Sugar Cubes

When my father was mapping the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, we lived in Bryson City. This was a small town with a school that went from first grade to twelfth. It was 1962.

My mother almost immediately began helping out at the free clinic. She was a registered nurse and even though we moved every two to six months, she could always get work wherever we lived.

She brought home trays of sugar cubes one evening and put them carefully into the ‘fridge.

No one is to touch those sugar cubes,” she warned. “They are medicinal, not snacks.”

What kind of medicine, Mama?” I asked.

It’s to fight off polio.”

What’s polio?” My little sister wanted to know.

It’s a terrible germ that makes people so sick they get paralyzed. Their lungs don’t work and they lose the use of their legs.”

Can we have our sugar cubes now?” Brother Bob was always looking for solutions to problems.

You will get this medicine when all the other kids come to the clinic. I want you three to help out. You be brave and eager to take the medicine. That will make the other kids and parents less afraid of it.”

Well but why would anybody but afraid of medicine that makes it so they can walk and breathe right?” I asked.

Some people just don’t like doctors.” Mom began chopping up onions for the spaghetti sauce. We knew it was time to stop asking so many questions.

The next day, the three of us talked about the “good medicine” for legs and lungs at school. Some kids told us we were weird-os. But others wanted to learn about the bad germ making people paralyzed.

On “Salk Sunday” we walked into the clinic and did our best eager act. All three of us took sugar cubes and sucked on them, saying “Yum! This is SO good!”

Image result for salk sugar cubes

Other kids followed and there was quite the crowd. Mom kept up with this work the whole time we lived in Bryson City, which was nearly six months.

Dad’s workers and their wives liked to hang out at our house. One guy was a beatnik. He opened the ‘fridge to get a beer, pulled out the tray of sugar cubes, and said “Oh, let’s all go as far out as we can! Benji’s providing the trip!”

Mom hollered at him, “You put that right back this second. That is medicinal!!”

I wondered what the heck the guy meant by a trip on a sugar cube.

The next year, we were living in Silver Lake Florida, way out in the boondocks. We were renting a brick house with a bomb shelter in the three acre yard. Dad drove me to school in Sanford. He’d talk to me in French, since I’d be studying languages in high school. I was only in the 7th grade but wanted to learn some phrases before high school began.

Ave vous votre livres?”

Oui, j’ave mon livres.”

as-tu dormi la nuit dernière?

non, je ne dorme pas.”

Then I’d clutch my stack of books to my chest and walk, head down, past the gum-snapping 9th grade girls in tight black skirts and striped shirts. They always made mean comments like “She’s not old enough to be in this school” and “Go back to the fifth grade, baby.”

I’d never changed classes in a school before so this was scary. Band was first period. I loved playing my flute so at least the day started out right. But after that was hygiene and health studies. The teacher for that class had a loud, high-pitched, grating voice as she made us repeat after her.

The ailementary canal contains the Mouth, salivary glands.

  • Oesophagus.

  • Stomach.

  • Pancreas, liver, gall bladder.

  • Small intestine

  • Large intestine

  • Anus.

Oh my gosh. How embarrassing!! There were boys in the class and we all had to say that last word together.

One day, she wrote on the chalkboard:

Johnny Talbot

Saint Luke’s Hospital

600 Lake View Drive

Sanford Florida

You all know that Johnny is in an iron lung. So if anyone wants to write him a get well card, here is his address.”

I want to write to him.” I spoke out of turn, without raising my hand. Mistake!

Miss Elder, please raise your hand and Then ask the question.”

It wasn’t a question but I wasn’t about to point that out to the teacher.

The boy sitting to my right whispered menacingly “You don’t even Know Johnny. He was in the hospital before you moved here, retard.”

So? Can’t I care about someone who’s having a hard time, even if I don’t know him?”

The teacher clacked her hard heels toward us. “No talking. Sit and write down Johnny’s address if you want to send him a card. His mother will read it to him. He has polio so he can’t move his arms or legs.”

Oh no!! He hadn’t had a chance to get a sugar cube!

When I got home that day, I sat down for my chocolate milk and chunk of cheese. Mama was trying to fatten me up because the doctor in North Carolina had told her I was “dangerously underweight.”

Mama, this boy in my school is in an iron lung. What’s an iron lung?’

Oh my gosh. That is just awful. An iron lung breathes for people who have polio. He may be in that thing for the rest of his life. Remember the sugar cubes? They had Salk vaccine medication in them. The sugar was to mask the bad taste. If only that boy had taken the Salk.”

I spent a good hour, working on a hand-drawn card for Johnny, the boy I’d never met. I drew flowers and the sun and a blue sky, hoping it might cheer him up. Although how could anyone with polio be cheered up by just a card? My sister wanted to contribute. She put a four leafed clover into the envelope.

Bob spent a good deal of time trying to scare Kathi and me that year. He’d jump out from behind a door, shouting “Polio!! Iron Lung!!!”

We were surely glad we’d swallowed those sugar cubes.

Author: dixiewriter

Due to my father's job as an explorer/cartographer, my family moved 48 times before I turned 13. We lived where Dad worked: on mountain tops (in park ranger cabins), in deserts, swamps, along coastlines from Maine to Key West & other wild places. My father mapped parts of Antarctica, living there for 8 months in 1961-62. A mountain peak & a glacier are named after him (William C. Elder, USGS) As an adult, I helped Lars Eric Lindblad (then president of World Wildlife) find out about the migration path of Silverback gorillas (from Tanzania into Kenya). On my information, he chose to move Lindblad Travel's photographic safari camps to accommodate these wonderful creatures. I got a Jimmy Carter grant to teach after I graduated from Madison College. Grantees had to sign up to teach for at least a year in a severely impoverished school anywhere in America. I taught for 3 & 1/2 years in SW Virginia near Bluegrass Central (Galax, VA). I taught 7th-9th grade English, Drama, Journalism. I was the forensics coach. Moved to Connecticut & worked for Lars Lindblad, typing up the manuscript for his autobiography, working with Liz & John Fuller on this book. (They co-wrote "Ghost of Flight 415" & other books about unusual phenomenon. Moved to Colorado in 1982. Worked as "gal friday" for 12 detectives at the Boulder Police Dept. Set up files for DA to use in court amongst other things. Then at a law firm. Next, CU/Boulder for 10 years. At CU, workers could take a free course each semester. So I did 5 Master's levels courses in special ed' & many in creative writing/history/religion & other subjects at the Master's level. I taught "Drama for the Disabled" in Boulder, CO after the teacher had to quit due to health issues. It was wonderful! My last 7 years working, I helped adults/teens/children with various brain differences such as autism. I was diagnosed at age 45 with 3 types of seizures, manic depression (atypical, rarely depressions, mostly manias), OCD & PTSD. At age 67 (!!) this diagnosis was changed. The manias are most likely due to temporal lobe "disturbance." The other symptoms are due to "high functioning" autism or Asperger's. Shock!! I do Tai Chi 3x/day which helps me to calm down. My husband & I work out at a gym 3-5 times/week for balance mostly but also weight training, running etc. We climb the beautiful Rocky Mountain High places (like Long's Peak & Maroon Bells) in summertime/autumn. We love archaeology, so when we travel, it's in order to discover ancient sites. My husband is an actor with a "day job." He has performed in shows with Zero Mostel (Fiddler on the Roof, the road show), Dick van Dyke (Diagnosis Murder), Firesign Theatre/John Goodman/Annette Bening et al. (Wizard of Oz/radio show) & many other wonderful people since age 14. We have traveled to: Iceland, Scotland (twice), Germany (3 times to visit friends), Ireland & fascinating places in America. We usually spend a month when we travel. So we go about every 5-6 years. Otherwise, we stay at home in a town in Colorado, attending Poetry sessions, working in local theater, enjoying our shelter rescue cats, writing, painting & dancing.

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