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COLUMN: Family medicine

As long, cold winters like this one slowly build the extra minutes of sunshine that will eventually rescue us from brainlessly deciding to stay and live at this awful latitude, we all search for solace.

Solace from what? There is one group of organisms that loves this latitude, loves bunches of people sealed up in air-tight boxes where there is always one human that believes he and he alone will enter the Guinness World Book of Records with their next sneeze. You've seen them. Their faces begin to wrinkle. That wrinkle gives them time to develop a lung full of air. They cock their head back, look up at a bright light to more sharply trigger this expulsion of snot and air, and fire it into the room.

Right where you are.

The fact that murder rates drop up here in the winter doesn't make sense.

Something else doesn't make sense: I haven't had one single common cold this winter, not one. Not one sinus infection, flu germ, or stomach flu. As this winter passes the two-thirds mark, and I have a chance for a personal best at this germ-free record, perhaps murder will become an alternative, when I maul some hapless sneezer.

As it is, all conversations with friends begins with: "Hey. Come on up (from the Twin Cities, breeding place for contagious enemies) and we'll go sliding." After a second more, I add: "You're not sick, are you?"

Unspoken are the words: "Because if you are, you're sleeping in the garage."

Of course they know I'm joking. They should also know that I'll love them just as much in the garage as in the house.

Back when I was a kid, germs were treated much more seriously, because antibiotics and doctor visits were pretty rare, and no one knew for sure which germ might progress to something so serious that a doctor might be involved. Grown-ups from that era, the late forties and early fifties, remembered quite well the fact that doctors used to be barbers who learned their trade while practicing taking out tonsils and teeth. They remembered doctors before doctors even had official medical colleges where they learned stuff that could really kill you.

There are two medical treatments that parents knew which I remember. One happened when you as a child became so hoarse with a sore throat that you couldn't even bluff a normal speaking voice anymore. Your life began to take a major turn for the worse when you came into the kitchen and saw dad with a goose feather in one hand and the iodine bottle in the other.

He didn't even say anything, just beckoned you with one finger. And just like that, you knew there was no place to run, no place to hide. There was nothing left to do but slowly, veeeery slowly walk over there.

"Say 'ahhhhh'," he would tell you. Then with a dip of the tip of the feather in the iodine so quick that it must be magic, he stuck it down your gullet and coated all the red goopy soreness down there in one swipe.

I asked him later, once I was grown up and he couldn't catch me anymore, could he coat everything in one swipe, and he said: "I had to do it in one, one was the only chance you got."

That's for sure. I remember long minutes of gagging, which I'm sure I accentuated for extra pity. There was no pity. They'd grown up with the medical feather; they were happy to get the chance to use it on someone else. "Let's have kids," I can hear my parents telling each other, "so we can gag them with The Feather."

Seriously, they also knew that, without antibiotics, kids got sick and died, even though the same parents ended up with a bill for removal of tonsils. Better the feather.

Or the mustard plaster. Now, there's a method for making errant foreign terrorists cough up the truth. Let's restrain'em, and slap one of these on their chest. They'd talk.

The only good thing about the mustard plaster was that at least, mom did it. With dad, you kind of felt that you could as easily be a calf or baby pig. He apparently didn't care which, just went ahead with a certain calm, stoic attitude.

Mom knew, and you could tell. "This will feel hot, but it'll make you feel better."

Hot? Hot is fire. This was way past fire. Which was why she sat beside you at your bedside, and sympathized with you while she held you down, saying things like: "Just think how much better you'll feel when you're able to breathe and run around again."

Uh huh. The thick, mustard-plastered cotton cloth must have been warmed up to a thousand degrees. You could feel it burning your chest skin, you could smell the skin puckering and turning black, and when you thought it couldn't get any worse, then the mustard began to prickle and itch and burn. Ohhhhhhhnooooooooooi'mdyingma!!!!!

Then you woke up the next day ready to run around again. Coughed up about a bucket full of snot the first hour, marveling at the colors of your expectorations while they froze in a snow bank. Instant recovery time.

I hope I don't catch anything. Remedies like that would kill me now.

Call before you come, so I can hear if you're dripping, or coughing, or plugged up.

Aw. Never mind. I feel the first tickle of the first autumn cold in the back of my throat. The first sneeze. The first night trying to sleep, sinuses throbbing.

You say you're not sick?

Hey. Come on over.