Through Tommy's Eyes
An Experience with Polio
in the 1940s
Outside, a stellar jay calls harshly and claims the stone bird bath as his own. Inside, my dad, tired from always sitting, shifts in his desk chair. On the fold-down seat of his walker nearby, I perch sharing his large, walnut desk. The desk is littered with all sorts of food items from jelly beans to peanut butter pretzels. His always-nearby salt shaker stands within reach. My dad loves salt so much that he’d salt salt if he could.
We are here this June morning in Santa Fe, New Mexico to discuss the polio he contracted in the summer of 1943. Living in southeast Texas at the time, he fell victim to the high rate of poliomyelitis cases that washed over Texas and California. Those two states alone accounted for 32% of the total cases for the entire United States that year according to Public Heath Reports journal in June 1944.
As a child, I rarely saw my father’s legs; they were skinny and white and didn’t seem able to hold up his barrel-sized torso. He rarely played anything physical with my brother and me. Occasionally, he’d ride a bike with us around our neighborhood, or he’d toss a frisbee with us, reaching out his long arm to catch the plastic disk while keeping his legs firmly rooted to the ground. He danced with my mother in a similar fashion; he’d stay planted and use his long arms to twirl her around. He was a Maypole to her whirling dervish.
He is a big man. Due to his physical limitations, his belly has reached yoga-ball sized proportions. He struggles to lift himself from a chair and walks with much effort despite relying on his walker.
But for now, Mr. Ford the Elder, is content to sit with me at his desk, and tell me about those days of polio. Not one to wallow in his own setbacks he says, “You know, you look back on the polio. It may have saved my life. In Korea I could have been like my friends and killed or injured badly."
I was living in a little town in Texas called Rio Vista. My father was the agent for the Santa Fe Railroad which came through this little town. And so, my mother was teaching school, I think, because she was a school teacher, and normally when they assigned an agent to a little town, the railroad or people in the town sort of assisted the wives to find some employment if they needed it. And so, it was a very, very rural, little community.
I was rather a good runner. I could run long distances. I think I was basically a happy person. I did well in school -- this was in the lower grades before polio. I liked to read. I think I spent an awful lot of time around adults rather than children my own age because there were just not too many.
My God! I was the only, well Jane and I, the only children in that family. No one else had any! Those brothers of my mother's didn't have any. I was the apple of everybody's eye! I feel very fortunate I had such a wonderful family.
My birth name was Opie, but I didn't really like the name that I had, so, you know, I picked one out, and the next time we moved, well, that was my name. I got the name Tom from Tom Sawyer and David from the Bible. I changed my last name because if you have a different last name, and you moved from town to town it was confusing. I changed it legally when I was 18; then I didn't need anybody's consent. But very early on, I was very early, Tommy.
I had a strange thought; polio was a terrible fear all over the country in the 30s and 40s. And they’d close swimming pools, and people would not go to the movies and whatnot because no one was certain as to how it was spread. But everybody had a great fear of how it affected their children.
One day, I was in the drug store and I ordered a root beer from the fountain and they just took a glass off the counter, turned it over, and fixed the root beer in it, and I remember thinking I'll bet you that this has polio germ in it! I think it was at that soda fountain in the little drug store where I caught the disease!
I don’t know, though. You know, I have tried to figure that out. I was not ill on December 7, 1941, because I remember that Japanese people. . . well, the radio was saying the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. I had an uncle who was a surgeon, and he was in the military. He was in Australia or sent to Australia at the beginning of the war and he came back.
And I made a trip with my grandmother to Oregon. He returned from Australia and he was stationed at a base in Oregon and we -- Minnie and me -- went up on the train. . . took a train trip, probably in the summer of ‘43.
There was great food rationing at the time. Because the diner car on the train served only one meal a day, Minnie packed a large wicker suitcase, a suitcase thing, filled with food. A lot of canned food that could be opened for us to sustain our trip which would take several days. She would share with people on the train -- young kids and whatnot for who one meal a day just would not do, or who perhaps could not afford to go into the diner car to eat. So we fed people.
So, if that was ‘43 and I was born in ‘32, I was about 11. And shortly when we got back from that trip -- we were there a week or two visiting --I became ill. Maybe from that trip. You know, you have these silly ideas, premonitions come over you. They did when I was small. If I saw the a black cat cross the road, well something bad's going to happen and if something bad's going to happen to you, it's because you saw the black cat!
I think I was religious at this time, too. I prayed a lot and I went to church. I ushered in church and I rededicated my life so many times I can't remember. Now, there is a possibility that baptism is where I contracted polio.
Before I became ill, they had a revival in Rio Vista. They divided up the kids who were not members of the church, hadn't been baptized, into blue and red teams. Oh, hell yes, this is the Baptist Church!
And they preached about, you know, if on our way home, there was a terrible car wreck that we were in and my mother and father were killed, and I also died, and they were believers and had been baptized, and they went to heaven, but since I was not baptized, I went to hell.
“Now you don't want to go to hell, Son. Don't you want to be with your mother and your father in this glorious heaven?”
And I decided to get baptized. Well, then they had a contest whether the reds or the blues would have the most converts. And, the ones that won would get an ice cream soda. So there was pressure within your group. I don't know whether my side won or not but I decided to get baptized! Oh hell that was going down to the river! And people stood on the sides of the river and sang. The minister waded out and it was only about waist-deep on him in these little ol’ streams.
I went out and did that. In fact, my folks bought me a brand new pair of khaki pants to wear out into the water. I wade on out there, and he did his bit and people were singing. There was a line of us, and, you know, they hold your nose and dunk you under the water completely! You were saved! And you waded back out, and somebody else came in, and it was a big deal!
This was around the same time that I got sick, so wouldn’t that be hell if that did it? I don't know, but I had read almost everyone was exposed to it because it's highly contagious but a lot of people only had a headache or felt bad for a day or two - no ill-effects and went right on about their business.
I believe I had some bad headaches and kind of ached all over; I just didn't feel right. It came on fairly suddenly, and when I was really ill, I don't remember much about the period of time for maybe a week when I was sort of -- I don't guess I was unconscious because I evidently would respond -- but my memory of that particular period is not really clear.
Well, when I became ill, my mother became concerned enough that I needed to go to a hospital or see a doctor. We were 30 or 40 miles from a town called Cleburne, Texas, and they did have doctors there. But she called her mother who lived in Brownwood, and of course her mother's brother was a physician in Brownwood. That was about 100 miles away.
His name was Ben Shelton and Ben, with a group of other doctors - kind of investors, had built a hospital called The Medical Arts Hospital. So she was taking me to this facility. She put me in the back seat of the car and I had a sister who was very young and she was in the front seat. She was eight years younger than I was.
I'm kind of out of it. They put me in the hospital but there's some concern about that because the hospital didn't want polio patients either because the other people in the hospital who are already sick are concerned about how you get it. I'm sure they gave me something for fever - but they did a spinal tap. They stuck a needle in my spine, in my back, a small part down there somewhere. They drained some fluid; I suppose. I think, they thought the fluid, the pressure on the brain, might increase the polio. So they needed to drain it? I don't know.
Oh, I remember the pain of that needle! When I was young, I used to have a dream where a bull -- I'd be fighting a bull or something, and the bull would gore me right in the back with the horns. I had a vivid imagination.
Anyway, they didn't keep me in the hospital very long. A Baptist minister came and they all prayed evidently or so they tell me; I don't remember that. The doctor said, “If he doesn't die tonight, we think he will live,” and I didn't die that night.
So, they moved me out of the hospital to a recovery thing. I think they could tell I had lost the use of some of my arms and legs, the movement. But I - evidently the fever and everything had gone -- so they took me to my grandmother's house in Brownwood. It was just a little one-level house.
In fact, she had split it up and she rented rooms and she had two little apartments in the house and she rented rooms to people, people who might be going to the college there in the town.
I'm in my grandmother Minnie’s house in a very large bed, her bed. She slept on a couch. I didn't get out of bed for quite a while, like a week or two. And I didn't realize that I was as paralyzed as I evidently was. So eventually Uncle Ben and Minnie got tired of bringing bed pans and stuff, and they thought I should get up because I was lucid anyway. I didn't have any fever or anything like that.
But, you know, they got me up sitting on the side of the bed. They said, you know, almost biblically, “Get up and walk.” And of course I tried to stand and take a step or two and of course I just collapsed and fell down. I grabbed a hold of a bedstead, a bedpost, one of the things to try to hold myself up. And, well, I kind of just swung around on it like a pole dancer and just went right down to the floor.
I remember getting up off of the floor was a terrible problem for me. I didn't have enough strength in my legs and what not to do it very easily. So I started using tin cans full of product. You know the tallest. I remember that what I started with was a big tomato, can of tomato juice, and I put that down and put a hand on it, and I would try to get up with that elevated kind of floor. Then I would work down to a can of corn or something which was a little shorter. And I did get to where I could get up without any help. Not gracefully I'm sure!
You would get stronger, we thought. So we did start a walking program. Finally, I was finally able to walk a little bit. I had a foot that flopped, the left one. They soon built me a brace from the shoe shop, I think. I could put a shoe on and the brace then was connected to the heel part of the shoe. And it would come up on your leg, and you could tie it and it would help control the flop of the foot.
Even during this period of time that I could get up, I had no range of motion. Family, which was all in the Brownwood area, nearly all the uncles and the aunts and whatnot, well, they'd have picnics out under a tree. Or they'd have, maybe they'd go out and pick pecans because we had a lot of pecan trees. They’d spread out a blanket, and they’d pick me up from the car, my uncle who was named Earl, and just carry me, set me down on the blanket and prop me up and that's where I would be. But I would have all these people to talk to.
I think they treated me pretty normally. I was self-conscious; I didn't like being carried around like a baby, but, you know, there was no one around but other adults. I was living this part of the time just surrounded by adults.
But in this period of time, the family doctors kept working to fix the flopping foot. They arranged for a couple of orthopedic surgeons in Dallas that Ben Shelton was familiar with to operate on my foot and to correct that, to freeze it and lock it in in a manner where I didn't have to wear a brace.
So that took place and the March of Dimes footed some of the bill because that's what they were really supposed to be doing, offering aid. The March of Dimes was created for polio, I think, because it was FDR - Franklin Roosevelt - he, I think, encouraged the setting up of this and you would just give a dime. They are still probably in existence somewhere and working on some other form of handicap.
We knew FDR had polio, but not that bad. They covered that up pretty well. Later you find out. I have seen pictures of him, you know he used to want to go to Warm Springs. He used to like to go and soak in the warm water, float in the pool and swim and play around. His legs and his physique were terribly damaged. I remember his death. He had been President all my life. I was born in ‘32 and I think he went in in ‘33 and he died in office in ‘ 44-45.
Anyway, they operated on the foot. The split off a piece of the bone from the leg, and lodged it in the structure of the foot so that it would stabilize it, freeze it. And they split a muscle in the calf of the leg and ran it around the leg and attached it to the front part of the foot to get just a little motion. SoI have just a very little, small amount of motion in that foot.
I was maybe still in elementary-type school because they did it rather quickly and by then, of course, the war was not over exactly but the outcome of it was certain. And since I had an uncle, Joe Floyd, who was a physician in the military, he would arrange for me to see military doctors in some of these bases.
So anyway, they had all of these connections, and the military doctors were working quite a lot with wounded veterans who had one leg, one arm, or missing eyes or something that had been injured or removed. And so they would try to stimulate the muscles. By then you could find muscles that did not work because I couldn't move my leg in certain ways. I’d go visit these medical centers, and they would put electrodes and whatnot to try to make the muscle jump to contract or whatnot. So I saw a lot of doctors at this time but anyway I recovered feeling fine.
I did get to where I could move around all right. I had a lot of weakness and some muscles. One leg as it developed was smaller than the other. The chest area -- fortunately I could breathe okay, didn’t ever have to have the iron lung thing -- but I had . . . something had pulled one side of my chest to where it was a little lower than the other, right at the breastbone. I generally, I generally was not able to run, even as I recovered, and, you know, life went on.
Earl gave me a dog when I was recovering. Gave me a dog, Black Dog. Black Dog is what I called him. It was a big dog, and Jerry Ford wouldn't let us have it, so Earl carried it, took it home and raised it and that was my dog. Because as I got a little older, I spent summers with Earl and my grandmother.
Oh, I did. I farmed and plowed and did all that stuff and with my dog there, Black Dog, and I had a gray cat, Gray Cat. There's something about my naming animals! But, anyway, yeah I have a great feeling for animals, and it sure helped to have that summer time.
In school, I probably would have run track. Earl ran track. I had an uncle who was -- they were, really, they weren't uncles. I don't know what they were; they were brothers of my grandmother, and I just called them uncle. One of them was a track coach, and he's in the Hall of Fame. What's his name? It's senility setting in!. . . Forrest Shelton! And he was big at Howard Payne, which was a college but now they call it a university. It is primarily a teachers college. It was a teachers college but it was really a factory to turn out Baptist ministers where they would preach on the street corner and stuff, and all the women could play piano!
I never went back to Rio Vista because very shortly they moved Jerry, my father, to another town; and looking back from later, you realize they probably, well, I probably ruined the real estate business in the town for a little while because we were renting - we never did buy because we weren't in the town but a year or two. Everybody in a little town knew I’d been taken ill because they all knew one another.
Ruth and Jerry and Jane, my sister, had moved to a town called. . . It'll come to me in a minute. Cameron. Cameron, Texas. The railroad just took care of Jerry and moved him, and it was an improvement. A much larger little town and community because back then the railroad in all big companies took pretty good care of their employees. Now there was a union operation and seniority played a big part in it. And when a job would come open, Jerry would bid on it, if he wanted to try that, and if he had more seniority than the other people who were bidding on it, he would get that job.
I think I might have been away recuperating in Brownwood four months. So, I go to Cameron, and I don’t know a soul. I'm physically. . . mentally I'm feeling fine. I joined the band and I kind of fell back into participating in the school. Now always, you have to remember, it helped because my mother was connected with the school. So you know a school teacher’s kids got preference in a lot of activities. So my mother made friends rather easily, and, of course, Jerry Ford. The railroad was really important to all these little towns, and to be the agent for the company was a reasonably good position in the society group.
Later in high school, I was in the marching band, played the sousaphone. It's a great big thing, wraps around you. I chose it because my lips could blow it. I wanted to really be a trumpet player, but I couldn’t pucker up that tight! But I was just right for the sousaphone. By now, we were close to Houston, a town called Caldwell, and I marched in the Houston parades and they were three or four or five miles long and carrying this horn, so I could do pretty well physically by then.
It was only later that I had trouble mentally with myself about polio. Yeah . . . teenage years when I noticed - I was always concerned that, you know, people were not going to like me, that girls weren't going to be seen with me.
I remember standing in front of a mirror a lot of times and saying, looking at myself, and saying “You're just an old crippled,” or “You’re a gimp,” or whatever. And I would work to see that my expression didn't change because I used to feel bad and cry perhaps if someone said “crippled” because I figured they were talking about me. I didn't want to react badly because back then people did talk about cripples.
Crippled was a word or gimp and, you know, little kids would say “You can't play with me doing this because you're crippled,” and I would try not to let them see my feelings.
It became known that I was a polio survivor. By then -- high school -- people were not unkind really. They probably made some special provisions for me in some of the games that we would play as young people, but I became very very sensitive because I didn't want any imperfections in me to show except I limped, and I still would limp were I able to walk now.
I had really a nice childhood aside from the fact of the polio. Well, I was certainly better read as a result, though. I compensated. I think I tried to be as decisive as I could be. In school I tried to be the very first person with the answer and to complete the problem. I was always concerned that, you know, I didn't go swimming because one leg was smaller than the other. In fact I think there's an album, a high school thing. . .a yearbook, where somebody had written a message to me and said “bird legs” or something like that.
I was concerned about my chest which nobody knew or cared about but I’d try to wear a lot of sweaters.
I was exempt from P.E. because of the polio as well as because of the band because I got a lot of exercise marching in those football games and whatnot. But I would try to pad the side of my chest which is still lower than the other a little bit so it would be no visual defect in looking at me from the side or the front. And then, of course, I found out later there are people who are baseball pitchers who developed a lot more muscles on one side of their chest, their body than the other, so I probably should’ve took up baseball!
I have a feeling now of kinship almost with a person who is handicapped or crippled or in a wheelchair. And, sure, it made me, you know, question God. I went through all of that why me, all of that, you know: “If you're so damn bright and smart, why me?”
And, you know, I was called up for the Korean War. I was too young during World War II to have even worried about it because you know it ended in ‘45. But I was called up for the Korean War, but of course I didn't pass the physical and some of my friends went. Hell, I was relieved. I mean I think a lot of people lied about being happy and wanting to go.
Difficulties in old age due to polio? I'm an example of that! For me, it was kind of a gradual thing but then it accelerated because there was a point where rather than becoming stronger, if you're exercising, you notice that you're really getting weaker. There was a debate about whether polio patients should continue exercise. Like if you had so many pulls on your biceps, you would wear out. So, but, you know, I went from being able to walk fairly well, to walking with a cane, to two canes, to some crutches, and to a walker where I am now. Yeah, you know, but it's difficult to know because a lot of it is age-related also. Even a totally fit person often loses muscle strength and whatnot as they get older.
But with my advanced age, it's always a fight. And you don't know whether it's senility setting in or the effects of polio or whatnot. But older people are not. . . well, we're patient in a way because we can sit still for long periods of time, but we're not patient with not being able to solve problems as easily as we used to could. Or to keep our mind clear so that we know what we're doing on the 5th of July or whatnot.
And now the disease is almost eradicated. It could be there are certain pockets. It could spring back up. It's fortunate that everybody who is exposed to it didn't suffer the nerve damage. Jane always thought that she had had Polio too as an infant because I had had it. She probably did. It may have had some effects on her.
You know, you look back on the polio. It may have saved my life. In Korea I could have been like my friends and killed or injured badly. It's made me cautious, I think, after having polio. And I found out that it didn't really make any difference to women or girls whether I had polio or not.
If you were in college and you had a car, you could get the girls because so many people walked back then and didn't have cars.
If you were a dope or a jerk with a car, you were better than a dope or a jerk walking!
You know, it's an ongoing thing. Until the fat lady sings, we won't really know how it all ends.