Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Phil Gravengood had predicted a rough ride if he had to be down low as he raced the Stinson southward toward Madison. It wasn’t too bad at first but as they flew farther south the day warmed up and it got rougher.
For most of the first hour they were over forested countryside, and sometimes there weren’t many landmarks, just endless trees. Given less need to hurry Phil would have kept it a little higher for the sake of a smoother ride, and for being within gliding distance of a road if the engine were to quit. It was something he didn’t believe the Franklin engine in the nose of the Stinson would do under normal circumstances, although he’d had a few problems with the little Continental putt-putts in L-4s during the war. But crappy gas and occasional stray bullets had contributed to such problems, too.
The countryside opened up to a good degree after that. On the second half of the trip they were over normal farm fields, so there was at least that relief.
Every now and then he’d look back over his shoulder. He couldn’t see the kid, but he could see Mrs. Luce tending to him. “How’s he doing?” he asked occasionally over the roar of the engine and the prop.
“So far, so good,” was her usual shouted reply, but the look he could see on her face out of the corner of his eye made him wonder.
He started trying to raise the airport a good thirty miles out, but at first didn’t get a response. He was down too low, and he knew it – but flying higher meant that much less air for the kid to breathe, and he knew every little bit helped.
About ten minutes out, he finally got a reply to his repeated calls to the airport. The Stinson didn’t have a lot of radio, but he had one frequency he could call the tower on. He reported that he was inbound with a polio patient on the way to the hospital, and asked that the tower have an ambulance standing by.
“Roger,” the man in the tower replied. “They’re already here and waiting for you. You’re cleared for a straight-in to runway one eight. Report the airport in sight, and we’ll make sure you don’t have to deviate.”
That was a relief. The airport doubled as an Air National Guard base, and he was worried he’d have to mess around for a while as the jets got first priority. But no, apparently someone down there wanted to help a kid with polio too.
A few minutes later Phil saw the airport in front of him, right where he expected it. He had only been there a couple of times before. “Airport in sight,” he reported.
“Roger that,” the tower replied. “You are cleared for a straight-in to runway one eight. You are number one to land. Be prepared to turn off opposite the tower. The ambulance is waiting for you.”
In an effort to shave a little more time, Phil landed long on the runway, then slowed quickly to make the turnoff onto the taxiway. He didn’t waste time getting up to the ramp, where he could see the ambulance waiting. “Well, we made it,” he said to his passengers.
“Good,” he heard Mrs. Luce say in the now relative quiet of the cabin. “I don’t think we’re going to be any too soon, either.”
Phil pulled the Stinson right up next to the ambulance and shut the engine down. The prop was still windmilling to a stop when he saw two men pushing a gurney toward them.
“How’s he doing?” one of the ambulance attendants asked as soon as Phil had the door open.
“Not well at all,” Mrs. Luce replied. “I’m glad we’re here.”
In a few seconds, Phil was out of the airplane, while Mrs. Luce helped the attendants get the boy out of the back seat. Even to Phil, he didn’t look good. “Are you coming with us, ma’am?” one of the attendants asked.
“No, if I don’t take this ride back I don’t know when I’d get back,” she said, handing the man an envelope. “My husband diagnosed him. Here are some notes and a sample of spinal fluid. If you have any questions, there’s contact information there. This gentleman, Jim Blanchard, is the boy’s scoutmaster. He’ll be going with you and can probably fill you in on some information.”
“All right, ma’am. We’d better not waste any more time.”
In a few seconds, Penny and Phil stood watching as the ambulance headed toward the airport gate. “I really feel like I should have gone with them,” she said. “But there really isn’t much more I can add and I really ought to be back at Spearfish Lake. At least we got him here alive. Thank you, uh, I don’t remember your name. I’m sorry.”
“Phil Gravengood,” he replied.
“I’m Penelope Luce. You might just as well call me Penny. Do we have to head right back?”
“No, we don’t. We probably shouldn’t wait around too long, though.”
“I want to have a drink of water and sit down on something that isn’t moving,” she replied. “You weren’t kidding when you said it was going to be rough. I have no idea how I didn’t vomit the way we were bouncing around.”
“I didn’t look a lot, but you seemed pretty calm and controlled to me.”
“I was fighting it off,” she said with a smile. “It’s never a good idea to throw up on a patient.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Phil grinned. “Do they teach you that in nursing school?”
“Among other places,” she sighed. “Let me go see if I can find a drink of water or something.”
“Take your time. When we go back, I’ll fly high enough that it’ll be smoother. Maybe not real smooth, but better.”
“Thank you, Phil. I’d appreciate it.”
The wind had come up over the course of the morning – not much, but enough to raise little waves on the lake. At first the wind was behind Dale and the nine remaining scouts, so it seemed like there was little air movement at all. It got very sweaty out in the sun and the heat; it wasn’t like going down the river where the current could carry them along.
Dale was more than a little worried. He was young to be leading this group, and he knew it – just nineteen, and just past his first year of college. He’d had the experience of taking canoe trips before with Blanchard and the group, and had been an Eagle Scout. He hadn’t even expected to be on this trip, but the man who was supposed to go along couldn’t make it at the last minute, so Jim had asked him to fill in. Though the conditions weren’t dangerous, he still felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders.
It was hot enough that he had the younger scouts stop at a couple of places on sandy beaches, just to give them a little bit of a breather and get a chance to drink some water. It was hard to get going again, but they didn’t want to take all day, either.
For some reason nobody talked very much about what was happening with Mr. Blanchard and Bob. Dale suspected that the young scouts may have realized that the Rathburn kid was in worse shape than had been let on. Dale didn’t want to talk about it, either – he realized all too well that the boy could have polio. His younger brother had had it three years before, and the Rathburn kid had been acting a lot like Jerry had, and right at about the same age. Jerry had spent over a month in the hospital and had been partially paralyzed for some of that time, but he’d managed to shake off the worst of the effects, although he still couldn’t run as well as he once could. It had been a very, very scary time in the family.
A couple hours after the man Dale had flagged down took Mr. Blanchard and Bob with him, they reached a point where the lakeshore bent to the southwest. The wind was now coming from behind and one side of them and it was harder to keep the canoes on course. Dale and the scout with him were towing the empty canoe, and it kept dragging them off course. Dale kept the scouts even closer to shore, since if something went wrong it would make recovery easier.
Fortunately it was only another hour or so to go; they could see the town and the beach in front of them. Dale knew he was going to feel a lot better when Mr. Blanchard was back with them. Hopefully Bob was going to be all right.
After driving down to the point at the end of Hannegan’s Cove and spotting the scouts in the distance, Garth Matson drove back to the hospital, where things had calmed down a lot. “Dr. Brege is over seeing to his patients,” Charles Fike informed him, “and I believe Dr. Luce went with him to start getting his office organized.”
“I have what’s left of the gamma globulin,” Garth reported. “Mrs. Luce sent it back with me.”
“Good. I know it’s not much, but at times like these you never know. I sent Lloyd Fisher, our maintenance man, down to Camden to get what they’re loaning us. He ought to be back any time, so that’ll ease things a little.”
“That was twenty doses, right? Don’t forget, Dr. Luce is going to want to give doses to those scouts when they get in. If I remember correctly, that’s ten of them. Add Dr. and Mrs. Luce to that list, and that’s twelve of your twenty right there. Well, twenty-one with the one dose I brought back. It’s not going to take much to run out again.”
“No, and that’s what worries me. While you were gone, I had a talk with the doctors. They are of the opinion that this boy came from out of town, so it may not mean we have an active virus present here. On the other hand, we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s that time of year when polio comes out of the woodwork, especially with as warm as it’s been.”
“Maybe you’d better get some more.”
“I’d love to, but that stuff runs a little over eighty dollars a shot wholesale. We ran though, let’s see, you, me, the boy, the scoutmaster, Dr. Brege, Denise, and Gravengood, so that’s almost six hundred dollars right there. Since this was for polio, we can probably get reimbursement from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis or the local March of Dimes, but it’ll take some time, and until then it’s still six hundred out of a tight budget. Then, we’re getting set to go through another dozen shots in the next few hours, so that’s almost another thousand. Granted, it’s being loaned to us, but we’ll have to pay it back.”
“Get the stuff,” Matson said flatly. “Don’t worry about the money. I can find it if I have to. Charles, I don’t know how to say this, but I’ve got a gut feeling the dam is about to break on this. I would rather we have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that. We may be able to pay you back, or we may not. I can’t say at this point.”
“Like I said, get the stuff.”
“I’ll see if I can get some from St. Marks,” Fike agreed. “They usually have a pretty good supply of things on hand. If we can get some from them, I’ll send Lloyd for it as soon as he gets back.”
“Good enough. Now, I’m going to run down and talk to Dr. Luce for a few minutes. I think he wanted to be there when the scouts from the canoe trip show up.”
The doctor’s office was just up the street, and Garth decided to walk it – it was less trouble than getting into his car, and he needed the exercise. He was used to taking long walks around the club in the evenings, or playing volleyball or golf for the sake of exercise. Helga encouraged healthy exercise, and back in the days before the golf course opened she’d wheedled the board into banning golf carts and caddies, so a round at the six-hole course at the club – three holes were under construction – was a good way to get some exercise. Well, there wouldn’t be much of that for a while for him, and he missed it already. Something was going to have to be done about it, and soon.
He found Dr. Luce busy organizing things in his office. “Dr. Luce, I’m sure glad you showed up when you did,” Garth told him right up front. “I realize that’s a tough way to have to start a new practice, but that kid is going to be darn glad you were here.”
“I hope so, Mr. Matson,” the doctor replied. “As fast as that boy was sinking . . . well, with polio you never know, but his condition wasn’t encouraging.”
“You got on it pretty quickly. Isn’t that going to help?”
“I wish I could say it will, but like I just said, you never know. There’s no real treatment for polio, just like there isn’t one for any virus. Do you know much about it?”
“Only what I read in Reader’s Digest.”
“Polio is a virus.” Dr. Luce explained. “So is the common cold. How do you fix a cold? Really, you don’t. Oh, you can get plenty of rest, drink fluids, and eat chicken soup, but all that does is make you feel a little better. It doesn’t cure anything. What has to happen is that the virus has to burn through the system, and then it goes away.”
“You’re saying that polio is like a cold?”
“In essence, it is. A cold usually doesn’t directly cause any permanent damage. You just feel lousy for a few days. Polio does a lot of damage, mostly to nerve cells, and there’s no cure for that, either. They can’t come up with a vaccine for the common cold because the virus mutates quickly. There could be hundreds of separate viruses, and we don’t know for sure. However, we do know that there are only three polio viruses, and they seem to be pretty stable. That’s why the Salk vaccine is fairly effective. But it’s only fairly effective. The big field test last year shows that its effectiveness against one of the three viruses is about eighty percent. It’s in the upper nineties for the other two, so it’s not the cure-all that you read about in the papers, but it’s much better than what we had, and this year’s vaccine ought to be better.”
“Forgive me for sounding stupid on this, Dr. Luce, but I’m a banker, not a medical man. But why does the virus target children?”
“It doesn’t just target children. You’ll remember that President Roosevelt had it, and he got it when he was in his late thirties, if I recall correctly. My guess, and it’s only my guess, mind you, is that natural immunity plays a role.”
“I’m not sure I follow you, doctor.”
“Let me put it this way. As adults, there’s a good chance we have all had polio from all three of the viruses and are immune to it. The vast majority of people who get it don’t even know they had it. They have such mild cases they think they have a summer cold, a mild case of the flu, or even more minor than that. Simply put, adults have had more time to get it and develop a natural immunity without even knowing it happened. Now as Roosevelt shows, that isn’t true across the board, and as a general rule when an adult gets fully-developed polio it’s going to hit them harder than it would a kid. But in a relatively small percentage, probably only about one percent, the virus enters the central nervous system and tears it up. Why it hits some people harder than others, we just don’t know. It’s just a roll of the dice.”
“Then why do we get outbreaks in the summer, and why does it seem to hit some places particularly hard?”
“Those are very good questions, Mr. Matson.”
“Please, call me Garth.”
“Mr. Matson, I may be a doctor, but you’re a banker, and I’m a man who will be looking for a home loan in the very near future.”
“If it’s at all reasonable, you’ve got it. We need you here badly, and you proved your worth already just this morning. Now, please call me Garth.”
“Very well, if you’ll call me Herman, at least when we’re being casual.”
He paused to organize his thoughts, and went on, “What it comes down to is that no one is very sure about much with polio. There are lots of theories. The most solid theory at the moment is that it’s spread through feces, ingested in water, on food, or even by breathing in airborne particles. If that theory is correct, then the summer outbreaks could be for no more reason than people are outside more in the summer and have more opportunities to ingest such materials, or that the virus just doesn’t get along in the cold, or something else. As to locales, part of the problem is that the incubation time is very long, a week to three weeks, and as much as five weeks, so it’s usually close to impossible to figure out where or when the patient contracted the disease. It may also be that sometimes some strains of the virus get more virulent. So the general answer is that I don’t know, and I’m not a theorist or a researcher. I’m just a physician who has some experience with trying to treat people with it, not that there’s much anyone can do.”
“You said a few minutes ago that there was no real treatment.”
“Well, no, there isn’t. While the disease runs its course, it’s essentially impossible to control. About all we can do is pump up the body’s immune system the best we can with gamma globulin or a few other drugs and hope the immune system can fight it off. However, treating polio is mostly a case of trying to deal with the nerve damage it causes in patients with paralytic polio. Again, it varies all over the place and no one knows why it’s different from one person to the next. Sometimes, in fact often, the body will make new routes around the damaged nerve cells. Sometimes they’re reasonably good routes, sometimes not. Sometimes the paralysis will cause deformities of the limbs. We are slowly learning how to treat that, although it seems very primitive.”
“How about that kid who was in here this morning? I mean, needing an iron lung?”
“Well, he does. The polio has attacked the nerve cells that control his breathing. When the disease has done its dirty work, the odds are his body will have to come up with some other way to do the job. Sometimes the body can’t do it, even after years of trying. A small percentage of those diagnosed with paralytic polio will have to spend their lives in iron lungs or on other ventilators. Assuming the boy pulls through the next few days, and that’s not a safe assumption, it may only be days before he can breathe on his own. Or, it may be never.”
“That’s a very scary thought, Herman.”
“It is to me, too. But I’ll tell you what, Garth. Most people I’ve seen in iron lungs are happy to be in them so it can breathe for them, because they all remember coming much too close to not being able to breathe at all.”
“Thank you, Herman. I’ve learned a great deal about polio from you in the last few minutes, but it doesn’t scare me much less than it ever did.”
“When you see a boy like the one this morning, you have every right to be scared. I wish I could say he’s going to be all right, but that would only be wishful thinking.”
Garth glanced at his watch. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that scout troop will be pulling into the beach downtown pretty soon,” he said. “I told the scoutmaster that I’d be there to meet them. I know you want to look at them, but it would be nice if you were to come along with me. You can probably do a better job of answering some of the questions those kids will have than I can.”
“I might as well, although I think we’d better take them up to the hospital for examination. We might as well get going.”
A drink of water, a visit to the ladies’ room, and just some time on stable ground had returned at least some of the color to Penny Luce’s face. While they’d been waiting, Phil Gravengood had the Stinson topped off with eighty octane. There had probably been enough left on board to make it back to Spearfish Lake, but there was no point in taking a risk, and fortunately Phil kept some cash hidden in the plane in case he got caught out and needed fuel or other services somewhere. He knew that some places took credit cards for fuel, but there weren’t many such, and he didn’t have a card, anyway.
He was ready to go by the time Penny made it back out to the plane. He helped her climb into the front passenger seat, then went around, got in the pilot’s seat and got ready to go. “I’ll try to not make it quite as rough on the way back,” he told her. “We’re not in that big a hurry.”
“No, but I appreciated your being in a hurry on the way down here,” she told him. “There’s no telling yet whether effort will help the boy, but it’s not for the lack of trying.”
“You think he’s not going to make it?” Phil stopped running his preflight checklist; he hadn’t thought the boy looked good, but knew he didn’t know much about polio, either.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “All I can say is that he has a better chance down here than in Spearfish Lake. Herman said he’d have to be in an iron lung inside of twelve hours, and from my experience I think he was right. That was three hours ago, well, a little more than that, now. They may have him in one by now, or at least close to it. That’s about all anyone can do for him right now. Whether he makes it or not just depends on how the disease runs its course.”
“Then I guess we did the best we could for him,” Phil replied, looking back at his checklist. He’d memorized it long ago, but always used the list just on the odd chance that he might miss something important.
“That’s all we could do,” she agreed. “Phil, I think I’d better ask. Do you have a family, especially with small children?”
“I have my wife and two boys, eight and fifteen.”
“Then I think I’d better warn you. Polio is highly contagious. You have been exposed to it, and probably contaminated despite the best we could do. I think you would be wise to stay away from them if you can, and especially don’t let them in this plane for a while.”
“How long a while?”
“A month would probably be safe,” she said. “The risk isn’t high, but it still exists. You’re not the only one who is going to have to stay away from people. I am, too. As a nurse in a polio ward I couldn’t avoid it. It’s part of the reason I started dating my husband. He’d been contaminated from working in the same ward. Mr. Matson, the man who brought us out to the airport, he’s got small children he’s going to have to stay away from, just to lower the risk to them as much as possible.”
“I guess I didn’t realize that. Well, it’s something I can do, I suppose, even though it’s going to be a pain in the neck.”
“I’m sorry we put you in this bind,” she replied, “but you were the only hope that child had of surviving. I just wish there had been some time to explain the risk.”
“I don’t work with people very much, just wiring and relays and stuff like that. I can stay away from people if I have to. But Penny, I don’t know that kid, but if what I did gives him a chance at living, I’m just as glad I did it, if you know what I mean.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” she said. “I volunteered to work in a polio ward for the same reason.”
“That had to be tough.”
“Phil, it was very hard. There were nights I cried myself to sleep over seeing the pain some child was going through. A person can only take so much of that, and I was glad to leave it behind when Herman and I moved here. Now, it’s followed me here. If we’re lucky, this will be the end of it, but I don’t want to guess how lucky we’re going to be.”