from Morris Men’s Store, at the Stock Yards in Chicago. Soaked me for them good, too.”
I wanted to tell him I’ve been by there with my grandpa plenty of times to buy horse manure. But I was afraid being from Chicago and all would not be good. Anyway the cut did not need stitches, but I did need the shot. “Young man, roll up the sleeve please.” “Ow, ow, ow, ouch!” “I need to change needles, sit still son.” Finally I get the shot that gets rid of rust. Every once in a while I look at that scar, and dog- gone if I don’t look for a rust line. John Brandt Copyright 2011 © John Brandt