Past vaccinations recalled while waiting in line

Published 8:54 pm Saturday, February 13, 2021

By John Nelson

Panolian Columnist

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Margaret and I recently got our first Covid-19 vaccinations at the Batesville Civic Center where the MS National Guard and local nurses have put together a very efficient operation.

As I slowly moved the car along the stations, I had time to entertain memories of past vaccinations.

I remembered the dread of polio when I was a boy. People today, particularly those of us 75 and older, have been warned about the dangers of Covid-19, but for some reason, my concern over this virus has never equaled the fear I had of polio.

Even today, the name conjures up images of crutches, leg braces, and iron lungs, and we were all greatly relieved when the Salk vaccine came along in the mid 1950’s.

After getting forms to fill out and moving along the line, I recalled my years at sea and the shot record that I had to keep up to date.

The frequency of vaccinations ranged from every six months for cholera to every six years for yellow fever, and we were still getting vaccinated for smallpox and bubonic plague well into the 1970’s.

For some reason, the anticipation was beginning to make Margaret nervous, and I kidded her for fretting over one measly little shot taken from the comfort of one’s own car.

Those words made me recall a time when a ship loaded with war materials for Viet Nam couldn’t depart San Francisco because of a shortage of engineering officers.

I was pressured to get out there quickly, and in the haste of packing, forgot to take along my shot card.  Without documentation that I was current with vaccinations, I had to take six different shots – three in each arm.

Taking multiple vaccinations is not a big deal, but it happened that I got stuck on watch in the engine room for most of the night.

I guess it was the combination of the long flight, lack of sleep, the heat of the engine room, and the six shots that led to a nauseous night and the need to keep a bucket handy.

After moving along in line and handing in our questionnaire sheets, we were only a few cars away from the vaccination tent.  There was just enough time for a brief memory, and one, perhaps kindled by the six-shot recollection, came to mind.

It happened a few years ago when it was time for the two of us to get our annual flu shots. We had been talking about getting the pneumonia and shingles vaccinations and decided that this would be the time to do it.

I went into town to check things out, and when I returned, Margaret asked if I had set up a schedule for the shots.  When I replied that I had taken all three that morning, I got a “that wasn’t very smart” look, and for the rest of the day, she kept a close watch on me.  Though I never keeled over, she still decided to space her shots out like many folks do.

After getting our vaccinations, we moved into a holding area for a fifteen-minute period of observation.  To fill that much time, I needed a longer memory, and I pulled up one that had been dormant for some time.

It was 1966 and to get a break from trips to Viet Nam, I signed up for a voyage on a commercial ship making what was then called the India run.

We made port visits in the Mediterranean and along the coast of the Red Sea, and by August, we were anchored a few miles up the Passer River off Chalna, East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh.

There we were loading cargo as diverse as giant prawns and rolls of jute fiber from barges brought alongside.

Everything was going fine until some felt a little unwell and noticed that they were developing skin irritations. On some men, the blisters were taking the form of the dreaded red sores of smallpox, and that became a possibility when a number of crewmen checked their shot cards and discovered that they were beyond the three-year protection of their last revaccination.

While the chief mate, the man normally designated as medical officer on ships without doctors, was comparing the sores to photos in one of the ship’s medical guides, and the captain was trying to get our agent on the radio to arrange a doctor’s visit, the English expatriate who supervised cargo operations in the area happened to come on board.

After looking at our sores and establishing that most of us had been sleeping on cots out on deck to escape the oppressive heat in the quarters of that old, non air-conditioned ship, he chuckled and declared us victims of the Jute Moth.

That winged rascal doesn’t sting or bite, but it has some prickly hairs on its underside that are coated with a toxic substance.

When swatted, as one tends to do unconsciously while sleeping, the poison is deposited on the skin and causes the kind of blisters that we were experiencing.

My mind was still floating on the Passer River when a guardsman tapped on the window and informed us that we could leave the observation area after two more minutes.

In that time, I thought about the vaccination just taken and knew that I would remember the experience as one of ease and comfort as befitting an old man getting short on time and long on memories.

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