Poison Control

May 18, 2011 by

Poison Control

It had to be the year 1943. In those days, a fellow had to be twelve years old to be a Boy Scout. So when I turned twelve, I joined Ventura County Boy Scout Troop 102. In 1943 I was a “Tenderfoot”, the lowest classification in the organization, but I had just joined so that’s not too surprising. Our Scoutmaster, George Sexton and Assistant Scoutmaster, Charlie Randall, led all of the “Tenderfoot” members on a ten mile hike that was designed to bolster our knowledge of “Trail Blazing”, “Map Reading”, Outdoor Survival”, “Cooking” and other “Merit Badge” activities.

Vintage boy scout troopWe were high in the hills above Foster Park, somewhere on Red Mountain, hiking along in a hot, tired line when I got the “call to nature”. We finally took a rest and I hustled off into some bushes and did my duty. There was no toilet paper among us and the only thing handy for the purpose was leaves. I selected the widest I could find and reported back to the line of youths, now ready to continue our hike.

Needless to say it was a hot, sweaty day and I was happy to climb down the last crumbling slope of shale and see my parents waiting in our car at our rendezvous point. I was tired and wet with perspiration but on the drive home I told them all about the hike. How we had cooked our lunch (roasted wieners) over a fire built and put out by our scoutmasters. We all stood around in the 90+ degree heat and cooked our hot dogs put them into a bun and ate them. That made us eligible for our cooking merit badge. We studied the map handed out by Mr. Sexton before the hike and when he would yell back down the line, “Strobel, approximately where are we now?”, I would answer shouting out the nearest land mark. That qualified me for my map reading merit badge and so on. All I could think about now was getting home and taking a nice cool shower. My dad had installed a shower head over our old bathtub and I had taken to the new kind of bathing. I had hated taking baths.

Mom and dad listened to my excited prattle all the way home and when we got there I literally tumbled out of my clothes and jumped into the shower. I felt a little itchy around my private parts but imagined it was just from the long, hot, dusty day. I listened to the radio for awhile that evening and then hit the sack, a tired little Boy Scout who was ready for a good night’s sleep. I couldn’t have imagined how long it would be before I got another good night’s sleep.

About 1:00 or 2:00 AM, I awoke from a deep sleep realizing that I was scratching myself between my legs. I felt little bumps on my skin and I got up and washed myself with a cloth and went back to bed. I couldn’t go back to sleep, the itching became worse and by 4:00 I was distraught enough to wake my mom and tell her what was going on. She examined me and said, “Oh, Boy! You’ve got Poison Oak. You’ve really got Poison Oak, its all over your bottom and legs.” She got out some Calamine Lotion that was left over from my sister’s last case of the “Big Itch” and applied it to my now blistered bottom. It felt great for about ten minutes and then the itching was back.

To make a long story longer, I ended up with the nasty stuff allover my body, from head to toe and when the blisters began to rupture, I was one giant scab. My mother, sister, her boyfriend and my dear grandmother would sit by the hour and apply ointment to the scabs, trying to help me heal without cracking in two.

Eventually I did get well, although I carried some scars around with me for a few months. I felt as though I had been through hell and come back. Little did I know what fate had in store for me a few months later.

Bob (“Lotzie”) Lautzenheizer , Johnny Bergeson and Billy Ax and I had all gotten BB guns and World War II helmet liners for Christmas. One of our most cherished games was to play “War” in the barranca (dry ravine) just down from our house. We dug foxholes in the sides of the barranca and our BB guns would just reach across to the “enemy” foxholes on the other side.  Most of the energy of the BB was spent on its flight across the barranca and so the danger of someone getting hurt was negligible. We even made bombs out of charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter that we would explode with a Ford coil and an old car battery. Our wars were becoming more and more realistic.

“Lotzie”, Johnny and Billy came by the house early one morning and said firemen were burning the weeds out of the barranca. We decided it would make a great day for war games with a real smoke screen to cover our movements. We crept into the barranca and watched as the last of the firemen climbed out and got into their truck, on their way to the next “controlled burn”. Our barranca still had some flames in the middle but that just made it even more realistic.

vintage boy with bb gunWe took our positions across from each other and began to fire through the smoke and flames. In the middle of the barranca were some rather tall bushes, some were “Castor Bean Plants” and the others were tall, woody plants with green leaves and yellow blossoms. I didn’t find out until much later that they were “Poison Sumac”.  I breathed the smoke into my lungs, coughed on it and ran through it. We had a great war. That night, again sometime after midnight, I began to feel lousy, coughing, scratching and sneezing. I thought I had caught a cold until the itching began to get severe. I knew from my previous bout with Poison Oak that I was in trouble.

By noon the next day my eyes were swollen shut, my legs and feet were twice their normal size and I had a racking cough that left me weak and disoriented. My mother tells me that I really lost it by the next night and I don’t remember a lot about the next seven days until Doctor Nelson Weed said, “Johnny, if this stuff takes, you’ll probably never have a case of the Poisons again.” Dr. Weed was an osteopath, in those days separated from their medical doctor colleagues in practice and theory.

However, as I continued to get well, the horror stories from those who had nursed me took their toll. Dr. Fredrick Shore had been called to our home. He told my mom,
after treating me as best he could, that he had done all he could for me and my recovery was in “God’s Hands.” It seems that in inhaling the smoke from the fire, I had inhaled the pollen from the flowers of the Sumac bush. It had settled in my throat, lungs and esophagus. I had the nasty stuff all over my body again but this time I damned near died because of it. However, after a series of seven shots at Dr. Weed’s I began to improve. His prognostication was right. I have never had another serious case of either of my poisons but I have memories of those days that will last the rest of my life.

The worst memories concern it being summer time and sitting in a big easy chair with my swollen legs and feet propped up in the rush of air from an electric fan my dad rigged up for my comfort. Next was that, because my throat and stomach were infected, I could not eat solid food for nearly two weeks. I had to drink scrambled eggs. Yuk!

But the worm finally turned and the horrible scabs receded and eventually I could return to school. I thought I looked pretty good but my friends were afraid to come near me starting rumors that I was really suffering from Leprosy. It finally took the Vice Principle of Ventura Jr. High School, Fred Newcomb, to tell everyone over the intercom that “Johnny Strobel is not a leper. He’s recovering from a bad case of Poison Oak. I don’t want to hear any more talk about Leprosy in this school.”

That was that, with one short announcement I was welcomed back into my community of students. Some people are not affected by Poison Oak, Ivy or Sumac, Some people are. If you are one of those who are, take my advice, don’t use the leaves for personal hygiene and second stay away from smoke that is caused by burning Sumac bushes.

These were days to remember.



  1. It works if you eat the very first shoots of the season for like 20 or 30 days in a row. It’s an intense process.

  2. Oh yes, our oldest son had it many, many times – nasty stuff – it was in an old cemetery that we were taking care of at the time – poor kid wanted to help so badly – bless his heart he paid a big price

  3. No Dean this is the first airing of this story…In fact I just wrote it last week and just made the deadline for MCJ…Valli was not too happy with my tardiness but liked the article so she lost some sleep time and got it into the last issue…JWSIII

  4. Dean Fancy via Facebook

    So, I guess that’s one urban myth we can trace back to the source. I remember the big kids in the neighborhood schooling me on leaves when I was pretty young. John, was this story run in a periodical in the ’50’s or ’60’s?

  5. Remind me to tell you about my bout with nettles…Talk about pain…Wow, I’m really impressed with the number of comments this story got…Thanks guys, I really appreciate hearing from you…Even if it is a sore subject…JWSIII

  6. Pamela Bentley via Facebook

    i encounter poison oak once it eat me up ,, i was in it and didn’t know what it was , i sit in it on a log ….and sat on it 🙂

  7. David Traub via Facebook

    As you say :{

  8. You can say that again and again and again… it was the pain that just kept on giving….. : {

  9. David Traub via Facebook

    Ouch B!!!!!!!

  10. Never had any of ’em…… but sitting on nettles… that’s another thing all together!!! Ouch!!!

  11. My first poison ivy was at a Boy Scout camp in Nebraska where my dad worked. I was never very successful avoiding it while running around in the woods there.

  12. you’re gonna need an ocean, of calamine lotion.

  13. Judith L. Goldfarb via Facebook

    I had poison ivy, many years ago. Incredibly uncomfortable.

  14. Yeah Jeanne it was a horror story…In a situation like that time is your best friend and your worst enemy together. You’re so ill that you think it will never end (and of course it does) then sitting in a hot room covered by healing scabs was not a way to pass time that I would reccommend to anyone. But after it was all over I chalked it all up as just another page out of my life’s book…There are many many more and much happier pages to report…
    David: The woods of Conneticut are no different than the woods of California…You may have Poison Ivy where we have Poison Oak and I’m not too sure about Sumac, I don’t know if you have that in Conneticut or not but I’ll tell you one thing, they hurt just as bad in Conneticut as they do in California and the poisonous snakes are just as dangerous here as they are there…Thanks for the comments you guys, I really appreciate them…JWSIII

  15. Jeanne Raines via Facebook

    Wow! What a horror story! I’ve never had a poison ivy, etc. reaction, but I never, ever take it for granted that I won’t! I’ll always remember my first meeting of a woman who became one of my dearest friends — she was recovering from a up close encounter with one of the poisons that she’d met while squatting in the woods while on a camping trip.

  16. David Traub via Facebook

    In the woods of Connecticut I learned them all and the poisonous mushrooms and snakes too.