Childhood Fears

Childhood Fears

As previous mentioned, I have a deep-seated fear of botulism. I figured this came from my habit of reading about ill-fated, polar exploration ventures. It was a risky thing, to get on a ship and try to find the Northwest passage, or to get on a ship and then try to sledge to the South Pole. Obviously, there were all sorts of ways you could die, and your sponsoring government buying discounted tinned meat, invisibly infected with botulism, was one of them.

Then, my husband and I canned about a thousand pears. Well, maybe not exactly a thousand, but a lot, and I was very concerned about the possibility of mis-canning them and getting botulism.

But, he really likes to remind me that canning extremely salty and extremely sugary things cannot result in botulism. But that doesn't stop me from worrying about it.

Recently, I asked my brother if he would like some of the pears we canned.

"Oh, I don't eat canned foods," he told me.

"You don't?"

"No. I'm very worried about botulism."


"I don't even own a can opener," he continued. "I don't eat out of cans."

Immediately I told my husband that my fear of botulism was totally reasonable when compared to my brother, a man in his mid-thirties, living in the era of the best food safety standards of human history. And despite living in this time of vanguard food safety, he was not fucking around. There would be no canned food of any kind in his house. And if a can did manage to sneak in, the lack of a can opener would further prevent accidental ingestion.

The fact that my brother, whom I hadn't actually lived with since I moved out of my parents' house at eighteen, was also afraid of botulism, made me reconsider the genesis of my fear.

I hadn't gotten into reading my favorite genre of literature– shipwreck stories– until I had gotten out of my parents house, so maybe that wasn't where I first encountered my nemesis, death by botulism.

This must have come from childhood.

My mother immediately informed both my brother and me we did not get botulism as children, which we all did agree on. As my brother put it, we were alive.

But, in elementary school, our school did this thing where every year we played this elaborate, historical role playing game. I loved it. One year we were pioneers on the Oregon trail. One year we were sailors on the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria. We were assigned a role, put on a metaphorical ship or wagon, which was actually just the kids with whom we shared a table, and then every Friday we got to play the game.

The year we sailed across the Atlantic, we had to elect a captain of the ship. I remember I wanted to be captain, but perhaps due to the antiquated gender roles of the 1990's, I was not assigned the captain role. Instead another boy, whom we will call Charles DeYalis, was assigned to be my captain.

As a fifth grader, this was a major problem for me. I felt that DeYalis did not have the moral courage, fortitude of will, or intellect to get us across the Atlantic without killing us. I appealed the Spanish Royalty (A.K.A. our teachers), stating they had made a grievous error in assigning such a slouch into a captain's role, and I was told this was a perfect time for me to learn how to follow orders and work as a team. Fifth grade me found this ludicrous. We were all going to die under Bonehead DeYalis's reign. What did it matter if I knew how to work as a team if I died somewhere across the Atlantic?

But I was told to deal with it and was cast back into the role of a common sailor. Every week we were read a prompt, something would happen on the ship, and then as a team, we had to work together to make a decision to move forward from the incident. This exercise would culminate at the end of the term, where we would have a day where we dressed up as sailors, would make it to the new world, and have a celebratory lunch at the play ground.

(I know, this would never happen today, but this was 1990's.)

One week, a sailor was caught stealing more than his share of citrus, and we had to write a journal entry about whom we personally voted to be the teammate stealing the citrus, and then we got to have him flogged with the Cat 'O Nine Tails.

THIS IS WHAT MY FIFTH GRADE JOURNALING ASSIGNMENT WAS. Whipping a classmate until he was unconscious.

Again, I loved it.

You can guess who I thought stole the citrus. I turned in a detailed account of how Bonehead DeYalis cried ungracefully as his crew flogged him for stealing more citrus that he deserved. And to further prove the point, I withheld all future citrus allotments, just so he got a bit of scurvy in order to really drive home the argument that he was unfit for his role.

I will give it to the authorities, they eventually gave up trying to get me to refer to him as Captain DeYalis in the privacy of my journal. Looking back at this assignment, I find the whole thing wild and out of control, but it's one of my top memories from elementary school.

And while the journal entry of Bonehead DeYalis's shameful descent into larceny, and then ramifications of his poor behavior, was probably beginning of my writing career, my brother and I clearly did not learn about botulism from the historical game that took place in the 1400's.

But we did play one that took place in the Oregon Trail, and while I don't have as colorful of memories from that particular game, it seems reasonable to me, that someone in my wagon probably died from eating poorly tinned meat. Although when I do a quick Google search of Oregon Trail and botulism, the internet really just wants to talk to me about dysentery.

But I know, that this fear didn't start with me reading about polar ventures. For my brother and me to have it as a top concern means it started when we were kids. And it seems nothing but reasonable that it came from one of the historical role playing games.

But then again, childhood memories are a murky, mixed up place. We may never know the origins of our mutual fear, but I can look back and be confident some things:

1.) Neither my brother or I have had botulism.

2.) We both strive tirelessly to continuously avoid it.

3.) You'd never catch me stealing more than my share of citrus.

4.) Turns out I was just as ungovernable as a child as I am as an adult.