March in New Hampshire. The sun is shining longer and higher in the sky. We’ve had a few warm days, but the nights are still below freezing. This is the weather that makes the sap run in the sugar maple trees. Sugar houses once again belch great white billowing clouds of steam, boiling off water to make the thick sweet maple syrup. This is when I remember a New England spring long ago, back when I was twenty-three, when the sap was running in the woods.
Hidden Springs was typical of the various little hippy communes scattered around the northeast in the early 1970s and that’s where I lived with my first wife and her three kids. We arrived in early December, practically doubling the resident population, and endured a very cold winter without benefit of indoor plumbing or central heat. The 200-acre property sat on top of a ridge mostly covered with trees, from which the commune cut timber and cordwood to sell. Like the four other guys living there, I had worked outside all winter, swinging a chainsaw, cutting, splitting, and loading mountains of hardwood.
One early March afternoon I was out alone doing my job. It was the first warm day since winter first gripped the commune. With the sun shining and my hard laboring, I worked up a sweat in the near fifty-degree weather and I developed a powerful thirst. Since I wasn’t used to thinking about bringing water with me, because all winter it would have frozen, I went in search of something to drink.
Not far from where I worked, sat the one structure found in practically every commune—the obligatory geodesic dome. The white semi sphere sat like some giant’s huge twenty-foot golf ball, long ago lost in the rough, surrounded by a tangle of spruce, pine, and hardwood trees. This is where Duncan lived, but he was off in Boston, so no one was home. Being an open commune, there were no locks and people came and went in the different buildings, which was a common practice. I figured Duncan must have some drinking water to parch my thirst, and it would save a longer walk back to my own place.
I went up the steps on the small front porch and entered the cavernous dome. Inside was a single space, surrounded by 2x4s making the latticework of triangles that gives the dome its distinctive shape. Sunlight streamed through the few glass filled triangles, lighting the interior. There was an unmade bed, low on the floor next to the curving wall on the far side. A woodstove sat squat in the center, its long fluepipe poking out the top, like the stem of some gigantic white fruit, the stove now cold from lack of fire with Duncan’s absence. With the dead stove the temperature inside was still chilly. Closer to the door was a table and two chairs, and a rough counter covered with dirty plates, glasses, and food remains, surrounding the empty wash basin that drained into a white five-gallon bucket on the floor. I scanned the place for a water container and found a milky white plastic water jug beneath the counter.
I picked up the jug and swirled it, pleased it wasn’t frozen. I looked on his cluttered counter for a glass or mug, but mysterious remains covered everything, making any possible receptacle unappetizing. Holding the jug in my hand, feeling its weight, only served to increase my thirst. I unscrewed the cap and peered inside as I swirled its contents, clear and inviting. I lowered my nose to the opening to determine if it smelled too stale to drink and was pleased to find it odorless. Once more I assessed the glasses and mugs and finally decided, what the hell, I may as well drink from the container. After all, who would know?
Happy I was about to slake my thirst, I lifted the jug to my lips. I opened my mouth and raised the base, flowing the clear contents onto my parched tongue. I was so thirsty, the contents flowed readily past my lips, over my tongue, and down my throat in three long and needed gulps.
All at once my brain caught up with my taste buds, as the third gulp drained from my throat. I froze in place trying to determine what it was my tongue was trying to tell my brain. It took me a few moments to understand that my taste buds were sending an alarm that I slowly recognized. However, because it seemed so unlikely, I stood there, staring at nothing in particular, trying to ascertain in an increasingly agitated matter, just what the mystery taste was.
The light went on in my head and instantly the answer flashed through my mind, the message from my calling taste buds suddenly became crystal clear, as the liquid I just drank. My mind had processed the sensory input and determined what my tongue was calling attention to. Even then, I didn’t accept the answer until I burped and tasted again what my tongue had identified. My eyes suddenly went wide and the word crystalized in my mind. Kerosene…
Oh my God, did I just drink at least eight ounces of kerosene? Body and brain suddenly rebelled. My mind refused to accept the tongue’s input. After all, I investigated the contents of the water jug and determined it was clear and odorless. Water. Certainly I just drank, or rather gulped eight ounces of water. What kind of a moron would swig down that much kerosene? I calmed myself and peered again into the jug and was still convinced it was water. What else does one keep in a water jug? I swirled the container, sniffed, and smelled no odor. Next I tipped the jug and allowed some of the clear contents to pour onto my finger for closer inspection.
The liquid coated my thumb and index finger in a way that definitely didn’t feel like water. They pressed and circled against each other and it was distinctively oily. When I brought my slicked up digits to my nose, having warmed the substance, the odor was clearly recognizable. With calm deliberateness I set the jug down and walked outside and sat on the front steps. There in the warmth of the March sun I logically considered my situation, which went something like this.
“Okay,” I said aloud to myself, as if asking advice from a friend, “looks like you did in fact slug down over eight ounces of kerosene. Right. I don’t really taste anything now and I feel just fine.” I circled the palm of my hand over my belly, as if to diagnose my condition. “So, I guess everything’s okay and I should get back to work.” I sat without moving, something prevented me from returning to my cutting. Suddenly, “WHAT AM I TALKING ABOUT?” I jumped up and my body began to tremble. “I just swallowed kerosene! That can’t be good!” The next second I bolted down the path, sprinting through the woods, past the sugar maples with their running sap.
A couple of minutes later I emerged from the woods at my house, flew up the stairs, and burst through the door, where Kate was working in the kitchen. I startled her. “What’s going on? What’s the matter?”
“What? Slow down, I can’t understand you.”
“Would I kid about a thing like that?” I threw up my hands. “We need to get to the hospital!”
At that moment, Kate realized I was dead serious and what I had done, meant I could seriously be dead. She grabbed her coat and the car keys, as I frantically rummaged through the cupboards looking for something, but not sure what. My mind tried to process my state and map it against my knowledge of first aid. Then I realized I should make myself throw up. At least that’s what I thought I should do. We didn’t have a phone, so we couldn’t consult with the hospital. I just went with what I felt was the proper action. I pulled out a jar of mustard, got some orange juice from the cooler, and mixed a delightfully noxious gastric cocktail and slammed down another eight ounces of the disgusting concoction, and then followed Kate down the stairs.
“I’ll drive,” she said, climbing inside.
I grabbed an empty white plastic five-gallon bucket and tossed it on the floor in the front of our beat-up ‘68 Chevy van, took my seat as she sped down the long hill. My stomach no longer felt as if there was nothing wrong inside. A mighty battle raged in that small sack, as kerosene reluctantly mixed with the sudden ingestion of mustard and orange juice. I groaned and leaned forward, head over the bucket, expecting an explosive burst at any moment.
The nearest hospital was in Bellows Falls, Vermont, just across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire. The drive from Hidden Springs was about fifteen miles, mostly over broken up paved roads, rife with frost heaves and the ruptured aftermath—pot holes. Kate careened the old van down the road as fast as she could, managing to hit just about every frost heave and pot hole along the way. All I could do was groan, desperately wishing for my cocktail to work or to let carsickness expedite the process. We bounced, bashed, and barreled along, hoping no one got in our way. I felt terrible, my head flopping around, sweating, feeling as if I was about to puke, but despite it all, nothing came up.
We made the trip in silence. Pulled into the hospital, where I jumped out and ran into the emergency room and proclaimed breathlessly to the woman at the admission desk, “Ijustswallowedawholebunchofkerosene!”
The woman looked up at me with a puzzled look.
“My husband somehow managed to swallow some kerosene,” Kate said, acting as my interpreter.
“Oh my,” the woman said, as she stood and guided us into the business end of the ER. When we approached a nurse, our guide explained the situation.
By now I was very pale, sweat rolling off my forehead, and my whole body shook. The nurse directed me to a bed with starched white sheets and sat me down. She spoke in a soft and calming tone, “So … you say you think you swallowed some kerosene.” It wasn’t a question, she seemed to want to tell me what had happened. “What makes you think you ingested kerosene?”
“Because it smells and tastes like kerosene.”
“I see,” she continued in her best calm and professional ER voice, “How much do you think you swallowed? Maybe a tablespoon?”
“More than that.”
“How much do you think?”
“More than eight ounces—”
“Oh my God!” Her demeanor suddenly changed as if she sat on a porcupine. “We’ve got to do something fast! You need to throw up.” Her face went ashen.
“I tried drinking mustard and orange juice, but it didn’t do anything.”
“We’ll take care of that.” She disappeared for a moment and returned with a little brown bottle in hand, unscrewing the cap, and handed it to me.
“Ipecac,” she said with urgency. “Drink it!”
“All of it?”
“Yes!” Her hands spun in circles urging me to speed up.
I placed the cold glass to my lips, tilted back my head, and the syrupy liquid slid from the bottle, ran over my tongue, and down my throat to join the party already in progress in my rumbling gut. “Eck,” I said handing her the empty bottle.
She seemed relieved we had accomplished the first step. “There’s the bathroom. I suggest you hurry up and get in there.”
I stood from the bed on wobbly legs and suddenly felt awful. I stumbled into the clean tiled bathroom and prepared to have an intimate conversation with the toilet bowel. Just as the door shut behind me, I fell to my knees, and held onto the white porcelain rim for dear life. I was just in the nick of time. The mustard and juice and the bumpy ride had no effect on my stomach, but the syrup of ipecac worked as advertised.
Without describing the details of the next ten minutes, let’s just say it felt as if someone reached into my mouth, down my throat, and grabbed my stomach, then this hand violently ripped my entire stomach back up my esophagus and turned it inside out, emptying the contents into the waiting bowl. This process repeated multiple times over the next ten minutes. In between I could hear the nurse’s voice asking through the door if I was okay. All I could do was groan in such a manner that conveyed I was still alive.
Feeling there would be no more of these inside-out eruptions, I emerged from the bathroom, weak, and shaking.
“Feel better, hon?” she asked with a slight smile.
“Actually, I feel worse than when I came in.”
“Excellent! Now I need you to come with me so we can take a picture of your lungs.” She turned and left the room and I followed her to radiology. “This man needs a chest x-ray.” She looked at me. “When you’re done come on back to the ER.”
The radiologist, a perky short middle-aged woman with curly dark hair and black-rimmed glasses, wearing green scrubs asked, “So, sounds like you swallowed a little kerosene.” She pulled out a rectangular black x-ray plate and set it on the machine.
“More like eight ounces.”
She snapped her head around in surprise. “How did you manage that?”
“I was thirsty.”
“No, I thought it was water.”
She looked at me as if I was from the moon. “Well, you come stand here and we’ll take a picture.”
When I returned to the bed where Kate sat waiting, our family doctor stood talking to her. He turned and frowned at me. “Eight ounces?”
“How could you drink eight ounces of kerosene and not know it after the first taste?” He was dumbfounded.
“I gulp. I was really thirsty.”
“You were really stupid,” he remarked. “Didn’t you smell it?”
“After the third gulp I thought there was something wrong.”
“You didn’t smell it?” The doctor began to repeat himself.
I explained what had happened. Explained how I looked inside, saw it was clear, smelled nothing, and then glug, glug, glugged it down. As it turns out, the low temperature had a lot to do with the situation. Unlike gasoline, which is extremely volatile, evaporating quickly, giving off the distinct odor, kerosene is very different. With the temperature in the upper thirties inside the dome, that was below the temperature when kerosene begins to give off much odor. In fact, at that temperature you could put out a cigarette in the liquid and not ignite it. As a result, finding it in a water jug, thinking it was water, didn’t seem so unusual since it gave off no odor. Then doctor hammered me on the real problem.
“I guess you now know why gulping liquids is not a good idea,” he said with a stern face. “If you drank like a normal human being, you would have tasted it before you swallowed so much. I’d advise you to stop gulping before you kill yourself.”
After I took his chastising I asked, “So, now what?”
“In the first place, you’re extremely lucky. Only recently has the first aid for kerosene changed.”
“How so?” I asked, as I pulled my sweater back over my head.
“The danger from kerosene is chemical pneumonia. They used to believe if you vomited, some of it inevitably goes down the other pipe into your lungs, and could kill you.”
It wasn’t until that moment that I fully realized the gravity of the situation. Sure, I knew something dangerous happened, but I hadn’t completely considered the result of my action could have been fatal.
“Research shows,” the doctor continued, “that chemical pneumonia is actually caused by the kerosene getting absorbed into your blood stream. They used to try and dilute it and flush it through your system. However, with the quantity you swallowed, had you not vomited it out, you would have surely died.”
With that pronouncement I dropped onto the bed and considered the close call I had brought upon myself.
The doctor went on to give additional instructions. “Take this antibiotic, go home, but you must not sleep for twenty-four hours.”
“Why’s that?” Kate asked.
“Because, as long as he’s awake his metabolism will be working harder than if he was asleep. But after twenty-four hours he should be just fine.”
While the drive to the hospital had been in frantic silence, the return trip had Kate echoing the doctor’s concerns and railing me for gulping. When we got back home we had to explain to the kids what had happened, which resulted in blank stares. The two of us stayed awake all night and the crisis passed.
However, for several weeks, as a constant reminder of the experience, I had belches that tasted like kerosene and farts that smelled like kerosene. The long-term effect was that for more than a decade I couldn’t bring myself to be in the same room with a kerosene lamp. I also took the doctor’s advice and reduced my tendency to gulp and I never drank from an unknown container again. But as I always in March, especially, when I see the tap lines strung from the sugar maples and the great clouds of steam rising from the sugar houses, knowing the sap is running, I think back to that event and remember another sap running through the woods with a gut full of kerosene.