I was a morbid child. Not morose, mind you. Morbid. I actually had a really positive attitude, and a great sense of humor. Easy to take on road trips. And not a picky eater. I didn’t even realize I was a morbid child until a friend and I started listing our favorite childhood books.
“Wow,” said my friend. “You were morbid!”
“What??” I said, taken completely aback. “No no. You mean, curious and worldy.”
“Mmm. I think I mean morbid.”
And this is the friend that used to include, “and please keep aliens out of my thoughts,” in her bedtime prayer.
Okay fine. I had a passion for disease and disaster. In fact, up until the very very end of high school, I was seriously headed in a medical school direction. I have worked on human cadavers twice. For fun. It was awesome.
Unfortunately, Organic Chem scared me away from medical school. I just don’t have an organic chem kind of brain. And that’s too bad, because if you ever find you are dying of black pox, I will be the first person to hop into a Tyvek suit to visit you. Your skin comes off in blackened sheets! I have to see that. Oh, and also…get well soon… In retrospect, it’s probably better this way. I don’t think doctors are supposed to shout “WHOA! EWWW! CAN I POP IT?!” when they see a patient. Will might say wives aren’t supposed to say that husbands either, but he knew what he was getting into.
I may have looked like this as a child:
But lurking underneath that overly giddy exterior was a Wednesday Addams of mass proportion. I used to read books on the Black Plague, smallpox, yellow fever, earthquakes, ghost ships, the Chicago Fire, the Johnstown Flood, true crime, tornadoes, tsunamis… There is nothing that kid above wants to tell you more than her Grandpa got his thumb chopped off in World War II. “You can still see the bone poking out,” I would say. “That’s not a bone. That’s just a weird nail,” my Mom would say. “I don’t believe you,” I would say. I think my German heritage was most apparent when I was playing doctor. Rarely did my treatment plan NOT involve amputation. If my Mom was watching Gone With the Wind, I would always make sure to stop by the living room to watch this scene:
One rainy day, during an indoor recess, I drew a picture of Marie Antoinette and gave it the caption, “The French Revolution was famous for all the beheadings.” I got extra credit. When my parents found out about the drawing at parent teacher conferences, I assume it went something like this:
Susan Firkins, Wednesday’s Teacher: Well, Wednesday brought in this picture: Calpurnia Addams.
Morticia: Wednesday’s great-aunt Calpurnia. She was burned as a witch in 1706. They said she danced naked in the town square and enslaved the minister.
Susan Firkins, Wednesday’s Teacher: Really?
Morticia: Oh, yes. But don’t worry. We’ve told Wednesday college first.
-The Addams Family (1991)
The apple doesn’t fall far from either tree, you should know. One time I brought a book home about tsunamis, and my Mom said, “What is that? A tsunami book? Ugh. You and your father…” Turns out my Dad had gone through an infamous “tsunami phase” before I was born. If Lake Erie had ever decided to up and take out Northwestern, Ohio, I know two people who would have been prepared. SIDEBAR: There IS such a thing as a Great Lake tidal wave. It is called a “seiche” and one hit Chicago in 1954.
The difference between me and Wednesday Addams is that I was not malicious. Just curious. Morbidly curious. And yet I was a huge wiener. Sometimes my love of disease and disaster got so heightened it turned downright phobic. I was afraid of absolutely everything. I knew too much!
For example, my Mom would say, “Hey, there’s a tornado watch for Fulton County.” And I would say something along the lines of, “WHAT IS THE DEWPOINT!!??! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD IS IT ABOVE 65?!?!” You see, a tornado can only occur if the dewpoint is above 65. If it’s above 70, don’t straighten your hair that day. Major frizz factor. FYI. I watched the barometric pressure like an old fisherman by the sea. Even though I was a gangly 10 year old watching the Weather Channel. I spent fifth through seventh grade being petrified of tornadoes. BUT before I was terrified, I was in love. I LOVED storms. Tornadoes thrilled me. I longed to experience a hurricane. I pined for a typhoon. There is nothing I could tell my childhood self that would impress her more than “In 2011, you will witness thundersnow.” One time, we had a huge storm (DEAR GOD, MOM WHAT IS THE DEWPOINT?!) and my cousins were over. The lights went out, and my Mom lit a whole bunch of candles. When the lights came back on, the four of us went charging through the house on a mission to blow out as many candles in as little time as possible. The final candle was a fat white pillar and I was in the lead. She must have lit it first because the pool of wax was deep. I shouted “I GOT IT!” and proceeded to blow as hard as my little asthmatic lungs could go. I blew so hard that I splashed that deep pool of hot wax onto my face which immediately hardened into misshapen mask. I shrieked. In my kid head, there was no way I wasn’t gushing mass quantities of blood. I mean, pain = blood, right? A hush fell over my cousins. They stared at my temporary facial deformity. My Mom came running in and I said the most famous line of my childhood, “I’m alright. (dramatic pause) I’m just scared.” I have lived that theme ever since. I am in a constant state of “alright” and “scared.”
Amputations and weather-related disasters weren’t my only cups of kool-aid. Infectious diseases so thrilled me that in college I did a completely voluntary concentration in microbiology. One of the first roles I played as a professional actor was named “Antiobiotica.” As a kid, I had two books I particularly loved. The first was the story of how they discovered certain diseases: Lyme Disease, Legionaires. There was also the story of an outbreak of some sort of mystery affliction. Once, Will and I were watching House and I was snarkily pointing out all the inaccuracies. Someone had come down with a mystery disease. The House team thought it was botulism, but then, I shouted at the tv, “OH for Christ sake, the kid’s Mom bought some jeans off the back of a truck that was tainted with chemicals. I got that book at the goddamn Scholastic book fair in 1989.” Will looked at me like I was nuts. I was also right. Yes friends, your suspicions are correct: Fox uses CHILDREN’S BOOKS for their plot lines. Still, true story. Because of that book I view every hotel air conditioning unit as a potential deadly weapon (Legionaire’s disease). You should too. Or not. I’m worrying about it enough for the both of us.
The other book was in the vein of Strange but True! Fireballs, Ghost Ships, Alien Abductions, Nessie, Bigfoot, chupacabras, The Bermuda Triangle and my personal favorite, Spontaneous Human Combustion. I would gravely relate these stories to my parents saying that anyone of us at anytime could spontaneously burst into flames. Then my Dad would say, “Was the man in the story a smoker, by any chance? Was he drinking grain alcohol?” I would say something about how I hardly thought his personal habits were of anyone’s business. My Mom, on the other hand, was more skeptical of the alien abductions. I would say, “MOM. EYE WITNESS TESTIMONY. These guys SAW someone being abducted by a REAL alien.” Sure the story would start out like, “One evening in Bumbledoofus, Texas, a group of gentlemen merrily left their local pub…” My Mom would say, “It’s a children’s book. They can’t say a bunch of dumbasses drunkenly stumbled out of a bar.” Parents just don’t understand.
My Mom was an LPN for years, and I used to spend HOURS pouring through her nursing textbooks. My particular favorites were the full color gunshot wound chapters. There were also some pretty gross (i.e. awesome) pictures of black widow and brown recluse spider bites. I had REAL hypodermic needles for my doctor kit. It was awesome. Every once in awhile I would get told, “Remember, do not inject your cousins.” And I never did. I truly think I deserve some sort of commendation for that. My cousin Jackie might tell you I threatened her with injection, but I never actually did it.
I got a microscope one year (actually…multiple years) for Christmas. After I had become bored with looking at hair and boogers, I asked my Mom what else I could look at? She said, “give me a slide, and hang on a second.” She dug around in her sewing basket for something and then walked up to my Dad and said, “Let me see your finger.” Being a trusting man, he did. She then jammed a pin in his fingertip. He yelped in pain. “Hand me the slide,” she said and dripped my poor Dad’s blood onto it. “Now, gently put the cover on. There you go!” I merrily trotted off to look at the blood cells. Then my Mom told my Dad, who was now icing his throbbing finger, that he needed to chill out because it couldn’t hurt that bad. I actually suspect it probably did. She was not gentle. So let it be said Tim Kohart literally bled for his daughter’s education. And I thank him. He has really cool looking red blood cells. Very hearty.
At this point you might be slightly horrified at what I’m telling you. A penchant for amputations. A supply of actual hypodermic needles. (I used to ask for my empty allergy serum bottles from the nurse in the injection lab.) Almost all my dolls had stitches. When my cousin chewed a foot off of one of my Barbie’s, I chopped off all her hair and called her Cancer Barbie. True story. Who else was Dr. Barbie going to work on? Even Molly, my American Girl doll had had several delicate procedures. I used to use mechanical pencils to draw scars on them. Anytime I was playing with my cousins I insisted on being Sleeping Beauty. Not because she was the pretty princess, rather I was more interested in the bloody spinning wheel and the coma. Before my tonsillectomy, I told the surgeon I wanted to keep my tonsils. When we left the hospital, my parents conveniently “forgot” them in the lab. YEAH right. The throat pain wasn’t the only reason I was disgruntled on the ride home. Still the fact that I had lovingly besmirched an $80 doll, and wanted amputated body parts (I forgot to mention the adenoids) as a souvenier is a testament to how non fussy my parents were. The fact that I have turned out NOT to be a serial Killer is a testament to all three of us.
For some of us, the fragility and destructive force of nature is an unending source of fascination. Far more fascinating than anything science fiction or fantasy. I will never cease to be amazed by the fact that we are sitting on top of a gigantic ball of molten iron, hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour. As a kid, I knew where all the active and inactive fault lines were. I chose to visit the world’s largest geothermal park (and subsequently largest active , yet sleeping, supervolcano on the face of the earth) for my honeymoon.
Still, while I may not be the world’s biggest Star Trek fan, the paranormal has always piqued my interest. I read “true” hauntings, stories about poltergeists, ghost ships. Pyschic phenomena. ESP. The Unexplained. I can tell you that the best Saturday mornings involved Looney Tunes, a plate of nachos, followed by Unsolved Mysteries. My Dad and I even made the pilgrimage to Resurrection Cemetary on the south side of Chicago following an episode of Unsolved Mysteries about Resurrection Mary, Chicagoland’s most famous ghost.
Sometimes, even now, when I’m home alone I look up pictures of alleged ghosts. I then scare myself so much this happens:
Will: (Walking through the door) Why is it so dark in here?
Me: JESUS CHRIST YOU SCARED THE SHIT OUT OF ME
Will: What are you doing?
Me: Looking up ghost pictures. By the way, I’m too scared to go in the basement. Could you get the laundry out of the dryer?
Will: I really wish you’d stop doing that.
Me: I had the distinct sensation something was chasing me.
Will: You were IN the basement, and you didn’t get the laundry??
Me: Time was of the essence.
I was fascinated by instruments of torture, the Inquisition, hangings, executions. Gangland. Pirates. At sea disasters, for this Ohio kid, bordered on the exotic. The Titanic was a particular favorite, and while I remembering enjoying the movie, I thought the love story was just distracting. Hello!? Can we talk about how the famously not so water tight water tight compartments worked? You see, the bottom of the Titanic was filled with compartments not unlike (and not unironically like) an ice cube tray. If you fill an ice cube tray on a slight angle, it will fill compartment by compartment. The Titanic could have three compartments full, no prob. Unfortunately that iceberg filled up four almost immediately. I still think of the Titanic when I fill up ice cube trays. That said, living in the Great Lakes doesn’t mean you are far from seafaring disaster and general ewiness. Do you know about the Kamloops shipwreck in Lake Superior? Lake Superior is home to many a well-preserved shipwreck. The consistently cold temperatures preserve them and you can even take glass bottomed boat tours to look at them (Don’t worry, already on my bucket list.) But the Kamloops has a special surprise. The Kamloops is so deep in the cold waters of Lake Superior, that the body of one of the crew, is still perfectly preserved in the engine room of the Kamloops, even though it sank in the ’20’s. The cold water has slowly turned him into a soap-like substance. He still wears his uniform. They call him Whitey.
I was into Jonestown, Waco, “satanic” cults, stories of weird religions, esoterica, the mafia. The women in Africa that put those rings around their neck, the lady with the fingernails so long they curled like spiral staircases. Still, the Guinness Book of World records was sort of “light” reading to me. After awhile, I tired of reading about the most people to fit into a phone booth, and wanted to read more about Black pox, the sub-genre of smallpox that basically turns you into a charred ball of goo. Unlike Ebola that turns you into a bloody goo bomb. I loved sharks, moray eels, angler fish. I went through a python phase. Dinosaurs. Huge predators. I was also interested in places like the Mariana Trench. Deep Space. The unexplored. This is mainly because of the potential horrifying creatures they do or could contain. Big fan of deep sea creatures, in general. But you have to understand that when I say I was a “fan” what I mean is the induced in me a delighted state of terror. I don’t know if I stepped more than a toe in a lake during my lamprey and water snake phase. During one particularly gangly summer of mine, we went to visit my Aunt Cathy and Uncle Rick in Raleigh, NC. We went to Raleigh’s museum of natural history where I got to view (and also buy a tshirt of) George their infamous python. I remember about a year later my Mom said “I heard George the python died.” I nodded gravely. I remember a silent moment of respect. That was one big man-eatin’ snake. I wore that tshirt until it was paper thin and so small that the shoulder seams were at my neck.
About a year ago, I was an extra in the movie Contagion. Trust me when I tell you that I don’t think anyone was more pumped to be a part of a story about a horrendous infectious disease. When I signed up to be an extra in the movie , they said “Anyone who is clausterphobic or has an issue wearing the biohazard suits, please indicate that on the form.” There was not a place to indicate, “Please please I really want to wear the suit.”
The fact that a little and fragile RNA structure can wipe out a population blows my mind. Yellow fever. Malaria. Tropical viruses, in general, big fan. Also those diseases that plagued the tenements of New York at the turn of the century: Cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis. Sometimes, for nursing jobs, my Mom would have to get TB tested. I would make her tell me exactly how the test was performed and then woe betide the Cabbage Patch doll who got in my way that day. I had several different dolls hooked up to saline drips. Standard diagnosis was usually pneumonia, but for a kid with pretty intense asthma, that was no casual condition. My senior year I became really ill, and although it was miserable, there was a small part of me that rejoiced when I was diagnosed with actual Scarlet Fever. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It was horrible. But…I’d read about it. It was on The Oregon Trail. It felt like a morbid kid badge of honor.
My favorite picture book was about a kid who broke her arm on the monkey bars and all the wonderful casting and hospital procedures thereafter. I longed to break a major bone. Femur, preferably. And yet, I broke nothing more than a pinky toe in my entire childhood. Not even a cavity until I was 15. My friend Tanya had a pair of crutches in the loft of her barn, leftover from some Depression era injury most likely. I borrowed them for fun.
I wasn’t a particularly healthy kid, aside from my skeletal system. I had bad asthma, bad allergies, and was sick a lot. My Mom has on several occasions told me that “If this were the pioneer era, you wouldn’t have pulled through.” It’s true. I wasn’t Mary from The Secret Garden. I was Collin. Tortured moans and rickety old enormous house included.
When I got a little older, I fell madly in love with books by Lurlene McDaniel. Oh Lurlene. In those books, a gorgeous 13-17 year old girl would be dying of something awful. Not plague or anything (trust me, I was slightly disappointed) but still horrible and fatal. Some titles include: Sometimes Love Isn’t Enough, Last Dance, Til Death Do Us Part or the less subtle Sixteen and Dying, or Why Did She Have to Die. She even had a series called the One Last Wish Series. The covers looked like a Kotex ad. I couldn’t read them fast enough. Stacy was my favorite Babysitter of the Babysitter’s Club for the diabetes and injections alone. You can imagine how I felt about Shelby from Steel Magnolias. Because of Barbra Hershey in Beaches, I wrote my seventh grade Science Fair paper on the three types of Cardiomyopathy (restrictive, dilated, and hypertrophic). Sixth grade was Lyme Disease. Eighth was Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. Had I known about Marburg at the time…I would have creeped out a lot of teachers and students alike.
Even as a high schooler, my morbid streak was still apparent. When at theatre camp (shut up) the first thing I would grab in makeup class was the nose and scar wax. When I got home, I would test out my new fake wounding skills on my sisters. They were bruised, battered, scratched, scarred, malformed. It was wonderful. My high school best friend and I used to go to parties and say, “Shit I bit my tongue” and then chomp down on a fake blood capsule and scare the hell out of everybody. Mmph. It was great.
I was into vampires, sure. But not this romantic Twilight crap. NO. I was into Vlad Dracul himself. Vlad the Impaler. Hell, I married a man who’s family is from TRANSYLVANIA. For real. Elizabeth of Bathory. Caligula.
I had a lot of contact with hospitals and disasters as a kid. Some mine. Some not mine. But certainly more than your average bear. Plus, my extended family is large and old (it was old before I was born) and thus I went to a lot of funerals, too. My best friend’s grandfather was an undertaker. We hung out at the funeral home ALL the TIME. Like I said, major Wednesday Addams potential. One day, while I was having a heated discussion with a teacher about hunting (I was and am adamantly AGAINST it) I shouted (in reference to taxidermy), “What kind of person has a bunch of dead bodies layin’ around their house?!” From the back of the room, my friend said, “My Grandpa.” The conversation fizzled afterthat.
I was once reminiscing about my favorite childhood books. “I loved when brother bear got vaccinated in the Berenstein Bears Go to the Doctor.”
“Wow. You were a weird kid.” said my Mom.
“Your kid.” I reminded her.
I want to tell you that I have finally grown out of my odd reading habits. Unfortunately, this Wednesday has blossomed into a full-blown Morticia. I have recently discovered the extinct (or so they will tell you) Carcaradon Megalodon, a species of shark that makes Jaws look like a goldfish. I have also recently become interested in Biolevel 4 Hot Agents, in particular, Ebola and Marburg viruses. My Dad keeps me up to date on UFO sightings (he’s a believer too). I’m reading a book on Area 51 right now. So you may scoff, but we will ride out whatever comes to pass with my gigantic “Shelter in Place” Red Cross advised survival kit.
I look forward to being an Aunt. Because how else am I going to use this knowledge?? I can either write stuff like this or tell a little kid something weird. We will be happily singing Ring Around the Rosie when I will tell the kid “You know, this was originally sung to ward off the Plague. Who wants ice cream?!” I can’t wait to say something like, “Let Aunt Betsy tell you the story of the Molly Maguires.” Or “Hasn’t your Mom told you about the Burning Times?! “ “I heard you didn’t feel good. But this is nothing compared to Hanta Virus.” “Did you know a box jellyfish is so toxic one sting can kill a guy?” “I wouldn’t swim in the lake either. Don’t you know about lampreys?” (There are standing orders in my family to shoot me on sight if either I or they discover a lamprey or hagfish has attached itself to my body.)
So if you happen to walk past my house, and a copy of, say, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone comes flying through the window and you hear someone exclaim “My god! You literally melt into a pool of blood!!!” Remember, “I’m alright. I’m just scared.”