Vincennes Sun-Commercial

Something happened this week that doesn’t happen very often: I missed a few days of work. Although technically, that’s not quite true. For these days work will track you down, and with a vengeance yank you back into harness.

So I worked from home, in my sweatpants and an old hat, sipping hot tea and munching on oranges while straining through rheumy eyes to read and edit copy, coughing and wheezing my way through the latest AP budgets, wondering, the way things were going, whether I’d soon enough be doing my own obituary.

A week ago Friday my allergies launched an all-out attack; my body was like Antietam, casualties as far as the eye could see.

I have hay fever, although I’ve come to prefer the 15th century description of my ailment: the catarrh.

I got that from an E.B. White piece in The New Yorker, “Daniel Webster, the Hay Fever, and Me,” later republished in his collection, “One Man’s Meat,” under the more-to-the-point title: “The Summer Catarrh.”

Webster was one of the greats of his time, his name written prominently all over the first 75 years of the country’s history. He was 50 when struck with the catarrh, which he came to treat with ice — and whiskey poured over it.

That was also about the time he started to slip: “Why did all manly gifts in Webster fail?/He wrote on Nature’s grandest bow, For Sale,” Emerson ultimately said of him.

I say it was probably the catarrh.

White, too, was a sufferer. He showed early symptoms and a physician was called in for a diagnosis and recommendation for treatment; he thought a bit and then prescribed dousing the young White’s head in cold water every morning before breakfast.

White would later recall that after two years of such care the only result was a loss of the natural oil in his hair.

Like White, I was probably around 5 or 6 when I started noticing that, at certain times of the year, something with my body went wrong and I became miserable. It would come towards the end of August and continue until the first good frost.

When I was really young I spent many a lonely night sitting on the couch, unable to breathe, wondering what I’d done to deserve this. Later on, Labor Days would be spent stretched out on that same couch, stuffed up, miserable, the only thing to watch on TV the Chicago Cubs playing a doubleheader — and wondering what the heck I’d done to deserve that!

The medicines of the time were more along the lines of knock-out drugs; I think the idea was that if I’d gotten a good-night’s sleep I’d be better able to suffer through the day, although the requisite “good night’s sleep” never came and I’d be like a zombie for the first half of the day.

A few years ago my college alumni magazine solicited from those of us with known literary aspirations our favorite back-to-school memories. I’m sure what was wanted were “back-to-campus” memories, but I took the opportunity to dig back further and recall just how tired I always was during those first weeks of the new school year — which, now that I think about, applied in both cases.

In my early 30’s, my catarrh mysteriously all but disappeared. It would suddenly be mid-September and there was nothing — no wheezing, no sneezing, no watery eyes.

That lasted until my late-40’s when, one by one, the symptoms started returning — only now it could be any time of the year, even the middle of winter, when they struck, either in tandem or alone.

One winter my coughing was so bad that co-workers here began wondering if I was going to make it. I am still not sure whether they were genuinely concerned or they had a pool going.

One Saturday, in the early afternoon, I was working here in the office, thinking I was alone, when I was seized by a tremendous a fit of coughing. Now, I’d developed a sort of theory that if I coughed as hard as I could, put some real force into it, I could somehow expel whatever was causing the coughing right out of my body.

Desperate men will take desperate measures when in desperate straits.

So I really let loose, in such a spasm that it left me grabbing my desk with both hands and rocking back and forth in my chair.

When things finally started to come into focus I turned and looked, and in the doorway there was one of our ad reps.

“Just so you know,” she said, pointing down at it, “when you finally do go, I have dibs on your chair.”