Friday, April 9, 2010

The Polio Scare… Banishment from the River...

I'll make this post a bit smaller than the last one. It'll be easier to read.

I spent so much time at the river, it was like my Guardian Angel lived there. She would never let anything really bad happen to me as long as I put my fate in her hands. Of course, at that time of my life, being a child, I didn’t fully understand the importance of her presence in my life but there must have been a vague realization of that important presence in the dark recess of my mind because I continually did things that brought me to the brink of disaster. I’ll tell of some of them later.
Grownups, of course, do not understand about such things as Guardian Angels and where they live and why they are there so they sometimes do things that attempt to interfere with the irrevocable scheme of life. My Mother and the Polio Scare was one of those things.
At one period the dreaded virus that caused polio was rampant in the United States. There were so many stories about how the virus was spread that no one knew just what to do to keep from getting the disease so everyone tried everything. Mother’s rumor that she believed was that polio was spread mostly by dirty water. She immediately set about to assure that my family and I wouldn’t have a chance of catching it from water, especially the dreaded river water. She ordered all of us kids to stay far away from the river on the penalty of death, either from the water if we went in the river or from her if we went in the river and survived. She was terrified of us catching polio from the river water.

The subject came up every morning before she went to work and in the evening when she came home. Mother always worked and so during the day she had no control over us. I, of course, headed for the river as soon as Mom left for work. I would spend the day at the river, swimming and playing, then try to be home before mother got home. As soon as she came home she would ask me if I had been swimming in the river. Of course I would say no. Sometimes she believed me and sometimes she wouldn’t. Once when I got there a little later than Mom, she saw by my red eyes (they get that way from being open under water) I had been in the river and made me strip and take a bath in a number three bath tub. It was very embarrassing to be bathed by my mother in the front yard. As luck would have it, while I was being bathed in the raw, a girl I knew walked in front of the house and saw me. She pretended not to notice and I pretended not to notice her. I saw her later many times but she never mentioned my spectacle.

Sometimes Joan and I would swim in the canal at the corner where the bus stop was. When mother came home we would try to be the first to tell her on the other. Whoever got to her first, claimed to have been pushed in by the other. The accused got a whipping most of the time. I sometimes wondered how mother stood it, knowing she should believe one of us but knowing we both lied. I think it was a ritual with her; believe one then the other, that way it was more fair to both of us and she felt like she was keeping us from dying from polio.

After a while a vaccine was discovered for the dreaded disease and we were once more allowed to go in the river. I had never stopped anyhow. I knew something or someone would always protect me while I was in the river. Even from polio. The river was my friend.

Mother worked always and while she worked, we kids were left alone. In those days kids being left to fend for themselves while their parents worked wasn’t unusual or frowned upon by others. We were always poor by most standards and learned very early that we must care for ourselves or it wouldn’t get done. Caring for ourselves wasn’t something that ever was considered good or bad. It just was our way of life. A parent worked and kids kept out of trouble and managed.

At one time we had a trailer house at the side of the house. My bed was in it and so was a washing machine. Mother would get up in the morning and usually wash and hang out a load of clothes and then wake me for school. One time when I was eight years old and in the third grade, I had been extra sick with a sore throat and had stayed home a couple of days. Having to stay home with it made my sore throat serious enough to do more about than just treat it. Mother decided I needed to have my tonsils removed so as soon as my throat got well, she arranged with the hospital to do the job. I wasn’t aware of it until the day before it was to happen.
Mother washed a load of clothes and hung them out and woke me up. She told me to get up and get dressed and at ten o’clock take the bus to the La Loma Church of Christ bus stop and walk from there (it was only a few blocks) to the hospital. She said to be there by ten thirty, that they were expecting me. I did it and when I walked up to the hospital door, a nurse met me and said,” You must be James,” and I said I was. She took me to a bed and had me get undressed. I was sedated with gas and moved into the operating room where the offending glands were removed.

That would have been the end of it except the gas made me violently sick. I tried to throw up but my throat was too sore. I couldn’t take water so the nurse gave me ice to suck on. The whole thing didn’t go well at all. When Mother came by for me that evening, the doctor told her I should stay the night so she left me there. Later that night I managed to eat some ice cream and that helped some. The next day Mother came by and got me when she got off work and took me home.

It’s amazing, you might say, that an eight-year-old child would be made to do such a thing on his own. It not only isn’t amazing, it wasn’t at all unusual for something like that to take place. I doubt it even occurred to mother that I might not be able to do as I was told. This wasn’t playing; it was something that needed to be done. It was important. Mother always knew us kids could do whatever was necessary to manage for ourselves. I am always complimented when I think of the confidence Mother had in the other kids and me. Any good in us now must have been instilled by events such as that, events that allowed us to make decisions on our own and not question them any more than our Mother did.
I went to Wilson School in my third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades. I remember some of my teachers. Miss Crews was one, then Miss Cross. The one I remember mostly is Mrs. Eisenhut. She was my sixth grade teacher. Not much exciting or worth remembering happened there. I ditched school a lot.
I remember when we studied Mexican history. We made paper mache animals and made a piñata and things out of straw. At the end of the study we ate enchiladas and tamales. I had to have sixty-five cents to pay for my meal. Mother didn’t have all of it to give me and I had to sell pop bottles to get the rest I needed. I recall I didn’t think it was worth it after we ate and wished I’d ditched and used the money for something else.

In my music class we bought small flute-like instruments called Symphonets and learned to play them. I got pretty good at it. We made up a little class band and had a good time. After I started Junior High, the music teacher there asked if anyone wanted to be in the band and I said yes. I brought my Symphonet to school and the teacher said I needed a real instrument, that the one I had was a toy. Every one got a laugh out of that. I was embarrassed and left the room and went home and threw the flute away.

Not much happened at Wilson School that is worth mentioning. I never made any close friends there. The main thing I remember about Wilson School is ditching school and having the truant officer come to the house. Mother always acted as if she could hardly believe I had played hooky from school. She knew how easy the schoolwork was for me and had trouble believing I’d miss school on purpose. I never got real good grades, mostly Cs, average and an occasional F. MY best grades were in music and English which were both extremely easy for me. Reading was easy and grammar, both of which came under the subject of English. I barely glanced at words to study for spelling and never missed one in a test. I can remember only a few names of my classmates and there is no reason to mention them in this journal.

The one thing I remember is something I mentioned earlier, buying Double Bubble gum at a drug store for a penny a piece and reselling it at school for up to a quarter a piece. I stopped doing this when another boy got caught doing the same thing and was suspended from school. He didn’t tell on me so I got away with it.

I remember going to a special fifth grade class for a short period of time at Wilson. I can’t recall why I went to this class for such a short period of time but I remember that it was made up mostly of kids from Little Okie and it stunk. I guess it was because the kids there were from homes, most of which had no inside toilets or bathing facilities, including mine. The kids stunk and the room stunk from the unwashed kids. I didn’t stay in that class for long. I don’t remember why. Maybe it stunk too much.

I remember times when I would get the itch (scabies) from someone or the other or just from the neighborhood and mother would mix up sulfur and grease and smear it all over me. I remember going to school with the yellow stuff under every part of my clothing. I was very careful to keep my sleeves pulled down, hoping the other kids wouldn’t notice. It never worked and I got laughed at a lot, not loudly though. I scrapped a lot in those days, mostly because of my environment.

Being Poor…

I guess being ‘poor’ is really a state of mind. My family was extremely poor and we knew it but I don’t remember feeling poor. I was aware that I never was given toys as a child and never had much of anything I could call playthings. Occasionally I was given a toy car and I cherished it and would play with it for hours, making roads in the dirt and having a terrifically good time. I can right now remember the feeling of pleasure I had playing with those toy cars. Once I got a toy truck that had a dump bed that actually dumped. It was a very sturdy truck, made of heavy metal; A Cadillac of trucks by today’s standards and I hauled tons of dirt with it. I seem to remember getting some building blocks at some time or other. I don’t remember being thrilled with that present. I’ve never been much of a builder of things.

Even after saying all of this about being poor, I don’t recall any of us ever mentioning or even thinking about ourselves as ‘poor’. When school started, we were given a few new pairs if pants or dresses for the girls and underwear and a new pair of shoes and some socks and these things were to last all year until school started next year. Birthdays and Christmas gifts were always clothes. I never wore shoes, even to school, until the weather got really bad and I was forced by Mother or a teacher to wear them.

The first time I can remember feeling poor was when I was in the ninth grade at Modesto High School. I briefly became a member of the FFA, Future Farmers of America, and as part of our lessons, we raised animals or chickens or some other farm animal. I raised Bantam chickens, a rooster and several hens, and had a coop in the back yard. One day we all loaded on a bus to tour our homes to see each child’s project. We went to several homes of some of the other kids first and I saw very nice homes and orderly animal shelters and corrals and saw no homes with outside toilets. Everything was immaculate and looked new and wonderful to me. When we finally reached my house, I began to wish I had stayed home that day.

The bus pulled up in front of the house and the kids began to unload and look around. They saw the shack and the outhouse and the dirty yard and the chicken-coop and I felt very small. No one said a disparaging word or made any comment when I showed them my project. They were very nice kids, mostly farm kids, and very polite, but I could feel the tension among them, even the teacher. It was very likely their first encounter with an Okie home.
When we got back to school, we briefly discussed some of the more elaborate projects and class was out. I never went back to that class. I transferred to a shop class. I was asked why I wanted the transfer and I said it was because I didn’t want to be a farmer and that was good enough for the school. I think the teacher probably already knew what had happened and why I wouldn't go back to the FFA classroom.

I'll stop this for now.

No comments:

Post a Comment