By ART GARCIA
One early evening in the mid ‘50s, while playing tag with my prepubescent friends, I ducked inside a hobby shop to hide behind a pinball machine. A piece of plywood, which must have fallen from the back of the machine, had a nail sticking up from it. I accidentally stepped on the nail and it went right through my thin rubber slippers to my right heel. I screamed from the pain and went home limping.
Our rented apartment was just a block away and Mother was in the sala chatting with friends. I told her about it but, not wanting to lose the latest gossip from the neighbors, she simply looked at the wound and told me to wash it with soap and water. “Dry your feet, and don’t go out anymore,” she shouted.
It was not yet 7 p.m., but this was long before the digital age, and even landline phones were a luxury, so I could only reach for a library book or turn on our Westinghouse radio. Kids obeyed parents in those days.
It must have been a Saturday because there was no school the following day. Come Monday, I was limping all day in school and the throbbing pain from the wound was getting worse. The next day, I was in terrible shape and I didn’t know how I survived my whole day of classes. I couldn’t bring my right foot down and, as the days passed, I had to raise my foot to the back of my knee when I walked. Even while I lay in bed with a lingering fever, I had to cross my right leg on my left knee as it was painful to put my foot down. I was finding it difficult to move my jaws and had a hard time swallowing food.
It was tetanus, I learned much later. But my parents, like our neighbors, were ignorant of its symptoms.
I was missing too many class days, my lockjaw had worsened, and I had to keep my swollen feet higher up my leg. It was impossible for me to walk without holding on to furniture. Mother had to do something about it. My father worked from afternoon to midnight, bummed around with friends until dawn, came home and slept till noon, then got up for lunch and prepared to go to his office before 3 p.m.
It was early morning when Mother helped me get to the door of our ground-floor apartment, and together we tried to walk to the corner. I was stumbling about and grimacing from pain but too embarrassed to cry. There were no pedicabs then, and it was hard to put me in one of the five-seater jeepneys, which were usually full of passengers during that time of the morning.
Mother decided to carry me in her arms. She was not big or muscular but she lifted me up. She told me to put my legs around her waist and my arms around her neck. I was nine years old and, although I was a runt, I must have weighed more than 30 pounds.
The doctor’s clinic was some six or seven blocks away but Mother, walking slowly to keep her balance, carried me all the way. I was her only boy, my sister her only girl, and damned if she couldn’t get help for us.
It took us only a few minutes at the clinic. The doctor opened my wound with a sharp knife to expose the tetanus bacilli to the oxygen in the air, which would kill them. There was hardly any blood around the rough tissue of my sole and since the wound had to be exposed to air, no gauze or bandage was applied.
The following day, I was well enough to go to school. The tetanus was nearly gone but for a couple more days I had to wear rubber slippers to class, the same pair that I wore when I hid behind that pinball machine. At that time, a boy in our Sampaloc neighborhood in Manila thought himself lucky to have slippers. Many of my playmates wore wooden shoes, actually cheap slippers made of wood with a clear plastic overleaf. The wood was nearly two inches thick, so a nail wouldn’t get through it. In any case, Mom was tougher than any rusty old nail.