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Alabama sans bathrooms . . .

I lived with my family in several houses before we moved from Alabama to Mississippi. Our first home in that city was on Fifth Street South. Click here for a sordid but hilarious tale of the itch, and of two naked kids undergoing treatment for their supposed infection of scabies.

The images shown at right show outhouses ranging from the most basic to the most outlandish. Note the brick outhouse in the center—is there anyone, anywhere, that has not heard this remark? Boy, she’s built like a brick—uh, like a brick—well, you know, like a brick outhouse! The last privy pictured is perhaps the ultimate outhouse, a two-story number with a ground entrance and a sky walk for the upper floors.

The house on Fifth Street was my first exposure to running water in the house and its accompanying refinement, a bathroom equipped with a bathtub and a commode. My prior residences in Alabama had neither, nor did the homes of our relatives in Alabama. Water was hauled in from the well or pumped from an underground source and hauled in, and baths were taken in a #2 wash tub or via a wash pan and a wash cloth. We mostly didn’t call them wash cloths—we called them wash rags because that’s what they were, squares of cloth taken from ragged sheets or towels or other cloth items that were no longer used for their original purposes. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were way ahead of the current recycling craze now sweeping the country!

In lieu of an inside toilet, our necessaries were outside and away from our domiciles, usually placed but not always, downwind from the house, depending on the direction of prevailing breezes, and at some locations the necessary was in any location at a distance from the house that provided a modicum of privacy, regardless of the prevailing breezes—get the picture? When a man-made structure existed, it was called privy, toilet, outhouse, the little house behind the big house and numerous other names, mostly vulgar terms. Regardless of its name, location or composition each adhered to this corruption of Shakespeare’s immortal line, namely That which we call a toilet, by any other name, would smell the same—hey, I said the line was corrupted, didn’t I? And it rhymes!

Now for the gist of this posting—it relates to personal cleansing, or bathing. I hesitate to use this term for an early Alabama bathing facility, but I don’t know how to get around using it, so I’ll borrow a truism from one of our former presidents—it is what it is, and it was what it was, so I’ll call it a wash hole and continue from that point.

A wash hole in my childhood days was any declivity in a stream that held enough water to enable one to get wet all over, and through the use of soap cleanse oneself—take a bath. As a child I was exposed—literally—to bathing in wash holes, usually on a Saturday afternoon. Farming in my early childhood days, in my area and my era, was a full time job from daylight till dark beginning with Monday’s daylight  and ending at Saturday’s noontime—from that point farm work ceased. Menfolks would leave their toils at noon, eat a hearty dinner, nap for awhile in the shade, usually on the front porch and then head for the wash hole for their weekly overall bath—seriously!

That Saturday afternoon bath held good through Saturday night and all the way to the next week on the following Saturday afternoon, and then the process would be repeated. In that interim period of one week, ablutions were restricted to face and neck and hands and arms and feet—unless one were caught in the rain, nothing else got wet until wash hole time came around again. I cannot speak for womenfolks and their bathing habits. At my tender age I was never privy—pardon the pun—to their bathroom habits or their methods or frequency of ablutions. Whatever methods were involved, the women always managed to appear and smell much better than their male counterparts.

Armed with soap, towels, clean shirts and overalls or trousers following Saturday’s dinner and brief siesta, the men and boys, regardless of their ages—even the little ones such as I—would head for the wash hole and once there, strip and wade in or dive in if the depth of the wash hole allowed it. It could be a small pond, a deep spot in a creek or a gravel pit filled with spring water. Diving required a working knowledge of the wash hole’s depth—click here for a tragic tale of a wash hole’s depth overestimated.

The hours from noon on Saturday until Monday’s return to the fields provided a respite from toil and worry, and virtually everyone–men, women and children headed for town. In my case the nearest town was five miles distant—as a child I have covered that distance in conveyances ranging from a mule-drawn wagon to a Ford Model A to an interstate bus. The trip in a wagon brings up more pleasant memories. The men sat on the wagon seat and in the wagon bed—upright cane-bottom chairs were placed for the womenfolk, and the kids were left to hang on anywhere they could find room. Depending on the length of the wagon tongue, one or two kids could sit on the rear portion for a really rocky ride. For most of the five miles we ranged ahead of the wagon chasing rabbits, picking blackberries along the roadside, throwing rocks at flying birds—we never hit one—and luxuriating in all the pleasures of childhood. Once into town with the mules tied up at the courthouse square and munching on hay, we were pretty much on our own.

The two things I remember best about the town square were Wimpy’s Hamburgers—a name taken from the Popeye comic strip featured in most newspapers—and the movie house, placed on opposite sides of the square. Movies were shown only on Friday and Saturday nights, the same films on both nights, and they usually ran for several weeks. The fare usually consisted of two feature-length films, termed a double feature, one a cowboy show and the other a detective or love story, supplemented by newsreels, cartoons and previews of coming attractions, all presented in black-and-white—-color was still in the future.

But I digress—back to the wash hole. I learned to swim in various wash holes by lying in shallow water and propelling myself along by my fingertips along the bottom, and graduated from that to pulling myself along in deep water with the same motion—the only difference was that my hands were pulling water towards me instead of pulling me along the pool’s bottom. From that point I mastered virtually every one of the dozens of swimming strokes—nah, not really—I still use my hands to propel myself along to keep my head above water to avoid drowning, a simple act that would eliminate drowning as a cause of death if learned and practiced by everyone.

The unvarnished truth is that I really learned to swim when my brother-in-law Elmer tossed me off a bluff into Pearl River, a stream that runs through the Hobolochitto Swamp in south Mississippi. In those years the swamp included alligators of all sizes, and I could feel teeth nipping at my toes from the time I hit the water. Knowing that I couldn’t climb the bluff, I thrashed and splashed my way successfully to the opposite side of the stream. I was reasonably sure that Elmer would rescue me if I foundered, but I decided not to risk sinking to the bottom in order to be rescued. No, I didn’t use the crawl I learned in wash holes. I combined the overhand front crawl with some stupendous flutter kicking—any alligator would have avoided the area on the belief that it was occupied by a monstrous specimen of its own species or perhaps of an unknown species.

My tale of being tossed into an alligator-infested river is true—I know—I was there! Sometimes, depending on my audience, I tell the story differently. I claim that I survived by swimming faster than the alligator that came after me, a Herculean feat made possible by the fact that I was swimming in clear water, as opposed to what the alligator faced.

That’s my story of bathrooms, outhouses, swimming and alligators and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2010 in Humor, sports, swimming

 

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Cure for itch: Sulphur and molasses . . .

At some time in my fifth year of life and my first year as a Mississipian, my mother became convinced that I and my sister, eighteen months older than I, either had scabies (the itch) or would surely become afflicted with the disease based on our having played with the children next door.

Playing with the kids next door was forbidden because they were somewhat different than we were—actually they were not different than we were, except that theirs was a nicer house and their family was more prosperous than we were—they just looked different. We were white and they were black, and folks in Mississippi in the 1930s frowned on the races mixing, regardless of the ages involved.

Our mother always said that she had nothing against blacks  “as long as they stayed in their place.” When asked specifically about the nature of “their place,” she would say, “Well, you know, in their place, the place where they are supposed to stay.” That pretty well explained it as far as she was concerned.

Although we were forbidden to play with the neighbor children we still managed to get in some playtime, and because of that contact our mother decided that even if we did not have scabies we would probably soon show symptoms of the disease. I have no doubt that my sister and I itched and scratched in all the places that kids—and adults for that matter—normally scratch, but I do not believe we had the itch. We never exhibited any of the symptoms associated with the itch. If any reader is inclined to learn everything one needs to know about the itch—scabies—click here.

You will learn that sulfur, mixed with a petroleum jelly and applied topically, is effective as a treatment for scabies, and sulfur is what our mother used on us. She took powdered sulfur and mixed it with molasses, stripped me and my sister right down to the buff and smeared the mixture on every part of our body, every square inch of skin including cracks and crevices, and even worked the mixture into our hair and on our scalps. I was the first to have the “medication” applied and my sister giggled throughout the process, giving our mother instructions as to various areas and items and ways to apply the mixture.

I watched as my mother smeared her with the mixture, but not being as worldly and wise as she was I did little giggling—we were a very private family and I was not accustomed to seeing a naked female—in fact, a fast trip back to my earliest memories reveals no instance of my ever having seen a naked female of any age prior to that day—and now that I think of it, a significant amount of time would pass before I was privileged to see another one.

I searched diligently on the internet for images of a naked little boy and a naked little girl and following a prolonged search I found the two pictured at the right. I trust that none of my viewers will be offended by the graphic nature of the images. I felt very fortunate at finding an image of our skin color prior to the application of sulfur and molasses, and another approximating our skin color after the application. The upper image approximates our before skin color and the lower approximates our after skin color. Who would have ever thought I would be so lucky in my search!

I am reminded of a business card I saw in later years—the business part was on one side and the other side showed a line drawing of two naked children, a little boy and and a little girl, and the little boy was saying in the caption below, “No, you can’t play with mine—you already broke yours off!” I suppose that if I thought anything about my sister’s  physical characteristics, my thoughts echoed the words of that little boy—either she broke hers off or was born without one. The card was not quite as graphic as the images I found on the internet.

Our skin took on a yellow sheen from the sulfur and for several days we could not sit on any chair or sofa. We sat on the floor, we took our meals on the floor, and we slept on the floor on sheets and blankets that were cleansed in boiling water after we used them.

I had not yet started the first grade, so our restriction to the house and our banishment to the floor had no effect on my education. My sister, a first-grader, missed several days of school but apparently suffered little from that absence—to my disappointment she was promoted to the second grade, thus dashing my hopes that she would be retained in the first grade so I would be equal with her in school—bummer!

Eventually our mother decided, since no symptoms of scabies appeared, that the medication had apparently done its work and we were allowed to remove the mixture of sulfur and molasses. Many years have ensued since the scabies incident, and I have told that story more than once over the years—some listeners believed it and others expressed considerable doubt as to its veracity. Please believe me, it’s true and I can prove it. I can show you the house where it happened because it’s still standing. It’s on the west side of Fifth Street South one block from the Palmer Orphanage! Click here to read an essay that includes information on my association with the Palmer Orphanage, now known as the Palmer Home for Children —it’s worth the visit!

On hearing the story most people ask whether the molasses attracted ants, flies, bees, roaches, mice, spiders and other pests in search of sweet treats. My answer to that is that we were not bothered by such—my theory is that pests were powerfully attracted to the molasses but were equally repulsed by the sulfur—one canceled out the other.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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