Sometimes I'm amazed that I survived my childhood.
I didn't grow up in the golden age of home remedies, but just slightly thereafter, perhaps in the slow sunset of that era. It was long before this current age, certainly, when running to the doctor for every hangnail and cough is the default setting for most parents. I bet I survived any number of horrible diseases -- diphtheria, whooping cough and dengue fever among them -- without anybody making formal diagnoses. This is probably true for anybody over the age of 35.
Back in the dark ages when Jimmy Carter was president and Elvis had morphed from a pelvis-rattling rebel into a fat, sad man in a sequined jumper, parents didn't have access to WebMD, 24-hour hotlines and fancy phone apps to pinpoint a child's illness the way smart bombs hone in on Middle Eastern targets today. Instead, they had to work with the tools at hand.
For my mother, these tools consisted of McNess Mentholated Ointment, an old sock and sticks of butter. Any sore throat or respiratory problem could be cured with a combination of these elements, and often with all three.
I don't know if you can still buy McNess. My guess is that the government banned it around the same time as DDT, but Mom squirreled away a lifetime supply in the basement, next to the strychnine-laced rat traps. McNess came in circular, red-and-gold tins, one of which could last for approximately seven years, no matter how often it was used. The ointment was a thick, viscous yellow, like phlegm in an old man's handkerchief.
As kids, my sister and I would go to ridiculous lengths to disguise a sore throat. I can remember practically turning blue at the dinner table to avoid coughing, for fear that the dry hack would be occasion for Mom to break open a tin of torture the way a boxer opens a can of whoopass on his weaker rival.
Sometimes, I'd pretend to whisper to hide impending laryngitis, or practice flexing my throat muscles to tamp down the urge to sneeze, or quickly dart my tongue up into my nostrils to wipe away the telltale drainage, lest sickness be discerned there.
Despite my best efforts, though, illness was always found out, in which case came the trifecta of terror. First, Mom would rub McNess all over my chest and throat, massaging it in with broad, firm strokes. Next, she would wrap an old sock around my neck, secured with a safety pin, the better to seal the salve, which announced itself through a pungent odor that sent the dog scurrying from the vicinity.
Then it was off to bed, even if it were 7 p.m., with the door closed, copious covers piled atop me and a vaporizer -- Mom's only concession to 20th Century medicine -- running at full blast. If I survived until morning, that meant school.
But school could only be faced with the help of the third item on the list, the aforementioned butter stick, melted into liquid on the stove and fed one spoonful at a time to the complaining victim. The objective, she said, was to coat the throat -- a piece of rhyming doggerel that she no doubt learned from a voodoo medicine man who practiced near her childhood farm in Maximo -- and prevent future coughing.
If I was lucky, I'd be given a few Smith Brothers cough drops to carry in my pocket to class, in case the all-night McNess treatment, respiratory-choking sock and butter didn't do the trick. The goal was always to keep me healthy enough to face another day of elementary drudgery.
Smith Brothers, you may note, is not even considered medicine today. Instead, it is shelved with the candy. In other words, my entire war against pneumonia, strep throat, raging sinus infections and any number of other medical woes was fought with a variation of motor oil, a tube sock, a dairy product and some sugar-laced placebos.
Amazingly, I lived. More amazingly, I tried some of these remedies on my own child. But the first time I melted a stick of butter in the microwave and tried to feed it to my daughter, my wife threatened to call Child Protective Services.
Instead, we went to the doctor.
I suppose that was for the best. My childhood toughened me considerably, but it's an entirely different century and millennium these days. Although part of me wishes I could enter "sore throat" and "hacking cough" into Google and see the words "McNess" and "white sock" pop up as treatments.
For one thing, it would be a heck of a lot cheaper.
Chris Schillig, who can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter at cschillig, actually had a very good childhood, as long as he stayed healthy.