Archive for December, 2015

Gramma’s Bodybuilder for Colds






I was mired in the “mother-of-all-colds” when we returned home from a week of thanks and giving in Washington State. I can’t blame the airplane bugs for this one. I was already experiencing the harbingers of tough times ahead with a scratchy sore throat as I checked in at the airport. I felt some relief when the airline agent handling our solitary checked item went wide-eyed after asking what was in the old cooler that was wrapped in duct tape. “A dead turkey,” I replied.  But that’s another story.

For a week I suffered mightily. I fought my flagging health with naps, lots of water, tea, and perhaps too many vigorous hikes. Returning to Minnesota, I had another five days of middle of the night coughing jags that were so intense they squeezed tears out of my eyes.

When you lay in bed you have time to think. I recalled various cures such as hot chicken noodle soup, oil of oregano in hot water or a nightly shot of peppermint schnapps. I tend to eschew pharmaceuticals but I had even resorted to some tablets of something that phonetically sounded spooky.

As I lay semi-comatose, sketches of a life unfinished danced through my mind. One was like an angel-delivered epiphany as I recalled how my late Great Grandma Schmidt dealt with a cold.  She lived 104 years, but this tale took place when she was younger, in her spritely and sharp 90s.

I remember it quite clearly because Gramma, as the family called her, was battling a cough and cold. She had gone to the doctor and reported to him that the prescribed medication wasn’t working. She told the doc that she was going to go home and make a batch of Bodybuilder just like her mother used to make her when she was sick.

Curious, the doc asked about the ingredients of this miraculous potion. As she told him she wondered aloud if she could get all the necessary ingredients.

Like all honorable Grammas, this one never went to the liquor store and she wasn’t sure if they would have the needed rye whiskey. I don’t know if it was out of genuine curiosity or because he felt bad that his prescribed medicines didn’t work, but the doc called the liquor store to ask if they had rye whiskey. They did.

Born in Nebraska well before Henry Ford wheeled his first auto out, Gramma moved with her family to South Dakota when she was eleven.

I recall asking Gramma how she garnered the recipe for this healthy concoction. “Well,” she said, “I was seven or so . . . .no, no, I was six.” (Remember I noted her sharpness.) She continued, “My parents had just bought a new Round Oak Heater. You could load the firebox with coal before bed and that stove would hold heat all night. A pamphlet called Home Remedies and Household Hints came with that stove. And my mother recognized a recipe for ‘consumption’ because she had a bout with consumption when she was five years old in 1864. It was called Body Builder.”

Gramma explained, “Consumption could get in your lungs and begin to deteriorate your body.”

For centuries, “consumption” was used to describe any fatal wasting disease. In essence, the body was consumed by the unknown malady that most often affected the lungs. It wasn’t until 1882 that a German physician, Robert Koch, identified the bacterium that caused tuberculosis.

I was visiting my recovering Gramma when she showed me the Body Builder recipe:

½ lb. of fresh beefsteak, finely cut or ground with no fat

1 dram (or 1 oz.) of pulverized charcoal

4 oz. pulverized sugar or powder sugar with no cornstarch

4 oz. of rye whiskey

1 pint of boiling water

 Mix all together and let it stand in a cool place overnight. Take 1-2 tsp. of liquid and meat before each meal.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you choose to try this cold fighting remedy, you do so at your own risk.

Gramma smiled as she recalled recruiting her perky 75-year old daughter-in-law to drive her around town to pick up the Body Builder components.

First stop was the local butcher shop. Gramma closely watched the grinding of the fat-trimmed piece of beef. Then they went to the drug store for the pulverized charcoal. The local pharmacist knew her well and asked, “Elsie, are you going to make gunpowder?”

Both tee-totaling ladies felt “a little naughty” at the final stop, the liquor store. When the clerk set the fifth of whiskey on the counter, Gramma asked if she could have just half the bottle as she didn’t need that much. Regrettably she had to buy the whole bottle. “But,” Gramma reported with a grin, “the nice man gave us each a pen.”

While Gramma was relaying the story to me, she walked slowly over to her fridge and returned carrying a jar of what I thought might be a glob of oil sludge. She opened the jar and dipped a teaspoon in the Body Builder and offered a few drops for me. Not bad. Really. Not bad.

Then she shuffled over to her cupboard and carefully took out a nearly full bottle of rye whiskey. She unscrewed the cap and held the bottle up to my nose. With an impish, elderly smile she said, “Smells kind of strong doesn’t it?”

I knew she was feeling better when she said, “You know I’m a naturalist, I let nature dictate my life.”

Hmmm. I wonder if she added a bit of “Wisdom Builder” in her last batch?




Taking the “Ish” Out of Fish


Dead animals are magnets for children and flies.

Nothing morbid about that since such a rendezvous is often one of the first encounters a child has with death. Try this scenario. A parent is walking with their child and they come upon a dead robin, rabbit, June bug, salmon or whatever. Rather than being curious about the moment and taking the opportunity to ask and receive questions, parents often command, “Don’t touch that!” or “Ick! Get away from that!”

Sadly, those utterances will serve as walls, rather than building blocks for learning.

Granted, if the child could get hurt then I understand the need to divert his or her actions. And I fully appreciate the need to teach good manners.  But all too frequently hawking parents are stifling their child’s curiosity. Ironically such parental hovering shackles a child from surrendering to pure wonder.

There is a fine line between managing children’s safety and letting them discover the magic of spontaneity.

More and more it seems that child-rearing has become an exercise in casting out broad nets of “don’ts and “be carefuls.” We are creating a culture based on mis-guided and phantom fears.

The irony is that we are now learning that exposing  kids to the plethora of germs is the healthier option than the ultra-hygienic path.  Research shows that exposing kids to germs  builds stronger immune systems and  diminishes problems with allergies and asthma.

Over Thanksgiving,  my family and I were in Bellingham, Washington.  It occurred to me that one of my all-time favorite students from my days of working at Warner Nature Center in Minnesota was now living with his family in the area. A little detective work and a phone call put us in touch.

Peter was 8 years old when he showed up at a class I taught about reptiles and amphibians. That began an eight year history in teaching each other. We fed off each other’s enthusiasm and to this day I only have to reflect on those days to recharge my own.

Shortly, we joined Peter, his wife Lucy and their children Grace, age 10 and Wilder, age 8 for a  post-Thanksgiving lunch of delicious planned-overs. We were actually helping them finish off a turkey they had raised and named “Thanksgiving.”

I was pleased to learn that the raising of the bird, the killing and butchering did not cause any family strife. These kids have been involved with home-grown food before and understood that plants and animals die for us to eat.

After eating and visiting we took a 20-minute drive to a small  fast running creek where Peter and his family had seen some salmon the day before. We parked and walked a short distance to the ten-foot wide flow, less than a hundred yards from the Pacific. Standing on a low railroad bridge over the water we could see a number of chum salmon directly beneath us  that were slowly making their way to their death.

These salmon are sometimes called “dog” salmon because of the long, curved canine teeth that the males develop during the spawning stage, the last hours of their lives. Some say their namesake is derived from the common practice of feeding these fish to sled dogs.

Both adult male and female chum return to the stream of their birth and make their way up the gravel-bottomed shallows. Here the female  prepares a shallow depression on the  bottom to lay hundreds or even thousands of eggs. The dominant male will shoulder his way close to the egg-laying female and release a thin milky cloud of sperm or milt. This act might be repeated several times before both the male and female are worn out and shortly thereafter die.

Spent salmon, those in their final hours of life, have lost their fresh color of living in the ocean. Now they become mottled, with patches of their body turning pallid and ragged. The fish literally begin to decompose while alive. In their final minutes of life, they lie on their sides, with only their gills slowly fanning the last drinks of oxygen from their home waters.

It was such a fish that eight-year old Wilder stood over in the creek shallows. Nearby, fresher fish surged upstream against the current and a handful of salmon carcasses were grounded in the shallows.

Wilder excitedly looked up at his dad, Peter, and asked, “Hey dad can I touch it?”

This would have been the moment that I dare-say most parents would respond with “No! Ish!” Any curiosity and potential for learning would be immediately skewered.

Peter paused a moment and answered, “You know, I don’t know Wilder.” Another pause and he asked his son, “Why don’t you listen to what your heart and gut say about it.”

Brilliant. He honored Wilder by giving him the chance to make the decision himself and in doing so communicated that he, as a parent, was perfectly fine with either choice. It was that simple.

Wilder leaned over the stilled fish and tentatively reached forward to touch it. He had barely poked its flank when the not-quite-dead fish found the energy to flop and struggle in the shallows, splashing a very surprised young boy.

Wilder pulled away and stood frozen.”It’s alive Dad!!”

Peter and Lucy had told both Grace and Wilder about the salmon’s cycle of life and death the previous day.  For children, death is hard to comprehend. Encountering death can be an opportunity for a quiet and reverent discussion that honors a child’s natural curiosity.

The sun was setting on that cool November afternoon and we all walked away with our own memories of what we had experienced. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wilder’s fingers smelled a bit like fish. No problem, he had just found an amazing  story.

Surrender to Wonder 2