Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
“That was a long time ago,” Ryan Clark told his grandchildren. “Things have changed a lot since then, and it seems like a long time ago. Today, you kids have barely heard the word polio. I have to tell you that it scared the tar out of us back then, and when it came to town that summer, it really knocked us off balance. But as luck had it, a few people fought back. And we were lucky in that it was the summer when we had the first vaccine available. If it had even been the year before, it would have been a lot worse.”
“What happened to some of those people?” Brent asked. He was named Brent Wayne, after his great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, who had both died before he was born.
“Oh, there are still some stories there, and in a way they’re not all over with yet. I don’t know what happened to a lot of those kids. People grow up, move away, and lives change. One of the neat stories is about Betsy Toivo. Not long after she started to walk on her own, it was decided that she could go home for a while if her folks could keep up on the heat treatments and exercises. Well, Mrs. Toivo, her mother, asked Mrs. Luce, ‘If a warm wet wool blanket is good, wouldn’t a sauna be better?’”
Both the kids knew what a sauna was, of course. “I think it might be,” Raven smiled.
“Actually it’s hard to say if it actually was, but for the next several months Betsy was the most saunaed kid in Spearfish County. Three, four, five times a day or more. If her folks didn’t have her out in the sauna, her brothers did, massaging her, and working her joints. She wound up throwing the effects of the paralysis off entirely, and the Toivos and a lot of other Finns in the area give those saunas the credit for curing her polio. I don’t know if they’re not right.”
“How about that Perkins boy?”
“That isn’t quite as happy an outcome,” Ryan admitted. “He wound up spending about three months in one of the wooden lungs before he was able to be weaned off of it, and really, he never fully recovered. I never knew him well, he was a bit older than I was, but he always needed crutches to get around, and as far as I know still does. It’s been years since I’ve heard anything of him. Alice Bell, well, she never had to be in one of the ventilators, but the paralysis hit her just as hard. I have to say that the steps she took up the stairs to get to bed the night the polio hit her were the last steps she ever took without the aid of braces, crutches, or canes. She spent most of the rest of her high school career in a wheelchair. It wasn’t easy back in those days, because that was when we still had the old high school, three stories with lots of stairs, and they’d never heard of such a thing as a wheelchair ramp in those days. The only reason the hospital had a ramp was because they had to run gurneys up and down it to get someone into the building.”
“What happened to her?”
“She eventually moved away. The last I heard, and this was many years ago, she’d gotten married to a man who was also a polio victim, and they’d built a pretty good life. But I don’t know much more about it.”
“You said Mrs. Gleason always used crutches,” Brent asked.
“She always has. She never totally recovered, but she never let it get her down, either. She went back to school, and always was a very good student. When she graduated from high school, she was the class valedictorian. She came from a very poor family, and there was no hope of her going to college. I don’t know how that story got to Garth Matson, but when he found out about it he went over to her house, asked her what college she wanted to go to, and said that he’d pay for it. This was long after your great-great grandfather Wayne Clark died, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he would have helped too if he’d still been alive.”
“That was nice of Mr. Matson,” Raven said.
“It wasn’t the only nice thing Garth Matson did for someone without being asked,” Ryan told his grandchildren. “But that one was special. I think there was a special connection between the two from the time he’d spent hours doing manual respiration on her, and then running the pressure relief valve. Anyway, Gail went to college and became a teacher back here in Spearfish Lake. She got married to Jerry Gleason, and had two kids and three grandkids. Now, sometimes when polio victims get old they get something called ‘post-polio syndrome,’ which to make it simple is a delayed reaction from having polio. Mrs. Gleason got it in her fifties, and had to give up teaching. When she did, your mother was the one who replaced her.”
“Wow,” Brent shook his head. “I didn’t know that.”
“It was just another of the ways there was a slightly special connection between us,” Ryan related. “She was in the little cob job respirator for over a month before she could be out of it on her own, so yes, I suppose I had a little to do with saving her life. Everybody always kept a close eye on the motor that ran the pressure relief valve. After all, it was just a toy, but it ran perfectly and never missed a beat. They say they don’t build things like they used to, and boy, is that ever true of Erector Sets.”
“I’ve never even seen one,” Brent commented.
“I think I still have it,” Ryan said. “It was my favorite toy for some time, and well, that Erector Set was pretty special to me for what it did for Gail, well, Saunders back then.”
“Did you ever get to build that bridge you were talking about?”
“No, I never did. There weren’t enough parts for me to do it. That’s one of those opportunities from that age I guess I’ve lost. But you know, that Erector Set and that ventilator were indirectly responsible for one of the luckier things that ever happened to me.”
“How was that, Grandpa?”
Ryan sat back and thought for a moment. It was an awful long time ago, and there were some things that were pure guesswork on his part. But, as Gail had said hours earlier, everyone involved was dead, now. The kids had done pretty well listening to him, better than he’d ever imagined they would. “Are you sure you want to hear this story?” he said. “It’s fairly short compared to what I’ve just told you, but there’s an important lesson in it, too.”
“Sure, Grandpa,” Raven said. “I never heard about any of this before.”
“I’ve never told some of this story,” he sighed. Maybe it would be good to tell it. “Like I just said, Wayne Clark died about four years after this. His wife Donna lived for almost another twenty years. After Wayne died, he left part of Clark Plywood to Donna, part to your great-grandfather Brent Clark, and a small part of it to Donna’s son, Frank Matson. I won’t go into the ins and outs, but there was a fight over who would control Clark Plywood for almost all that time. To make a long story short, Donna thought she should have control of Frank’s shares, since he was still a minor, but Wayne had made Garth Matson, his father, the trustee. No one knows why he did that. What I do know is that after Frank turned twenty-one and got control of the shares, he always voted with your great-grandfather Brent no matter how much Donna wanted him to see things her way.”
“That must have really gotten people angry with each other,” Brent said with a headshake.
“You have no idea. Frank never had much use for his mother, mostly because she always tried to weasel him away from his friends and his father, especially in the summer. Oh, there were plenty of other reasons, but the way she tried to strong-arm for the control of his shares was the final thing that put him over the edge. Anyway, when Donna finally died, I was very surprised to find out that she’d left her shares in Clark Plywood to me. While I was a Clark, I wasn’t a blood relative of hers.”
“Why did she do that?”
“That’s something I wondered about for nearly thirty years,” Ryan shook his head. “The only thing I could think of was that she did it to spite your great-grandfather Brent. Donna and I were friendly in spite of our age difference, but we were never real friends. I think she had the idea that your great-grandfather and I weren’t very close, like she wasn’t close with her son Frank. That was right, and it was wrong. My father was never very close with anyone after my mother was killed in a car accident about four years after that story. It really broke him up. I was about as close to him as anyone, but after my mother died, Garth and Helga Matson were like a second set of parents to me. Anyway, I thought Donna just misread that, and set her will up the way she did to tweak my father. It turns out I might have been wrong.”
“So what really happened?”
“Let’s just say that I don’t actually know for sure. Not long before my father died, he happened to mention to me that Donna had been real impressed with the way I had dreamed up that cob job ventilator. And she was even more impressed that I’d give up my favorite toy to run the pressure relief valve. I never even thought about it; it was just something that had to be done, so I did it. But Dad said that Donna always thought well of me after that, and always kept an eye on me, thinking I might make something of myself. I know she gave me some opportunities here and there that I might not have had otherwise. So I have to conclude that at least a little bit of why Donna left me her part of Clark Plywood had to have started with that incident. Now, do you see what I’m trying to say with that?”
“I don’t quite follow you, Grandpa,” Raven said.
“What I’m saying Raven, Brent, is that a minor little incident when I was your age, something I never even thought about, had a big influence on my life almost a quarter of a century later. I guess what I’m saying is that you always want to do the right thing because you never know when it’s going to affect you.”
“That’s kind of scary when you stop and think about it, Grandpa.”
“Yeah, it is. Anyway, there are a couple other lessons to be drawn out of this story I’ve spent the last couple hours telling you. I think the big one is to remember that there are times that unpleasant things are going to happen. You have two choices. You can run and hide, or you can pitch in with others who are trying to fight it out. I didn’t have to think about what I did. I may not have contributed much, but I’ve always been a little proud of the fact that I was one of those who stood and fought polio when it came to Spearfish Lake.”
“But you were in the right place to do something about it, Grandpa.”
“Of course I was. Phil Matson was close to my age, but he never had the chance to do what I did. When opportunity comes your way, you have to take it. Now, you kids have been pretty good about sitting here and listening to me tell stories out of a time that was long ago. What would you say to some ice cream before your mother gets back?”
“See, there’s a lesson for you, too. Being a good listener sometimes brings a reward.”
Ryan barely had the dishes rinsed and put in the dishwasher by the time his wife Linda and his daughter Rachel got back from shopping with his daughter-in-law Nicole, Brent and Raven’s mother. “So,” Nicole asked. “What did you do today?”
“Grandpa told us some stories about some things that happened when he was our age,” Raven said. “They were about when kids here got polio.”
“Wow,” Linda said. “I barely remember those days. I can remember standing in a big, long line to get the Salk vaccine, but that was about all.”
“I guess I better get you home,” Nicole said. “Your grandfather has probably filled your ears with some old stories and your bellies with all the junk food he could find.”
“Nicole,” Ryan grinned. “Would I do something like that?”
“Yes, you would,” she laughed. “A grandfather is supposed to spoil his grandchildren, after all.”
A few minutes later they’d gathered things up and left. “So I suppose you bought out Camden,” Ryan said.
“Not really, but I like to get an early start on Christmas shopping. You’re always so hard to buy something for.”
“You know,” he said, remembering back a lot longer than she thought. “There’s something that you could get me for Christmas if you really wanted to.”
“Get on eBay and hunt up the biggest A. C. Gilbert Erector Set from the fifties or sixties that you can find. Even two of them.”
“Why on earth would you want something like that?”
“There was a cantilever bridge I always wanted to build,” he smiled. “I never got the chance to when I was a kid. But I can’t help but think that maybe Brent and Raven would like to help me build it.”
“You know, Ryan, some boys never grow up.”
“Yep,” he grinned. “Nice, isn’t it?”
Writing these stories is always fun – if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s even more fun when a story involves research into areas I’m unfamiliar with. That was certainly the case with this story.
I’m just barely old enough to remember the fear of polio in the 1950s. As far as that goes, I’m not sure I actually comprehended it at that age, and I suspect I didn’t – I was only eight years old in 1955. I remember volunteers coming to the door to raise money for the March of Dimes, and like Linda Clark, I remember standing in line to get the Salk polio vaccine. In fact, I remember it more than once, since I was a part of the 1954 field trial that proved the relative effectiveness of the vaccine. I remember kids who had polio in those days, and I know people it’s still affecting long after the disease itself is nearly forgotten history.
Many people my age and older share such memories; it was not something easily forgotten, which ought to tell you something of how seriously polio was taken in those days.
One of the challenges of this story was to write it reflecting what was known in 1955, rather than what is known today. It’s not that some things they knew back then were exactly wrong, but here and there were some things that weren’t exactly right, either. On top of that, a lot has happened since then, and other stories have come out that could not be known at the time.
For instance, the “Emergency Wooden Ventilator” in the January, 1952 Popular Mechanics is the absolute truth. Since it was published at the beginning of the year of the worst polio outbreak of all, there must have been many more lives saved by this design than there are stories that have come down to us today.
The Popular Mechanics story is about such a machine built in 1948 in Bloomington, Indiana; the builders had barely finished it before they put it to work. However, what Garth Matson could not have known about the article he found in the barbershop magazine was that the boy who was put in the machine lived for another sixty years. Obviously, I couldn’t mention that.
I might add that the “cob job” isn’t something I made up, either – a very similar machine was made in 1941 in Marquette, Michigan, under very similar circumstances. It was thrown together from a plywood refrigerator box and powered by a vacuum cleaner. It wasn’t an Erector Set motor powering the pressure relief valve, but a motor from a storefront rotating sign. It was the first of nine more or less similar machines built to stand off a huge community polio outbreak that year. I have found brief mentions of other such emergency machines built elsewhere.
The Salk polio vaccine was the beginning of the end for polio. In 1952, the worst year for polio, there were 52,879 new cases. In 1955, the year of this story and the first year the vaccine was in use, the number had fallen to 28,985, but it fell off rapidly from there. By 1960 the number had fallen to 3,190, and to a mere 886 in 1962. Between that and the later introduction of the Sabin Oral Polio Vaccine (which had dangers of its own) polio was effectively killed in this country. The W. A. Emerson Company, the largest maker of iron lungs, stopped making them in 1976, and polio was declared extinct in the U.S. in 1979. The last recorded case in the Western Hemisphere was in Peru in 1991.
However, there are still a handful of iron lungs in regular use – something less than a dozen it was estimated at the time of this writing. In cases where mechanical respirators are needed today, there are usually better things available. The handful of people still using iron lungs today either have special problems that call for their use, especially while sleeping, or are just plain more comfortable with them than they are with positive pressure respirators.
Just as a highly unscientific survey, I asked about a dozen people under the age of thirty or thereabouts if they knew what an iron lung was. Only one, a nursing student, got it right. The rest had never heard of such a thing. When you stop and think about it, that’s pretty good news by itself.
As of this writing, polio still exists in some of the more war-torn parts of Africa and Pakistan, and recently some cases were reported in equally war-torn Syria. Still, it’s close to being eradicated as much as smallpox was and only guns are keeping it alive. In spite of the difficulties, several groups, including the World Health Organization and Rotary International, are still pursuing the final eradication of the disease. In fact, a replica of the 1952 Popular Mechanics emergency wooden respirator was recently built from the original plans by a Rotary Group in Phoenix, Arizona as part of a fundraising effort for their worldwide polio eradication program.
One of the things that gets overlooked is that even at its peak, polio was not the prime killer of children, but it certainly was one of the scarier ones. Probably the greatest reason polio was attacked, and defeated, was that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had it. Under his inspiration and influence, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and its fundraising arm, the March of Dimes, was formed by Roosevelt’s law partner, Basil O’Connor. Along with Jonas Salk, they form the triumvirate that led to the defeat of the disease, although mopping-up continued for some time after they’d left the scene.
When doing research for a story like this I sometimes turn up interesting little sidelights that I had otherwise not known and couldn’t work into the story. If you are an American, there’s a good chance you will have a dime in your pocket, and on the coin will be the picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Why a dime? The March of Dimes, which he helped instigate! The dime you have in your pocket today is a legacy of the effort to defeat polio seventy years ago.
Another interesting sidelight is that some revisionist medical historians today contend that Roosevelt didn’t have polio at all. Some speculate that Roosevelt had Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disease similar to polio but not the same thing. However, as David M. Oshinsky said in Polio: An American Story, “What is certain, however, is that FDR believed he had polio, as did his family, his doctors, other polio victims, and the American public. Without him the great polio crusade would never have been launched.”
The story of the defeat of polio – and there are many good histories besides Oshinsky’s – is a story not necessarily of big foundations and big government, but of the common people, giving their dimes and dollars to defeat the disease. When it came to a community like Spearfish Lake, they helped by standing and fighting rather than running and hiding. Even though this story is fiction, much of it is based on true fact, and many of the incidents portrayed are stories that will fade into oblivion along with the forgotten killer that caused them.
One final comment, but on a different topic: long distance telephone service really was spotty in 1955, so telegrams were often used when fast transmission of important messages was needed. The last telegraph system in the world was decommissioned in 2013, the year the first draft of this book was written, so in a way this story is also a tribute to something else that has been mostly forgotten.