I was never afraid of the doctor. By the time I was 6, I was pretty certain that there was only so much terror a doctor could cause. He could force a popsicle stick down your throat and make you want to throw up. He could ask you, in front of your mother, what it felt like to go to the bathroom. He could pat you on your butt and tell you that you were going to be good at football. That was as bad as the doctor could get. He wrote things on paper and told your parents that, since it was already 11 o’clock in the morning, there was no reason for you to go back to school. The doctor was a pushover, a patsy, a piece of cake.
The nurse was a different matter. The nurse had the needle. The nurse sneaked up behind you. The nurse gave you what was good for you and wiped the blood off with alcohol. While the doctor was out of the room, you were left alone with the nurse, this person who did not even know what your name was, this person who was allowedby the doctor, your parents, the county school board and the state health departmentto treat you like so much raw meat or an internment-camp captive or a soulless laboratory beast. For the good of society and for her own standard-issue, paper-capped pleasure, the nurse was allowed to give you the shot. She gave you the shot, wiped the needle off on some cotton and told you to go back to class.
I grew up in the Age of the Vaccination, the era after which no children would ever die again or have spindly legs or have throats that turned black because of diphtheria. It was the age in which needles and and algae and molecules and mold that grew on horse dung were all our best friends. It was an age in which parents would subject their childrenand the children of all other right-thinking parents everywhereto anything that would ensure them an eternal and untroubled life.
There was in this age, after all, so much for children to live for: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, toaster ovens, Mamie Eisenhower, Polaroid cameras, the McGuire Sisters, pre-sliced luncheon meat. In her hard-edged white uniform, the nurse was in charge of the needle that could guarantee that free children everywhere would survive to experience these wonders. There was no way she could know that I Love Lucy would ever be available on reruns. There was no way she could know that people would get cancer from eating the red M&M’s. There was no way she could know that Rock Hudson and Doris Day were not really in love.
She lived in a world full of promise, a world without moments to waste. It did not matter to her that tiny children trembled when they heard the squeaking of her rubber-soled shoes on the linoleum. It did not matter that they had mild fevers and slight flu-like symptoms for the next seven days. It did not matter that they called her “Big Whitie.” All that mattered was that she was there to bring about an end to everything evil. It did not matter how many children broke out in rashes or fainted or threw up. All that mattered was that she held the needle of life.
She went about sticking needles into children and did not ask questions. Children allowed her to stick them because they did not know what questions to ask. They trusted, as their parents trusted right along with them, that there would one day be a needle for everything. If there was anything that could not be fixed by squirting something through a needle and sticking it into a 6-year-old’s hinie, it was not anything worth worrying about. If it could not be fixed with a needle, it was certainly not anything nice people could catch. It was something people caught because they were hard-headed and stubborn and refused to learn their five food groups. It was something fixable, like poverty or ignorance or being born to a father who drank. It was something any child could fix if he took his shots and asked for second helpings of green beans. The needle, the nurse knew, would take care of everything else.
Forever after, she knew, children would run on strong legs and grow tall and healthy. Iron lungs would be beaten down and hammered into wall hangings. There would be no more wheelchairs. There would be no more telethons. There would be no more aging. There would be color television. All children would come from two-parent homes.
That is why nurses did not trust the sugar cube. When families lined up to take it on Sunday afternoons in school auditoriums and community centers, nurses looked into the children’s faces as the boys and girls, whose hinies they knew so well, took the sugar cubes up from the trays and swallowed them, smiling, feeling no nausea, feeling no dizziness, feeling not the slightest bit faint.
The nurses looked at the children and remembered needles aimed at measles, at whooping cough, at hepatitis, at typhoid and smallpox. They remembered weeping, pale-faced children. They remembered scabs that formed and itched and fell off and, if they were worth anything, left nickel-sized scars. They looked children straight in the eyes and thought to themselves, “Didn’t I pump you full of penicillin once?”
They feared, as they watched these children swallowing medicine as if it were candy, that America’s value system was gone. They feared that children would no longer bow their heads in prayer and be grateful for the blessings they had been given. They feared that, now, the children would think all of life was going to be that kind of easysomething they did not even have to gulp to swallow, something that simply dissolved on the tongue and went down.
They feared that the children would forget the needle that had made it all possible. They feared that they would forget the nurse who had done her duty, who had given a moment of discomfort, a little queasiness, in exchange for a life protected from illness, horror and shame.
The nurses looked at the children and shook their heads in silent, pitying wonder. They looked at the children’s parents, and the parents smiled gently down at the nurses. In the eyes of the parents and the nurses there were tears for a moment. They thought to themselves, “Now that we do not even have the needle, these are the last tears we will ever need to cry.” They had forgotten that there could be other kinds of pain.