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!”
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.”
“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.
Pancreas, liver, gall bladder.
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:
Saint Luke’s Hospital
600 Lake View Drive
“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.