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Peterson: Despite hang-up, handkerchief stands at the ready

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Blowing your nose should be a private act. At least I don’t have the self-confidence to make it a public one.

I haven’t had to blow my nose much lately, but there seemed to be a period of about five months when I couldn’t help but blow my nose all the time. I thought it was a long cold, but it could have been allergies, something I have not been prone to and something I’d rather not have. So, I had a long cold that stretched over two seasons, then it abated suddenly.

But I have had to blow my nose a couple of times lately, and I’m thinking, here goes, another cold is settling in. It hasn’t, thankfully.

I grew up on the edge of numerous watershed events in recent history. I became an altar boy just as the changes ushered in by Vatican II of the Catholic Church took place; I didn’t have to learn Latin like my brother did. I turned 18 a year after the fall of Saigon and missed not only the draft, but also registering for the Selective Service.

I was the last of an era of 18-year-olds who could drink alcohol legally. Ballpoint pens replaced the mess – at least for third-graders learning to write script – of fountain pens. Major League Baseball switched from the champions of the American and National leagues competing for the World Series after 162 games to divisional playoffs extending the season for two extra teams, one of them my Minnesota Twins.

And I was on the tail end of the use of handkerchiefs to blow your nose into and the widespread use of Kleenex, the single-use, disposable, soft paper tissue handkerchief, one of the great but underrated innovations of the 20th century.

Before Kleenex, if you wanted to blow your nose, you had to use – and re-use – the handkerchief in your pocket. And maybe it’s because I grew up with single-use Kleenex, I could think of few things more gross than using over and again the same handkerchief to catch the mucus from your nose. I couldn’t – still can’t – do it.

I haven’t done the experiments with handkerchiefs to prove this point, but my guess is that the mucus, which is mostly water, dries up rather quickly, leaving you with a reusable cloth. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want to put my nose where dried mucus has been. I’m not a scientist, but I would have to guess that cold germs hang around in used handkerchiefs.

And I’ve seen what it’s like before the invention of the handkerchief. I played hockey outdoors in Minnesota for years when I was too young to know better my own physical limitations. The best hockey was played in the bitter cold when the temperature hovered around 10 degrees, and teams stood on piles of snow rather than sit on benches.

I was a pre-teenager, and I think I thought I saw everything until my coach blew his nose on the sidelines. Not into a handkerchief or Kleenex, but directly onto the frozen ground where germs would apparently die on contact.

He put a finger over one nostril, leaned his head forward, then blew his nose with all his might, with the mucus deposited onto the snow. Oh, please, tell me that didn’t just happen. And he did it more than once over the course of the season, and he seemed to think nothing of it. I thought way too much about it.

He may have been a role model, but no one on the team copied him. We settled with the sniffles and wiping our noses on our sleeves. I’ve seen the same technique used a few times since then, and I didn’t feel better about the men who did it.

Fast-forward to the current me, and I cannot bring myself to blow my nose in the company of other people. I see people do it frequently, and I am not grossed out, but I respect them for their common sense and bravery: They have a runny nose, and they do something about it on the spot. I run to the restroom.

The fact is I always carry a handkerchief with me. Mostly, it is to wipe the sweat from my brow. Secondly, I carry it as my first-aid kit; in case someone starts bleeding, I have a cloth to put over the cut. Third, on the outside chance I sneeze – into my arm, wanting to be public-health correct about it – and mucus is left behind, I have something to wipe it up with.

Fourth – and last – if I perchance really have to blow my nose and there’s no waiting, I’m prepared. Hasn’t happen yet, but I am prepared for the last resort in public company. Eww.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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