Sam Elmore

A Flag On The Mailbox

The phone rang. I answered, all stuffed up with the flu and feeling downright pitiful. The caller was my sister Ruby. After she had commiserated with me about having the flu, she said she'd be glad to drive over from Texas and put a "Granny rag" on my chest. I immediately started to get better; just from the memory of the last Granny rag that Mama'd used on me (several decades ago.)

For those of you not on speaking terms with a "Granny rag", I'll try to s'plain one. Let me caution you now, this is just my interpretation; others may have different opinions--and welcome to ‘em.

First, you need a child suffering from a cold, flu, or congestion (a grown-up'll do in a pinch), and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Put the "victim" in Papa and Mama's bed, up ‘ere in the fireplace room. Cover the victim with four or five hand-made quilts, which weigh about sixteen-pounds-a-piece. Then, throw a few more chunks of pine lighterd on the fire.

Take a cloth or rag (Mama used flour or sugar sacks), dip the rag in boiling water, and wring it out. On the rag, smear every thing in the house that smells awful, such as: asafetida, turpentine, "ick-thol", lightning oil, pine tar (burn a lighterd splinter and catch the drippin's on a serp bucket lid), Vicks vap-o-rub and, (if mem'ry serves) some eye-of-newt, scent of salamander, and a finger-full of devil-take-the-hind-most.

Hold the "Granny rag" in front of the fireplace until it is red hot and stinking up the whole house; tell the victim to throw back the quilts; then run over there and plaster that hot, stinking mess to the victim's bare chest. Replace the quilts, so that the victim's nose is under the covers, breathing the fumes.

Repeat that procedure every three hours throughout the night and, in no time a-tall, the victim will be back on the school bus, or behind the plow--guaranteed!

My siblings and I get a kick out of discussing how we were raised; particularly in the area of what Mama dispensed as "medicine." Our enjoyment is, understandably, heightened by the fact that we survived Mama's multifarious ministrations. Along with the fun of re-hashing yarns about home remedies, there seems to be a trend, lately, towards not remembering the right name, or intended use, of some of those old nostrums which "brung us to the dance."

It generally goes something like this:

"What was that stuff", I asked, "that, if you shook it and helt it up to the coal-oil lamp, it looked like it had metal flakes in it?"

"That was them 3-sixes, I think", opined sister RUby.

"No--the stuff that looked like it had chunks of metal in it was called "Pepsin", and it was took for sore throat", corrected brother Barge.

"Naw, it wadn't! Pepsin was for the liver", declared big brother Britten.

(See what I mean? It depends on who's doing the telling.)

Sometimes, it means hewing to the way we were raised--that is, don't never dispute your elders. Sometimes, it's more prudent to keep your own council. The fun is in the telling, anyway, so who cares if the "teller" is correct all the time?

Our farm was out on a gravel road, about 14 miles from the nearest town. We had no transportation except a wagon and team so, if someone got sick, we depended on Mama's home-made remedies, or the patent medicines that she got from the itinerant Watkin's peddler. If broken bones were involved, or other problems beyond Mama's jurisdiction, we'd hang a handkerchief or a towel on the mailbox.

The two Doctors who tended to our many and various ills during those years were Dr. Jordan (pronounced "jerd-un"), and Dr. Horn. Each had a practice in both towns on either side of where we lived. On alternate days, they would attend their practices in a different town, so there were daily passages by our place. If we needed a doctor, they'd see our flag on the mail-box as they passed, and stop to investigate.

Back then, the Jewel's Tea peddler sold the kind of bulk tea leaves that Mama preferred, which came in a little square tin box. After the tea was used up, Mama would save the tin boxes. She used them to keep her home-made salves and unguents in (such as all that stinkin' stuff that goes on a "Granny rag".)

On one of his visits, the Watkin's peddler gave Mama a free packet of ingredients reputed to be jim-dandy for doctoring a lame farm animal. If memory serves, it was a concoction of powdered mustard seeds, plus other exotic unknowns, which originated in China. Since it was free, Mama took it. She mixed it up per the instructions, and kept it in one of those little square tin boxes.

One day, Papa stepped on a rotting bridge plank, and his leg went scraping down through the hole. The splintered edges of the busted plank took the ‘top layer' of hide off of his shin-bone. He limped towards the house, hollerin' for "Hattie". As he neared the house, he was heard to lament: "this time, I'm rern't fer sure!"

Mama cajoled him into his porch rocker and rolled up his britches leg. She went to her medicine cupboard and came back with one of her little square tin boxes. She took a finger-full of the contents, and laved it copiously on Papa's scraped-raw shin-bone. Good Night Nurse! She had accidentally got a-hold of that Chinese hot-mustard mule-fixin' salve!

For someone who had slowly limped home, with a leg that was "rern't fer sure", Papa was the liveliest critter you ever saw. When Mama told brother Barge to "go ketch your daddy", it was a while before he was able to comply.

Barge said later that, before he caught up with him, Papa had already got almost two mile from the house. He also said that Papa wasn't limping near as much going yonder-way, as he'd been when he'd lamed his way home to Mama. While Barge went to fetch Papa, Mama sent me to put a flag on the mail-box.

Later that evening, about dusk dark, Dr. Horn came tearing along the road in his Model A. Seeing our flag on the mail-box, he slammed on the brakes and pulled over. He got out with his black bag and walked up to the house. Papa was sitting on the porch in his rocking chair, moaning, and holding his leg.

"Wa'al, Abb--what've ye' done this time?", he asked.

"Oh--I'm rern't this time, Doc; and it didn't he'p much what the ol' woman done to me, neither", Papa complained.

"Wa'al, let's see if I can do something, so I won't have to saw your leg off".

That got Papa's attention. In his pain, he had apparently overlooked the fact that, although Dr. Horn was a very brusque and authoritative person, he did have a semblance of humor about him.

Dr. Horn examined Papa's leg, with Mama holding the coal-oil lamp so he could see. He'd poke and prod, and hum under his breath, while Papa intensified his groaning at every touch; real or imagined.

"Miz Hattie, what-in-the-world did ye' put on this injury?", asked the doctor.

"Wa'al, I must've grabbed the wrong salve box, and used that mustard-seed mule treatment the Watkin's peddler gimme."

"My Lord!", said the doctor; "no wonder he's takin' on so. Well, Abb--you're in for a little more trouble, I reckon, while I wash that stuff off-a there. Jest hang on, now, and it'll be over ‘fore ou know it".

Doctor Horn lied. It was the longest time before he got Papa's leg cleaned up to his satisfaction. Then, he applied a soothing ointment of some kind, swathed Papa's leg in a huge bandage, and handed Mama some medicine for his pain. He told her how much to give Papa, and when; then he got in his car and drove off.

Some of us kids, still young enough to take turns gettin' petted in Papa's lap, had a lonely time of it there for a while. For a long time after that, every time Mama'd come anywhere near him, Papa would flinch!