Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Polio 1941


Two kids separated by time, but not by love. The 13-year-old kneeling is my son. The kid in the chair is my dad. He's "been there, done that" when it comes to being 13. In fact, he was trying on 13 back in 1941.

He didn't know it at the time, but he was about to try on Polio, a disease which killed or paralyzed thousands of children.

Dad was a normal 13-year-old and did all the usual kid things, ball, fishing, riding bikes, and swimming. It was probably the swimming that gave him polio.

A friend's father had dynamited a swimming hole in a tidal river called the San Sebastion. The San Sebastion forms the western boundary of old St. Augustine and is an estuary. In the 40's it was also the recipient of raw sewage from many houses along the river.

Boys don't always think about such things and the prevailing idea of the time was that the "tide took everything away". So, unbeknownst to my grandmother, Dad went swimming in the San Sebastion. He has told me that once in a while....um...brown floating objects would float by on their way downstream. He and his buddies would splash the smelly offender away and then continue swimming. Tough boys...

If you look up polio, you'll find that the most common method of infection was contact with feces or fecal contamination of water.

I wonder sometimes, what was it like to be 13 and be told you have a disease that killed and paralyzed children each summer. How scary that must have been. As a parent, I can imagine the anguish my grandparents must have felt as their firstborn was diagnosed with this viral killer.

Polio made itself known when Dad fell in the bathroom and could not get up. The disease attacks nerves that control movement and breathing. Many children wound up in iron lungs that breathed for them. Many others wound up dead.

My grandparents wanted to send Dad to Warm Springs, Georgia for therapy. President Roosevelt spent time there for his own polio therapy and had made the small town famous. At first, it didn't look like Dad would get in...there were so many polio kids back then.

Then my grandfather sat down and wrote a personal letter to FDR, pleading for his son. A slot at Warm Springs opened up. Dad went.

Decades later, I remember my Grandmother (Nana) breaking into tears as she described the day she left Dad at Warm Springs. The pain of separation was still there 40 years later.

Somehow, Dad survived Polio, but the disease left its mark. His right leg is weaker and slightly shorter that his left. Growing up, I knew my Dad wore a built-up shoe, but I never, ever considered him physically handicapped. He's wiry and strong, even now at 77 (today is his birthday), his biceps are toned and defined.

After he retired and got a little older, the weaker leg caused a few falls with resulting bone breaks. After a couple of these, he began wearing a leg brace...you can see it in the picture.

To my kids, "Grampsy" has always had the brace...and the gray hair. They probably wouldn't recognize the Superman I see when I look at him.
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17 comments:

Zanne said...

Wonderful portrait - in image and in word. It's hard to impress on kids the importance of oral history - the telling of our personal histories. It's something you learn with age I guess, and so we keep repeating the stories to our kids in hopes that it will take hold and the memories can live on.

The polio problem was still around when I grew up in the '50's. A classmate named Judy was struck by polio and was confined to a wheelchair. It was a terrible fear for parents.

My kids don't remember my father, and they haven't yet developed a deep interest in his story, but I relate them anyway....in hopes.

Laura said...

What a wondeful story about your father!

My best friend's brother had contracted polio when he was little and he has the same problems with his leg as your father does. It is shorter and a little weaker than the other leg.
It never stopped him, however. All through high school he was involved in every activity and went on to become Senior Class President, et all. He is now in his mid 40's and an excellent golfer. He is a success in everything he does.
The leg itself may be weak, but their strength comes from within.

farmer john said...

There is a little superman in all fathers. It takes a lifetime to see it. I can see it in your father and I don't even know him.

thingfish23 said...

I don't suppose you need to hear my opinion on Dads, since it has been made pretty clear in other places on the Internets.

It was a great post.

kevin said...

You know, I knew your dad had polio, I knew he wore that "funny" shoe, but I never made the "handicap" connection. I don't think he does either.

It's always a good day when I see your parents in Wal-Mart (where I see everybody). Until this blog thing started, seeing them was the best way to keep up with you.

pablo said...

So, your father is a fine looking old man. Your son is a fine looking young man. Did the gene skip a generation, or do you fall in the fine looking column as well?

I had a friend whose older brother had a slight limp from contracting polio. I still recall my mother's fear and insistence that we all get the vaccines. Fortunately, our family was passed over when polio made its visits. I understand it is making something of a comeback in the developing world.

vicki said...

Happy Birthday to your father! And wishes for good health in the coming year.
I remember standing in line for "pink sugar cubes" when I was little- the early polio vaccine. Even in the early fifties fears of the public swimming pool lingered.
As usual- interesting, well-written and compassionate post. Thanks!

Floridacracker said...

To everyone,
What amazes me, besides your kind comments is how in a small circle of "friends" polio has made itself felt by all of you. I rembember the pink sugar cube immunization in grade school also. Several of you knew folks who had polio, yet this is a disease that most people think of as a thing of the past. I learned much from this post thanks to your comments.

Zanne,
Keep telling them.

Kevin,
Yeah, they love Walmart. They always tell me when they see you.

Laura,
Sometimes I think polio victims overcompensate. Love that last line of yours.

Pablo,
LOL! Definitely skipped a generation.

Vicki,
I remember looking forward to my sugar cube as I stood in line. It was a lot more fun than the smallpox injector.

roger said...

a fine looking family indeed! happy birthday to your dad.

Floridacracker said...

Thanks DPR. I hope your travels went well.

Thunder Dave said...

FC, I can't always get on every day so I'm a bit late on this one, but Happy Birthday to your Dad. I've only met the man a couple of times, but he's a pretty cool dude! Say hey to your mom for me too!

Rexroth's Daughter said...

Floridacracker-- Hope your dad had a wonderful birthday. Your tribute to him is truly lovely.

Floridacracker said...

ThunderD,
Get that blog up!


RD,
Thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

this is tyler and i gust wonted to say that your dad is one of the best man that i know and it is ashame that he has polio

Floridacracker said...

Tyler,
Thanks bud. Don't worry about him, he's doing okay. We are going to take him out to eat for his birthday after y'alls soccer game tomorrow.

rick said...

I didn't realize that the polluted San Sebastion was probley the cause.Your dad is really a fighter never heard him complain.Great pic too.

Floridacracker said...

Thanks Rick!