Chicken Pox Christmas by Russ Hanson

Source:  Chicken Pox Christmas by Russ Hanson    Tag:  the history of chickenpox
"Mr. Sazma says his kids have chicken pox" said Mom at the dinner table as she dished out some hand packed Sterling Ice cream she had picked up at the Cushing Coach. "I suppose it's going around."
"I hope the boys don't get it over Christmas vacation. It would be hard on them having to spend vacation cooped up in the house," replied Dad. We four boys didn't pay any attention to them.
"How can we get chicken pox when we don't go in the chicken coop?" stated Everett authoritatively. It was already the week before Christmas vacation. We were too busy studying our "pieces" for the school program and "being good" to worry about the neighbor kids being sick if they were too dumb to leave the chickens alone at their place.
The Sterling Ice Cream was made in Dresser, WI, and was the best we could buy. It had local farm eggs and cream in abundance and with a little canned strawberry sauce from the basement, made a dessert that a half-century later I still think can't be improved upon. The storekeeper, Sazma, had wrapped the ice cream in newspaper from his attached home, to keep it cold on the trip home.
The last week of school was over with the Friday night program at Wolf Creek School. We had a big spruce Christmas tree that we had decorated with red and green paper chains, cranberries strung with a needle and thread, and cutout snowflakes, stars and tinsel. We painted the school windows with Santa Claus, reindeer, snowmen and Christmas trees with bright colored tempera paint. We learned how to paint Merry Christmas in reverse on the entrance windows so it would read right from the outside. The program night came and the first graders stumbled through their poems and the older kids with skits and songs. After thunderous applause from the room crowded with adults, a local pianist sat at the piano bench and led the whole crowd in Christmas songs ending in Silent Night. The kids picked up their small paper sack treats; an apple, some hard and soft candy and a handful of peanuts. The adults each got an apple—all supplied by the School Board out of their own pocketbook as a return to the community from their small salaries.
Everett had complained that Friday to his brothers "I itch all over" but didn't say anything to Mom so he wouldn't have to stay home from the program. Well, on Saturday we all itched all over including the youngest, Byron, a first grader. Mom looked at our spots, consulted with Grandma, and gave us the diagnosis "you all have chicken pox."
"It's good they all get it at the same time," commented Grandma, "it's a lot less work to have them all down at once." In those days, measles, mumps and chicken pox were all childhood diseases that had to be gotten over sooner or later. No one ever wasted a doctor's time about these diseases. You just comforted the patient, got out the home remedies and waited a week or two to get over it.
Chicken pox were treated by making dire threats to the sick one what would happen if you scratched the pox. "You will leave big holes in your skin that won't heal if you scratch." We had seen the results that small pox had left on our neighbor Raleigh, so we thought that must be what we would get. Home remedies included "mix vinegar, baking soda, and mineral oil and apply it to help stop the itching", "rub wet oatmeal on the pox" or "wash with a weak boric acid solution" all while making dire predictions of what would happen if you scratched. Another trick was cutting the scratcher's fingernails so short they couldn't scratch. Kids really don't feel very sick with chicken pox, so it is a hard disease to have to be stuck inside for a week or two waiting it out. In those days, you made sure you didn't have visitors or go anywhere, because it was so contagious—and if an adult got it, they could get very sick.
"What are we going to do with the kids stuck in the house for the next two weeks?" asked Mom. Grandma thought we could play games. She always loved playing games with us, but had to be at her own home for Christmas. We had Chinese checkers and regular checkers and an old game of Grandma's called "Bring Home the Bacon." We quickly tired of these.
Mom went to the store and bought a game she had heard of called "Monopoly." A neighbor, Lloyd Westlund, told her "the games last hours and it teaches you arithmetic!"
"If you behave, I will give you one of your Christmas presents early," Mom told the four of us. "We'll be good!" as we clamored for a Christmas present. We knew that our relatives gave us some presents in addition to those coming from Santa, who only gave his out on Christmas night. (We found out Santa Claus didn't exist when one June, we found a bunch of Christmas presents hidden and forgotten in the old piano, labeled "from Santa." Santa wouldn't be hiding presents in our piano we reasoned so it must be Mom, who we knew could have hidden and forgotten them).
The Ben Franklin store in St. Croix Falls had wrapped the game for Mom. We tore off the wrapping and saw the game. Marvin, the oldest, said he had heard of it before. We cleared the big dining room table, unfolded the board and got out the parts.
Marvin, always a stickler for following every rule, carefully read the instructions: "Pick someone to be the banker. Shuffle the Chance and Community Chest cards and place on the board. Pick your own piece to move around the board. Throw the dice and move ahead from Go the amount you throw. If you land on a property, buy it from the bank..."
There were lots of rules, but that didn't bother us. Marvin read more rules as we ran into new conditions. We learned how to buy houses and hotels and to charge rent. Marvin knew percents and quickly taught me, whose favorite subject was arithmetic, to use paper and pencil to calculate everything exactly. After a few learning games, Byron dropped out—it was too hard for him. Mom gave him another Christmas present, a big yellow road grader that steered and had an adjustable blade. She cleared an area on the floor for him to play. "I need some dirt to grade," he complained. Mom took a big 25 cent cylinder box of Quaker Oats and dumped it on the floor for him to grade.
"Yuk!" complained Everett, who liked oatmeal, "it will be all dirty to eat."
"The chickens can have it when he is done," replied Mom, "I have more in the pantry."
It seemed to me that the oatmeal was a little gritty later that week, but Mom assured us the chickens got the stuff Byron graded. Maybe some of it ended up soothing our pox scabs.
Marv, Ev, and I got down to serious Monopoly. We followed all the rules, no matter how hard the math—by Marv's insistence. We learned the strategy of trying to get the right group of houses and stick hotels on them. We understood that Park Place was really for the rich people; railroads were useful to have; sometimes it was better to sit in jail than pay rent, and all of the interesting twists to the game.
Games lasted at least three hours, and if we happened to get evenly matched properties, could last from one day to the next. Sometimes we ran the bank out of money and printed our own. Sometimes the banker was tempted beyond his self-control to help himself from the till. Sometimes, with shifting alliances, one player would offer wildly favorable terms to another to keep him in the game and run the third out of business. Cheating was rare, but often enough that we watched the banker like a hawk to keep him honest. Everett preferred to have lots of money, Marvin lots of property, and I liked a few properties fully loaded with hotels and the rest mortgaged to the hilt.
Christmas came and went and still we played Monopoly all day and into the evening—only stopping when Dad brought out ears of popcorn for us to shell and him to pop. He was fussy; making popcorn was a carefully followed ritual. He shook only freshly shelled popcorn in a dry frying pan over the stove burner turned on high. He watched the kernels plumpen and turn golden brown as they rolled back and forth on the skillet bottom. When the first kernel popped, he stuck on the lid, turned it to medium, and continued to shake the pan vigorously to the final pop, holding the pan off he burner near the end to keep it from burning.
"Only three old maid's in the whole batch!" exclaimed Dad, one of the few things we ever saw him boast about during his life. When he had made a whole dishpan full, he melted lots of Cushing Creamery butter and poured it over the popcorn, salted and stirred it and gave it to us boys, but not before he filled the frying pan, coated thick with melted butter, with popcorn for himself. "The person who pops it gets the extra butter!" he stated relishing it as much as I might like the cleaning the fudge kettle.
As a dairy farmer, Dad thought lots of cream, butter, whole milk, and real ice cream were as important to our physical health as going to church was for our spiritual life. He was blessed with low cholesterol, low blood pressure, and a long life in spite of doctors railing against people consuming dairy fat. He particularly liked cream skimmed from the top of his own cows' raw milk on his cereal.
Finally, with only two days of vacation left, Mom said "You boys are all well again. You can go outside and play." We bundled up for the cold weather, and got out the sleds, ski's, skates and our dog Lucky, and headed for the big hill above the swamp to make up for lost time. Most Christmas vacations were spent almost entirely outside on the hills or skating on Bass Lake. We went down the hill a few times and struggled back up, finding out that we were not up to all that exercise. We headed to the barn to help throw down the hay and slide down the hay piles, pat the cats, climb into the silo and watch Dad chip off the frozen edges before straggling back into the house and setting up the Monopoly game for the rest of the day.
School started soon, and with homework and chores, we didn't have time for games except on some weekend evenings. We still played Monopoly on occasion, but it seems to me that after playing it almost all of the time for two weeks, we sort of wore out our interest in it. Sometimes we played with other school chums, but they never like playing with us. "Those Hanson boy's don't understand it is just a game!"