My friend Blynn Heron suggested I watch a video on the PBS website about the 1938 hurricane that hit the east coast of the US and took nearly a thousand lives. It was extremely well done. I looked to see what other videos were available and I saw one called “The Polio Crusade”. I just had to watch it too.
At the time, April 15, 1964, was the most exciting day of my life. It was my 16th birthday and that was the day I got my freedom machine. It was a beautiful – exciting – exhilarating Honda model C90 motor scooter. It was 90cc of pure power and had a top end speed of 55 mph! Woo hoo … I was the first person in my school to get one of these new generation motorbikes that had just become the rage in Europe. It was the era of the Mods and Rockers in Britain and my friends and I knew, if we lived in England, we would be Mods and ride a bike just like this – they were so cool.
And I owed it all to polio…
It was the last week of August 1955 and I was proud to be nearly 8 ½. School was starting in a couple of weeks. My parents took me on a fishing trip in our small boat to round out the summer. We had to put to shore on an island because a storm had blown up and I became nauseous due to the heavy waves. On shore I just got worse, started to throw up and developed a high fever. My back and leg muscles went into awful cramps. My mother insisted we head back to the mainland but my dad was reluctant. The rain was heavy and the lake was rough. He wanted to wait but my mother insisted saying “What if its polio?”
They abandoned most of our camping and fishing gear, laid me in the bottom of the boat on wet sleeping bags and headed for the mainland. It was hell for me with the wind, rain and huge waves. I was retching and crying from the muscle cramps. My fever grew worse and I started to hallucinate. I don’t remember reaching neither shore nor the hospital they took me to. There they confirmed my mother’s fears. I had infantile paralysis or polio as it was commonly called. My next memory was a couple of weeks later when we took a long ambulance ride back to my community.
They took me to a ward that specialized in polio. I remember lying in a hospital bed unable to move my legs or sit up. I still had high fevers and they would give me ice baths. My muscles screamed with pain. At night I hallucinated or had night mares. On my one side there were two kids in iron lungs who were terribly ill. My mother and the other parents spelled each other off staying with the kids in the ward. My case by polio standards was fairly mild. Two of my neighborhood friends got it at the same time. Jimmie, a red headed rascal my age, died in an iron lung. He got pneumonia because he couldn’t cough. Linda was severely crippled and had to have leg braces. I recovered fully over time.
After a few weeks they sent me home. My doctor came to see me every couple of days. Each evening I would develop a fever. I had to do endure painful stretching exercises twice a day. I was pretty much bed ridden for several months. We had no TV of course – few people did back then. My parents bought me an am radio – made of REAL PLASTIC! I was the only kid I knew who had his own radio.
One day a friend of my mother came over to spell my mother off as caregiver. She saw how bored I was and decided to teach me to embroider. And embroider I did – potholders – tea towels – T-shirts – anything and everything. I became a bit of a fanatic. Long after I recovered I continued to embroider things for gifts for Christmas or whatever. I became especially good at free style flowers with no patterns.
In 1963 the Beatles changed the world and the “Love Generation” came into its own. The most sought after clothing items in my high school were – jeans with flowers embroidered down the legs. I charged $5 per leg and $15 for a jacket. They were beautiful and much in demand. Even one of my teachers had me do a pair of jeans.
And that is how I earned the money to buy my Honda motorbike on my birthday in April 1964. Maybe that was the silver lining for having had polio – I don’t know. If it was, I wonder what the silver lining was for my friends Jimmie and Linda.
The PBS video helped me understand what my parents went through back then. It caused such heartache all over the world. They were so supportive and happy for me when I got my bike. Thank God they found effective vaccines and pretty much eradicated that disease.
I suppose I should close this off with some insightful philosophical statement, but I can’t think of one. I just feel very lucky.
I highly recommend the PBS Video: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/polio/
You will need to copy and paste the link – I can’t get the darned links to work in WordPress