Greetings to all and welcome new friends to the EastWing.
Oh the joys of summer. The dog days are here, yep the dog days of summer are upon us.
When I was a kid in downtown Toto, there was an outbreak of Polio one summer. Several kids in the Toto area contacted Polio, some died. Some survived with life changing issues to deal with. One spent the rest of his life in a machine called an Iron Lung. An artificial device to allow the patient to breath. Today such machines are much more refined and called respirators.
Somehow someone connected the dreaded disease Polio with the Dog Days of Summer and going into the water. We didn’t have a community pool at Downtown Toto. In fact we didn’t have community anything. Just a bunch of little hillbilly boys and our Army of The Toto Volunteers.
Being the General of the Toto Volunteers, I had a rather unique role in the fight to keep Polio from spreading to any more kids. As I said, someone connected Polio with Dog Day and going into the water.
We went into the water a lot. Now I wouldn’t say we were ducks, but some were close. There was one little feller, you’d swear he was a cousin to a fish, the way he could swim. Me, well I never learned to swim. And besides being the General of the Volunteers I had a lot of other things to do besides swim. Just 1¼ mile east of Toto was a sizable gravel pit. A big hole dug for the gravel, but for us it was thought to be made for the Toto Volunteers swimming pool.
As we marched back west to Toto from the swimming pool on hot July day, I noticed a car setting in front of our house, that meant company. It was a lady who had come to talk to my Mama, so I just walked on by. After the company left, my Mama said we needed to talk. At that point in my life when Mama said we needed to talk that meant she would talk and I would listen.
And so Mama talked. She asked me did I know about Polio. I did. She asked if I was afraid of catching Polio. I was. In today’s world with this disease having been almost wiped clear from the whole world it’s hard to imagine the fear this disease swept into the community. A disease of unknown origin, affecting mostly young people. A high death rate. Survivors maimed for life. No treatment, no known cause, for victims no hope. Only those who have lived thru those times can truly know the horror this disease struck in Downtown Toto those Dog Days of Summer, 1955.
Mama said her friend came to tell her the latest words on what might case Polio in the community. It was two possible things. One was not wearing a tee shirt. Two was going swimming. The Toto Volunteers done both, all day, every day. With Mama’s words being spoken, I saw trouble on the way. She said she would tell my Dad and he’d most likely want to talk to me about what she’d learned today.
My Dad had not been home very long and I overheard my Mama telling him the latest news about what may cause Polio. It was right after supper when my Dad said he and I needed to go sit on the front porch. Unlike when my Mama and I talked, when I talked with my Dad, I got to say stuff. After all, he knew I was the General of the Toto Volunteers. He and I had talked about the Toto Volunteers and me being the General during the Pop Bottle Wars.
My Dad asked what I thought we should do with the new information about Polio. I didn’t know what to say. But deep down I already knew the answer was gonna be two things. One, wear a tee shirt every day. Two, no more swimming in the gravel pit. And sure enough my worst fears came to pass.
My Dad said he thought the only way this was going to work was it had to come from me. Being the General of the Toto Volunteers, it had to come as order. Now we’d never had real orders in our army. We didn’t even have uniforms, but with everybody not wearing a tee shirt, we were kinda dressed alike. Everybody wore britches, no shirt, no shoes. That was our uniform.
My Dad went on to explain that even if this turned out to not be any cause of Polio, we couldn’t take the chance not to do it. Then he laid the big one on me when he said “Now I can’t make you order the Volunteers to wear a tee shirt and not go to the gravel pit, but remember the General always takes care of his troops, always”.
Sleep was hard that night, Somewhere in the darkness I found the words I had to say to the volunteers. We met every morning in my backyard at 10:00AM. One member of the army had a real watch so he got to be the official time keeper of the army. An so I addressed the troops.
My speech was a combination of instilling fear of Polio and giving the first real order to the Volunteers. We all knew the kids with Polio, so the instilling fear part was easy. We all were living in fear. No kid ever wanted to talk about it but that fear walked daily amongst the Toto Volunteers. The no swimming part was a little more difficult sale. Especially the kid I thought may be part fish, he didn’t like that one bit. Said he might go swimming by himself.
The reaction to his statement made me proud to be the General of the Toto Volunteers. The First Sergeant spoke up and said anybody disobeying that no swim order would be court marshaled. I didn’t even know what he was talking about but being the General and all, I for sure was not going to ask what that was. I don’t think the little feller who wanted to go swimming knew what it meant either, but he was afraid to say anything. With that being the order of the day, I dismissed the troops to go home and put on a tee shirt, and return at 01100. I don’t remember where we had learned how to talk army time, but we did and did so whenever possible.
When the army returned we played marbles the rest of the day. For the rest of the Dog Days that summer we wore our tee shirts every day. No swimming, just lots of game stuff, marbles, skip rope, hop scotch, and after dark we caught lighting bugs squeezed of the light end and made bracelets and buttons for our tee shirts.
Then in what seemed like a blink of an eye, that summer 1955, it was over.
Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine to prevent polio. The world danced. Mothers cried with joy. Fathers hugged their babies that had survived the treat. Someone came to Toto and we all lined up to get the “POLIO SHOT” . We had survived . Too late to go swimming in 1955, but we had the shot. A happy army looked forward to next summer.
The first thing the Army of the Toto Volunteers done after getting home from the last day of school for 1956 was pull off our shirts and shoes and go swimming at the gravel pit.
From The EastWing, Remembering The Scary Time
I Wish You Well,