"My work may be garbage but it's good garbage." Mickey Spillane
The year we moved to Westminster was 1962. The first oral polio vaccine had just come out. School in California started on September 15th. Three weeks before school began they started having the children brought to the playground and lined up to receive the vaccine which was administered on a sugar cube. I would be in Third Grade when school began that year.
The asphalt reflected the Southern California heat, beaming it into our faces until many of the children were complaining about it. I never handled heat well. I felt dizzy and overheated by the time I reached the head of the line and received my sugar cube.
I had severe childhood pattern asthma, which was the bane of my existence, and I seemed to pick up whatever germs passed me. It may have been that my immune system was not prepared to handle the vaccine. Previous to that the vaccine involved a dead virus. The sugar cubes contained a weakened live virus in a process closer to inoculation than to modern vaccination.
A few days later we went to Disneyland the first time. I remember riding on the submarine, the sky buckets, and the Tomorrowland rocket with the pictures of outer space creating a feeling of traveling through the stars. It was the last thing I would ever do with a perfectly functioning leg.
I contracted polio from the vaccine.
I have already spoken a bit about it on this blog with the entry called overcoming limitations
The day that I came down with polio was an odd day.
Mama had one of her migrane headaches and was laying down in her room. I knew not to disturb her.
I was playing alone in the living room when I stood up and fell. My left leg would no longer support me. I tried repeatedly to stand up and fell again each time. I grew more and more frightened as evening arrived and the room grew dark, but I could not reach the light switch. I crawled around the floor, used the coffee table to pull myself into a sitting position, and felt torn between my growing fear and the need to tell Mama. I did not want to alarm her.
So when I finally crawled into her bedroom, there was a catch in a my voice as I attempted to make a joke of it. “Mama, I have the craziest leg. It won’t hold me up.”
She was out of bed in a flash.
Since my stepfather, Frank G, was Navy, Mickey took me to the clinic on the base. I think it must have been El Toro.
My leg was as cold as ice. The Navy doctor looked at me and said to my mother, “Is there something you refused to get her? A doll perhaps?”
He appeared to believe that my difficulty was psychosomatic. I thought he was calling me a liar and threw a fit.
The next day, Mama took me to the county hospital. They did a spinal tap and the diagnoses was polio. The doctors and nurses told me that I was one of the bravest children they had ever seen because I curled up obediently and did not flinch when they put the needle in.
I had not had the usual symptoms that go along with polio, fever and such; possibly because I had had previous vaccinations that mitigated it. The doctor that admitted me to the hospital was a jovial gray-haired man whose face and manner have stuck in my mind. His name was Doctor Lindgrin, and he did grin a lot.
I spent three weeks in the Contagious Disease Ward. I was placed in an isolated room all alone. I could not have visitors, but Mama could wave at me from the door so long as she did not cross the threshold into the room itself. The isolation was very hard to deal with emotionally, and I believe that was when I developed an abiding sense of loneliness that has never left me.
The rules were that anything dropped on the floor had to be destroyed and I lost a lot of hair bands that way.
The only source of real fun that I had alarmed the nurses so much that they removed it from my room. There was a bar hanging over the bed by a chain that I was to use to pull myself up for various things. I immediately put my good leg through it and used it as a swing, sailing far out over the end of the bed. Everything was fine until one of them caught me at it. They decided that I might lose my grip and go flying into a wall.
One day my bed was moved out into the hall and I could finally touch Mama again. I clutched at her, over joyed and hopeful that it meant I would finally get to go home. She had tears in her eyes holding me.
My first day home, Mama gave me an expensive pen and pencil set. It was silver and beautiful. When she gave it to me, she said, “From now on, you whip them with a pencil.”
For my first weeks home, Mickey rented a hospital bed that they placed in the living room. I could watch tv, but I could not yet walk again. My brothers decided to watch “It: The Terror From Beyond Space.” Until then, I had loved the old Universal monster movies. Watching scary movies as a child is fun when you have two good legs and can imagine running away from the monsters. Watching a scary movie, knowing that you cannot walk, much less, run, changes everything. The movie terrified me. I begged them to change the channel and they laughed at me.
I screamed for Mama. She changed the channel and comforted me.
The doctors ordered me into a heavy metal leg brace that is sometimes referred to as a Roosevelt Brace. I hated the brace. As the leg improved, I would sneak from bed at night and wall walk. Wall walking is a process of placing both hands upon the wall and using that to balance. I would drag the leg as I went all through the house, delighting in my mobility and the fact that i was doing it in secret without the brace on.
My life was irrevocably changed. I went from bold and sassy to shy and retiring overnight. I lost my self confidence. I guess you could say that I was shattered.