As a young boy growing up on Long Island in the late ’50s, my favorite local pastimes and greatest loves were fishing, wild berry picking, playing outside, and being close to nature. I remember playing in relatively fresh, unspoiled, and deeply forested areas that were complemented with mixed trees and ground vegetation, which of course included Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac, English Ivy, Swedish Ivy, Cat Briar, Wild Tea Rose, Honeysuckle, and Japanese Knotweed (to list a few). In addition, the outlying undeveloped meadows were similarly complemented with mixed areas of Poison Ivy Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac in all of its variant forms, including wild Raspberry, wild Blackberry, wild Mulberry, wild Strawberry, Ash, Maple, and Box Elder. By the time I was 14 years of age, I already contracted the Poison Ivy allergy rash at least 60 times, but at the same time, I never managed to figure out what this darn plant and its close cousins, Poison Oak and Sumac, looked like.
Since it had so many permutations and variables, it was almost impossible for me to figure out. There were at least five known varieties all growing on Long Island back then, and I am darn sure that in this regard, nothing much has changed. Since the poison ivy plant’s leaves closely resemble that of so many other types and kinds of common native vegetation, being a young and naive child, it was virtually impossible for me to distinguish or identify one plant leaf from another, so I usually found myself leaving my best guess to serve as my guide. I was a lousy guesser! With my fate now left to chance, I blindly and boldly went about my business in traveling without hesitation. Consequently, I paid the price dearly. Usually, I was covered from head to toe with a poison ivy rash and its oozing blisters. Additionally, I was always incessantly scratching myself like a hound dog, and my nickname back then might as well have been “itchy”.
Mysteriously, this rash would always first appear starting at my feet and toes first (as in those days it was actually permissibly safe and okay to walk around barefoot). Next, the rash usually worked itself upward, by spreading out on both of my feet, climbing up the back of both my calves and thighs, heading straight for well… you can only imagine, then continuing on upwards, the rash was all over my face, nose, neck, ears, arms, hands, and fingers. It seems that there wasn’t a day that went by when some part of my body wasn’t covered with both poison ivy rash, PINK calamine lotion, or some homeopathic remedy my mom, who was an excellent cook, managed to conjure up for me to relieve itching. Since I was perpetually steeped in poison ivy rash, I learned to freely incorporate the color PINK into my daily wardrobe since, at the time, nothing else worked as well as PINK calamine lotion itself (in those days clear calamine had not been invented yet). Ritually, my mother would drench me from head to toe in PINK calamine. She actually kept an open paint bucket stored outside by the kitchen door. In this bucket, there was an 8-inch wallpaper glue brush that was covered in PINK calamine. Before I would go outside to play for the day, my mom would paint this PINK stuff all over me using this brush by dragging it across all of my exposed body parts. Like clockwork, this ritual would take place just after I finished eating my Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs, or Rice Krispies, but it always seemingly occurred before I finally left the house to play outside for the remainder of my day. Once I stepped outside, I was instructed to remain there all day and to engage in play activities. Tragically, I suffered, not only from the resulting rash that included incessant itching, but the oozing dribble down my legs and arms that came from the bleeding blisters. Eventually, I feared the public taunting I received as it was mixed with displays of public humiliation and ridicule coming from several of my playmates. I was going to school unprepared without my homework (something I loved to do), and the rash symbolically became my living nightmare. This stemmed from continually being ridiculed by my playmates because of my rash and the PINK lotion that covered most parts of my body. Back then, it seemed like there was not much getting used to of anything, and all I could do was seek either relief from itch or revenge from ridicule. I had to learn to let the slow passage of time occur in order to heal from my poison ivy wounds (boy, what I choice I had to learn to make). This PINK stuff that was found covering me from my head down to my toes gave and provided me with the itch relief I was desperate for was responsible for my grimacing at the thought of being seen by my school peer playmates and for causing me to turn and run away to avoid being seen by them. My biggest thought was to become ‘invisible’ so I could hide from the scrutiny of my playmates and secretly scratch away at all of my itching body parts. So there I was, left emotionally upset, often resulting in tears (if you can imagine, the emotional upset caused me to itch even more!)
My only sweet delight came in the form of my sweet revenge being doled out back then. For what I would dare do next was to boldly venture forth by chasing after all nay Sayers. I simply would hold up one of my affected PINK covered oozing body parts, whose blistering oozing arms, and hands or legs remained visibly in plain sight for all to see, was me next threatening to touch anyone bold enough to venture close enough to me, or who dared themselves, despite my preemptive warnings shouted aloud at making fun and ridiculing me. Those smarty-pants who got too close to me, or were heard taunting me aloud to my face, were often first met with me running after them in revenge, was by me chasing after them while waving my still dripping oozing arms at them. Usually, I prevailed, and I learned to be successful at scaring them away with this marvelous thought of ear being held out, that if any of my naysayers dared come close enough, or should even breath air in my personal space or make any form of direct human contact with me, they too would then become cursed by this insidious itching rash that came with yellow-colored ooze that was continually dripping down both my arms and legs that was ugly to look at as it was mixed with day old dried up flakes of peeling PINK calamine lotion. Like magic and voodoo, I now had secrets powers at my beck and call, this was better than my getting more than even, and as a kid, believe me, I did. Now there was a redeeming empowering moment met with my success.
As it were, my real choices back in the day either were to continue scratching as I usually did until I bled, or I resolved myself to not scratch but compelled out of necessity to wearing the much-dreaded color PINK and learn to live liking it. As a young child, I never gave much thought to, nor had the presence of mind to actually avoid poison ivy, since I then lacked the proper identification knowledge techniques I now so wonderful possess and covet. Nor at the time did I know how to get rid of the poison ivy plants themselves from wherever they grew as I usually walked in, played in, or sat directly in without really thinking. I eventually became a walking poison ivy dousing rod; as it seemed wherever I went this plant found me. Hence my idea and passion for poison ivy removal whose time has finally arrived were first born and created out of necessity for me learning how to survive my itching, along with not knowing at the time how to avoid these plants has translated itself into me knowing best how to identify, control and remove all my poison ivy and cousins oak and sumac. Although to this day I remain still highly allergic to poison ivy and both its cousins, I have learned best how to identify it so as to vigorously avoid making direct physical contact with any one of my exposed body parts. To this day plant identification and contact avoidance still remain the best practice.
For me, I’m still not certain which was worse; was it the incessant itching met with endless addictive scratching, only to be left with bleeding still oozing blisters, OR was it the emotional upset I continually associated with being ridiculed by fellow playmates and classmates? Back in the day and time, any male originally found to be wearing the color pink usually met with a very emasculating message was all due to the connotation of what the color pink at the time represented. For me, it really boiled down to me wearing the color pink and liking it, as in those days I really had no other choice but to continue to scratch and bleed.
What poison ivy has taught me is this. I learned by life’s self-taught experience & surviving what for me was an emotionally charged nerve-wracking adverse ordeal, Poison Ivy showed me what greater tenacity and persistence mean and when most often practiced usually pay off. It taught me that once bravery is demonstrated in face of adversity and is fused to persistence, has really paid off big time in my life. I have now learned how to live by dominating over my adversaries when I am confronted by adversity. When times get tough the tough get going. Or that public ridicule is most often fueled by unjust empty words being spoken aloud by others who are ignorant of facts, has taught me to not fear public ridicule or debate. I now look away from those who choose to remain ignorant. Since the poison ivy plant survives in its own native plant habitat it is despite all the derogatory names it gets frequently called, and is despite all the fun that is being made and poked at this plant. Still, this plant readily is successfully flourishing today just about everywhere despite the public outcry and ridicule against all that it represents. This plant grows amidst the harshest of all extreme living conditions, known how to thrive. Poison Ivy actually possesses great adaptive survival skills unlike most of us who only know how to do things one way. Poison Ivy likes growing and surviving in the toughest of extreme environmental conditions, this plant lives in both hot wet, or dry, just as it thrives in cold dry, or wet. It can withstand floods and droughts, lives in windblown mountain top peaks, and low-lying valleys. It grows in direct scalding sun, the same as it does in dense forest shade. It grows to make direct continual contact with both fresh and salty ocean water, same as it thrives within salt-drenched air. This plant always flourishes despite all public criticisms being lent and made negatively about this plant. It does flinch or falter despite all the criticism, it thrives and flourishes with its highly adaptive survivability this plant always makes the very best of an adverse situation is nonetheless. How many other plants have popular songs, stories, books, movies, and characters being written about them? Now that speaks volumes of this plant’s own greater innate success. Consistently this plant’s physical presence dominates 80% of the human population, is found living in fear and terror of the two ever first meeting up. This plant has changed the face of history and taught me how to not only survive and weather life’s greatest disappointments, it has personally shown me life’s harshest of reality -discrimination demonstrated thru ignorance. Ii has taught me thru living thus life’s lesson best learned come from the school of hard knocks, that persisting through all of life’s difficult if not hardest times, is to wipe away tears and sadness come back and try still harder. As for me not liking wearing the color PINK, I finally found a fashionable resolve, there now is a place inside my wardrobe for me to wear it. As for not liking the itching, I still can’t say…… as I have.
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