Sunday, July 04, 2010

Message #33744

I sent the an essay to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" in response to the following solicitation.

"We've been asking newsmakers and other guests to tell us about the summer job that had a personal impact on them. To kick off the series, Melissa Block shares stories from Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and former first lady Laura Bush.

"The series will run throughout the summer, and we hope to hear from listeners as well. Tell us what jobs had the biggest influence on your life, be it the work you did or the people you met."

It was rejected - I think.

"Response to Message #33744:

Dear Jim,

Thank you for contacting NPR.

We are grateful for your comments to NPR News. Your feedback is important to us, and your thoughts (on poison ivy, the universe, and especially Stanley the Seminarian) have been noted. Thank you very much for telling us about your summer job.

NPR is always delighted to hear from listeners.

Thank you for listening, and for your continued support of public broadcasting. For the latest news and information, visit

NPR Services"

I recall a vignette from a novel about a magazine editor who again and again keeps receiving the very same article, which he, again and again, keeps rejecting. Finally he writes to the would-be author, "When I say 'not at this time' - it means never!"

Not wanting to become a literary stalker, I am publishing it myself right here.


Albert Einstein, on his deathbed, supposedly said that there was only one important question in life - "Is the universe friendly?

The family that I grew up in could have told him their answer without even thinking about it, a resounding "No!" Everywhere they looked there were forces ready to ruin their lives: depressions, wars, labor strikes, sickness - and poison ivy.
"You're going to the park? Oh God, don't get any poison ivy."

"Watch out for the poison ivy in that field!"

"Careful you don't end up with a good case of poison ivy."

No one in my family had ever caught it. And no one could ever point it out to me.
"It's always hidden in the thick brush. You never see it until its too late."

I successfully avoided underbrush and poison ivy until the summer of 1961 when, at the age of eighteen, I took a summer job with the town maintenance department. My first assignment was to clear out some overgrown bushes in a town park.

I prepared for this undertaking by encasing myself inside a protective shield of long sleeves, cotton gloves, jeans, thick socks, and sneakers. It was sunny and in the high eighties. The other workers wore tee shirts. Some wore shorts. Except for Stanley, the Catholic seminarian. He also wore a long sleeve button down shirt and chinos. But no gloves. I suspected that Stanley always dressed that way.

We were ordered into the woods.

Some, like Mike in his short sleeves and shorts, crashed through the underbrush. Stanley walked in unhesitatingly, gliding along. I brought up the rear, trying not to show panic as I looked around for my unrecognizable enemy.

Two hours later I saw it for the first time. Mike yelled for us all to come over. He was shirtless, and was eagerly rubbing shiny green leaves over his chest.

"It's poison ivy!" he said gleefully. "I'm not allergic to it. Anybody want some?"
Most of the gang laughed and slapped each other, but no one took Mike up on his offer. I backed off, checking to see that I wasn't noticed. Stanley looked bored and returned to his job.
After work I stopped at the local YMCA for a swim and a shower. There was no sign of poison ivy infection. The next day went pretty much like the first until I stopped at the "Y" on my way home. I had tiny red bumps on my arms and chest. And they itched. When I got home I showed my mother.

"You've got poison ivy. You can't possibly go to work tomorrow."

Well maybe it wasn't all that bad.

The next day I went to see the doctor who was paid by the city to take care of such things. His office was in his home. All the windows and doors were closed and it felt like they had been closed forever. There was a large fireplace littered with discarded hypodermic needles and cigarette buts in his examining room. He looked at my arms and chest.

"Poison ivy all right. I'll give you some shots to dry it up," he muttered through his cigarette-holding lips.

"Will it stop the itching? How long will it take?" I asked.

"Get some Calamine Lotion for the itching." I knew Calamine lotion from mosquito bites. It was a cold, pink liquid that stuck to your clothing and dried into a scaly white second skin.

"The shots will dry up the poison ivy before it oozes." He gave me a shot. "I guess you'll need one more." He backhandedly flipped the needle into the fireplace and then gave me a second injection.

"Come back in three days for more shots." I started to leave. "Oh, and make sure you fill out the forms so that you get paid for the work you miss." I got paid? Just for sitting around in the sun - and not scratching. This was the perfect summer job.

For the next two weeks my days were basically the same. Each morning I would cover the poison ivy with Calamine lotion, and then hang around the house all day. I would read a little, watch a little television. Each evening I'd apply Calamine again, and watch some more TV. Every three days I went to the doctor for shots. My only symptoms were itching and having my clothes stick to me. Still I did pretty much nothing for the next two weeks.

Finally the rashes dried up, the itching stopped, and I went back to work. This time I was assigned to help prune the town trees in the neighborhoods. Stanley the Seminarian was part of my work team.

"Didn't you get poison ivy?" I asked. I actually figured it was too earthly a problem to befall Stanley. "Yeah, I had it all over my body. But I had my job to do. So I worked."

I got my paycheck that day. Fifty percent pay for being out on a job-related disability. I hated Stanley.

Six years later I married a woman from a gardening family. In ten more years we bought a house and I began my evolution into a serious home gardener. A short time into my avocation I got poison ivy again - on my arms and chest - while working on my property. But this time I had things that I really wanted and needed to do.

So, following some advice I found in my health club's newsletter, I chose not to use the clothes-sticking pink liquid, and instead treated my itching with hot showers and normal activity. It worked.

I have gotten the itchy affliction pretty much every year since - usually from some new place on my property that I never see until it is too late. That is just the way it is if you want to do what I do.

So, if Einstein asked me now fifty years after that ill-fated summer job, "Is the universe friendly?" - I would tell him "No." But the universe isn't unfriendly, either. It just is - poison ivy and roses - and each one of us has to decide for ourselves whether to make it into our enemy or our friend.

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