Echo Fever/Birmingham 1964
by Coral Hauck
Coral Hauck

Coral Hauck

In the summer of 1964, Birmingham, Alabama, was a city that steamed and seethed under the eyes of a watchful and fearful nation. Lunch counter sit-ins became race riots became bombings. I remember watching a funeral on my parents' black and white Philco television; the funeral of three little girls who died in a church bombing. I also remember the way my father gathered me onto his lap, his chest shaking, his head buried in my hair so I couldn't see his face. I didn't understand what was happening. I was only three years old. I'm sure now that a lot of other people didn't understand it any better, either.

There are a lot of memories about that summer that seem to be etched in my brain, even though I was very young. I think this is because of how sick I was that summer. We lived in Brownwood, a district in South Birmingham. Brownwood was not the richest part of town, but not the roughest, either. I don't remember there being many restrictions on me and my brothers and sisters, except for one: we were not allowed to play in the creek across the street from the house. Now my sister, she would never play in a dirty old creek—and my brother Micheal couldn't play outside much, but Lance and I did sneak out, and we played in what we thought was a creek. I know now it was actually a drainage ditch, and might have been off limits because is carried sewage to the river.

One evening, one of those summer evenings when it never seems to really get dark, I began to feel very ill. I was hot, which everyone was, but then I got very cold. I couldn't stand up, couldn't walk, couldn't really talk. Everything looked very strange, sounded very strange. I got sick, vomiting, and couldn't stop. I remember screaming and fighting my parents as they tried to give me a bath in icy cold water, my mother's face streaming tears as she told me she was sorry, she was sorry, please baby stay with me. The bell of the old wall phone pealed and echoed, bouncing painfully around in my head. My daddy told my mother that the nurse at the hospital told him not to bring me in. I would get better care from them at home.

My parents moved the mattress from my bed into their room. They took shifts taking care of me and then trading off to take care of the other kids. I puked and sweated out every sheet in the house, and tried to rest on the bath towel my mother attempted to cover the mattress with. To this day, if I close my eyes, I can still see the pattern printed on the plastic cover of that mattress: a nightmare pattern of circus clowns and elephants and balls with stars on them. These figures reigned in fever dreams, stalking me around the room, crawling out from beneath the edge of my parents' bed. I have no idea how long fever raged, how long my parents fought this illness, how my brothers and sisters fared in the shadows outside the bedroom door. I do remember the ice baths, the ice water enemas, the painful bright light the doctor shined into my swollen, aching eyes. I remember coming awake in the evening sunshine, thirsty and light-headed. I tried to stand, but couldn't. Like a baby, I crawled out of my parents' room and into the kitchen to ask for water. My daddy swept me up, got me a cup of cool water, and washed my face for me. Then he carried me into the living room, collapsed in his chair in front of that old Philco, his face hidden and his chest shaking as we watched solemn, dark-faced men shoulder three tiny caskets down a crowded city street.

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