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Between my sophomore and junior years at NC State, I worked at the Boy's Club camp in Raleigh. I had worked the summer before as a nature instructor and assistant rifle range instructor at Boy Scout camp. Boy Scout camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains was very close to heaven-on-earth: Live in the woods, teach environmental science in the morning, shoot rifle all afternoon, read at night by a kerosene lamp, occasionally blow something up with some of the camp dynamite. There was one vital element missing: women. I was 20, and having finally been acquainted with the ways of the flesh some 2 years earlier (finally!) this was a very vital missing element. We had no shortage of porn up there on the mountain, having created a communal library of it for the staff, but the titillation only seemed to make it worse. When I hooked up with a gal late the next spring, and it looked like things would last into summer, I knew that I wouldn't be going back to Boy Scout camp.

So my credentials as an Eagle Scout and nature instructor got me a job at the Boy's and Girls club camp in Raleigh. However, I was in for a bit of a shock when we got to the camp proper, about an hour away by bus. The camp was in Johnston County, the heart of tobacco country, former home of the billboard above the highway that read "Colored Man, Don't Let The Sun Set On You In Johnston County." And it wasn't even a camp, it was an abandoned golf course in the middle of a tobacco field, bordering on the Tar River. But this is what you get when you're a poor black kid from the projects in Raleigh, and you sign up for a free summer camp. There was a massive shortage of instructors, the whole operation was jacklegged from the beginning. Loose tribes of children would wander at random over this massive golf course, under the blistering sun, unsupervised. More than once I caught the 13 year olds fucking in one of the abandoned barns. More than once I had to track down a child who had run away, literally follow their tracks and trail them through the fields until I'd recovered them.

Needless to say, there wasn't much in the way of a burgeoning wild ecosystem out on that golf course. My best bet for something even approximating a "natural" environment was down by the Tar River. At first, I couldn't even get the kids to follow me out there. I had to get everyone to hold hands and single file into the "woods" (it was more scrubland than anything else). They were so terrified of this organic, unstructured environment that they had to be begged, bribed, and coerced into walking down to the river. The only thing they knew of the woods was what they saw on TV - axe murderers, poisonous snakes, sodomite rednecks. They had never seen it as a place of solitude and refuge like I had - a place to be disappeared into. In their defense, where they lived in Raleigh scared the shit out of my hick ass. There were 3 black kids in my High School - three. And these were not neglected, socioeconomically vilified southern blacks. These were snowflake professors' kids. I didn't really know anything but white folks, and I'd be blowing sunshine up your ass to tell you anything other than I found urban blacks scary and intimidating. My grandmother, product of New Orleans, had filled my head with horror stories about how thieving and vicious the "coloreds" were.

Eventually, I got the kids over their fear, and got them playing in the river. They finally began to experience this natural place as a playground. I thought I was pretty hot shit, "Look at me, I've expanded their minds!" However, there was something along the banks of that river that my dumb hillbilly self had never really contended with - poison ivy. You see, Poison Ivy doesn't like the shade. It likes the intermediary space between shade and open sunny space - like the banks of a river! Now, I'd spent a lot of time down on the New River back in VA, but there just isn't much poison ivy in the mountains, I guess. However, there was no shortage of the goddamned stuff along the Tar. I was exposed to the ivy and developed the rash. Then I exposed the rash to the ivy, over and over and over. At the time, I had this kind of half baked Nietzschian idea that since the rash wasn't killing me, I would eventually become inured to it and develop an immunity. I was wrong on both counts.

In and out of the water all day long, working in the dirt and 95% humidity, the rash on my legs became infected. The wounds began to suppurate, weeping down the length of my thighs and calves. I looked like I had the skin flayed from my legs. It was amazing. But I had been taught to tough it out, not bellyache. Or at least, this was my interpretation of what the manly course of action was at the time. This was a mistake.

My legs, in addition to weeping, began to get very red. I got some antibiotic ointment, smeared it on, wrapped my legs in loose gauze, then held everything on with a couple of ace bandages. My legs started to swell. They were half again bigger in diameter, my thighs like watermelons. This was no good. My breathing became laborious. I called my Dad. Dad, a biomechanical engineer with two years of medical school under his belt, freaked out. "What the hell are you doing down there! Are you stupid? You've got a systemic infection! Hang up the phone and go to the doctor. Now! Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Go right now!" I tried to stand up, but I couldn't. My legs hurt so bad I couldn't walk. I picked up the phone and called my buddy, who carried all 6'2" of me out to the car. Then he drove me to the emergency room.

At the emergency room, since I didn't demonstrate arterial spurting and didn't scream like a banshee, I was filed under "poison ivy." I was led to an exam room to wait for the doc. After the usual hour wait, the MD comes in, takes a raised-eyebrow gander at my ace bandage get up, and says, "So it says here that you've got some poison ivy?"

"Yes, sir. It's kinda bad."

"Well, let's give it a look here."

The doc unwraps my right leg.

"Holy Shit!"

I had never heard a doctor say anything like this. Or even seem anything other than slightly bored.

"Damn son, you weren't joking! What the hell is this?" He calls over his shoulder, "Hey! Sandy, come in here and get a load of this!" He turns back to me, "Dr. Sandy worked down in Mexico some, she's got some experience with tropical pathology, which is what I think we've got going here."

Dr. Sandy, a young brunette lady doctor walks in, takes one look at my leg, and stops dead in her tracks. "Holy Shit! That's gangrene!"

"Really! Wow!" I had always read about it in Civil War histories, or WW I books. Now I had it!

Dr. Sandy took a closer look. "Oh yeah, untreated, you'd be lining a body bag in about 24 hours. Let's give him that experimental antibiotic!"

"The one for drug-resistant gonorrhea?"

"Yep, plus 200ccs of penicillin and an intramuscular of hydrocortisone."

The nurse came in, flipped me on my stomach, and cut my pants off with a pair of blunt-nosed scissors. Into my left ass-cheek went the penicillin, into my right the hydrocortisone. I immediately began to feel better.

The doc gave me two weeks of workman's compensation for my job related injury, and a 10 day run of the aforementioned experimental antibiotics and hydrocortisone. I lay on my back for 14 days, eating and sleeping in clean sheets and air-conditioning.

Later, I would discover that the Tar was the most polluted river in the state, and one of the most polluted rivers in the country. It's loaded with dioxins from paper mills, and biotic waste from industrial hog farming operations up the river. So much for my high-minded mission of giving the kids a natural playground. I probably gave them all cancer. I'm a fanatic now about wound care. I irrigate every nick and cut, slather on the triple-antibiotic, change the dressings twice a day. I also discovered the magic bullet for poison ivy, this stuff called tecnu. The moral of the story:

Don't fuck with Ms. Ivy. She's green and mean.

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