Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
June 4, 2011
If you don’t have them, God bless you! If you do have ’em, God help you! I’m talking about allergies, the scourge of summer for many people. That time of year has crept up on us, and “creepy” is a good word to use when it comes to the sniffles, sneezes and absolute torment that rains down on some of us.
My granddad and I were trailing a herd of cows up one of our northern mesas, through the blooming spring sagebrush when my eyes became swirling orbs of swollen tissue, a translucent film of slimy rejection against insidious pollen covering their lenses, my nose both plugged and running and my sinuses swollen beyond comprehension.
Barely able to talk, I muttered (the one time I dared), “Gramps, I need to go home. I can’t take this hay fever anymore.” Sometimes less than sympathetic, his reply was characteristically acerbic. “Goddammit, I suffered for 60 years with that stuff, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. Get off to the side a bit.” I tried to be comforted by the thought that in another 52 years or so I wouldn’t have such problems.
It was another era, another time, and the firstborn son wasn’t getting out of his responsibilities just because of a few allergies. Besides, I was eager to accept most any task on the ranch because it either consisted of riding horses or driving tractors.
By 10 years old, I was raking hay, a job that didn’t cause too many problems with hay fever, if I refused to touch my face. An honest rub near my eyes though, like swatting a fly, would result in swelling eyes and an itching throat.
At 12, I graduated to the job of mowing hay, a necessary evil that made my life unbearable after a couple of hours in the field. One day, at least a mile from the house, my eyes took on an extraordinary bent toward destroying me and it got so bad I had to turn the tractor off. It got worse as I headed for home, walking mostly by instinct along the dirt road. I couldn’t see well enough to unlatch a certain gate, and as I swung my leg through the barbed wire leading to the gate, ripped a gash in my inner thigh. It wasn’t pretty, torn Levi’s, slits for eyes and when I stumbled through the door, my mother welcomed me with the thoughtful phrase, “A nearly blind man in the hall, slowly bleeding to death.
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After a trip to the doctor, with a stitched up thigh and eyes slowly returning to normal, my dad asked if maybe I could get in a couple more hours on the mowing machine. That’s how it was, life on the ranch.
I learned to wear a diving mask while cutting hay. That held off the devastating symptoms of hay fever for several hours and I could almost get a day’s work in before needing to stop. Saturday-night dates were a bitch, if they occurred at all. My evening eyes were those of a man coming off a three-week bender and parents looked askance as I picked up their daughters.
Many people offered suggestions and I ate raw honey from a nearby hive, drank nettle tea, received allergy injections, and anything else we thought might help. I’d put black tea compresses on my eyes at night to soothe the pain and reduce the swelling.
Finally, Dr. J. Stirling Baxter saved the day by prescribing a new drug that kept the hay fever demons at bay (Ornade), and life in the summer at last became pleasurable. They’ve since watered the drug down for over-the-counter use and it’s no longer effective.
Still hearing my grandfather’s words, I can unequivocally say that I’m over 60 and the hay fever is worse, if anything. But there are several drugs that ease the torment as I continue to be a hay-raising rancher. My eyes still look suspiciously like those of a man long on whiskey and short on sleep.