Copyright is held by the author.
THAT HOT, humid Saturday evening in July, 1951 was the scariest time of my young life—one I would never forget.
The air swaddled my body like a blanket and the slightest exertion drew rivulets of perspiration. Our small, noisy fan on the kitchen counter merely circulated warm air from one area of the room to another.
As a respite from the oppressive heat, Mother took me to an air-conditioned neighbourhood movie theatre three blocks away. The cool interior of the building was a blessed relief after enduring several days of that summer heat wave.
We saw The Bride of Frankenstein. It was a terrifying movie for a seven year old child to experience. Henry Frankenstein, creator of the monster, was delirious with excitement screaming, “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!” as he revelled in successfully animating the ugly living thing cobbled together with body parts purloined from cadavers.
My hair must have stood on end like the frizzy mop worn by the monster’s bride. That grotesque creature together with the thunder and lightning arcing over the dark, brooding Frankenstein castle perched high on a cliff was frightening.
When the movie was over, we ventured back out into the sauna-like environment of the July evening, regretting having to leave the comfort of the theatre. The heavy, warm air smacked into my face like an invisible wall.
Maybe it was a fright-induced rush of adrenaline or the buttered popcorn and grape Popsicle snack bar treats that made me queasy as we walked the three blocks home. I barely made it to the bathroom before everything came up in a mess of purplish mush.
My mother, who sat calmly through the entire ghoulish horror movie, now displayed alarm at seeing my condition. There was a polio epidemic that year, and in her mind a summer illness meant only one thing. That grim reaper of children, Mister Polio, had laid his hand on me. Mom wasn’t alone in her anxiety. Any sign of sickness or malaise afflicting a child during those summers of the early 1950s would produce dread and panic in parents. Dad was away and Mom wasn’t sure what she should do.
Most young people, including myself, remained blissfully ignorant of the danger and ignored Mister Polio. Oh, there were reminders of that demon lurking in the shadows ready to strike at any time, but as carefree children we disregarded them. I had glanced at magazine pictures of unfortunate children equipped with crutches and awkward leg braces, or those imprisoned in mechanical breathing aids known as “iron lungs,” but that wouldn’t happen to me. Things like that only happened to other kids.
I felt fine after throwing up, but Mom was petrified with fear. Adult fright can be contagious and I started to worry. Perhaps I shouldn’t have ignored those recent twinges in my joints and muscles. She said they were just growing pains and not to be concerned, but now I had an ominous feeling that they were much more than that. The stories I had so casually dismissed of kids with polio rushed back into my mind. I should have been more careful, but how? Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to share that large bag of potato chips with my friend Randy a few days ago. Both of us had put our hands into the same bag. Who knew what germs other kids carried around?
I was in for it. What would become of me? My future, which up to then had been an endless golden thread to be picked up, was uncertain. Soon, maybe I wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone pick anything up. My youthful mind retreated to a childish bargaining mode. Up until then, I hadn’t thought much about God, or even acknowledged his existence, but now I needed him. Oh please God. Don’t let it be polio, I pleaded silently. I’ll do anything you want. I’ll go to church faithfully from now on; I won’t talk back to adults; I’ll study harder; I’ll do chores without complaining and be real good. Just don’t let it be polio.
Mother decided to call the doctor. They made house calls in those days and while waiting for him to arrive, she put me to bed in pyjamas, covered with a blanket. “You need to avoid getting a chill,” she said.
Our two story house was like an oven and I started to sweat even more. She put her hand on my forehead. “My goodness — you have a fever.”
I felt okay before being placed in the pyjama and blanket sweat box, but was feeling very uncomfortable now.
About thirty minutes later the doorbell rang. I could hear two muffled voices downstairs — the agitated, higher pitched one of my mother’s, and the unfamiliar, calmer tone of the doctor’s. The sound of heavy footsteps ascending the stairs and approaching my bedroom preceded his arrival. My mother followed, hovering anxiously in the open doorway, holding onto the doorknob with one hand and covering her mouth with the other.
“So, young man, you’re not feeling well,” he said pleasantly, before setting the small black bag he was carrying down on my night table.
“I threw up.”
He shrugged. “It happens. I did that once after smoking a cigar for the first time.”
I liked him right away for admitting that. I wanted to try cigarettes. Smoking and drinking beer was the grown up thing to do. My father smoked unfiltered Sportsman’s and drank O’Keefe Ale.
He waved his finger in my face. “Don’t ever smoke young man. It’s very bad for you.”
I wondered why do so many adults smoked if that was the case, but didn’t ask him.
“He has a fever,” my mother said, her face wrinkled with anxiety.
The doctor removed a thermometer from his bag and placed it in my mouth. “His temperature is normal,” he declared after removing it several minutes later.
Mom’s mouth dropped open. “How can that be?” she said. “He’s sweating.”
“It’s summer. The boy doesn’t need a heavy blanket and pyjamas on,” the doctor replied, before stripping the covering off.
He removed a large flat stick and a small flashlight from his black bag. “Open wide and say, ‘Ahhhh.’” He depressed my tongue with the stick and inspected the interior of my mouth.
“Hmmmm . . .,” he murmured.
Mother edged into the room and her eyes widened. “What? What is it?”
“His tongue is purple.”
“Oh that. He had a grape Popsicle at the show.”
The doctor seemed satisfied with that explanation. He shone the light into my face and examined my eyes by having me follow his finger moving in, back, up, down, side to side and in circles. Next, he applied a stethoscope to my chest and back. “Breathe in and out.”
After that, he grabbed my head with his hands and moved it back and forth and side to side. “Any discomfort when I do that?”
“No,” I replied.
With my feet dangling over the side of the bed, he tapped my knee caps with a small rubber tipped hammer.
“Raise your legs, wiggle your toes and move your feet in circles from the ankles,” he said.
I did that, and complied with a number of other commands that followed.
Put your arms out to the side.
Wiggle all your fingers.
Move your arms forward and together.
Now move them back.
Arms up over your head.
Now put them down to the side.
Swing them around in circles.”
I felt like a bird getting ready to fly.
“Stand on one foot with your hands on your hips and eyes closed.”
I almost fell over doing that stork pose, but recovered my balance.
“Bend down and touch your toes while keeping your knees straight.”
The backs of my legs hurt when I did that.
“Walk back and forth across the room heel to toe with your eyes closed.”
I bumped into a chair on the way back, stubbing my big toe. It hurt a lot.
“Any discomfort or dizziness?”
“Squat, and stand up five times.”
The fifth time I almost fell back on my bum.
“Okay,” he said, nodding. Was that a good sign?
My body dripped with sweat after performing all those calisthenics and my limbs were sore.
“Lie down,” he said.
I reclined on the bed. He raised my legs alternately straight up, then back down. After rolling me over on my stomach, he bent each leg back until the heels touched my buttocks.
“Have you had diarrhea lately?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, feeling my face flush in spite of the mask of warm perspiration covering it.
“He’s been constipated,” my mother said.
“Mom!” I glared at her. My bowel habits were no one’s business.
“The doctor’s got to know these things,” she insisted.
What did irregularity have to do with anything?
“Oh, we can fix that,” the doctor said, smiling.
What did he mean? Was he referring to a dose of that god-awful mineral oil or even worse, an enema?
“How’s his appetite?”
“He has two big helpings of everything and several snacks a day,” Mom said.
The doctor replaced his tools in the black bag and snapped it shut. “I don’t see any reason for concern,” he said. “Probably just an upset stomach, but if any weakness, stiffness or pain in his joints or muscles develops, call me right away.”
A great tide of relief washed over my Mother. “Oh, thank God!” she gushed, closing her eyes, tilting her head up, and clasping her hands together as if praying. You could see the anxiety and stress drain away from her face as if she had just set down a load of clay bricks. She thanked the doctor several times.
The doctor’s pronouncement was music to my ears as well, and I felt the tension in my body melt away. I wouldn’t be one of those unfortunate, pitiful, handicapped children, impaired in the prime of life with a grim future.
One thing still bothered me. Perhaps his lengthy, thorough examination had discovered something else wrong with me. Visions of heavy, dark-rimmed eyeglasses and those funny-looking orthopaedic shoes my friend Billy had to wear for two years ran through my head. I waited for him to say something about that constipation cure he alluded to. I was hoping he had forgotten about it.
The doctor pulled out a pad and pencil, and then said to my mother, “I’m going to give you a prescription for him.”
Bad news. It would be some awful tasting medicine from the corner drugstore to swallow three times a day, or big horse pills to choke down. It was my own fault. I had whined insistently for the popcorn and grape Popsicle at the movie theatre. If I hadn’t, all this wouldn’t have happened. I’d have to suffer the consequences, whatever they were.
The doctor walked to the doorway and turned around. “Have a cool bath, young man. It’ll make you feel better in this heat.”
Mother showed him out and thanked him again several times in the process. It was late and I was exhausted from the stress and ordeal of the examination. Sleep came quickly in spite of the heat.
Early the next morning the door to my room creaked open. At first I pretended to be asleep, but then there was loud knocking.
“Are you awake?” My mother’s head appeared in the opening. Her face bore a fretful look. “How do you feel this morning?” she said.
“Is any part of you stiff, weak or sore?”
“Don’t think so. Might know better when I get out of bed, Mom.”
She made me stand up and move my arms and legs all around.
“I feel fine.” My stomach was empty and I was hungry.
“That’s good. The doctor left a prescription for you last night.”
I had forgotten all about that. “Aw, do I have to?”
“Yes. Actually it’s for two things,” she said.
I cringed. “Two? What are they?”
Mom smiled. She pulled a piece of paper from her dress pocket, unfolded it and read. “It says: for constipation, eat cereal with lots of fibre in it every morning; for upset stomach, no grape Popsicles for three days.”
We both laughed.
“I’ll buy you some All-Bran on shopping day,” she said.
That doctor had a sense of humour. If he played tricks like that on his patients in July, what pranks did he resort to on April Fool’s Day? I liked him and hoped that the next time we needed a doctor it would be him that came to the house.
All-Bran was the only “medicine” I had to take. That stuff was like eating wet, shredded cardboard, so on grocery shopping day I asked Mom if it could be changed to Raisin Bran instead.
She frowned and shook her head. “I don’t think so. That stuff’s got less fibre than All-Bran has and more sugar.”
“Please, Mom — please. I’ll eat Raisin Bran every morning — I promise. Two bowls even.”
She was right. Raisin Bran did have less fibre, but the box always contained a free toy, or something you could send away for by cutting out the coupon on the back. The only thing that came with the box of All-Bran was a recipe for making bran muffins. They tasted like dry, roasted cardboard.
After thinking about it for a few moments Mother agreed. “All right. I suppose some fibre’s better than nothing, and you’ll be eating it every day. I’ll make sure you do,” she said, adding, “The raisins in it are dried fruit. That’s healthy.”
As far as the polio thing was concerned, I thought that adults needed to relax. After all, the chance of catching it was a crap shoot. I didn’t know anyone who had gotten polio. I guess a few kids somewhere came down with it, but most children didn’t, and there wasn’t much you could do about it either way.
Oh — and that desperate bargain I made with God: the promises to attend church regularly, do chores, not talk back to adults, and study harder if he spared me from the clutches of Mister Polio? God kept his end of the agreement. That demon never touched me that summer or the following four. In 1955 at school, we received the first vaccination against the disease, but I never forgot Mister Polio — ever.
I’m sorry to say that I didn’t keep my end of the bargain with The Almighty about the good behaviour promises, but I still follow that doctor’s order to eat Raisin Bran every morning.