Looming above our house in Great Neck Note 1 (New York, USA) was the Ackerman house, up a steep slope to the north, and then up the Ackerman's large, sloping lawn. Unlike our modernist one-story wooden ranch house, the Ackerman house was a large, traditional stone structure. We didn't know them very well, but every now and then, on a hot summer day, they would open their swimming pool to the neighboring kids. Thus we were all swimming there one weekend at some indeterminate point in my childhood.
Near the pool was a tree, covered with ripe apples, and without asking (there were lots of them), I picked one and ate it. A bit later, however, I saw a sign in the tree, which read "POISON", striking fear into my heart.
I asked Mr. Ackerman about the sign, and he said that the tree had been sprayed to kill insects that would otherwise infect the apples. He gave me the name of the pesticide, and I think it was DDT Note 2 (but I'm not certain - this was of course many years ago).
Panicked, I walked down the lawn, slid down the honeysuckle-covered slope to our driveway, and consulted my parents. They phoned our doctor, a kindly pediatrician named Leonard Ehrlich, who informed them that the amount of residual pesticide on a single apple could not cause any harm, and nothing needed to be done. I would be fine.
Easy for him to say! He had not eaten the apple Note 3. In my childhood mind, the state of affairs was clear. I had eaten a poisoned apple, and everyone knew what that had done to Snow White! Since nobody would take me seriously, however, I went off to my room, alone, and lay down on my bed to die.
I could still hear the happy cries of the other neighborhood children way up at the Ackerman house, enjoying the rest of the day at the pool. I could hear my parents puttering around the house, and my mother starting to prepare dinner. They'd all be sorry after I was gone, for not having taken my dilemma seriously. I lay in my bed and waited for the end.
After a while, I heard my sisters returning from the pool, and darkness fell. The aroma of dinner wafted into my room, and I found that whatever deadly poison I had eaten did not seem to have lessened my appetite.
So I got up and joined my family for dinner.
Note 1: To the east of Manhattan, across what is called the "East River", lies "Long Island", a glacial terminal moraine 190 km (118 miles) long from west to east. Two of the five "boroughs" of the City of New York, "Brooklyn" and "Queens", are on this island. Its north shore is studded with irregular peninsulas, and one of these outcroppings is called "Great Neck". "Great Neck" is "West Egg" in the novel The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. [return to text]
Note 2: DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was one of the most widely used pesticides during my youth. It was eventually discovered that its widespread use caused the thinning of bird eggs, and it was mostly banned after 1972. [return to text]