Gaea, the goddess of all the earth, is trying to kill me. I don’t know what I did. I’m on her side, for crying out loud. I’ve always known the Trees are going to win. I’m on their side. But the planet’s got it in for me. This time, it’s personal.
The first time Mother Nature tried to kill me I was just eight years old. It was springtime in Cherokee County, Kansas, and a million trees were blooming upwind of Riverton Elementary school, where I was finishing out a rare unbroken school year waiting for my father to fly home from Vietnam and transfer his squad of children to our permanent duty station. My third-grade class was frolicking at recess, that totally unstructured half hour when elementary schoolmarms let their charges blow off steam.
It was still jacket weather, despite the greens bursting through the earth and along tender branches all across the Ozark foothills. The air burned in my lungs. No. That wasn’t right. The air abandoned my lungs. My chest was tight. I clutched at my ribs and struggled to wheeze air into them.
Terrified, I gasped for air.
“I can’t breathe,” I gasped to my teacher.
“Well, go inside and lay your head on your desk.”
I did so. Maybe going inside got me out of the pollen. Nothing ever came of that incident.
Weeks later it happened again.
I was at my grandparents’ house after school. Picking through pieces of childhood memory, assembling the jigsaw trauma half a century later, the picture emerges of my 14-year-old aunt babysitting my sisters and me when Nature shoved a pillow over my face. It was the during halcyon days of black and white portrayal of Saturday Night Post, of Better Homes and Garden, before middle-class white women took jobs outside their home. It would be years before my mother entered the workforce. She and my grandmother were in town with the toddlers, ‘town’ being Joplin or Baxter.
With Dad stationed in Saigon, we stayed in a brick rancher my grandfather had built on a slice of land catty corner from his own home. We’d cut through Grampa’s pasture to get between the houses for Sunday supper or entice Grandma to dote on us.
That year glitters in my memory as the happiest of my life. For one precious solar circuit I experienced my own cliched small town childhood in the bosom of an extended family. It was a glimpse of the lifestyle my father’s service protected, the lifestyle of civilian children in public school hallways whose lives I slipped in and out of as the Pentagon shifter tin soldiers around the board. It seemed idyllic to me.
Riverton is a speck on a map astride Route 66, which cuts a short arc through Kansas from Missouri like Quantrill’s partisans on the way to Oklahoma. Riverton is an unincorporated town, cluttered around Empire District’s hydroelectric plant where Grampa worked, the World Famous Spring River Inn, and a Dairy Creme ice cream stand. Our house was across from the First Baptist Church we attended and Pastor Jones invited me to supper with his family and his son, a year my senior, was a playmate.
It was small town by any definition, but it was hardly rural. Not farmland. I thought I lived on Green Acres because my grandfather had a garden where he grew their vegetables, and a corrugated metal barn in a pasture where a red cow named Sally grazed with her calves before offering them up to our deep freeze and table. The milkman delivered bottles to our doorstep and sometimes I rode to with Grandma to buy fresh eggs from a Columbus farmhouse and her vintage sedan left a dusty contrail in our wake along the long and gravel road.
That Kansas dust was part of the problem. So were the pasture grasses, and the crepe myrtles, and pet dander, and the household dust mites lingering in carpets and drapery, and a couple dozen other allergens whose ubiquity tortured me, but we didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was I couldn’t breathe. It was as if Sally had lain on my chest. I felt like Giles Corey at Salem.
Giles called for more weight but I clutched my chest and whined piteously: “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
Aunt Marie was at her wits’ end. This was long before cell phones, before pagers, even before answering machines. We had a telephone but no way to reach my mother, no way to reach my grandmother. At fourteen Marie kept an eye on me and my sisters before. This was a million years ago, remember, before the world went bad.
Every time I tell this story Marie reminds me she was frantic, so I’ve folded that detail into my labile memory, though the detail is probably more annotation than memory. My memories of that day are shrouded in fog. I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to my brain.
After what seemed an eternity Mom and Grandma returned. They rushed me to the emergency room in Joplin. The doctors diagnosed an asthma attack and put me in an oxygen tent for a week to recuperate.
Once we got settled at Fort Monroe, my father drove me to Walter Reed in Washington where Army medics scratched a bunch of poison into my back to discover my sensitivities. Turns out I have no right to be alive.
I read an article once, a habit picked up from my mother, whose propensity to clip stories
tangent to her children’s interests we hold in fond amusement. Even today, when print journalism has become so anemic I worry for my future hobo bedding, I open envelopes from home and find the confetti of her concern and encouragement stuffed inside. My file cabinet bulges with yellowed newsprint my daughter will one day toss in a dumpster unglimpsed. I read a newspaper article when the word ‘asthma’ caught my eye. The writer suggested a psychological component to asthma, a child’s reaction to the helplessness of circumstances swallowing him, and I remembered that spring when the most idyllic year I had ever or would ever experience collapsed at the tail end of a school year, ripping me from extended family, from my friends and classmates, even from the concept Home like the cyclone sweeping Dorothy Gale into the flying monkey horrors.
Such a mind/body correlation goes almost without saying, even when there are other factors, like a plethora of allergies that modified my parents’ lifestyle. My mother cleared our home of carpets and drapes. My father made a point to smoke outside. My father considered cigarettes one of his few pleasures in life, so smoking on the porch may be the most loving gesture he ever made to me.
Smoking outside beat rushing me to the dispensary for a shot of adrenaline to counter asthma attacks. Even with all their precautions they made frantic drives to the hospital several times every spring until I was well into my teens. My body regularly tried to kill me.
After the diagnoses from Walter Reed we squeezed a regimen of biweekly allergy shots, every week, for years. It was a burden on the family but would have been impossible without the Army’s health care benefits. That level of medical care was a privilege I could not comprehend when I was a boy. I understand it is not most people’s norm. “It’s ironic,” my uncle observed, “that the most socialist organization in America is the one charged with fighting world socialism.”
And it makes me wonder.
After some years passed the biweekly shots tapered to weekly and eventually … ended altogether. I seemed to have outgrown my asthma for the most part, though in some seasons and locales the tight chest flared again. I sometimes treated it with an over-the-counter spray. They don’t make that spay anymore. Too many fluorocarbons. I learned other tricks to deal with infrequent attacks. Local honey is a natural treatment for pollen allergies. A scalding shower makes a sauna of a bathroom, melting loose mucus stalactites . Strong coffee opens my bronchial passages.
Most of the time I don’t need to remember those things.
Late last week a cannonade of thunder rolled in from northwest, sheeting rain across the Missouri and splashing the city from downtown to uptown thence midtown, washing over me. A red cow crawled in my bed and plopped her wet, musky bulk squarely on my chest. I woke with a start, gasping for air. All the pollen of the upper Midwest coagulated my quarters.
I struggled into the kitchen to brew strong coffee. Gasping. Wondering if my suffocating circumstances accounted for the attack, missing the socialized medicine of my youth. As a starry-eyed youth I expected the US to have caught up with the rest of the Modern World in health care.
Gaea’s trying to kill me and I don’t know what I did.