When I was seven and lived in Baker, Oregon (now Baker City), my stepfather took me only to movies he liked. These included all the ones starring Humphrey Bogart ? my stepfather fancied that he looked like Bogart and practiced smoking and talking like him. And the sci-fi movies that were popular back then including The Thing
and It Came From Outer Space
. These frequently gave me nightmares but the worst movie of all was the leper movie.
In the leper movie, Douglas Fairbanks Junior falls in love with a beautiful woman played by Myrna Loy. Her husband, an actor I can't recall, is diagnosed with leprosy and banished to a leper colony on an isolated island off the coast of Louisiana. He has to live with other lepers and has no contact with normal society.
When he finds out about his wife's new love, he becomes enraged, escapes by stowing away on a supply boat, then spends the rest of the movie trying to touch the lovers so they will get leprosy, too. As the disease progresses, parts of his face peel away and his fingers fall off.
The movie TERRIFIED me. I developed a phobia and became convinced a leper would touch me there in Baker.
My stepfather didn't help. "Leprosy is the worst disease on planet earth," he told me. "When I was in the navy, we saw a leper colony in the Philippines. The lepers didn't have fingers or toes. They just rotted away from the disease ? joint by joint. Most of them were missing their noses, too. They couldn't pick their nose like you do all the time, you little bastard. I'd rather be dead than have leprosy."
He only called me "little bastard" when my mother wasn't around.
At the school library, I looked up "leprosy" in the encyclopedia. They had grotesque pictures, making snakes wiggle down my back. The article said leprosy came from living in filthy conditions, There was no cure. It baffled science.
We lived on the wrong side of the tracks and all my friends "lived in filthy conditions," especially the Wagontire brothers who gave all us boys scalp ringworm in second grade. I stopped going to the bathroom in case one of the Wagontire boys was in there spreading leprosy.
In class, I avoided looking at the wall map of the United States because my eyes would focus on Louisiana. I couldn't look at the beautiful girls either because I kept imagining how they might look disfigured with leprosy. Sandra Towne, Gail Lawrence, Ronda Hester, Priscilla Paugh ? each one missing fingers and toes. Losing their noses. It was terrible to imagine. How could you kiss a girl with no nose?
During the daytime, I kept watch for lepers but realized how vulerable I was at night with my eyes closed. Five nights a week, my stepfather was out of town working in Lime, so that left my mother and me alone in the house. She woudn't be much protection, I figured, when it came to hand-to-partial-hand combat with lepers.
At night, I barricaded my bedroom door with my dresser. I also opened my bedroom window wide, so I could leap out if any leper came bumbling into the room. It would take them a while to enter, especially since they had to turn the doorknob with only a few fingers. This would give me time to leap out the window.
It went on for weeks. I caught bronchitis from the cold ? it often fell below zero in Baker ? and I had painful ear infections, but these were better than leprosy, I figured.
One Sunday, our Lutheran minister introduced a special guest missionary who had worked with lepers in India. He described their plight and showed slides of the suffering lepers. They were "riddled" with the disease, he said, and would be most grateful for our support. Then he took up a collection. When they passed the plate, I couldn't touch it because I had seen the missionary touch it before. The people sitting in the pew on either side of me glared but I jammed my hands deep in my pockets and kept them there. When I left church, I was convinced God would punish me with leprosy because I hadn't made a contribution. I felt low and mean and foul, but at least I hadn't touched that plate.
All week long, I examined myself for signs of early leprosy but came up with only a couple hangnails. The next Sunday, after making sure the missionary had cleared out, I asked our minister how it was the missionary didn't seem to have leprosy.
"Faith, my boy, faith. In the Bible, Jesus cures the lepers. Jesus can do all things, if we believe."
I gave the minister a dollar and asked him to send it to the missionary. "I didn't have an offering last week," I lied.
"It all helps, even the widow's mite." He patted my head and said I was a good boy and asked me if I was keeping up in my prayer life.
I told him yes. I was praying so much I got the sweats. I wanted to believe that Jesus would protect me from the lepers here in Baker, but I thought Jesus might need a little help.
So I figured out how to build a leper trap...
To be continued.
The Eltrym is still there, a dandy theater.
I have seen Sandra Towne and Gail Lawrence on book tours and am pleased to report they don't have leprosy. Ronda Hester has called to say she is okay, too.
I don't know about Priscilla Paugh.
The Wagontire brothers are still at large and should be considered dangerous.