My granddaughter scraped her leg and her mother applied antiseptic cream guaranteed not to sting or stain. Bree hopped up afterwards and was off to play immediately.
I’m glad it was painless for her. But I couldn’t help feeling a pang of nostalgia. She had been born too late to experience one of the most vividly felt memories of childhood.
Merthiolate was as much a part of summer as sweating was. That little brown bottle, with the mysterious word “tincture” printed on the front, could be found in every home that housed children in the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Its size was deceptive. It may have been only a few inches tall, but it packed a wallop of wound-healing power more potent than peroxide and more painful than the wound it treated.
From the first day of summer vacation to the first frost of fall, every kid knew his body would be scraped, scratched, bitten, stung, and cut from playing outside.
And the treatment for all those wounds was Merthiolate.
When barefoot weather arrived, the Merthiolate was pulled to the front of the mirrored medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink. One bottle lasted forever, it seemed. You could live an entire childhood convinced that the same bottle had painted your body every summer since your first bicycle wreck.
By the end of the summer, you just weren’t a normal child unless you were dotted and striped with its telltale red stains on your arms and legs.
This was not a cooling, soothing cream. Merthiolate was the hair of the dog that scratched you. The rotgut whiskey of cures. When we saw cowboys on “Gunsmoke” biting bullets to endure painful doctorin’, we nodded knowingly.
His wound would need Merthiolate before it was all over. No wonder he was wincing.
Our knees were always the first body area to get painted. Embedded gravel was removed; soap and water was swiped along the scrape. Mom unscrewed the Merthiolate and pulled out the stick/wand connected to the lid.
Blood-red liquid sluiced down the stick, globbing at the end like a teardrop. She grabbed your eyes from their lock on the medicine and shot a stare of bravery into your brain.
Then, you both took a deep breath. In seconds, it would be time to BLO-W-W-W.
Merthiolate flowed against your skin like volcanic lava. Your eyes watered and your nose crinkled in agony. But — just when you thought you’d have to blurt out babyish cries — you felt the cooling balm of Mom’s breath, blowing out the fire.
Lips pursed into a wrinkled “O”; she hissed a stream of air from her hefty lungs to your pitiful knee. You join in frantically, setting free the breath you’d forgotten you’d been keeping inside.
Blowing didn’t help much. Merthiolate was a flame no mortal lung could extinguish. But in those few moments you learned a hard lesson.
Life hurt sometimes. Pain came. And the cure wasn’t always pleasant. But afterwards, the sloppy tattoos of faint red splotches that stained your skin showed the world how brave you were.
You can’t buy Merthiolate anymore. They took it off the market in the late ‘70s because it contained ingredients no longer considered safe for topical use.
But we who remember its power still live — smiling on the outside and wincing on the inside — to tell its tale.