Poison Ivy, Breakneck Ridge and even Eleanor Roosevelt. Circle of life.

~ This is one of my mantras ~ It hangs on my wall ~














The grimmer trials of my life have triggered sober thankfulness not meant for either casual writing or casual reading. A recent brainstorming session with my daughter resulted in thinking about poison ivy as a possibility for this week’s assignment. Despite other ideas during our session, I kept returning to this particular botanical subject.

Most of us would not consider poison ivy to be a cause for thankfulness, and indeed, some of my earliest memories of how this plant tortured me and/or my loved ones, initially seemed too negative, and, therefore, inappropriate. However, as I began mulling ancient history during the brainstorm session, I decided each escapade eventually led to a feeling of thankfulness, and one dangerous adventure had actually resulted in deep and instant appreciation.

My parents and both grandmothers worked in the sweatshops of Manhattanwhen we first arrived in this country in dribs and drabs between 1938 and 1940. Conditions for garment workers were execrable, to be kind about it. As a result, the family actively became a dynamic part of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and The Workmen’s Circle. Men soon joined the ladies, by the way. They recognized the power of women union members. The ILGWU eventually became one of the most powerful unions in theUnited States.

Oh, the accounts I could chronicle about picket lines and goons and sexual harassment and long hours and disproportionate fines and suspension of basic human decencies! Suffice it to say I became a lifelong and vigorous advocate of human rights at an early age. Nor have I changed my philosophy to this day.

After a series of particularly brutal strikes, the sweatshop owners began caving in and reluctantly granted basic human rights to their workers. Minorities such as Jews, Blacks, and CA Spanish were honored by the union and treated fairly. The fight was far from over, and through the decades that followed, the union victories slowly gained credence throughout the nation.

The union president was David Dubinsky, a man of fire and passion. Eventually, I met him again when I was sixteen. A group of us was part of a group of volunteer students from various New York City high schools who volunteered to assist  The Liberal Party’s goal of minority voter registration during New York City’s mayoral campaign. He remembered me fondly, as I did him. He introduced me to his friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, who subsequently became an active mentor and taught us about the the rewards of personal citizenship and the satisfaction of activism, and the joys and rewards of being politically active, educated women. “Follow your star, ladies,” she would tell us over and over again. “Follow your star. Help the disadvantaged. Become an active citizen and speak up when it is needed.”

She smiled broadly when Dubinsky told her about my family’ activism in the ILGWU back in the good old days when they were union members.

As a result of my family members’ raging activism, the union rewarded them by granting me a month’s scholarship to a union-sponsored summer children’s camp in Lincoln Park, New Jersey, in 1940 and 1941. Camp was wonderful. The campers genuinely enjoyed each other and were proud of their pals’ abilities, no matter how small. We didn’t feel homesickness at all. It was the first time I had extended interaction with children who were not bullies. My exploits of curious exploration and discovery caused much delight among my peers.

Among other rules, we were warned about poison ivy, but I hadn’t a clue of what it looked like, except it had three leaves and the colors didn’t matter. Eventually I realized poison ivy had no thorns.

One morning, the counselors were appalled when my entire body had broken out in painfully itchy rashes from head to toe. No medicine was available, and so the counselors tied me into a tennis net which was then tied closed by mariner’s knots. Ropes were adjusted across the width of the pool, and I was soaked in the chlorinated pool for the whole day. Somewhere in my family archives is a photograph of the ropes, net, pool, and me. At night, the counselors swathed me in wet, salt-laden bandages. After three days of absolute hell, the symptoms rapidly faded.

Decades later, when I became a teacher and nature counselor, I discovered all children and most adults could not identify poison ivy. So I was able to show them the plant’s varied vines and myriad leaf colors. Then I made up a silly little ditty which, through the years, enabled every one who learned it to successfully identify the plant: Leaves of three, leave me be. No stem. No stem. Long stem. Thorns don’t mean a thing to me. There are three leaves sprouting from places on the vines. The stem part referred to the two horizontal bottom leaves, with no stems – the bases actually touch. A third leaf is attached to a long stem which sticks straight out at a ninety degree angle from the two. I felt deeply grateful for my long-ago nightmarish poison ivy experience in the union camp, as it inspired me to be of service to so many people when I became an adult.

Around the end of WWII, poison ivy and I once again crossed paths. Our 5th grade class inRichland,NJ, had an all day picnic inVineland’sParvinState Park to celebrate our graduation. We were told to wear shorts or jeans to protect us from thorns, poison ivy, and mosquitoes. My mother was shocked. “Young ladies do NOT wear jeans or shorts in public,” she groused. She and the teacher had words, and I ended up wearing a longish skirt she sewed the night before the trip. It was a horrendous shade of deep purple, and it was 100% rough wool. Mom reasoned since Jantzen bathing suits were made of wool at that time. I would also be able to go wading in the shallow streams with the skirt on.

Neither my mother nor I knew there is no poison ivy at the park. There is a small related, more toxic plant called Eastern Poison Oak, not more three inches high. There are three leaves following the ditty pattern, and it is considerably more noxious than the more common vining poison ivy. I came home that night bitten into shreds by the numerous mosquitoes and aggressive water insects. The skirt had not protected me from the sun’s rays. I was sunburned. An incredibly painful poison oak rash, which resulted in a week’s bed recuperation, wracked my body. The doctor paid daily visits until I began to recover.

Dr. Cleary had no patience with my mother. He screamed at her. Gratefully, I heard him insist from now on I needed to wear jeans as I explored the southernPine Barrens.

In the years following, I had very few collisions with this noxious, ubiquitous member of the Cashew Family. It’s a good thing I’m not allergic to cashew nuts, which can literally eat by the pound, though the leaves of the plant do cause a mild rash to some people.

As time went on, I often saw poison ivy do its damage to friends and family members. Burning the vines causes the poison to be carried with spreading smoke. When the smoke touches bare skin, the awful rash appears. After extensive forest fires, most of the men in town suffered from the smoke borne toxins. When my children grew older, some of them were victims of campfires in which poison ivy vines were still attached to old logs.

The most sadly amusing way to get poison ivy rash is for innocent victims who relieve themselves in forests and then end up with the rash on parts of the body not considered polite to mention in a family-oriented writing class. Poison ivy leaves make very dangerous toilet paper.

After I recovered from this last personal disaster with toxicodendron, I became determined to work out a foolproof way of identifying the nasty culprit, and was successful.

Poison Ivy was destined to become an intimate part of my life, and one other incident does come to mind. When I entered Queens College during the early 50’s, I lived in New York City and belonged to a hiking and climbing club. We spent weekends hiking and climbing in the mountains north o fNew York City.

One of our favorite destinations was Breakneck Ridge across the Hudson River from West Point Military Academy. Breakneck Ridge is aptly named. As I grew more experienced, I eventually was able to conquer all its ridges, ledges – a most hazardous one was called Eric’s Leap  – and innumerable trails. Why Eric’s Leap? Apparently he lept. However, the first time I tried The Shortcut, as it was called in those days, I almost fell several hundred feet down from a two to three inch wide horizontal ledge on which I was standing. Pieces of the ledge broke off and hurtled downward.

I slipped, and my rope broke. So I plastered myself to the ledge wall, my feet splayed on two somewhat wider areas, as my friends frantically ran up to the Upper Trail so they could lower ropes and hooks to me.

Well, I guess I’m a goner, I thought. And then I realized a thick, strong, three inch thick braid of strong vines was clinging to the wall just about shoulder high. It originated from a ten foot lower ledge and made a parallel path to a vertical crack in the wall ten feet from me, wherein it disappeared.

It was poison ivy!  The vine was so tightly attached to the minute cracks in the rocks no handhold was possible. My friends’ shouts faded out of my hearing as I clamped my teeth into the vine and held on for dear life. Then I released my backpack down the stony slope about five feet below the ledge. It noisily tumbled into oblivion. We never were able to recover it.

Five minutes later, a steel hook attached to a rope came tumbling down and caught my belt. Three other hooks rapidly followed suit. I was able to loop them through my splayed legs, and the loops were caught by another hook from above. Within half an hour I was fastened with ropes and laboriously hauled to safety.

Of course I ended up with potent poison ivy rash all over my neck and hands and face. The inside of my mouth, nose, and throat was raging pain!

However, you want to hear GRATEFUL ? I was seriously grateful!


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