That Lucky Old Son

CLOSED FOR THE SUMMER, read the marquee over the local movie theater. Just two weeks before in late July, I remember going with my friends to the Wednesday matinee to see “Twelve O’clock High”. We had given up a beautiful, sunny afternoon to see the film as we knew the boys would be going, too.

The summer of 1949 had begun in splendid anticipation. We six friends had spent most of our summers at the same seaside resort living in the safe cocoon of family and friends, untouched by outside calamities. Even World War II didn’t touch us much. Gas and food rationing seemed more like adventures than hardships. My brothers and cousins had been in the service, as had my friends’ relatives, but all of them came home unscathed. The few young men who died were heroes to us and faithfully remembered on military holidays. None of us knew anyone who had been disabled.

That summer we learned to drive and felt very grown up. No longer would we be tied to bicycles and parental transport. Soon we’d be driving on our own. The boys boasted of the cars they hoped to own, while we were content to imagine where we’d go shopping in the family jitney.

A week before the movie closed everything changed. Friends and acquaintances fell sick and it wasn’t just a summer cold. It was polio. The health authorities were searching for causes and finding only circumstances. First they said, “It’s in the water.” So no one drank from fountains or swam in pools. Then they proclaimed that that ‘germ’ (viruses were not commonly known as the cause of illnesses at that time.) might have come from insect bites. The drug stores did a thriving business on anti-bug salves, and hardware stores were sold out of smug-pot, Flit, and fly paper. Then the authorities said, “It’s passed around in close gatherings.” So, they closed the movie theater. And as more young people became ill, families struck by polio became isolated. The phone company became very rich that summer.

Polio was one of the many dangerous childhood diseases we suffered through before current immunizations were available. Measles, mumps, diphtheria, whooping cough, rubella, rheumatic fever, chicken pox and scarlet fever were all part of my childhood. By 1949, medicine had begun to control many of these killers. Polio was different. An epidemic had begun in the U.S. in 1948 and would continue to plague us well into the 1950’s.

First Bobbin O’Brien, age 20, the son of my parents’ good friends, was in New York Hospital. Then, Joan Pedrick, a tennis pal of mine became ill and was also hospitalized. Our neighbor, the Vasseslais’ baby came down with something and was in a tiny iron lung. And Kyle Kidde, my friend Elsa’s cousin, was ailing. They all had developed infantile paralysis – polio.

Fear pervaded the small community. Adult conversations became whispered and children were kept at home. Their boredom was relieved by the phonograph, radio and the telephone. Group activities were only permitted outdoors in the clean air, and any sniffle or fever caused panic in the family.

Eddie, the youngest of my four brothers, worried about polio, and he wasn’t a worrier. My Aunt Alene was. She was convinced that bird droppings caused the disease as she had seen some stiff birds on her lawn – they must have died of polio. Her conclusions weren’t any more far-fetched that those of other people, medical and non-medical.

Eddie, who was 24 that summer, had come to the beach for his week’s vacation and we had a wonderful time. We played golf; Eddie patiently helping me with quiet advice to improve my game. He took me driving and showed me how to parallel park and went with me for my driver’s license test. But he was anxious. He even saw the doctor when he felt an uncommon stiffness in his back.

After a round of golf on Thursday, the doctor did all the usual tests, but he didn’t do a spinal tap, the only sure way of detecting polio. The doctor had had many patients with similar complaints and they hadn’t come down with polio.

Saturday, when everyone was at the beach house, Ed woke up hardly able to get out of bed. He crept, doubled over, to the bathroom and then went back to bed, waking the household with pleas for help.

The doctor arrived, an ambulance was called and “polio” was on everyone’s lips. “Toodeloo,” called Ed with a brave smile as he was carried on a stretcher to the ambulance and whisked to New York Hospital. Neighbors watched furtively behind their curtains. My parents followed the ambulance to the City while we tried to cheer up one another.

Friends commiserated and kept saying, “It can’t be polio!” and “Eddie will be all right. He’s too nice a guy…” But Sunday we learned the spinal tap was positive; Eddie did have polio and he was in an iron lung to help him breather.

I was packed off to my grandparents’ house. I think they didn’t want me to be alone if the news wasn’t good. I remember sitting in a tub, wiggling my toes to see if they all worked and praying that God would make my brother well.

Monday was a very lonely day. Since my brother had polio, I was a pariah. I wandered around on my bike not going anywhere in particular as I feared the rebuff of friends and the pity I knew would be in their eyes. I drove a few golf balls at the range, took a late swim at the beach and collected the mail at the post office. My driver’s license arrived! Eddie would be so proud of me! I peddled hurriedly and happily back to my parents to share the good news. My parents phoned to tell us Eddie had had a tracheotomy and was holding his own. They’d pass my good news on to him. These were probably the last words he heard.

The paralysis became worse. It traveled to his brain. Quickly and mercifully he died early Tuesday morning, less than a week after he first suspected he was ill.

Later that summer, Kyle Kidde came home from the hospital. At 18 he was just two years older than I and all he could do was speak and lift his left wrist off the pallet to which he was fastened. My only thought when I visited him was, “Thank God that’s not my brother.” Kyle did regain the use of his arms. However, he was dependent on a bubble respirator and died a couple of years later.

Bobbin O’Brien also died that summer as did the deVasselais’ baby. Joan Pedrick has a brace on her leg and walks with crutches and my cousin Jacqui, who was pregnant with her second child and spent some time in an iron lung, survived without any ill effects, as did her baby.

Thursday, my sister and I were to view Eddie’s body at the funeral parlor. I had never seen a dead body. We entered the dim, flower-packed room with trepidation. It was a long walk to the coffin. Eddie’s head was lighted and he looked very peaceful, as if he was asleep, but something was missing. It suddenly struck me. It was his soul that was gone! At last I understood what a soul was because it wasn’t there.

The morning of the funeral, while Nan and I were just waking up in our room, we heard Frankie Lane singing on the radio, That Lucky Old Sun, a song that was atop the Hit Parade that summer. I still think of it as That Lucky Old Son and remember the lines:

Good Lord above can’t you know I’ pinin’
Tears are in my eyes
Send down that cloud with the silver linin’
Lift me to paradise.

Show me that river. Take me across
Wash all my troubles away.
Like that lucky old sun
Give me nothi’ to do
But roll around heaven all day!

It’s comforting to imagine my brother Eddie rolling around on heavenly clouds.

Lois Learned
Southbury, CT © 2013

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