My father believed if a little medicine would help, lots of it would do wonders. Those were the days before you ran to the doctor for every sniffle. Most of the medicine was home remedies.
One of the curatives he kept in the family medicine chest was medicinal turpentine. He used it to cure everything from tetanus to toothaches. If you stepped on a rusty nail, he’d pour half the bottle into the wound. I never had lockjaw, but I can remember wondering if the cure wasn’t worse than the malady.
It was also the only thing you’d need to take the “burn” out of a sunburn. He believed in fighting fire with fire. It was particularly good, he believed, in taking the soreness out of muscles overworked after a day of putting up hay.
So when Rusty Willeford of Roseburg told me the story about trying to cure chronic lower back pain I was certain he’d met my father. Willeford is a cowboy poet who uses the editorial “we” to describe things that happen to him.
In this case, Willeford’s turpentine came in a dark glass bottle with a Victorian label reading “Sloan’s Liniment.” The content, Willeford said, promised to be the “premium nostrum on the face of the earth for relieving muscular soreness, aches and pains.” Willeford said he believed this because the liniment is an old formula and that he “holds tenaciously to the belief that anything older is better. We are convinced that modern bureaucracy has taken everything of value and restricted, diluted or otherwise compromised it well beyond its ability to retain any virtue.”
With bottle in hand and an aching back, Willeford hurried home, anxious to relieve his aching back with this newfound potion. He filled the tub with steaming hot water, broke the seal and twisted the cap “that imprisoned the efforts of the venerable Dr. Sloan.”
Willeford subscribes to my father’s philosophy that much is good, more is better and much more is better still. He poured the whole bottle into the tub.
Willeford plunged in, seeking relief for his aching back, only to experience an “explosion of pain that engulfed every fiber of our being. Leaving the confines of the cast-iron coffin we shot like a rocket, smelling and feeling for all the world like we had been boiling in kerosene.”
Willeford said he sought anything cold enough to soothe his burning hot skin. As he explained his pain and suffering he continued speaking in the editorial “we,” as if hoping that I might feel sympathy over his pain. As I listened to his summary I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to feel sympathy.
“As we gathered our suddenly strewn mental faculties to assess the damage, it occurred to us that the container encasing our fluid assassin might harbor an explanation for the attempt on our life. Upon reading the label we found no solace for our condition, but an unmistakable warning that would have prevented it.”
The label clearly stated, “WARNING: extremely potent and penetrating! Do not apply with water or heat. Use only in small amounts, avoiding contact with sensitive skin!”
Willeford admits to “being all spur and no rein we had once again blindly ridden our silent steed into our own discomfort. Blame not Dr. Sloan, for we had willingly failed to heed his instruction. Our undoing was of our own design.”
But Willeford is a quick learner: “You ask what singular, life-guiding principle we have learned: Read and follow instructions.”
As I remember, my father’s turpentine bottle, only said: “Purified gum turpentine for medicinal use.”