Vermont’s high-tech bat caves

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(Host) Commentator Philip Baruth talks about the way the Vermont landscape has become home to all sorts of hidden high-tech operations, operations that preserve a traditional exterior while using new technologies to connect to the world at large.

(Baruth) A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I wake up to a horrific barking sound, horrific because we know immediately that it’s not really a bark, but a cough, coming from our three-year-old daughter’s room. It was croup, and I’ve never in my life heard anything even remotely as frightening. So our doctor winds up sending us to a specialist in allergies and other things that can take the breath from your child.

And this morning that’s where we go, to this high-tech medical center set back in the woods of South Burlington. From the street it looks nothing like a hospital; it’s low and rambling, natural wood construction. You’d think it was a group of interlocking cabins or wood shops if you looked really quick. But inside it’s impressively high-tech. That’s the beauty of twenty-first-century Vermont: half the country roads you drive down conceal software development firms and recording studios, wired up with ISDN lines to Boston and New York and L.A. But you never really appreciate these high-tech Bat Caves until you really need what’s squirreled away inside.

Mostly what they did at this clinic was to check Gwendolyn for allergies. A technician came in with a long rack of small lucite ampules. Each of the ampules contained some specific allergen, super-precise amounts rendered down into gel form. Gwendolyn lay down with her shirt off, and the technician drew a series of lines on her back with a pen, a partial grid. And in each square of that grid she carefully upended one of the opened ampules. This left my daughter with about 15 small yellow and orange teardrops standing on the skin of her back: the active allergens from dust mites, cat dander, dog fur, mold, spores, everything. Finally, the technician put one last teardrop of gel right at the base of her spine. “That’s a control spot,” she told us, “that’s supposed to get red and itchy, no matter what happens with the other ones.”

It was like some nightmare game of ultra-slow-motion electronic bingo, waiting to see if any of the squares would redden or rise up from her back. And we knew that any and all of these squares could change our lives for good. If the pollen square reacted, Gwendolyn might spend the rest of her life hating spring, popping Claratin. If it was cat dander, our ten-year-old cat Richard would eventually wink out of our lives – not immediately and not without a lot of trauma, but he would eventually vanish. So we took turns telling Gwendolyn stories and watching her back and hoping that nobody was calling bingo today.

And nobody was. Only the control grid turned an angry red, and the doctor came back in and wiped the tears off Gwendolyn’s back. Nobody said anything, but we understood that the cat had winked back into existence. The doctor wrote us a prescription for an amazing plastic device called a metered-dose inhaler and an amazing aerosol steroid called fluticasone propianate. And then we got back in our car, and we drove away from this hidden high-tech outpost in the woods, feeling very much like Batman and Batwoman and their three-and-a-half-year-old Bat-daughter.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont. His new book with Joe Citro is “Vermont Air: Best of the Vermont Public Radio Commentaries.”

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