Since vaccinations have been a much-talked-about topic around the campfires, watercoolers, truck stop coffee islands and other places of interest, it’s made me think about my own vaccine hesitation and downright protest to such an action.
Except my own story took place around August of 1983.
Judy Copeland was the school nurse. James Lewis Tidwell was the elementary school principal. My backyard neighbor, Nina Rhea, was one of three Kindergarten teachers in my little school.
One humid gray-clouded morning, my mother got me dressed so we could go register for school. This was a very large occasion for any little person, especially for a boy who’d only celebrated his fifth birthday the month before. Until this two-block walk, the only memorable trips anywhere were to the mall in Texarkana where his Mama and Daddy would often buy him a “prize,” which was a helium balloon from the toy store down at the end of the corridor next to JC Penney’s. Camping at Broken Bow Lake up in Oklahoma may have been more memorable, but that’s a whole different experience for any kid.
On this particular morning, my mother and I walked into the “New Gym” which was not new at all, only unfinished. The school didn’t complete the build-out until I was in high school, for what that’s worth. This is how things progressed back then.
As we walked into the big double metal doors with the glass windows, we heard music coming from beyond the lobby from the children on the stage in the big part of this place. There were bright colorful lights, people in costumes, dancing, and lots of singing. Just about my only comparison, as far as a personal observation, would have been a staged play that aired on the public television station, or Chuck-E-Cheese in Texarkana.
Whatever it was, it was eye-catching, and I was too mesmerized to pay attention to mother who pointed off to the right and said, “Look! There’s your cousin, Kyle Barrett! He was waving at you. Did you see him?”
No, I didn’t see Kyle, and was disappointed as any five-year-old that I’d missed it. I was too busy looking directly up front at all the activity there. Kyle was a year ahead of me, so this “registration event” that the school district had put on must recruit the kids headed to the first grade to help welcome the bunch coming up from behind, or so I thought at the time.
Once the singing was over and the pages of forms were filled out, it was time to head back to the New Gym lobby, toward the front door, with its mint green-painted cinder block walls and high-traffic square vinyl-tiled floor. I thought we were leaving.
We most certainly were not leaving at that moment. Remember, the subject of this story has to do with inoculations? Yeah, those.
The De Kalb Independent School District New Gym lobby, with its mint green-painted cinderblock windowless walls and high-traffic square vinyl-tiled floor had a room off to the side that was closed up when we first entered this big, exciting event.
Yet, it was open as we approached. A line of children who appeared to be my age was snaked out the door. The occupants of this line were nervous, uneasy and some were even crying a little. But their sobs were not as disturbing as the loud heart-stopping screens coming from inside that room. It turns out, this was the shot line.
You know the shot line? De Kalb ISD was providing free shots to kids who needed to be injected with whatever vaccine that needed to be given at that time. I don’t remember what it was, but I do know some really big kids were balling their eyes out when they were getting a shot in the arm, and I wasn’t having any of that. No, Sir. Not any of it.
Judy Copeland, the school nurse, was a wonderfully caring grown-up when I was that age. Despite her participation in the injection line that day, I never forgot this — Each child was sitting on the edge of a long folding table, their feet swinging freely below. Ms. Judy would take a medicine dropper with purple liquid, squeeze a drop onto a sugar cube, and place it on the top of a child’s tongue.
All was well, and then the injection in the arm.
The screams. Each and every time, the screams from those “big kids” were enough to make anybody want to run.
My mother was accommodating at first. When I witnessed what I saw, I wanted to go to the back of the line. I wasn’t ready for that hot mess. Nope. We made our way to the back of the line at least twice until finally, I was the only only one left in line.
Do you think I got up on that table for my shot then?
Yes, I did. I got my sugar cube with a drop of purple liquid right out of Nurse Judy Copeland’s medicine dropper.
They prepared a syringe to stick into my arm.
NOPE. I wasn’t ready.
“Could I get another sugar before you do that?” I asked, or something similar.
A second cube was given, this time without the purple drip on top.
I enjoyed that.
Another attempt at injection failed when I suddenly objected.
By this time, the outside of this windowless cinderblock room was empty. All the cast and crew of the play out there on stage had gone home. All of the form-takers and all of the little-people my age and their parents had left. The gym was dark. It was just me, Mrs. Judy, Mr. Tidwell, and MOTHER. Oh Mother.
She eventually wasn’t so accommodating.
Three or four tries for a shot, and three or four loud tearful objections from a five year old were enough for all involved.
Apologies were exchanged among the grownups in the the little room. A salt-and-pepper-haired man with a salt-and-pepper blazer with suede elbow pads and freshly starched Wrangler jeans and boots approached me with a bespectled expression.
“Now Charrrrlieee, you can’t go to the school house until you get this shot. Now, I want you in that school house and I want you to do your best. Can you help me out by just getting that shot for me?”
James Lewis Tidwell’s voice was calm and assuring. But I was over it all. It could have been Mister Rogers himself at that moment, and I wasn’t going to get that shot. I did not care if I had to stay home with my mother for the rest of my life as a result either. The cartoons came on TV at 2 p.m. on the Superstation WTBS Channel 2, so why would I want to give that up?
As we left, mother let me know outside that New Gym door how much this was the most frustrating. As I remember, I made a group of adults wait for a long time, only for me to not get the shot. There was a bit of a foot pursuit after this.
That foot pursuit was me running away from that front door across the dirt parking lot, across Maple Street and in-between the houses lining the avenue, all the while my mother was five feet behind, only she’d somehow removed her belt and it was ready to strike as she ran behind me.
Somewhere between the Owens’ house and the back of the Tice’s house, I hit a dead end in the form of a chain-link fence, which weren’t common in De Kalb. A dog ran from its doghouse to bark at us, a swat from the belt behind me hit my arm as I double-backed due to this dead-end home. The wrath of not getting that shot was close behind as I ran as fast as my little legs would go.
Back to the front of Maple Street, a few “Damnits” and whatever else was from behind me while in pursuit, I darted to the right toward the railroad tracks and the corner of South Front Street where I knew I could make it home.
I made the corner, I seem to remember a few hits from back there as I headed east and then south on Broadway (the street behind our house) and then through the alley, all the while rain tried to fall in the middle of this late summer’s day.
I don’t remember the rest of that day. I don’t remember what happened once I got home. I’d like to think that nothing happened. I’d like to think that my speed and prowess exhausted the grown-up on my tail who was properly pissed for wasting time. I’d like to think that everybody was just fine with my sudden decision to forego the shot.
Several days later, we went over to Dr. Keller’s office, the town doctor’s medical clinic in my little town at the time. Dr. Keller loved to hum and sing in between seeing patients. Usually, it was some big band tune from thirty years prior. I am not certain that he hummed an Artie Shaw tune, but I can imagine he did. Keller gave me the shot intended for my arm at the registration event, only it was injected into my hip. I squealed an exhale of nervous exhaustion as the needle went into my skin.
I mention that reaction because when I became a father for the first time, as our darling Hattie was born, the first sound she made was a carbon copy of the reaction I had in this moment. I don’t know I’ve ever told her that, but we like to repeat the story to her that she came into this world telling us that she was pretty tired but she was happy to be here.
A few weeks later, after the $50 doctor bill from Keller’s office (of which the school was doing for free), Mr. Tidwell walked up to me on the first day of Kindergarten as we were getting ready to eat lunch in the cafeteria.,
“Oh Charlie,” as he pinched hard on my shoulder and spoke in his slow drawl. “I am so glad you finally got your booster shot.”
Mr. Tidwell, Nurse Judy, Kyle Barrett and my mother — were, are, and always will be dear to me in the deepest ways that only a five-year-old can understand, and a grown man can embrace, despite the terror at that time, all these years later.