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Forgotten Killer book cover

Forgotten Killer
Book Nine of the New Spearfish Lake Series
Wes Boyd
©2013, ©2015

Chapter 13

As soon as he had the check in his pocket, Phil Gravengood raced out to the airport in the phone company truck. The size of that check was incredible, and it told him just how important this was.

It only took a couple of minutes to get the hangar doors opened and the Stinson rolled out onto the ramp again. There was just a light breeze, so he didn’t feel concerned about just letting it sit there for a few minutes. He dug a couple of charts out of the pocket in the door where he normally checked them, and realized he didn’t have sectional charts in the plane that would take him as far as Kansas City. He went back into the office and dug around in the desk drawer looking for the ones he would need. After a couple minutes of digging he realized he didn’t have a sectional for the last leg of the trip, but he did have a World Aeronautical Chart that would get him there.

He spread the charts out on the desk, and used a pencil to mark out a direct course for Kansas City, the same kind of navigation he’d used to get down to Madison the day before: just looking out the window with his thumb on the chart. It might have been a little simpler if he had the new Omni radio navigation system in the Stinson, but he didn’t – it was too expensive – so that was that. He did have the low-frequency receiver for the older four-leg Adcock ranges, but there were no stations that would be much help to him until he got near Kansas City. From what he could make out he didn’t have the right frequency on his radio for Kansas City Municipal, but he hadn’t forgotten how to use the light signals at controlled fields. It would have to do.

He made a quick check of the distance: close to six hundred miles, not quite. If he really stretched things he might be able to make it to Kansas City without a fuel stop, but that wasn’t a bright thing to do. Phil was the kind of pilot who felt there was no such thing as too much fuel aboard, since you never knew what was going to happen. That meant he’d have to take a fuel stop each way: Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, or Iowa City looked like possibilities on the outbound trip. He knew he’d also have to make a fuel stop on his way back, and it would be getting into the evening, so he figured he’d be able to find out when he made his outbound fuel stop where he’d be able to gas up on the way back.

That was about the limit of the preflight planning he decided he needed to do. He went outside, gave the Stinson a quick walk-around, then got aboard, strapped himself in, and got it running. In only a couple minutes more he was roaring down the runway again on another mission of mercy, quite different than the one the day before.

*   *   *

Garth Matson figured that as long as he was at the bank, he might as well see if there was anything critical that needed his attention. He wasn’t wearing the same clothes as the day before and was wearing a surgical mask, so he figured the danger to the bank employees was minimal. He went into his office, but there didn’t seem to be anything terribly important sitting on his desk.

“Bernice,” he asked. “Do you know of anything that needs my signature?”

“Only the paperwork on that check you just had us cut,” she replied. “Does that have anything to do with why you’re wearing a surgical mask, or why Phil Gravengood was wearing one?”

“I’m afraid it does,” he replied sadly. “We have an outbreak of polio in town, and unfortunately I may have been contaminated.”

“Polio?” she said in a shocked voice, taking a step or two away from him. “Are you sure?”

“There are two cases over at the hospital and I told you about the boy yesterday. I don’t think I’m infected or even very contaminated, but I’m not going to take any risks I don’t have to. I’m going to spend an absolute minimum of time here for the next few days.”

“Mr. Matson, are you serious?”

“Bernice, it’s hard to get much more serious than polio, especially where small children are concerned. I told Helga to keep the kids out at the club, and I don’t expect to see them for a few days. Feel free to ask me anything you need to by telephone, but I don’t want to spend any more time here than necessary. Tell the others here at the bank, too, if you would. I need to leave as soon as possible.”

“Yes, Mr. Matson,” she replied as the phone on Garth’s desk rang. She turned and walked away, glad to be away from him as he picked up the phone. “Garth Matson,” he replied.

“Mr. Matson, this is Sarah Ferguson down at Western Union. We have a telegram here for you.” Garth knew the girl, a friendly, perky type, not long out of high school.

“Read it to me please.”


This was news no one wanted to hear. Dr. Luce said it was a long shot, but at least they’d tried. “All right,” he said with a sinking heart. “Send an urgent reply, ‘Will do. Profound regrets. Scouts at my home, 515 Point Drive. Will keep them there.’ Sign it Garth Matson.”

“I’ll get it right out, sir.”

“Sarah, have there been any other messages of that nature, especially to the hospital?”

“No, sir.”

“OK, thank you, Sarah.”

Garth hung the phone up in deep regret. This gave things a much different look. He’d known intellectually, of course, that polio could kill, but somehow it hadn’t been a reality until just now. He remembered the scouts putting the Rathburn kid in the car, and how sick he looked then. At least there had been some hope, but now it was all gone.

He knew he shouldn’t stay around the bank any longer than necessary, and that he might have been here too long already. There was nothing more that could be accomplished here, so he got up and went outside, thinking about what to do next. He knew deep in his gut that he didn’t even want to be around the scouts; he didn’t want to let anything slip, and Blanchard was probably the best person to break the news to them. Maybe a little later he would be able to go visit them and keep a straight face, but not now.

That meant there was only one other thing to do: they had to know at the hospital. It wouldn’t be a happy chore there, by any means, but it had to be done.

It was only a short drive from the bank to the hospital, and he thought about walking it for the sake of the exercise – but he decided he’d better not walk, just so he didn’t run into anyone who might want to talk with him. The danger from the polio virus now seemed a lot greater than it had just a few minutes before.

In only a couple of minutes he had the Buick parked at the hospital again. He went inside, and back to the administrator’s office. Fike was off doing something, but Dr. Luce and his wife were there, each of them with coffee mugs in their hands. Once again, there was no way to sugar-coat the truth. “I just got a wire from Jim Blanchard,” he announced. “The Rathburn boy died this morning.”

“Darn it,” Dr. Luce said, putting his coffee cup down. “I was afraid that might happen, but it always hurts to hear it.”

“I am, too,” Penny said slowly. “I’ve seen too many kids die of polio as it is. I thought I was getting away from it but I guess it followed me here.”

“Are there any details about what happened?” Dr. Luce asked.

“No, only that Blanchard is on his way here to break the news to the other scouts,” Garth sighed. “That’s a job I’m just as glad I don’t have to do. I’ve had to do it enough to hold me for the rest of my life.”

“You mean, in the war?”

“Yeah,” Garth said, and let it go at that.

“It’s not easy,” Dr. Luce replied. “I’ve had to do it all too much myself, and it’s never easy.” He let out a sigh and added, “Not knowing the details, I don’t know if we could have saved him if we had a ventilator here, but we didn’t have one and that’s that.”

“You mean, an iron lung, right?”

“They’re commonly called that. Fike has been sending telegrams trying to find us one just in case something like this happened again, but he’s not coming up with anything. What’s really irritating is that they’re actually a pretty simple device.”

“I’ve only seen one in pictures,” Garth said. “They look pretty complicated.”

“They’re big, all right, but they’re mostly empty to leave room for the patient inside with their heads sticking out. At their minimum they’re pretty simple. I seem to recall someone telling me once that when Drinker built his first iron lung, he used his wife’s vacuum cleaner to run it.”

“A vacuum cleaner?” Garth said. “I wouldn’t think it would put out enough pressure.”

“Oh, it doesn’t take much pressure, only a few millibars, and it’s not a case of pumping air into the device but out of it.”

“Out of it? I’m afraid I don’t follow you. Doesn’t it put pressure on the lungs and release it, like in chest-pressure, arm-lift manual artificial respiration?”

“Exactly the opposite,” Dr. Luce explained. “What it does is lower the pressure inside the unit so the chest and lungs expand. Because the patient’s head is outside the machine, the greater outside air pressure pushes air into the lungs. Then, after the breath is taken, the reduced pressure inside the machine is allowed to equalize back to atmospheric normal, now compressing the chest so the air is pushed out of the lungs. It’s exactly the same way we breathe. It actually ought to be called an ‘iron diaphragm,’ rather than an ‘iron lung.’ You’re not the first person I’ve run across who doesn’t understand how they work.”

“News to me,” Garth shook his head. “Do you think we’re going to need one again?”

“I wouldn’t want to bet against it,” Dr. Luce replied. “Not in the slightest. In fact, it’s my biggest concern. About one case of paralytic polio in five will require ventilator support for at least short periods. Some will need it for long periods, up to a lifetime. We’re one in three over the last day and a little longer, so I sure can’t guarantee we won’t be needing one again.”

“Well, if money will help pry one loose, it’s available,” Garth said flatly.

“I’m sure Fike will be glad to hear that. You’re, uh, I probably shouldn’t say that your ‘friend’ Wayne Clark also said as much.”

“Wayne, Donna, and I may not get along, but I wouldn’t expect anything less of them.”

“Dr. Luce,” Denise said from the doorway. “We need you and Mrs. Luce. We have another one.”

“I was afraid of that,” Luce replied as he got to his feet. “It probably won’t be the last one either. What are the circumstances?”

“This is a little girl. She doesn’t seem to be very bad, at least yet. Dr. Brege sent her over.”

“Well, maybe it’s just a mild case. I guess we’d better go see.”

“I guess I’d better get out of here,” Garth said, getting to his feet as well. “Doctor, do what you can for her.”

“I will,” he replied. “I always try.”

*   *   *

Up until about this time, the knowledge of the polio cases at the hospital hadn’t been general news around Spearfish Lake. A few people had known about the sick scout at the hospital, but since he wasn’t a local kid, he didn’t generate much talk. Much the same was true of Betsy Toivo, who, while a local girl, lived out in the country; her parents didn’t have a great deal of contact with neighbors and hardly any with townspeople.

But the Bell girl, who had been brought into the hospital a couple of hours before, was a different story. Her folks lived in town, and they had telephone service. While Marie Bell was still at the hospital, anxiously awaiting word on her daughter Alice, her neighbor Bonnie Strickland had gone back home after getting her gamma globulin shot, and Willard had gone back to the bank and reported that he’d better stay away from work.

Garth’s announcement that he would be also staying away from the bank put the cap on the subject. Without much more than that, the phone lines were heating up; neighbor was talking to neighbor, and friend to friend. The word was getting out that there was a polio epidemic in town.

Although there had been previous cases of polio in Spearfish Lake, they had been rare and scattered. Right now, two things worried people more than anything else: the atom bomb, and polio. Since Spearfish Lake was out in the middle of nowhere, at least as far as cities were concerned, no one really expected to have to deal with an atom bomb. It was almost irrelevant, no matter how much fuss was made in the press, or what the latest thing to come out of Russia might be.

Polio was a different story. Everyone knew how the summers could lead to polio epidemics; they’d seen pictures in magazines, stories on the rather fuzzy television station out of Camden, the only one that could be received in Spearfish Lake. Of course they gave their dimes to the March of Dimes to fight the dread disease – Donna Clark was no slouch in pushing for that and getting results; Spearfish Lake had always been a strong contributor for a town of its size.

But somehow real concern about polio had always managed to bypass Spearfish Lake – at least until Willard Strickland and Garth Matson from the bank were involved. They were prominent citizens, and everyone knew them. In the course of only a few hours, the people of Spearfish Lake began to realize that polio was no longer something that struck somewhere else – it was here, and right now.

In large cities, one of the first defenses made against the summer polio epidemics was to close the swimming pools, since they were suspected to be involved in the transmission of the disease. There were no swimming pools to close in Spearfish Lake, but there was the big beach downtown. It wasn’t closed, but in a matter of hours very few people were to be seen on it.

Another measure that was commonly taken was for people to avoid gatherings, especially crowds – and especially to keep their children from them. One by one, family by family, children were brought home from their friends and their playgrounds, to stay at home where they might be a little safer. No one understood that the virus had been going around town for a while, days or weeks, and that it had already had plenty of time to infect people.

In ways familiar elsewhere in the face of polio, people began to pull away from their friends and cluster in on themselves. It was just starting in Spearfish Lake, but it would be a long time before it was over with.

*   *   *

The reaction to the news was just getting started as Garth Matson drove his Buick away from the hospital, still heartsick about what had happened with the Rathburn boy. They’d done all they could short of having an iron lung here for him, but they hadn’t had one, and that was that. Even Phil Gravengood’s desperate flight the day before to get the boy to Madison had gone in vain.

Garth realized there was a very good reason why there hadn’t been an iron lung for the boy in Spearfish Lake: none had ever been needed before, just as there hadn’t been a serious outbreak of polio there before. That didn’t mean one might not be needed in the next few days. There ought to be something he could do, but if none were available, then none were available.

He didn’t really want to go back home; the scouts were still there, and he was afraid that he might let the bad news about the Rathburn boy slip to them. The scoutmaster needed to be the one to tell them, if for no more reason than he knew them; Garth knew he was just a stranger who had extended a special kindness.

For lack of anything better to do, Garth decided to drive out to the airport to see if Phil was on his way. He probably was; he’d had enough time and knew of the need to rush, but it still was something to do. Maybe if he hadn’t left he wouldn’t mind a passenger down to Kansas City and back; it would be something to do.

As Garth started toward the airport, the question of an iron lung kept kicking around in his mind. They were not that complicated, Dr. Luce had said. Maybe it would be possible to come up with some sort of field expedient that would serve the need. He didn’t know if it could be done, and didn’t know if anyone in town could figure it out.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he realized that he’d seen something about that very topic. Something in a magazine, maybe one he’d read at the barbershop while he was waiting to get his hair cut . . .

All of a sudden it came together. Garth stomped on the Buick’s brake, checked to see if there was any traffic coming, then did a U-turn in the middle of Central Avenue, heading back into town.

*   *   *

Dr. Luce glanced up from the microscope, having seen the sight he dreaded for the fourth time in a little over a day. There were lots of white blood cells in the little girl’s spinal fluid – not as bad as the Rathburn boy’s had been the day before, but at a guess the infection wasn’t as far along, either.

The little girl was still conscious, although clearly in pain. She hadn’t liked the lumbar puncture any more than anyone else had, but she’d been awake and screaming through it, while Penny and Denise had barely been able to hold onto her, and her mother had tried to calm her, without much success.

When would this end?

There was no putting it off. He shook his head, then walked back out into the admitting room – still the one downstairs, there hadn’t been time to get one set up on the upper floor just yet. “I’m afraid it’s paralytic polio,” he told the mother; he could see from a glance at the paperwork that her name was Irene Saunders, and the little girl was named Gail.

“Polio?” Mrs. Saunders replied. “Doctor, are you sure?”

“About as sure as I can be,” Dr. Luce replied. It was not the first time he’d heard that exact same question and in the same horrified tone. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you what’s going to happen. It appears to me that she’s early in the infection stage, so it’s difficult to say where it’s going to come out. But this is one sick little girl, and she’s going to get sicker before she gets better.”

If she does, he thought without daring to mouth the words.

“Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“I’m afraid there isn’t much,” he replied. “We have a shot we can give her that may help raise her immunity and help fight off the disease, but beyond that about all we’re able to do is try to keep her comfortable and wait for the infection to burn through.” He turned to Penny and said. “I know we’re getting low on gamma globulin, but let’s try hitting her with it hard. Give her a full adult dose, but spread it around. Arms, legs, belly. Maybe it will slow things down a little.”

“Is that all you can do?”

“There isn’t much,” he said, explaining once again that the infection was like a cold – you could ease the symptoms a bit, but mostly you had to wait it out. “I assure, you, Mrs. Saunders, we’ll take the best care of your little girl that we can.”

*   *   *

Garth drove back up Central Avenue well over the speed limit, mostly hoping that the town cops were looking the other way. He slid to a stop in front of Pedersen’s Barbershop, the one he regularly used, and was again pulling on a surgical mask as he went in the door.

There was a man in the chair with Ralph working on him, and another one waiting. “Colonel, what’s up?” Ralph asked. “What’s with the mask?”

“Stay away from me,” Garth ordered. “I may have been contaminated with polio. Ralph, do you ever throw out your magazines?”

“Pretty rarely,” he said. “It’s been months. I know it’s a pile, but there are people who dig through them.”

“Look, I saw an article in one here a while back. Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, something like that about some group that built a field expedient iron lung.”

“Iron lung?” he replied. “Does someone need one?”

“Not right at the moment but a kid needed one yesterday. He died. I don’t want to see any more kids die.”

“Me, either,” the D Battery veteran said. “I’ll help you look.”

“I will, too,” the guy in the chair said.

“So will I,” the guy waiting said. “Colonel, why don’t you stay back, and I’ll split this stack into four piles so we can sort through it quicker.”

“Good idea.”

It took ten minutes, but eventually Garth came across a rather battered January, 1952 Popular Mechanics. The table of contents showed an article, “Emergency Wooden Respirator” on page 262. Garth hurriedly flipped to the page. It was a six-page article with exploded drawings. The story said that it had been built in an emergency by a group of volunteers in Bloomington, Illinois in 1949. It had just been completed when a boy had to be put into it until a regular iron lung could be made available.

Garth flipped through the pages. He was no mechanic, no builder, but it seemed like this was something that could be made right here in Spearfish Lake – and made quickly. “Thanks, guys!” he said. “You have no idea how important this could be to someone. This could really be a lifesaver!”

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To be continued . . .

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