The field of medicine is much with us these days, either as so many try to find ways to fund desperately needed healthcare, or as we marvel at the advances that have been made and are continuing to be made in the battle against disease. When I compare current standards, even the simplest of home care for minor problems, I am amazed that I’m still alive after having been treated with old-time home remedies and subjected to the most casual of daily sanitation and food care.
I read that some believers in the natural approach to personal health care are convinced that raw milk, unpasteurized, is great for you. The experts say it is extremely dangerous, and foolish, to drink raw milk. I side with the experts, even though I am conscious, and grateful, that I survived many years of raw milk. I remember the winter mornings when I would give a quick, lukewarm bath to the cow’s udder before milking her and rushing back to the house. That was as clean as the milk was going to get, and as cool, too. No electricity, no refrigeration. Certainly no pasteurization. I claim to have survived life in the thirties, forties, and fifties because I’m tough, but in fact, I’m just lucky.
Rural life has its special risks even now, and it certainly had them then. I broke bones and was knocked unconscious more than once, but my specialty was punctures and cuts with rusty items. And that was one area where home remedies were considered inadequate, and my folks would scrape together the few dollars for a tetanus shot. Nobody seemed to keep track of how many I’d had before. They’d just reconnect things, sew up the area, and give me a painful shot, then set me free to find another rusty tin can or broken plow to step into with a bare foot.
Where the threat of tetanus was not involved, we depended upon a couple of standard home remedies for almost everything: kerosene and turpentine. Small cuts would be washed briefly with cold water and then daubed with kerosene. I don’t know who had decided that this treatment was effective, or in what era the scientific proof was published, but we took it as revealed truth. And I survived, despite if not because.
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I haven’t seen a small bottle of turpentine in many years, but I remember exactly how the one looked that sat on the kitchen shelf, the label darkened by seepage of the oil over time. As I sit here typing, I am enjoying a cough drop, fighting the remnants, I hope, of bronchitis. In my youth, the treatment would more likely have involved turpentine. Coughs were treated by a few drops of it on a spoonful of sugar. It may have helped.
My dad firmly believed that the first line of treatment for any illness was a laxative. How that was supposed to help a cold, I’m not sure, but it was the standard of care. Among my earliest bad memories are those of being dosed with castor oil, the vilest, most awful potion ever devised. Mixing it with orange juice only ruined the orange juice to a degree you would not think possible. At some point, I must have outgrown castor oil, which is good, because it would have been terrible for a sick four-year-old to run away from home.
For most of my growing-up years, the laxative of choice (my dad’s, not mine) was Black Draught. I learned later that there was a liquid form of this ancient herbal aid, but we were tough. We used the dry bits of the plant from which it came, pouring a guessed-at dose from the small box onto a kitchen spoon and washing the bitter stuff down with water. The taste was bad and the effects were even worse.
One thing I can say for Black Draught. It did wonders for my school attendance. As I entered my teens, I found school to be incredibly boring. I was not above working a slight cold into a chance to stay at home for the day, but my dad was equal to the challenge. Don’t feel like going to school? Let me measure you out a dose of Black Draught. Turned out the old man knew his home medical remedies better than I thought.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”