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Polio Peers and Stuff, Remembered

Now, the fun part of my essay.

As I said before, there are approximately 400,000 Polio survivors in the U.S. (and thank goodness the number no longer increases). One thing I have noticed through the years is that when I am near a Polio survivor either they or I am drawn to the other. Conversation is easy, as if we are related. When we talk even as strangers it is never just a quick greeting or polite chit-chat. The words shared are heart felt and there is a warm feeling when we part.

Taking nothing away from other groups who have a common problem, Polio survivors are a breed apart. Maybe it is because all of us had the disease when we were very young. Maybe it is because we had similar treatments and experiences. Maybe it is because no one other than another survivor can understand the scares we carry.

I have talked with many observers and read a number of authors who have written about Polio and its survivors. One survivor trait noted by all is an uncommon determination to succeed in spite of a disability. It does not matter whether or not these survivors are:

red, green or blue;
rich, poor or mortgaged;
male, female or undecided;
Texan, Brazilian or Mongolian.

A pessimist might refer to this trait as denial of our physical limitations. I say it is one damn healthy coping mechanism. We had Polio when we were so young that we did not know there were things we were suppose to NOT be able to do. So, we went ahead and did them.

There is one other general observation I want to share. Childhood Polio was an equalizer among the survivors. In the Polio family there were no racial, color, cultural or religious barriers and none were built as we became adults. Mankind could learn from our experiences.

During my six visits to Warm Springs I met hundreds of people. These peers made it all bearable and at times it was like summer camp. As kids often do I forgot most of their names and lost contact with all of them but the memories will always be with me and part of me.

There are a few people I want to mention. I could write an essay about my relation with each of them (maybe some day I will) but for now I only recognize them for having a reserved area in my memory. If you are one of these people or remember one of them then please send me an email. I would love to make contact again.

Herschel Brantley

During my first stay Herschel and I became friends and our parents became friends. There has been a 40 year family friendship lasting to this day. In fact when I was married Herschel's mother performed the ceremony. She is an elected judge in south Georgia.

I was visiting Herschel one summer when we both were in our late teens. At night there is not much to do in real rural south Georgia so we were cruising two lane black tops and sucking down PBR. Herschel decides it is time to play a game. He reaches under the set and pulls out a 45 that probably belonged to Jessie James. The car increased speed to around 70 mph. The goal of the game is to shoot the Stop sign as you go through those remote intersections without slowing down. Herschel won the game.

Herschel settled down and got married. I was best man. Later he had a beautiful little daughter and obtained a rare good job with the Department of Transportation. While he was examining a bridge there was a freak accident where he was hit by a passing truck and knocked off the bridge. The truck hit and the fall broke almost everything in his body. He lived a week. I was a pall barer.


Russel, Rusty, was a young boy I knew for only three months. We met and roomed together one summer at Warm Springs. Both of us were having treatment during the summer to combat the effects of childhood Polio.

Rusty had been hit by Polio much harder than I had been. His legs were not strong enough to stand. His trunk was too weak for him to set up independently. He could move his arms if he used his shoulders and pushed with the opposite arm but his hands were too weak to hold even the lightest objects. Rusty could hold his head up for a short time but then needed a chin rest to keep it off his chest. His breathing was labored due to lack of muscles in his diaphragm.

Needless to say Rusty was not a picture of health but he was one of the strongest guys I ever met. Besides rooming with him, he spent a lot of time with me and my family when they came to visit. I never met anyone from his family nor remember any mail he may have received. It seemed he was just dropped off at the hospital.

Rusty love to read. He wasn't strong enough to lift his arms and turn pages so he had a mouth piece with a rubber tip to flip the pages. He would say, 'I can go anywhere and do anything inside a book.' He would read everything and made it all seem like an adventure. I believe he created a love for the written word inside my young brain that never died.

Reading was not all that made up Rusty. Talking with him as a true experience. It seemed he was interested in anything that was discussed and had a level of understanding far beyond his youthful age. His eyes sparkled, his smile was contagious and he laughed with all the strength he had. Even with all the things Rusty had to deal with alone, I do not think I ever saw him cry.

Here was this guy who couldn't even roll over on his own and I envied him and wanted to be around him just to hear what he had to say next.

I left Warm Springs that summer before Rusty. A few months later I came back for a routine check-up and visited the hospital wing where I had stayed the past summer. I found out that Rusty had never gone home. A month after I last saw him, he had gotten a late summer cold. They had moved him into an iron lung to help him breath. In that metal tube, alone, his lungs just quit and he died. The nurses said he never cried.

Funny, the thing I remember most clearly is that he taught me how to play chess and love the game.

Linda Rains

There were ladies I met during my hormone years. One was Linda Rains from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She was a beautiful girl with eyes that would melt you. She had surgery on her hip which required a cast from her waist all the way down her leg but this was not an obstacle for two teens interested in each other. I got caught one time when I was visiting in her room as I was crawling off my stretcher into her bed, to talk. (a floor nurse is sneaky) I left the hospital before her that summer and the parting was tearful. The last I heard, she was about to be married and that was thirty years ago. I wonder if she had children that were as gorgeous as she was?

Sheila Peek

A lady from Alabama, Sheila had southern beauty to match any model and a personality that drew you to her. Being a dumb teen I did not think I had a ghost of a chance with her. I found out too late the interest was mutual. Once I did visit her at her home but never pursued contact. Sheila if you read this, I still think about you.

Ottie Lee Treadway, Jr.

He was the Yankee from West Virginia and my hospital roommate one summer and quite a character. My family best remembers him as the boy from up North who 'learned good eat'n'. We introduced the Yankee to southern cooking and in Ottie's words his favorites became Fry'd O-Kree, Corn-Pone, Col-Lerd-Greens and Fry'd Apple Pies.

Polio had hit Ottie harder than me. He could not move his legs unassisted or stand without bracing, one hand was deformed and his arms were weaker than mine but he could sit up without support, if he could get vertical. His incarceration that summer was for a couple of surgeries including one on his hand.

Ottie played the folk guitar. He knew all the PP&M songs and he sang with a baritone voice that rivaled George Beverly Shey. I was always amazed at the music and sound that came out of him and the transformation that would come over him. Just a week after the surgery to his hand, Ottie was playing the guitar again and practicing new cords he could now do that the deformity had prevented.

The last contact I had with him, he was a night time DJ on an FM radio station in West Virginia. I would really like to see him again and see what magic he can do now.

Cindy Preston

Cindy was the most wonderful Polio survivor I have ever known. She was Disney World rolled up into one person; beautiful, sharp and fun. I met her during my last stay at Warm Springs. After we both went home I kept in contact and even took her to my High School Senior Prom. Heads did turn that night.

Cindy and I had a similar sense of humor, warped. On one occasion at the hospital we were caught crawling out our room windows on to the patio to 'talk'. Believe it or not the nurse who caught us asked, Just what do you think you are doing? (Yea, really.) po cindy Cindy was creative. Her art was very good. As a present she painted my motorcycle helmet in oil based patterns. More than once I was offered serious dollars for that 'art form' but still have it with me.

Later we lost touch. As often happens, Cindy matured fast than me and I was too dumb to see it. Cindy's family move to California and we did not stay in contact. For some reason I believe she went into commercial art. I would really like to know what happened.


There were other characters and events associated with the Warm Springs summer camps. I do not remember name but here are a few memories.

When I first learned to play chess I faced a gentleman who beat the snot out of me. Turns out he was a Brazilian Grand Master. Yet he still continued to play me and taught me a lot over a couple of month. This was during the stay when I met Russell.

Food was brought to our floor on huge food carts with wheels. The guys pulling these carts would fly down the halls. Once while I was waiting on a stretcher in the hall to go some place, one of these carts flew by. Just for grins I pushed out, grabbed the back of the cart and took off for a great ride. A nurse started chasing us but could not keep up. Just like in a car chase my floor nurse called ahead to the floor nurse in the next wind and a hall blockade was set up and stopped us.

One of the by-products of laying in a body cast that no one will forget, is that with the immediate suspension of physical activity the lower organs in the body cease their normal function which is closely monitored by the medical personnel and addressed post-haste using a suppository wrapped in tin foil. In other words, in a hospital, no do-do is a no-no. First thing in the morning a nurse would come around and ask, When did you go last? The proper response was 'yesterday', which the more astute of us learned quickly. A response of 'day-before yesterday' would bring forth the LEGEND.

Charley was a famous orderly at Warm Springs, a legend. He stood over six feet and weighted around 200. He was kind, gentle and knew how to work with Polio patients. Yet his imposing figure still invoked fear for he never smiled except for one event. A response of 'day-before…' would bring Charley within fifteen minutes. He would appear at the door with a bedpan in one hand and a foil wrapped suppository in the other grinning from ear to ear. Then came the famous Charley words, Hey, Hey, Hey, here com'n tha Lone Ranger with his silver bullet. God we loved Charley.

There was one little boy who never seemed to have this problem. It wasn't that his constitution was regular that bothered us, it was that he went at night and occasionally got his jollies from gross humor. In the middle of the night, from behind the curtains surrounding his bed, we would hear "in-coming!" Then until the nurse air-raid warden appeared, the sky would rain little brown bombs that went 'splat' upon impact. Luckily I was always able to construct an air raid shelter before one of the surprise attacks. This young lad got the affectionate name of Bo-Do-Do.

At summer camp we did have ways to let people know their behavior was not appropriate. On each floor of the hospital there were fire emergency shoots. Doors from the hall would open into a huge metal tube that ran down through the other floors into the basement. When there was an emergency the patient on his mattress would slide down the shoot to a safe location, kind of like a water slide without the water.

Often a number of patients would line up on stretchers down the hall waiting to be transported in mass to some event. On one occasion a particular young lad with a gross sense of humor was positioned on his stretcher in front of the emergency shoot doors. As fate would have it I was positioned at one end of this lad's stretcher and my roommate was at the other end. With a wink my roommate opened one door to the shoot and I opened the other and the young lad began a dark journey down the shoot on his stretcher pad. The doors were shut and the empty stretcher pushed into a room as we heard a fading scream from behind the closed shoot doors. The nurse returned and was curious as to why the headcount was now one short and why the other patients in the hall were cheering over their applause.

Previously I mentioned Linda Rains. Late at night, about 3 A.M., I had an over powering desire to visit her. As a Polio patient I was resourceful and since it was so late there wasn't any nurse activity on the floor, so I hatched a plan. I unlocked the wheels to my bed and by pushing on stationary objects I was able to maneuver the bed into the hall. With an animal urge driving me forward I pushed the bed from side to side of the hall working my way forward a little each time. My goal was in sight, the door to Linda's room. Then around a corner of the hall she came, a 112 year old nurse, with no sympathy for a teenager in heat, who calmly pushed me back to my room and tied a rope around a leg of my bed and the radiator.

Oh how I loved the fun and games on those hot and steamy nights in the deep South with the bees buzzing, the smell of pine, and the perfume of lovely ladies away from home for one of the first times in their lives having beads of sweat forming on their neck and running down the valley of their bosom. (Well, it really wasn't that exciting.)

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