For that winter, Ida bought Robert and Charles new parkas. Robert asked if, rather than the usual dark blue or gray coats, he could have the red one on the rack at Sears, and—surprise!—Ida consented.
Robert loved his red coat! It was bright red throughout. Even the fuzzy stuff that took the place of fur around the hood was the same red! He could hardly wait to wear it on the playground at school.
He had fewer chances to wear it than he might have. The onslaught of childhood diseases had begun, and he had to remain at home with them, as well as being “quarantined” with what he eventually came to expect: his Christmas flu.
Over the next few years, Robert had the chicken pox, measles, mumps (on both sides), and a different kind of measles that was much more virulent than the first kind had been. He heard his parents referring to “the German measles,” so that must have been what the bad ones were.
Robert hated missing school and falling behind in his assignments—even while he tried to keep up from home.
… and he hated Vicks VapoRub. Whenever he had a cold or flu, his mother smeared the intensely aromatic VapoRub on his chest, covered the gooey mess with a square torn from a worn-out pair of flannel pajamas, and buttoned up his new flannel pajama top over the square. Even when she had pulled the sheet, the bedspread, the gray woolen blanket, and the crazy quilt with its thick batting up to Robert’s eyes, Robert could still smell the VapoRub. While he slowly baked beneath the heavy bedding, he felt sick because he smelled VapoRub, which he associated with feeling sick. It was a vicious cycle.
Robert was not terribly fond of the vitamins, either. They were in a brown bottle. Ida would pour the thick liquid into a teaspoon and hold out the spoon for Robert to take the vitamins, which had a strong aroma from the sulfur in the composition.
In the medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink were other medicines. There was tincture Merthiolate for cuts. It was applied from a thin glass rod attached to the inside of the cap, and it colored the cut a glaring reddish orange. For inflamed membranes or rashes, the light pink salve from the tube of Taloin ointment did the trick. Rubbing alcohol cleaned scratches.
Whenever Robert experienced a particularly stubborn bout of flu, Ida took him to see Dr. Scheurich. The good doctor might or might not set his cigar aside long enough to insert a tongue depressor in Robert’s mouth and to peer down Robert’s throat. Then, invariably, he would hand Ida a bottle of little red pills. Did the pills help? Not that Robert could determine.
Behind one of the upper hinged doors of the Hoosier was Joe’s arsenal of aspirin. There was also an extra tin of the udder balm, with which Joe soothed his cows’ sensitive skin after milking them. Joe and Ida applied udder balm to any dry patches that appeared on their hands, arms, or legs during the winter months.
Illnesses could not hold out forever, and—finally!—Robert got to wear his red coat on the playground! Alan and Terry led Robert’s class in building a beauty of a snow fort. Simultaneously, the two Steves of the class above Robert’s class guided their classmates in fashioning a most menacing fort within a snowball’s distance of the other fort.
One of the Steves yelled across the no-man’s-land, “I dare you to be the first to throw a snowball.” At the same time, to taunt Alan and Terry’s side, the other Steve stood on his head and waggled his legs.
“I say we attack ‘em now,” Terry advised.
“Have we made enough snowballs?” Alan asked.
“Sure! There are plenty.”
“They’re asking for it,” Robert said.
“Fire at will!” Alan commanded.
Suddenly, the air between the two forts was full of snowballs. With several allies from older and younger classes, each fort numbered as many as twenty troops. Steve the Taunter nimbly dodged multiple snowballs hurled in his direction. His arm was a blur as he gave back as good as he got, firing snowball after snowball at his opponents.
A snowball found its mark on the right side of Robert’s face, shattering lightly all about. Robert laughed as a chunk of the cold stuff went down his neck. Almost immediately, another snowball burst off the left side of his face, and more snow rolled inside his collar and down his neck. Robert was laughing so hard that he was almost incapacitated.
Gasping for air and laughing uncontrollably, he yelled, “Stop! Stop!”
Wham! Another snowball hit him on a shoulder.
“It’s your coat,” Terry shouted over the din of the battle. “The red is a target!”
Robert ducked behind the highest wall of the fort and regained his breath.
Nearby, Dennis jumped up to throw a massive snowball toward the enemy fort. At the same instant, he was hit full in the face.
“Oh, they got me,” he said, falling to the ground and pretending to be a casualty—but only for a second. Then he was back on his feet and sending snowballs through the frosty air.
Susan, Linda, Randy, and Jean had reinforced the fort. They scurried out the back, formed snowballs in their gloved hands, ran inside the enclosure, and threw them as hard as they could, many of them finding their mark.
Before long, the sides had increased to over thirty troops apiece.
Just when the fight was becoming the best in history, someone heard Mrs. Arvin calling. The recess was over. Laughing and chuckling, the students filed from both forts across the playground to the school building. There were no hard feelings. Students that had been enemies only seconds earlier were swapping tales of valor with one another on the way back to the classrooms.
As Robert thought about it later, it may well have been the best snowball fight in history. By the next day, an abrupt warming trend had melted much of the snow, and the forts were destined to disappear from the playground landscape. The bonds of friendship that the battle had only strengthened were strong enough to endure the vicissitudes of lifetimes.