To me, reading has always meant a mixture of pleasure and pain because the library I visited as a child also was the place where my brother, sister, cousins and I got our immunizations against chicken pox, measles and mumps. There were eight of us kids in all, including my older brother, Roy, my younger sister, Jean, and my cousin, Randy, who was the same age as me.
When yet another booster time rolled around, we kids would pile into my mother’s rattley Ford station wagon and head down to the George C. Thomas Memorial Library on First Avenue in Fairbanks, Alaska.
During the 12-block ride to the library, we older cousins would take pains to explain to the younger ones just how horrible the shot would be. We even provided graphic descriptions of the needle, focusing on its length and diameter. Feeling confident because we’d been through the experience more than once, we went on and on, exaggerating the caliber of the needle and resulting pain until Mom would chastise us from the front seat, saying, “Okay, that’s enough. You’re scaring the little kids.”
By then we would have pulled up outside the log library, a matronly building that wore its wrap-around porch like a skirt. On a normal day, I would have headed to the kid’s section with its selection of books, but today was different. We hadn’t come to the library to read. Instead, we filed into a room back behind the stacks, one that included a white screen and ironing board onto which, one at a time, each of us cousins would be placed rump side up, have our trousers lowered and be poked.
The bravado I’d felt in the car evaporated at the first whiff of alcohol. My stomach lurched, and I was filled with dread. One by one we were led behind the screen where the nurse did her job. The pain was real but short.
It was a much quieter group of children who hobbled back down the library steps and gingerly set their backsides in the car. Everyone, that is, except Randy. Perhaps it was a side effect of the serum, but Randy apparently felt great.
“I didn’t feel a thing,” he kept saying on the ride home. “It didn’t hurt a bit.”
I was surprised he could be so cheerful. I felt humbled by the pain and was feeling pretty sorry for myself. The fact was, the shot hurt. Mom drove us back down Cowles Street, turning right at the bowling alley and left on Kellum Street to Randy and Aunt Helen’s house. Once inside, Mom and Aunt Helen went into the kitchen to prepare lunch while we kids sat quietly on the stuffed furniture in the living room. None of us said anything. Except for Randy, who continued to be talkative and chipper. His brown eyes glistened and his smile deepened as he bragged about his physical courage.
“Hit me hard. Here,” he insisted more than once, slapping his hand on his backside. When we took him up on it, he laughed at our vain attempts to hurt him.
“Harder!” he yelled. “I can’t feel a thing!” He seemed to have been injected with a new source of energy and joy. “Watch me!” he shouted to the rest of us before taking a running leap and sliding on his butt down the hallway, skimming across the smooth, hardwood floor.
I sat there, watching, amazed.
And once was not enough. Randy performed the stunt again and again. Afterwards, he was all smiles, his jeans hot to the touch.
Randy’s imperviousness to pain may have had something to do with the fact that, about that time in his life, his parents split up. In the following years, Randy became the favorite cousin, the one everyone liked best, the one we all wanted to sit next to at dinner. He was the funny one, the understanding one, the cousin who could take his own pain and turn it into entertainment that distracted us from our own.