Now it looks like 1949 was a seminal year in my life. I never realized that one year could contain so many changes to one small boy’s existence. Although my sister Renee was offered a scholarship to Brandeis, my grandmother would not let her go. It was too far away and that was unacceptable. Looking back at it now, Brandeis was not the college it is now. It was in its first year and Renee would have been in the first freshman class. I am not sure, even to this day, what the discussions were about Renee going to school, but she decided that she would go to Brooklyn College and become a teacher.
The world was gay and cheery in 1949. Korea had not yet made its appearance on the world stage. Harry S. Truman was still basking in the glow of a post world war II economy and well being . Mom had worked as a waitress for the 6 years since my father died and had accumulated $10,000 in her bank account- a tidy sum in those days. Renee had graduated from high school and was on her way to college. Mom was going out with some prospective husbands ( some old and rich, some younger and poorer). She was about 38 at the time.
The Summer was going to be a bunch of fun. We were going to spend time in the mountains. We had chosen Mountaindale, the place where my grandmother had her rooming house. We were to go with my mother’s sister Ida, her son Marty, her daughter Rhoda and my sister Renee. We rented a bungalow ( a word that does not seem to exist these days) and spent our time picking blueberries, swimming and generally having a gay old time.
Sometime at the beginning of August, I began to feel ill. I did not want to eat. I had pains in various parts of my body. My mother became frantic with worry. One night, she implored another guest named Eddie to drive us down to New York City and enter me into Willard Parker Hospital on 14th street near the East River.
By the time I got there, I was unable to walk. I was brought into the hospital in a wheelchair. A number of white coated medical professionals examined every part of my anatomy. I had no idea what they concluded. They put me into a bed in a kind of glass partitioned room . As I lay there in bed, I was determined that I was not going to die. Nor was I going to stay in that alien smelling place. I reached above my head and plastered my hands against the cool glass. I raised my body as far as my knees and was on the verge of standing, when my legs collapsed.
The noise of the collapse brought back the white coated professionals. They tried to calm me but I was focused on getting up and leaving. I believe that they injected me with some sort of sedative, but to this day have no idea what it might have been. When I awoke it was morning and I was in a crisply sheeted bed in a large ward with all sorts of people in it.
I raised my groggy head and peered around. The ward’s inhabitants were of a number of ages, from the middle 20’s to a dark haired young man in a large metal cylinder ( later identified as an iron lung). He was said to have had bulbar polio, whatever that meant. I lay in the bed till some orderlies came and asked me if I was hungry. They had a mobile carrier with a number of trays on them. They pulled one off and offered me some milk, a hard boiled egg, some soggy toast and orange juice.
I tried to get some information from these men, but they claimed that they had no idea of anything. They did tell me that this was the polio ward. I had not heard of that word. I rolled polio over in my mind. It terrified me at first, but as I repeated to myself, it grew less daunting. I guessed that I had a thing called Polio. I could not get up, but I was in a hospital with other polio victims. There was no one there to confirm or deny any of my conclusions.
I was too involved in my own thinking to attempt to communicate with any of the other people in the beds around me. That lasted for a few days. After a time there were calls to people across the aisle and messages passed between those who were ambulatory. Not everyone was unable to walk. As time went by, it was apparent that there were differing levels of polio.
Physical therapy was a staple of the treatment for polio along with Sister Kenney treatments. Large men with white coats would come into the ward and set off a series of screams from each of the people that they touched. Although I had a high tolerance for pain, the thought of these “goons” breaking one of my legs, or twisting in a way that god did not mean for it to go, insinuated into my mind.
In fact, I always felt a lot better after the treatments, which were then followed by hot woolen blankets that passed for the Sister Kenney treatments. The temperature of these blankets was scalding. They were brought to the bedside in some sort of heating device. They smelled of wool and various unguents. One blanket on your back and you remembered the treatments forever. I can still remember the boiling hot wool smell even after all of these years.
From time to time, a number of physicians made their way into the ward to examine the patients. Chief among these doctors was a woman in her 40’s or 50’s, from Sweden.. She was said to be the greatest expert on polio in the world. I was happy to see her and appreciated her cool ministrations. It gave me some hope that this would soon be over. In some sense I was correct.
As you can imagine, laying in a bed most of the day, talking to no one in particular, and listening to the radio weighed heavily on this 10 year old. My mother and her boyfriend, Charlie would come to visit once in a while. My sister Renee and grandmother would also visit from time to time. Charlie eventually became my stepfather and it is his last name that I bear.
Within a few weeks into my entry into the world of disinfectants and unguents, I was actually able to move around and walk. The walking was wobbly and uneven. One of my legs, my left, was the home of most of the residual affects of polio. My getting around was facilitated by an old wooden wheelchair. I was permitted this luxury for no apparent reason, other than my desire to get around and see things. It appeared that others in the ward were not of the same mind.
I had a ball careening around the ward causing trouble at each stop on my journeys. In one mad attempt to escape, I left the ward ( all male) and made my way to the women’s ward. There I encountered by first love- a stringly 11 or twelve year old whose name did not register on my memory. For the next few weeks, we rode everywhere together in the hospital and eventually creating a routine that led us to the children’s ward. There, in cooperative repose, we were allowed to spoon feed some of the very young children who were not able to eat on their own.
I can’t imagine a modern hospital allowing that to occur. I was thoroughly entranced with this young lady and wound up having dreams about our marriage. Funny, as close as we got, I still cannot remember her name. She was released sometime before me, never to be heard from again. I returned to my carryings on and trips around the wards. I was close to being released.
One day, mom appeared with Charlie and announced that they were getting married. I was shocked. I did not know that they were serious about each other, nor did I know at the moment that my mother was pregnant with my sister Sherie ( Sheryl Ann). Charlie and mom were beaming and encouraged me to be happy because I now had a father. Charlie promised that he was getting tickets to the World Series. My team, the Dodgers were playing the Yankees and he was going to take me to one of the games. We never went and Charlie really never fulfilled his role as my father.