Don’t touch that tomato. It might kill you. Same with beer and VinMariani. On the other hand, light up an unfiltered Lucky Strike – it’s better than that fattening candy. And get out of that wet bathing suit or the iron lung awaits you. Speaking of lungs, how’s your asbestos farm?
We may be doing ridiculous things today and not know it, but first let’s look backwards. Over the years we have been warned against almost everything, or told it’s OK. But much of what people thought was good or bad for them proved to be wrong years later. Example: Mineral Wells was once billed as “the South’s greatest health resort.” By 1920 the town had 400 mineral wells and was full of health-seekers. Today the mineral business there is a little slow. Go to the desert to get rid of that TB. Actually, there may have been some smarts in that recommendation. Governments spent fortunes on dirigibles, and France nearly went bankrupt building the Maginot Line. .
Hindsight is fine in reflecting on stock tips, Super Bowl bets and whether to bring your umbrella, but how about the more basic concepts? Are we smarter than those who came before us? Does the sun really go around the earth? Did Americans want to stop drinking and vote for Prohibition? They sure did.
Smart people held beliefs which, at the time, seemed plausible. The earth was flat. That was a slam dunk for millions of people over centuries. Columbus and weather satellites proved that theory wrong. George Washington, on his death bed, was treated with leeches. It was that or bat wings and moose tongue. Hey, he was rich, powerful and sick. The best medical minds of our country hovered over his death bed asking, “Who’s your HMO?” while attaching blood-sucking little worms to his saber-scared body. In the next room a death panel was reviewing his X-rays. Today that seems obscene. Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s. Many thought they were poisonous, or at least unfit for eating. They were right.
The most grievous example is slavery. Except for a few Tea Party members, most people today think slavery was terrible. So why did our most thoughtful, intelligent and progressive Americans own slaves? Washington, Madison, Jefferson. All men were created equal, more or less. Robert E. Lee married into a slave-owning family, but didn’t sell his slaves to make a point. At the time, few did.
Angelo Mariani, a French chemist, combined ground coca leaves with Bordeaux in the 1860s and marketed his “tonic wine” under the name VinMariani. Each fluid ounce contained six milligrams of cocaine. Fans of the drug included Ulysses S. Grant, who, dying of throat cancer, drank it while writing his memoirs. The unsuspecting pusher even got endorsements from Jules Verne, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Edison, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas and Arthur Conan Doyle. Among heavy users of the drug itself was young Sigmund Freud. Today most experts don’t see cocaine as a cure-all, although Coca Cola still sells well.
In a scene in “Sunrise at Campobello,” FDR stays in his wet bathing suit for a while after leaving the pool, giving the slight hint that his wet suit caused his polio. That was a widely held belief. Remember when a good tan was a sign of good health? Just go out there on the beach and turn brown, then you’ll look like a bronze goddess or god. Today dermatologists get apoplectic at the thought of a dark suntan. Mine says, “Wear a cap, a sun visor, long sleeves, long pants, socks, ski mask. Breathe through a straw. And go inside when the sun comes up.”
What do saccharin, coffee, beer, burned meat, cell phones and electric power lines have in common? Studies showed that these various items caused cancer — in the case of saccharin, bladder cancer in rats that were injected with about 10,000 doses of the stuff. Then further studies showed the initial studies were wrong. But further studies, etc. etc. My chief suspects of carcinogens are studies.
With the advent of AIDS, the cause was linked to everything from drinking water to shaking hands. You got a cold by being cold. In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General warned against cigarettes (but not cigars, thankfully). Until then, movie stars such as Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope and many others endorsed all kinds of brands. “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” My father was a doctor who smoked unfiltered Camels. He died of throat cancer. Still, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality continues to assure us that a slight amount of pollution in our air is not bad.
Forget the past, what are we doing today that is so stupid or beneficial, but we don’t know it? What will our grandchildren say, with a rolling of the eyes and dripping condescension, “Grandma, you actually ate broccoli? No wonder you’re sick at 107. And you really owned a skateboard? I am so embarrassed.” Maybe living in Arkansas reduced our IQ. Perhaps naming anyone Rupert doomed them to a life of prosperous criminality. Is there a link between poodles and global warming? Our war on drugs may go down with Prohibition as a hopeless, expensive and frustrating undertaking.
“Grandpa, did you really watch ‘America’s Got Talent’?”
“Great Uncle Cosmo, my foreman says Congress used to spend more money than it had, which is why we’re working in a sweat shop and speaking Mandarin.”
What are we doing today that will most certainly kill us tomorrow?
“Give it to me straight, Doc. How long do I have?”
“Well, since you played the saxophone, let me put it this way, don’t buy any green bananas.”
It is the year 2034, and the doctor is looking at your arthritic hand. “You actually touched Velcro?” She shakes her head sadly. “All I can prescribe is a pack of Luckies a day.”
Ashby is slowly dying at firstname.lastname@example.org