If you have been watching Ken Burns’ video treatise, “The Roosevelts,” then you would have seen the tragic scenes of Franklin contracting polio in 1921. It may have saddened you to see his long climb back from a deep and dark cavern of depression to his eventual election as President of the United States in 1932.
It meant a whole different thing to me. It brought back memories of a hot August of 1949 in Mountaindale, NY. As with Roosevelt, it involved swimming in a creek with family and an eventual elevation of temperature to about 104 degrees. My mother was panicked and imposed on a neighbor named Eddie (I never saw him again) to drive us down to Willard Parker Hospital in Manhattan at speeds way above the limit.
I can remember lying down in the back of the car with the windows open and hot breezes blowing over me and my mother. I can almost hear her trying to sooth me with words of love and consolation. I had never seen her in that way before or after that night. Her view of the world would have never allowed it. She was an independent soul who preached self-reliance, with a large dollop of concern. However, she was always confident that her children would pull through, no matter what the circumstance. Even today, I can see that part of her in my older sister’s demeanor, as she cares for her husband. The words, “tough cookie,” come to mind.
FDR’s travail lasted quite a bit longer than mine. Since he had resources that our family could not even dream of, he was able to create things that would help him on the way to psychological recovery. His case of poliomyelitis was certainly more severe than mine, but its affects were very similar.
Both of his legs and muscles up to his chest were withered and never really came back into use. My one leg was affected and although I was never able to run very fast, it did not stop me from playing sports.
However, there was something very similar about the effect of the disease that I never realized until last night. Although he was a gregarious fellow and comfortable with people, he could never really feel the pain of those who, not through their own actions, were disadvantaged in their lives. Roosevelt was born with the proverbial golden spoon in his mouth, a scion of the Roosevelt clan. He never had to worry about his family’s circumstances. Problems for him could be solved with the laying on of resources way beyond the means of most of the people of the U.S.
I am not sure if a comparison is fair in this instance, however my own life’s history is replete with efforts to understand people’s problems and try and help them. In some small ways, I may have been of some help to folks. Roosevelt had the power to help massive numbers of people, and he did. The narrators of the piece pointed to his change after polio. There were a number of years when he gathered people who had polio to is Warm Springs, Georgia therapy center ( which never made any money) to help them with their view of life, even if he could not really repair their broken bodies.
Two of the children who were there at the time were interviewed and told much the same thing about the confidence that Rosie (as he was called) would instill in them, while his withered legs trailed behind him in the water. To me, that was the highlight of the film so far. I can understand the pain that they went through in physical therapy and the hope that it built up. In both cases, the treatments were a placebo that gave one hope that things might yet return to normal. It really didn’t.
My trial lasted only three months in 1949, from August to October. I was released from the hospital in the early part of October to listen to the World Series. I continued some of my physical therapy on my own with limited results. Even today, I am reminded of those months when I dress for the gym. I have long ago stopped worrying about others seeing my somewhat thinner leg. I saw Roosevelt’s transition from a “cripple” to his emergence as someone who overcame tremendous barriers to achieve something that no one has ever done before or since.
I know that his hero was his cousin Theodore Roosevelt. Strange, without even thinking about it, that is my hero also. There was also an overcoming in Teddy’s early life. He also was concerned with those who were disadvantaged through no fault of their own. No, I will not go onto Ancestry.com and see a familiar relation. However, there is still something in me that looks at these people as confreres. We need more people like them at this point in our history.
As the years slip away, I look for that kind of feeling from my own family. Most of my grandchildren are too young to show some of these traits. However, there is one, whose feelings for the disadvantaged are beginning to appear. May he continue on this path and be blessed with success.