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Thursday, March 13, 2008

POISON IVY & POISON OAK REVISITED (a springtime story)

(Excerpt from my book, Growing Up in Rose Hill)

I cannot tell one poison leaf from the other, but I know they both cause itching and make small blisters. One summer Sunday when I was eight or nine, my aunt called and said my cousin Elwood was at their house and we should come over and play with him. My brother was not at home, so I walked alone to my aunt’s house to play with Elwood.

Elwood was one of my city cousins, and things to do are limited when playing with someone wearing leather shoes, long stockings and “knicker” pants. He showed me the official Scout pocket knife that he had gotten that weekend. It had several blades, a screwdriver, an awl, a bottle opener, and I think even a secret compartment. Elwood had not used it yet, so I suggested going to the pine tree at the corner of the field. Walking past the tree earlier on my way to my aunt’s house I had noticed some vines growing up the trunk and I thought they should be cut. We walked back to the tree, cut each vine at ground level, pulled it loose from the bark, and reaching as high as we could, cut it again and threw the cut pieces over the fence into the field. When we had cut all of the vines we walked back to my aunt’s house, washed in the watering trough, and made our appearance just in time for the afternoon meal. No one asked where we had been.

The next afternoon my aunt called and said Elwood had been taken to the doctor with a bad case of poison oak/ivy. By this time I had small blisters on my hands that I treated with kerosene, our usual home remedy. My aunt bought some calamine lotion that dried up the blisters.

I had other minor attacks while still living with my parents but always controlled it with the pink lotion. However, in the next century my luck “ran out.”

Around the first of March in 2000 my oldest daughter Pam was already mowing the back yard when I came home, so I got the edger and edged the front and back yard. In the back there were some berry vines and other vines coming from the flower bed that tangled my edger. I took a garbage bag, got pruning shears and started to remove all of these vines by cutting them into about 16-inch lengths and dropping them into the bag. This effort helped to remove my guilt of letting someone else mow the yard.

Several days later I noticed small blisters, which rapidly became larger, on my right hand and both arms. (I had used a glove on my left hand for the berry vines.) It looked like poison oak or something similar. I started treating myself with calamine ointment and then calamine lotion and in about 10 days it started to dry up. I didn’t miss any meals but it kept me from volunteering at the hospital one week and I had to be careful hugging the grandchildren.

(If you look closely at this photo of me with my grandson Adam, both of us posing in our Handyman t-shirts, you can see calamine lotion on my right hand.)

About a week later my wife Priscilla asked when I planned to pull all the weeds in that bed and I said never. She then said that I should get two day laborers to clean the bed and I said that I would not ask anyone else to go in there and planned to spray the bed with weed killer. She objected to the weed killer idea. The following Saturday, she worked all afternoon pulling weeds in other parts of the yard, and again on Sunday afternoon while I was watching the basketball finals.

On Tuesday she came home before dark and pulled more weeds. When she came into the house she stood between me and the baseball game (the Astros were playing in their new ballpark on TV) and said that her brother had told her I should get someone to clean the rest of the beds. (How her brother in Nebraska got into this I don’t know.)

On Thursday (I don’t like to rush into things) I went to the local day-labor hiring hall. The laborers, understandably eager for paid work, rushed toward me like a bunch of cows running to a farmer’s truck with salt cubes on the back. I held up two fingers, meaning two workers, and seven fingers, meaning $7 per hour. Two guys got into my truck and when we came home I gave them each a pair of gloves, pruning shears and garbage bags, pointed to the area Priscilla had already cleared and then pointed to the east and west fences, 100 feet apart, and made a get-to-work motion. They got on their knees and started pulling and cutting. When they had several bags full I lifted them into the wheelbarrow, very carefully touching the bags only with my fingers and the palms of my hands, and hauled them to the front yard for the trash truck. (What I realized several days later was that when the bags were heavy I brushed them on the front of my pants while putting them in and taking them out of the wheelbarrow.) In between I busied myself with trimming trees, tying the branches into bundles and taking them to the street, mowing the back yard, smashing cans and taking a load to the recycle place, giving my workers ice water and each a large slice of banana nut bread, buying each of us a hamburger (Burger King had a special, 99 cents each), getting a haircut and hauling bags of the workers’ cuttings to the street. When the workers were finished I paid them $50 apiece, drove them back to the hiring hall and then came home and took a shower.

Saturday while driving to Fort Worth I noticed that the top of my right thumb was itching and by the time I got there small blisters were appearing. I thought I could live with this but when I went to bed I noticed some itching on that part of my body immediately behind the zipper on my pants. Examination showed patches of small blisters – but again, I didn’t panic, because I had a doctor appointment Monday for my annual checkup. Sunday I went to both services with my son Tim, a church organist, and stayed in town for his recital that afternoon. I didn’t scratch my private area in public but I was tempted.

Monday my doctor looked at the blisters on my hands and said that doesn’t look too bad. I asked if he wanted to see the worst area and he said no, my nurse will give you a shot that will take about 24 hours to give relief. The shot helped – most of the itching soon improved and no blisters got large enough to drain and break.

I did not drive by the hiring hall for quite some time afterward, fearing that my truck might be recognized. I have also avoided the flower bed. If forced to go near it again I will have a blowtorch in my left hand and a spray bottle of weed killer in my right.


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Ben the Cook

Ben the Cook
Action shot from the 1970s



I recently made Tuna Helper, following the instructions on the box and adding margine, milk, etc. Priscilla and I had generous portions for lunch. When she asked about my recipe, I pointed to the kitchen table where the box was sitting...and only then noticed the unopened can of tuna sitting next to the empty box.

Well, we enjoyed our macaroni & cheese lunch and already have the tuna on hand to make another box of Helper.


I watched the TV news show "The Eyes of Texas" for years. When in the mid 1980s they announced the publication of a Texas cookbook I wrote down my grandmother's honey cookie recipe. I asked Priscilla to type it, and she mailed it along with several of her personal favorites.

When the book was published Priscilla's recipes were not included but mine was, with a special mention in the cookbook's introduction. I was invited to the signing in Houston, where I got all three of the main Eyes of Texas contributors to sign the front and while standing in line got a number of contributing cooks to sign their recipe pages.

Some might consider the description "somewhat chewy" an understatement. For those who are dentally impaired, I recommend soaking a cookie in milk or hot coffee before trying to chew it. The good news is, these cookies will keep indefinitely.

Eyes of Texas Cookbook introduction:
My great-grandparents August and Caroline Weiss operated the first cotton gin operated by steam, near Salem in Washington County, Texas. They were among the first German settlers in that area. Money was scarce; however, they always had bees and native pecans...consequently, this recipe was a favorite.

1 1/2 pints honey, warmed
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
Dash of salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup chopped pecans or other nuts
1 tsp. baking powder
Enough flour for a very stiff dough

Mix all ingredients well. Roll dough out on a floured board and cut with a cookie cutter, or drop the dough in a greased pan and flatten with a floured glass. Bake at 325 degrees until golden brown, with edges slightly darker. These cookies will be somewhat chewy.

Ben's Bio

I was born in Rose Hill, Texas in 1925 and at age 18 drafted into the Army. After my discharge I settled in Tomball, which although a small town had more opportunities than Rose Hill. I ran my own appliance installation and repair business for many years and in 1977 accepted a position as Plant Engineer and Director of Maintenance at Tomball Regional Hospital, where I worked until retirement in the late 1980s. In the 1970s I served two years on Tomball’s City Council, was elected mayor and served for six years during which major streets were paved and guttered, utility lines were extended, and a new jail and city hall were built. After retirement from the hospital I spent time on a genealogy project that included two trips to Germany to visit relatives and look up archival records. I have also gotten into writing, chronicling my WW II experiences and authoring Growing Up in Rose Hill, published by private press and sold as a fund-raiser for the Tomball Community Museum Center, where I have served as a volunteer, trustee and Chairman. I am still involved with the Tomball hospital as a weekly volunteer and serve as General Manager of Tomball Emergency Assistance Ministries (TEAM), a church-sponsored operation that provides food and other assistance to area families. I continue to be involved in writing about my childhood and personal interests, and I still enjoy woodworking and other handyman projects. My wife and I still live in Tomball and are not far from most of our 8 surviving children and 14 grandchildren.