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Urge to do good brings on urge to scratch.

Byline: Bob Welch The Register-Guard

We were trimming bushes at the Pearl Buck Center, a bunch of us from The Register-Guard, as part of United Way's "Days of Caring" a few weeks back.

On a break, someone cautioned us about poison oak. I thought: Poison oak? What poison oak?

Three days later, the insides of my arms belatedly answered: This poison oak, brainless. What did you think that bright reddish stuff in the middle of those bushes was - vine maple? Get a clue - and perhaps a short-case of calamine lotion. You're gonna need it.

Having noticed nothing in the two days after the event, I thought I'd dodged the dangerous Rhus diversiloba bullet, the scientific name for Western poison oak. I was wrong. I was red. I was bumpy and grumpy.

I'd always thought that, like Trix, poison oak was for kids. I hadn't had it since I was 12, when it seemed to be a sort of rite of passage for growing up in the Willamette Valley, the consolation prize being a few missed days of school.

But I'd clipped these bushes at face height - in short sleeves. And so there I was, my inner arms puffing up like a topo map of the Cascade Range. With scratching, Mount Hood and the Three Sisters soon erupted. Volcanic blood oozed through my long-sleeved shirts.

What had begun as a minor annoyance became a major pain, especially for She Who Puts Up With Me, whose birthday was approaching and who was finding He Who Grumbles less fun than being a Pac-10 referee at an Oklahoma tailgater.

For me, it was itch, itch, itch. The more you think about not scratching, the more you're tempted to scratch. It was a test of willpower, and, after five days, my record for resistance was worse than it is in an August blackberry patch.

People asked how it happened. `I got it while being part of the `Days of Caring, Weeks of Itching' event,' I'd say, though quick to point out that I had nobody to blame but myself.

A native Oregonian not being able to tell poison oak from pretty autumn leaves is like a native Alaskan not being able to tell a grizzly bear from Yogi.

My poison oak stories would trigger other people's poison oak stories, most of which made mine seem small-time.

There was, of course, my mother-in-law who, in college, was part of an Oregon State sorority that tried to get rid of poison oak by burning it. (Like Eugene's '70s pedestrian mall, that's one of those "seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time" deals. Smoke transfers poison oak remarkably well.)

And, of course, we've all heard of guys who got poison oak while taking a leak in the woods, then finding themselves itching to go for weeks.

I thought about that when, on Day Eight, I saw them: red spots on my chest and stomach. As my 18-month-old grandson likes to say when, for example, he drops his father's iPod in the toilet: "Uh-oh."

The rash was clearly pushing southward, unopposed, like General Sherman's Civil War march through Georgia. And - gulp - Savannah was looking mighty vulnerable.

I caked on the Benadryl Gel, wanting to believe that it could stop the surge even if it was just an itch-tamer.

Meanwhile, my arms looked and felt like road flares.

Returning to The Register-Guard from an assignment, I was going so crazy that, outside my car, I squeezed the Benadryl on my inner arms like mustard on a couple of giant hot dogs.

I imagined our security guard checking the TV monitor and wondering if the poison oak had gotten so bad that, to the keep from going crazy, I'd turned to heroin.

There's been one small victory - on the southern front, the Confederate forces are holding. But, amid this uncivil war, the losses still take their toll.

For She Who Puts Up With Me's birthday, I gave the gift that keeps on giving - unfortunately:

Poison oak, of course.

Bob Welch can be reached at 338-2354 or at bwelch@guardnet.com.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 10, 2006
Words:673
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