Scarlet Fever–Ellis Conklin


The fever raged. Her thoughts ran wild, as did her dreams.

When the DC-10 began to twitch like a convict strapped to an electric chair, Scarlet Diggs began to laugh so hard a flight attendant rushed to see if she was ill.

Or perhaps, the air hostess thought, she was mad – deeply, irretrievably mad. Those things could happen, she was taught in flight school.

Scarlet was a tall, elegant woman of 54, with chiseled features, and long legs, white as a Disney swan.

She loved to recite the most arcane puns, like the time at a dinner at a grand New Haven hotel, honoring her mother for the years she’d volunteered at Connecticut General, steering the blind through revolving glass doors on Oakwood Avenue.

Scarlet quipped, “You know, the people of Salem, Massachusetts, were never impressed with tales of Giles Corey.”

At least, her mother reasoned, Scarlet had graduated from the more pedestrian puns she used to toss at her admiring father, a baseball-loving accountant at U.S. Plywood:

“I had a little dog named Tax. I opened the door and Income Tax.” Or, “Mary Rose sat on a tack, Mary rose.”

Scarlet slapped away the flight attendant’s hand as the plane began to fall.

She tugged at the blue knit cotton dress by Halston that she always wore on cross-country flights, and continued her uncontrolled burst of laughter.

When she laughed, her body, though firm from her morning TV exercise routines with Jack LaLanne, shook like platters of lime Jell-O, the kind she once delivered in tiny pudding dishes when she worked as an orderly at an insane asylum in Middletown, Connecticut.

“I find fear hysterical,” she confided one afternoon to a patient she was charged with.

Recalling that chilling confessional, Scarlet’s dream settled on a hot, humid afternoon in the fall of 1962. Sweat oozed from her smooth, lovely face.

President Kennedy had just ordered the blockade of Cuba. The World Series was on: Game Seven, Giants and Yankees. Willie McCovey strode to the plate. Mays stood on third base.

“The specter of death makes me chuckle,” Scarlet told the orange-suited patient as he entered the psych ward.

He was a lifer, having killed his mother with a long, serrated kitchen knife, but spared the gas chamber with a spirited insanity defense.

Scarlet was impossibly young then, in her early 20s, fresh out of grad school. She detested “the looney bin,” as she called it, and whenever she was out with her new Yalie friends, up from New Haven, she would relay to them stories of its foul smells and miseries.

. . .

On this cold-blue morning, 28,000 feet above Medora, North Dakota, the three-engine widebody pitched and rolled. It was the kind of turbulence that caused passengers to reach for barf bags.

A married couple on their way to see to see their son, who’d lost both legs at Da Nang, and had once confided to them drunkenly that it was the quietest moment of his life, let out a terrible scream.

Inexplicably, the father of the legless son began to sing: “People stop and stare, they don’t bother me, for there’s no place else on earth that I would rather be.”

McCovey ripped a shot in the bottom of the ninth that would have tied the game at 1 had the Yankees’ Bobby Richardson not leaped high to spear the line drive. An agonizing groan erupted from the Candlestick crowd.

. . .

The plane continued to shudder and shake. Luggage flew down from the bins above. All the while, Scarlet laughed and laughed.

The patient became riled by Scarlet Diggs’ baffling remarks and grabbed her by the legs.

“I’m sorry,” he cried out, “but I gotta be me.”

Scarlet struck hit him in the head with a soft mallet she often carried. Surprised, the patient yelped, “What’s the matter with you?”

Scarlet replied: “Sorry, but I gotta be me.”

On the plane, seemingly doomed, Scarlet began to giggle, and the giggle soon turned to a roar of eye-watering laughter.

Nearby passengers looked away.

The mother-killer, snug in his straightjacket, asked Laura in a quiet voice what became of the Yankees. He told her he had money riding on the Yanks, a twenty-dollar bet with a fellow madman.

“They won!” Scarlet exclaimed.

“Ain’t that something,” the patient gushed. “Funny, I thought for sure they were going to lose that game. Funny world.”

Scarlet looked at him for a long time, and then with a wink, she replied, calm as a kitten:

“Why Teddy, yes. It sure is a funny – funny world.”


Ellis Conklin is a longtime journalist who worked primarily as a political reporter at the Anchorage Times, United Press International, the Santa Monica Evening-Outlook, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He retired several years ago and, after decades of vacationing on the Oregon coast, settled in Manzanita with his wife Lynn and Piper, their ocean-loving Australian Shepherd.