I was just a kid when I learned the meaning of the word “quarantine.” It all began innocently enough. I woke up one morning with a bad sore throat. It was early spring.
As I lay in bed, my biggest concern was that I wouldn’t recover by Easter. I didn’t feel all that sick by the time the doctor arrived. The sore throat hadn’t hung around long, but I ran a slight fever. I didn’t realize it, but the most unsettling part of my young life was about to begin.
The doctor examined me while my mom nervously looked on. He noted that my tongue had turned scarlet red — a sure sign of scarlet fever. Mom called to Dad, who was in the basement, to come quickly. She began to cry while Dad tried to comfort her.
You don’t hear much about scarlet fever anymore. There is no preventive vaccine for the disease, even today. In the late 1940s, scarlet fever was more prevalent and it scared the hell out of people. The disease was highly contagious. My life and that of my family’s was about to change.
Our family was already preparing for Easter. Back in the day, those preparations included my sister and I getting new outfits for Easter. It was a really big deal what we wore for the holiday. You starved a fever and fed a cold. If you had a fever, you stayed in bed. And you called a doctor. Doctors made house calls in those days. You gave up sweets for Lent. You visited churches with your mom and your aunts on Holy Thursday (the men in the family were always excused from religious duty). You sat through the excruciating Stations of the Cross. (I always rooted for a different ending where Jesus smote his enemies). Moms made up Easter baskets — one for each kid. My mom also made one for dad, so he wouldn’t steal the best candy from our baskets. I wasn’t allowed to touch the candy until Lent was over. The wait was excruciating. And I always attended Mass on Easter morning, decked out in my new suit. The suit was usually purchased at SAM’S, at 7th and Oregon. SAM’S carried boys clothing in what was euphemistically called “stocky” sizes. I was decidedly stocky. Tradition was a big deal back then. We lived our simple lives dictated largely by tradition.
The doctor called an ambulance to take me to a hospital. The ambulance arrived with its sirens blaring. It seemed like the entire neighborhood came outside as they carried me out of the house to the waiting ambulance on a stretcher. Later, I found out that the health authorities had slapped a quarantine sign on our front door. My family became pariahs in the neighborhood. Our house was avoided as if it were haunted.
To my surprise, there was another frightened kid already in the ambulance. He was bawling his eyes out. When the siren’s sharp whine resumed, the kid cried even harder. We stopped at yet another house to pick up another sick kid. Like me, he didn’t utter a sound. The humid air in the ambulance was stifling. You could almost smell our fear.
At the hospital, I was examined for lice. The nurse ran a hard comb through my hair. She was all business. The sharp teeth of the comb felt like they were going to penetrate my scalp. I was then taken to another room, where a nurse instructed me to wash myself in a big old tub. I was embarrassed to undress in front of her. She tried to reassure me that it was no big deal. But for a kid who was just a few years away from puberty, it was a big deal. I washed myself quickly while she pretended to look away.
I found out from my folks – -or maybe it was a doctor — that I had to spend a minimum of three weeks in the hospital before I was considered safe to go home. Worse, the diagnosis came with a caution that scarlet fever often carried with it other infections. If any of those infections hit me, I might have to stay in the hospital even longer.
Soon, I got good news. The risk of my being contagious was over. A sure sign was that the palms of my hands started to peel — the way your skin does when you have a bad sunburn. I no longer suffered any discomfort from my illness. I was determined not to spend one more day in that hospital than I had to. Three weeks and I would be out of there. I counted the days.
Eventually, the time passed without my suffering any further side effects. My parents brought me home. I returned to my fourth-grade class at Francis Scott Key. All my school books had been burned. While I was hospitalized, my role in the school play had, understandably, been given to another kid. I sat mute the night of the play, silently mouthing the words while the other kid spoke what had been my lines.
My teacher — Mrs. Goldstein — graciously promoted me to the next grade, despite the time I’d missed. But I never did get to wear my new Easter outfit.
Funny what buried memories resurface during this damn pandemic. But I’m reminded I’ve survived bad times before. I bet you have, too.
You can follow Tom Cardella on Facebook.