A TRUE TALE OF THE SMALLPOX VACCINE

Up and Away….

Back in 1968 when you still needed a smallpox vaccination to go to Europe, I got mine free at a local Public Health Center. I thought it was going to be just a regular injection, but the needle was a narrow steel rod, about 6 cm long with two prongs at the end to hold a dose of reconstituted freeze-dried smallpox vaccine between its prongs.  The doctor dipped the needle into the vaccine, then punctured my upper arm fifteen times in a small circle. It hurt like anything, but I was the proud first generation of my family to go to Europe rather than escape from it. So I took it on the chin, or rather the arm.

“Make sure you don’t get it wet,” the doctor warned. “Let the scab fall off naturally, or you may have to get the shot all over again.”

It had to heal. I was leaving in six weeks.

I became expert at taking a shower with my arm out of the shower curtain. I slept on my right side, even though I slept more deeply on my left. I wore short sleeve blouses though it was still chilly. Finally, after three weeks, the oozing stopped and a scab formed. I was duty-bound to be its protectoress.

At that time, I was teaching in a junior high in a declining neighborhood. Often I would see my students’ names in the headlines of the local paper for having committed robberies and even arson. Once, murder. They were very hard to manage, especially after lunch when drug dealers came to the schoolyard and sold them their wares through the wire fence during recess. Each day fights broke out. Once a gang of girls burst into my classroom and dragged a girl out into the hallway by her hair, knocked her down, and began kicking and stomping her. After that, we had to have a full-time policeman on staff.

Time was ticking for my takeoff. I had to protect that scab. In a pharmacy, I found something made particularly for that purpose. It was a clear plastic half-globe with holes in it to let in air. You had to tape it over the scab, and it just about fit.

The next day, I went to school wearing that dome over the scab. The students had seen the scab before, but something about it being under that dome made it seem like a baby creature from the black lagoon in an incubator. I saw my students’ eyes widen as they riveted on the domed scab. Students poked the ones nodding out. Jaws dropped. For the first time, there was silence my class. I taught a lesson on equations that I had never been able to get through before.

In the hallways, instead of getting jostled, students parted for me, eager to walk at the side where my dome rested but giving me a wide berth. Students who weren’t in my classes peered at me through the small window in the door, hoping for a glance of that domed scab. I had no discipline problems, but I still had the damn scab.

My husband’s closest childhood friend, Mark, married a woman who I was embarrassed to be with in public. Haley was boisterous and wore bright pink lipstick that she applied way beyond the lip line. She was obese and leaned over to grab food from your plate, accidently dipping her hefty breasts in the sauce. But how could I tell my husband that I wouldn’t get together with his best friend when Mark’s work hours didn’t coincide with his? Because Haley was depressed, Mark was afraid to leave her alone on weekends. This was the only way my husband and Mark could see each other.

By that point, I was depressed too. I had eight days to go, and the scab still hadn’t come off.

As soon as we met at the China Palace, Haley said on top of her lungs, “Well, Rochelle, how the hell are you?” She reached out and gave me a hard swat on the arm, a friendly tap to her. The dome flew off my arm and into the air along with the scab. I screamed. Diners looked up from their Pu Pu platters to see what the commotion was about.

I looked at my arm, expecting the ooze to be there again. Instead, it was just skin, a pale circle in memory of that scab. I was going to Europe after all, and it was blowsy and loud-mouthed Haley who had given me the send-off.