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From the 1960s: I'd still rather put mercury on a wound than be a kid today

April 17, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
The 50th anniversary of the Mustang and the lesson that kids don’t know what a radio is (learned during the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Faith and Media seminar) weren’t enough for this week.

No. The realization of time going by hit harder when we started one of those newsroom fun talks that led to the discussion of the miraculous skinned-knee healer, Mercurochrome. This orange-red liquid that was painted over any childhood cut from the 1950s to maybe the early 1970s, was the healer of choice for moms everywhere. Kid comes in crying after falling off the bicycle or from sliding into second base on that house construction site serving as this week’s neighborhood baseball diamond and it’s Mercurochrome Time!

Head off to the bathroom, sit on the closed toilet and mom would pull out the vial, unscrew the lid with the little brush thing attached and paint the kid’s wound. There. Good as new. Use a Band Aid over that, with the orange-red dye stain sticking out around the band-aid, and off you go, back out to second base or onto the bicycle.

Later, she’d use the same brush on your brother. Germ sharing apparently wasn’t a problem. (Hey, does this mean there’s a little of my leftover cellular knee goop in Wichita every day?)

And in the basement, among dad’s tools was likely to be a vial of mercury, that wonder substance that was both liquid and solid. Separate it into beads and push the beads back together and herd it back into the test tube. A few minutes of fun on the workbench.

And we lived blissfully ignorant of the fact that playing with mercury was an awfully dangerous activity guaranteed to create three-headed children, amphibians with nine legs and glow-in-the-dark cattle. It was just some stuff from the mill or the power plant or the railroad or wherever dad worked. And it was inside thermometers, so it was just a cool tool, eh?

That when turned into a salt and combined with some chromium salts in an iodine suspension it also became a magical healer was just another plus.

Didn’t matter that your knee and those of all your elementary school comrades generally became covered by an inordinately thick and oozing scab in the middle of that red dye stain. You were healing. You’d compare scab depths.

“Geez, Roscoe, that’s a good scab you got there on that elbow.”

“Mine’s thicker than yours, Pablo, so I’m gonna have a cooler scar.”

“Are not.”

And so on.

Until, that is, the day that science discovered you weren’t healing. You were poisoning yourself.

And mercury was dangerous, so dangerous that it even failed as a car brand, apparently. (Yes, I know, Mercury the Car was all about the God of Speed, not harmful liquid metallic things, but it fits my need for comic relief here, so that’s going to stand. Got it?)

It’s so dangerous that microscopic amounts in the government mandated Al Gore approved flourescent sundae tube lamps requires at the very least sealing the room and calling a hazmat squad over if a bulb is broken, according to health authorities.

Did I mention that once when dribbling the basketball in my mom and dad’s basement, with its five-foot-six ceiling, that I managed to knock out a long flourescent tube causing it to hit the concrete floor and vaporize into tiny crystal powder? Our solution? Quick, sweep that up and find one of the spare light tubes in the bottom of the workbench, there, under the shelf with the mercury vial, and get it into the fixture before Mom comes downstairs to find out what that explosion was. We didn't put on a breather mask and alert the fire department and evacuate the neighborhood.

Nah. In the 1960s, you painted your leg with mercury and oozed healing powers from a thick scab. Which, as The Boss at Work said, was our bodies saying, “Hey, you aren’t healing. You just painted me with chromium and mercury and that’s not a good idea.”

And you rode your bicycle without a helmet and skateboarded without knee pads. You played basketball without a mouth guard and your brother’s glasses were forever hanging from one temple, one lens shattered and that look of fear that says, “Mom’s going to kill me.”

And none of us had to fear knife-wielding nuts in school or gunmen in the mall or crazies stalking us on the Internet. There wasn’t one.

And we didn’t pass through metal detectors on the way into elementary school. After all, it might have detected all that mercury in our veins.

 
 

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