Sparked by Words

When I was about ten, early 1958, my parents took us to New York City to see the United Nations. Living in Trenton, New Jersey, we were only a few hours’ drive from the Big Apple, but in reality we were a continent removed. Trenton, though it was the capitol of NJ, was small town compared to cosmopolitan NYC. After a tour of the building, (no meeting in session that day) we three kids each got to pick a souvenir from the gift shop. I chose a kid’s book of short stories, and it’s this book I want to honor as my choice for the letter X.

I can no longer recall the title or author, or even if it was written by one person or several. The stories were intended to relate the good work of UN programs and workers all over the world: the unnamed, unsung heroes who brought modernity to cultures lost in the inefficiency of past centuries, health to tribes hampered by eradicable illnesses and looked after by primitive medicine men, and a sense of the connections that the symbol of world unity promised everyone. I will never forget a few of the stories, especially the one I want to tell you about here.

Less than six months after the visit, my parents moved us to Hawaii where we lived for two years before returning to the mainland on my thirteenth birthday. This was our second inhabitance of O’ahu, the first being when I was nearing the age of four. My dad had graduated in 1952 from Thomas Jefferson University Medical College (now Sidney Kimmel Medical College) in Philadelphia, where I’d been born. He joined the army and did his first year of medical residency at Tripler Army Medical Center on the mountainous slopes of the Moanalua Ridge. We lived on base housing. It’s comical to call the units “housing.” In the very early 1900’s, they’d been the hospital wards at Fort Shafter, later converted to physician and officer housing when the iconic coral pink edifice was built around 1944. By the time we moved in, my mom was uncomfortably pregnant and unbearably lonely for her family, and the tiny row of converted quarters were nearly unlivable.

Tripler was and remains the largest Army medical facility in the region, serving Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and various other locations in the Pacific Rim and Asia. It’s important to understand that Hawaii was a Petri dish of cultures that converged and mingled from China, Japan, Philippines, and the US mainland, among others. Everyone brought their native diseases along with their luggage and aging grandparents. In addition, Hawaii is tropical, hot and wet, a fertile nursery for bugs, viruses, and germs, pervasive, exotic, and sometimes fatal. My parents made certain that the three of us were inoculated against smallpox, a genuine threat then, before we left Philadelphia. It kept me safe from smallpox.

They couldn’t vaccinate me against my idiotic four-year-old self.

The story I most remember from the UN book tells about an African village where the natives lived in grass huts and suffered from all kinds of illnesses, many borne by bugs. Malaria, widespread because of Anopheles mosquitoes prevalent in many parts of Africa, was of greatest concern, though I don’t know if the disease was mentioned in the story. It was and is a terrible disease, one that causes raging high fevers, vomiting, brutal headaches, long term physical debilitation, coma, even death, especially to young children.

The UN team entered one tiny hamlet and demanded, nicely of course, that every villager present himself to be doused with a miracle spray that would kill any bug making them ill. Everyone showed up and was sprayed with the wonder insecticide: dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – DDT, as you’ve probably guessed. Yep, the toxic pollutant that eventually wiped out or endangered many species, is absorbed into the soil, and may be responsible for carcinogenic illnesses in humans. Then the team went hut to hut and sprayed the interiors and all belongings of each. At one hut, a nervous woman tried to prevent the team from entering. When they did, they spotted a bundle of rags, unwrapped it, and discovered her newborn child. She didn’t want her baby sprayed. Smiling, they insisted, and pulled the infant from its swaddling, sprayed its entire body, and returned the baby to mother’s arms. At ten, I considered it a fabulous conclusion. Ignorant, uneducated mother’s baby was now safe from bad bugs. God knows, I hate bugs.

The first time we lived on O’ahu in the ramshackle base housing, (1952 – ‘53) my mom figured I was relatively safe and let me have the run of the area around the houses, as did all the other children. Imagine, two rows of cardboard-thin buildings facing each other across a swath of lush lawn, lantana, Poinciana, hibiscus, plumeria, coconut, and palm trees, and dozens of kids running all over. All the moms looked out for all the kids – sort of. No one really stood watch as it wasn’t necessary. We ran up and down the gardens all day, getting home before dark every evening. Nothing bad ever happened to any of us.

Except that I started coughing. A lot. A deep persistent cough I couldn’t control no matter how often my parents yelled at me. I was a bad advertisement for a doctor. Finally, suspecting tuberculosis, dad and another physician sneaked me into Tripler’s laboratory at midnight, (completely illegal entry) drew my blood, and looked at it under a microscope. No tubercular bugs, thank God, so they went back to telling me to stop coughing. No one knew why I coughed so much, but I knew I couldn’t stop the tickle, the itch, the discomfort that caused me to choke until I coughed. The year after we left Hawaii, we moved to army housing in Enterprise, Alabama. I was five now and kindergarten delayed because I suffered from a strange illness that made me cough and feel exhausted all the time. I was an adult, married and living in California with two sons before my dad told me I’d had mononucleosis that year.

Decades later I came across the UN book and reread it in an afternoon, paying special attention to the story about the African woman and her baby who got sprayed with DDT. And I remembered something long forgotten till then.

In Hawaii in 1952 and ‘53, a small truck came around the base housing neighborhood once a week, driving up the adjacent street, and emitting a sweetish smelling spray from its backside. We kids were fascinated by that truck. We ran through its rear mist, sniffing the spray, lost in its peculiar thick fog, unable to see our own hands much less the other kids. If an adult had been watching, they might not have seen us either. Maybe as many as twenty-five times during that year, I chased the truck, laughing and breathing in DDT.

Rachel Carson, the brilliant, tenacious, observant naturalist, wrote of the dangers of DDT in Silent Spring, published in 1962. The same toxic chemical identified by Rachel Carson as so very dangerous to the environment, to animals, and to people that she advocated persuasively for it to be banned. We’d moved to Hawaii for the second time in 1959, (dad was no longer in the military, he just wanted to live in paradise,) then moved to California in 1961. Whatever damage was done to our young family in 1952 and ‘53, was not repeated during our second sojourn.

I’ve since suffered bronchitis innumerable times and serious bouts of pneumonia approximately ten or eleven times. I’ve had both pneumonia shots and still caught a nasty case of it a day after getting one of them.

Chemical pesticides are dangerous to earth and living things – we know this now. The few who knew early about the dangers of DDT were muffled or ignored. All those illnesses it tried to eradicate were/are also extremely dangerous. I’ve since lost the book, probably forever, but it is my choice for the letter X, representing the unknown factor.

 

NOTE: I read Silent Spring in the 1970’s. Since the book was published and DDT ultimately banned, malaria increased in enormous numbers around the globe but especially in third world countries where other medical help was not easily available. Millions of people suffered and died from malaria. It’s been disputed that DDT caused the numerous deaths from all kinds of cancers that Rachel Carson claimed, and the chemical has since been reinstated. I am neither scientist nor researcher. Readers should consult those who are expert in the field for accurate information. My purpose in writing this review of a non-book was to show my actual experience with DDT and to suggest a warning. Not everything is what appears on its surface, and most new solutions to any kind of problem also generate unexpected consequences. X does indeed represent the unknown factor.

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite X fiction books.

I offer no other books as contenders for X.

 

United Nations image courtesy: Google images and Wikimedia Commons; photo of Sharon Bonin, age 4, courtesy Bonin Family archives

 

 

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Comments on: "X is for The Book Whose Title I Can’t Remember" (37)

  1. I spent all my childhood summers in a Wisconsin trailer park. DDT was sprayed weekly throughout the park. I have no known lasting side effects, and I also know of the rise in malaria after DDT was banned. Like everyone else, we don’t really know how much problem–solution came with that chemical.
    I have no X book to suggest, but really appreciate your story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I wrote to another reader, I have no scientific proof that the DDT spray made me susceptible to respiratory illnesses later. But I did suffer a lot of illnesses in Hawaii when I was 3 – 4. I may have just been vulnerable no matter where I lived. Hawaii, however, is the fertile crossroads of East and West, all kinds of diseases percolating there. There’s much controversy today about DDT and whether banning it was wise. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion, Peggy.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating post. Terrible to be exposed to such a chemical without having a say in it. Such a massive dose for that small baby. Of course, they thought they were doing a good thing back then, the lesser of two evils, but clearly that didn’t turn out to be the case.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Shari, what a story. So interesting to me that no one saw you running with that truck and to have made the connection years later is fantastic. I’m sorry you’ve suffered. I have to say the description of your childhood moments was vivid. I lived through your eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We kids had so much free play, I don’t think anyone really grasped what was going on. The adults stayed mostly inside, figuring we kids were safe playing in the common area. And to be truthful, I have no scientific proof that the DDT spray made me susceptible to respiratory illnesses later. But, yeah, Hawaii was an interesting place. Thanks for reading, Audrey.

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  4. I am so beyond tired of the Western world’s insistence that we are smarter than African tribes and Indians and any group who live differently than us. We never change, though.

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  5. What a cute little girl.

    I was sprayed with DDT too! On camping trips just outside of Cape May in the early 1970’s. I remember the trucks.
    I think when the west nile virus scare happened I lived in Brooklyn and we were told to close our windows at night because they were going to spray something. I forgot to close my children’s window and felt awful about it. Ugh.

    i wonder what the people of Africa thought (and think) about DDT.

    Liked by 1 person

    • DDT was sprayed in much of the mainland as well, especially in the South and places where the humidity is high and so are the mosquitoes. There’s a lot of controversy over it however, one of the problems being that malaria has increased exponentially now that DDT is banned, and of course that’s an enormous crisis in Africa. What’s needed is an effective, non-hazardous program to reduce mosquito populations. I think there’s a way, but not sure there’s much will. A very complex problem with no easy answers.

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  6. About 10 years ago I visited a friend who lived in a rice farming community about 1 hour southeast of Houston Texas. Everyday in the summer trucks sprayed pesticide along the streets because the rice fields bred mosquitoes. This area has one of the highest incidences of MS and cancer in the country. Her husband, who was the town’s physician, died at an early age of colon cancer.

    P.S. You sure were a cute little girl!!! The smile is still the same and it could be your own “x” factor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indiscriminate spraying of any pesticide has potentially devastating effects for many. The consequences are often tragic. But I personally know of people who’ve contracted malaria and that’s not a light disease either, though there are other ways of preventing malaria than broad spraying.

      Thanks for the comment about the photo of me at four – what happened, huh? LOL

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are still adorable times 10

        P.S. My Dad has Malaria – contracted it in the Philippines during WWII. He would get sick with high fevers decades after.

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      • That’s the horror of malaria – that it returns and returns forever and can kill you. You just never get over it. So very sorry about your Dad having the disease.
        My dad was also in the Philippines during WWII – he served as a medic.

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    • You wrote it before I got a chance to be the first to say how lovely Sharon was from the start! (will pretend I didn’t notice your followup comment, Sharon)

      Sharon, I love these memoir posts – in this one, I love how it includes the fact that for at least some of us, books are as much a part of memories as tv shows are to others. your mention of this reminds me of how when I was 9, my mom got me & my sibs a charming book about NY for kids when we all moved there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Four years old, everyone is cute, but thank you, Daal.

        You lived in NYC? I’ve always wanted to live in NYC – for one year. I’d see every Broadway show, tour every museum, traipse all over Central Park, sample every great restaurant and some of the lesser ones, walk all the boroughs (well, maybe not walk all of them) shop Fifth Avenue (OK, window shop) visit all the great sites and monuments, walk the iconic neighborhoods, sail the harbors and river, swim and play at Coney Island, photograph everything – and then never go back.

        Wait – what were we talking about? Oh yeah – books about NYC. Those too!

        Liked by 1 person

      • haha – we were there for about a year – drove from Hollywood, spent a year in NY saving $$ to move to Spain – we didn’t do any of the things you mentioned except for the window shopping & some museums. a couple of lovely sunday drives to admire autumn colors.

        oh! & went to the great library 🙂

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      • Oh yes, gotta add the New York Public Library with those stalwart lions standing guard! However, I can see your problem – trying to save money to move to Spain and trying to enjoy New York City my way don’t mix. My itinerary is expensive with a capital E.

        Now I want to know about living in Spain.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ah! maybe a good blog story – will consider 🙂

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      • Please do, Daal! Would love to read it.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I enjoyed this, Sharon. Thanks for sharing that vignette from your life. I’ve got a flash memoir I need to put up on my blog once I’m done with all the book reviews I’m doing for blogging friends. I think little glimpses into people’s live are fascinating. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Cathleen. I like the same little glimpses, always opens up something interesting about people, even some insight about why they write the stories they choose. I’m looking forward to reading your memoir.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. How does a four-year-old catch Mono? Who were you kissing?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never forgot being so sick as a little kid, but I didn’t know it was mono until I asked my dad, a physician, when I was already a mom with two little boys, what had made me so ill at four. It’s most often associated with young adults because it’s transmitted via infected saliva and young adult is the age of kissing, thus – well, you get it. But it can also be transmitted via dirty glasses or someone nearby sneezing. And in Hawaii, the air is so moist that everything grows. I caught a lot of common childhood illnesses that one year in Hawaii – I guess I was the perfect target for every bug coming my way. With my mom distracted by a difficult pregnancy and missing terribly her family in New Jersey, and then a baby who was born premature with some problems, she didn’t have anything left over to watch out for me. So, that’s how. (Everything gets to be a long story, doesn’t it? 😀 )

      Liked by 1 person

      • Shari, I was only kidding. Back when we were kids, it was nothing to take a gulp out of someone else’s glass of Koolaid. I have never had the yearning to live in Hawaii. Although I have loved visiting the Pacific and chasing the tide, eventually I have always wanted to go inland a little. Crete, although a small island, does not have the humidity like Hawaii. I enjoyed the rural life there. There’s just something about Hawaii that turns me off.

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      • I realized your comment was a bit off hand, but I wanted to explain why diseases transfer so easily in Hawaii. I probably had – have – a bit of a weak immune system.

        Hawaii is not everyone’s favorite place, and sadly Oahu is so overbuilt and commercialized that it’s hard to see any of its original beauty. I haven’t even been back for a visit since my thirteenth birthday when we flew to California.

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  9. How utterly fascinating to share those recalled memories, Sharon! My dad was born in Oahu (Navy) but moved to Texas. I can’t believe how you innocently cavorted in the DDT spray! What a different world we live in now. Sorry to hear about your ongoing respiratory issues. My dad, now 80, had mild COPD. He never smoked but he spent a few years on a Navy ship riddled with asbestos. He only started getting the symptoms these last three years, even though his doc told him he had a small spot on his lung 30 years ago. It also makes me wonder if while he was a baby, he was exposed to the DDT cloud, but that would have been in 1936. And my daughter had a case of mono her senior year in high school–we thought she was depressed with a bad cold.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mono used to be very difficult to diagnose – it was usually a negative on every thing else possible so it must be mono. Some aspects do resemble a bad cold so I know how it could have been missed in your daughter. I remember that I’d wake every single morning with my eyes glued shut with thick mucous and have to soak it off slowly with wet wash cloths. It was a bit frightening as I was so young. Not sure how my dad finally figured it out, but he’d suspected I had tuberculosis when I was still in Hawaii about four months earlier. My persistent coughing caused him to sneak into Tripler Hospital and run lab tests on my blood. Didn’t have TB but I guess the symptoms got worse so in a few months, when we were in Alabama, I had mono. How much of my illness was attributable to DDT spray, we can only guess. Hawaii harbored lots of illness as it was a crossroads between East and West. Finally, I’ve had both pneumonia shots and have since had no serious pneumonia or bronchitis breakouts. Mono is related to Epstein-Barr syndrome but I’m unlikely to ever suffer from it. Respiratory illnesses do go round, don’t they? So very sorry about your father’s condition, and I hope he has good medical care.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow, even your comment is amazing to read! Yes, my dad retired from AT&T (when it was still PacBell) so he’s in good medical hands. My poor daughter still played varsity volleyball while having mono (didn’t know she had it) and managed to power through every game and school. Once her tests came back (thought strep throat) and the doc told her she had mono, (and league play ended at the same time), she literally went to bed for 3 days. She still was voted MVP and Ist Team All-League (and school female athlete of the year)! Touch chica! Sounds like you are, too, Sharon!

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      • Wow to your daughter, Terri – good for her, powering through even though she must have felt exhausted and in pain. She certainly deserves the accolades. But that’s a dedicated athlete for you, and the quality that makes them stand out among us couch potatoes. I wish her well on all future endeavors.

        As you can imagine, eventually I did some research about DDT, mononucleosis, tuberculosis, and even Epstein-Barr as a very close friend suffered from it for years. Thank you, Internet, even easier than my encyclopedia where I started decades ago.

        And thank heaven for a good medical care package from AT&T for your dad.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Sharon, I was wondering how you’d tackle X and the answer is superbly!! 😀😀 From the personal details of your childhood visit to the UN (I was there on a tour in my late teens) to Africa and the misconceived (or not) attempts to stop malaria. You raise so many issues that I feel an all night discussion could follow…I’m glad you recovered well after your encounter with DDT, I imagine many were not that lucky. A thought provoking post, Sharon, well done for X! Nope, I don’t have anything to offer for this one either! 😀😀

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