A Childhood Itch


As a kid growing up on Flamingo Street, I knew to stay away from anything with poison as part of its name. Even so, when my dad first told me, “Don’t touch that plant. It’s poison oak,” I still touched the three-leaf plant.

Over the next week he said something I still laugh about today, “A hard head makes a soft one, but in your case, it makes for an itchy one.”

So, on our latest hike to catch lightning bugs, I pointed out the three-leaf plant and warned our granddaughters, Little One and Sweet Caroline, to stay away from it. I also pointed out a bush of poison sumac and a large, hairy vine that simply loves climbing up trees. That hairy vine is poison ivy. Even with endless warnings during our hike, guess which one of us is now suffering from blistering rashes and terrible itches?

Lots of things I did as a kid I only had to do once to learn my lesson. Hitting a paper wasp nest in a tree with a rock, throwing a large rubber snake on my dad while he was taking a nap on the couch, and rolling around in a patch of poison oak, just to name a few. All three were double dog dares issued by one of my brothers, and I was the only one brave enough, or foolish enough, to take up the challenge.

I’m all grown up now, and with age comes wisdom. Or at least it’s supposed to. I no longer throw rocks at paper wasps nest hanging in trees. I never threw another snake on dad. And I steer clear of a patch of poison oak like it’s, well, poison.

So, armed with my years of poison plant knowledge and experience, just how did one of us hikers get covered in an itchy rash that will take weeks to resolve? Keep reading, Dear Reader. This is one summertime warning you need to take heed of.

On our most recent hike, the girls each took a “spider stick” with them, and Big Papa here took his walking stick. It’s great for knocking down any size spider web, fending off a wild dog pack, and pole vaulting over creeks.

OK, those last two I’ve never done, but the walking stick is still great for clearing pathways of giant spider webs. It was also good to use the stick to point out all the poison oak, sumac, and ivy along the pathway as we were hiking through the woods.

But this wasn’t botany class; our main objective was to catch lightning bugs. At dusk, I joined the girls as they darted through the woods chasing after the small, blinking yellow lights. That was right after I leaned my trusty walking stick up against a huge pine tree. A tree, unbeknownst to me, that had a huge hairy vine attached, lying in wait in the darkness. A hairy vine of poison ivy.

The girls each caught and released about a dozen lightning bugs before they finally said they were tired. It was time for baths and bed. After retrieving my walking stick, I caught something too. The worst case of poison ivy I’ve ever had. Dad forgot to tell me anything that touches poison ivy, like a trusty walking stick, can transfer it to you. Our granddaughters sure do know. For the last week they’ve been saying, “Papa, that looks bad. Does it itch?”

“Yes, it is. And yes, it really, really, does. Do you want it?”

And that’s when I turn into the Poison Ivy Monster and start to slowly walk after them, with poison ivy arms outstretched. They scream and run away. It’s a fun game, but I would never actually catch them.

The game has changed a lot since I played it with my three brothers. When sharing my itchy misery with them was the only good thing about being covered head to toe with a poison oak rash.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001. To read more of Rick’s stories, visit his blog: storiesbyrick.wordpress.com.]