The Epidemic of ’53

The ride itself was not a long one, two hours at most. Such significance was attached to it in later years that it seemed to Billy as if a caravan journey from ancient Tyre to the land of Hind would have been more brief.

Searing August held the land in thrall. The man-mites coursed the burning pavements and the tar-pit streets in a weary plod, searching for oasis-like relief from the torpid, scorching day. The hospital orderlies grunted inarticulate curses at the sun, the heavy, awkward stretcher that grew heavier by the minute and their miserable fate at having to work, instead of being able to join the mass city exodus to the beach. They kept up a constant clamor about the delights they were missing at the fabled seashore.

The very word “beach,” to the unenlightened, conjures up an image of deep blue, tropical waters, rolling rhythmically upon a white-sandy shore. Coney Island was nothing like this serene image. Visited by the empty beer-can scattering tribe of man, Coney Island was an arena of delight for ten-thousand devils, fiendishly gloating over the tortures inflicted daily on all who were foolish enough to enter this arena of torment. First the bold adventurers ran the gambit of the boardwalk, bounded on one side by food stands selling all the viands that clog arteries; cotton-candy, hot-dogs, french-fries, soft-drinks, beer and ice-cream. On the other side, there was a rusting iron fence overlooking the beach, with an occasional pay telescope for the convenience of the optically challenged to peer at the bathing-suited maidens without having to venture into the fray.

Next, visitors descend a flight of stairs leading to the beach, pausing to shed their shoes before they became filled with coarse, grating sand. Then, they pursue a course designed to leave them as close as possible to the inviting water, followed by the indignant shrieks of outlying fragments of the dense mass, unappreciative of  possessions and persons being trod upon by sand-burned feet, echoing behind them. Finally, there was the spreading of the blanket, disrobing, racing across the hot sand and plunging into icy water, splashing around briefly, and then coming out to lie on a blanket atop gritty sand containing the discarded refuse of ten thousand fellow sufferers. The excursion culminates in broiling in the baking sun until it’s time to return to hot, uncomfortable homes. This was what our faithful bearers, unhappy with their princely burden, yearned for.

They had deposited the frightened boy on a traveling stretcher, in the hearse-like ambulance. Billy thought of the many times he had seen similar vehicles racing through the city streets, siren wailing, carrying someone to the hands of crisp, efficient doctors, who he imagined would coolly mend battered and broken frames. With the feeling that this shouldn’t be happening to him, and still finding it difficult to accept that he had the dreaded disease, he carefully watched the orderlies for any clue to his condition.

The ambulance drove along the waterfront section of the Belt Parkway, through the drab greyness of one of the many tenement neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Trapped on the uncomfortable traveling stretcher, Billy craned his neck so that he could see the ancient, rusty freighters loading their mysterious cargo that would go to strange, exotic ports of the earth. Then they raced through the tiled smoothness of the Battery Tunnel, with the faint pressure beneath the river pressing on his ears and the exhaust stench of the noxious engine fumes filling his nose and throat with a stinging touch that made his eyes water.

Finally, after feeling that sunlight was forever lost, they came out of the tunnel and Billy saw the large sign advertising gasoline greeting the jaded traveler entering Manhattan. They drove up the cobblestoned ramp, with Billy breathing a silent prayer to beat the automobile racing alongside his once ambulance, now racing car. Urging his heroic driver to go faster, despite the risk, then accepting defeat as the high-powered car of his opponent, Crash Kelly, roared past with a dangerous burst of speed.

Billy found consolation looking at the great, sleek ocean liners, snugly secured to vast wharfs jutting out on the dark flow of the Hudson River. On the far side of the river, the unknown land of New Jersey was gaudily bedecked with huge billboards and neon signs, blatantly attracting attention to the virtues of their products. Tall water, gasoline and oil towers stood awkwardly on craggy cliffs, surrounded by grim factories and warehouses. In the distance, there was the magical allure of an amusement park, whose wonders and delights had never been tasted.

On the New York side of the river, Billy watched with yearning eyes when he saw the fast-moving bodies of young boys playing ball in the parks that bordered the highway, each of them separated by ordered swatches of green. His mother spoke, breaking the reverie of remembered games. “The rehabilitation hospital is supposed to be very nice.” ‘How could a hospital be nice?’ he thought, nodding vaguely. His mother retreated into her own thoughts again. He tried to think of something to say indicating interest, but was distracted when he saw the George Washington Bridge connecting them to the unknown world growing larger, as the ambulance sped on.

They went through a series of sharp turns, then entered the access road leading across the vast, shiny structure. Billy looked down at the water and saw small boats chugging up and down river. Their remoteness, due to the height from which he was looking, made each boat seem like a tiny realm inhabited by sprite-like creatures. The ambulance paused as the driver paid the toll, then they continued on the road, with turnoffs leading to turnpikes, thruways and highways, each one preferable, but the driver, with malicious cunning, found the road that led to the hospital, where Billy would spend the next year of his stolen youth.

As they drove on, Billy stared with avid hunger at the boys seen momentarily in the small towns they passed, running and playing with abandon. This brought /images of himself and all the games and activities of his childhood, inexorably vanished with the coming of polio. He watched the trees bordering the road with their leaves turned yellow by the hot, pulsing sun. When the clouds occasionally parted, he could see the deep, flowing tides of the Hudson River, making his past life seem distant and strange. Higher and higher they climbed, as the road went into the Catskill Mountains and he looked upon the vastness of the unknown land and fear was born; the peculiar fear that comes when one first painfully learns that the carefree, unthinking time of youth is forever lost.

They passed a faceless small town and the driver, in venomous perversity, remarked: “We’re just about there.” Then the boy knew that this was no tortured nightmare, with salvation imminent by awakening. He began to accept the full significance of his condition for the first time; he was paralyzed.

The ambulance turned across the highway and went up a steep, narrow road bounded by slopes of seared grass. He saw a drab, grey and white columned building that looked like a shabby plantation in the movies. They passed a blur of low, red-bricked buildings that all looked the same. They stopped by the building which he knew would be his home. His stretcher was wheeled up a ramp, through a door to the ward nurse’s office, then into a temporary isolation room where he was placed on a bed.

His mother, with affectionate and tender words, said farewell, promising to visit as soon as possible. The boy saw the anguish and unspeakable torment in his mother’s eyes, but was too young to understand that affliction is a searing pain to those who love the afflicted one. So he watched her go, unaware of her isolated anguish during the long, silent ride back to the city, unaware of her impotent and frustrating vigils to come in the stillness of long, sleepless nights, and unaware of the agony brought about by the crippling of the child of her flesh. And the boy felt the first dagger-thrust of aloneness that would bind him adamantly for the rest of his life.

The New York State Adaption Institute is located north of New York City, upon a hill that overlooks the Hudson River. It sits on the ancient site of one of the many battles George Washington lost in the Revolutionary War. The institute consists of red-bricked buildings with green-tiled roofs that had a factory-like efficient appearance, shaped roughly in a quadrangle, with outcroppings of buildings including a laundry, resident personnel dormitories, and others whose mystery was never penetrated. The buildings were surrounded by neat but scraggly grass patches, giving the entire area the appearance of a sterile, small town college, where the local progressive citizenry might send their barely functional offspring to incubate and not embarrass the family.

The buildings in the quadrangle comprised the working area of the institute that the patients had contact with. They included two main ward buildings; one for male patients, with one floor for those over sixteen years of age, called the ‘men’s ward’, and the other floor for those below sixteen, called the ‘boy’s ward’. The building for female patients was similarly arranged.

Once he was left alone, he lay there on the bed petrified and silent. His mouth was dry in an agony of fright. The doctors had said that he would never walk again. The words burned through his brain in hot, unbelievable flames that consumed all his courage, all his strength. It was just a few days ago, running down the street with his friend Tommy, never knowing that it would be the last wild use of his limbs. He didn’t want to recognize that he was the immobile body concealed under the covers, already taking on the look of the imprisoned. He stared from captive wounded eyes, asking the same question over and over; ‘Why me?’

Darkness fell, bringing the first hospital night for the boy. Lights suddenly flared, throwing grotesque, hovering shadows on the bile-green walls. The scuffing footsteps of nurses in the hallway brought him memories of recent summer nights and the distant whispers of unknown strangers, passing in the darkness. Nurse Wheeler, the night ward nurse who he would get to know well and who had grown dismal from the sufferings that each night brought, stopped at the door of the isolation room. “And how do we feel tonight?” she mumbled, then hurried on without waiting for an answer. And the night slowly passed and he lay alone with his new unmoving body as the hours crept by, and he struggled to endure the fearful, sleepless watch. And when no sleep came no dreams came and he was trapped in his inert flesh with no hope of escape.

He remembered the terrible events of the last two weeks that brought him here. He had been working as a junior counselor in a day camp in Brooklyn. He was fifteen years old and it was the first job that gave him responsibility over others; he was thriving on it. He had worked as a bicycle delivery boy at the age of eleven, getting up each morning at 5:00 A.M. to deliver the Brooklyn Eagle to its enlightened readership. He had been the youngest and smallest delivery boy, suddenly introduced to the carnivorous world of work, bullied and harassed, until he learned how to deal with his peers. Two years later the demise of the Eagle ended his ride. When he was fourteen, a neighbor got him a job in the mail room of Warwick and Legler, a politically connected law firm, that included John Foster Dulles as a senior partner, a powerful player in Republican circles. Billy was politically ignorant and didn’t grasp the stature of the firm and no one bothered to educate him. So the summer passed in mechanical chores performed by rote, although he learned how to interact with sophisticated adults.

In the summer of ’53 he was strong, fit and full of juices. He had joined the high school gym team the year before as a sophomore and had blossomed physically. He was a shade under six feet, with curly brown hair and intense brown eyes that hungrily probed everything around him. He had a striking rather than a handsome face, a persona that instantly attracted friends and enemies, and a growing confidence in his abilities. By the second day of camp he had established himself by the assured way he did whatever was asked of him. He was treated the same way as the older counselors, the college boys, and despite their difference in years, felt equal to some and superior to most. By the end of the first week he was flirting with three girls, the youngest of whom was seventeen, and he had a short, but exciting sexual encounter with a girl of twenty-two.

For the first time in his life Billy was happy. He came from a poor family, with a harsh father who took out his failures and frustrations on his son. Only recently had he become strong enough to put an end to the oppressive beatings that had gone on since early childhood. Now his father still cursed and yelled at him, but it was a minor annoyance compared to regular violent attacks. His father never struck his mother, but she had been worn down by his endless verbal assaults. He had hated his mother for not protecting him when he was a child, but he finally recognized her inability to deal with the ugliness of confrontation and now felt sorry for her. He was doing well in school, getting good marks and he had actually made some friends. He had a series of girlfriends, several of whom significantly added to his sexual education. He started to believe that there might be a tomorrow for him, up to the day he got sick.

He hadn’t noticed anything physically significant in the second week of July. He went to work, tended the kids, flirted with the girl counselors and was really enjoying himself. He came home one day and his mother remarked that his face seemed flushed. She felt his forehead and told him he was burning up. He felt alright and started to go out for the evening, but she insisted he see the doctor. She phoned the family physician, Doctor Pearlman, who had taken care of their family for years. He urged her to bring Billy to his office immediately. The country was in the midst of a polio epidemic that was terrifying people everywhere, particularly in the big cities. When Dr. Pearlman made a preliminary diagnosis of polio, Billy thought he was joking. “Are you trying to scare me?” he asked scornfully. “I feel fine.” But it was no joke. The doctor sent for an ambulance that took Billy to Kingston Hospital and an isolation room.

Despite the doctor’s assertion and the contagious warnings on the doors, Billy still felt fine. After lying on his bed for two hours with nothing to do, he got restless and went for a walk. When he got back, the nurses, doctors and administrators were frantic and screamed at him to get back into bed. He began to understand how lepers felt. They put him in restraints and gave him a spinal tap, an agonizing experience, confirming the diagnosis. When he woke up in the morning, he was completely paralyzed from neck to feet. He didn’t believe it at first. It was only when he tried to move and couldn’t that the horrifying reality begin to sink in. He had no idea what to do or think, so he retreated to that inner place that let him endure his father’s beatings. The doctors were pleased to tell him that morning that he would never walk again. He couldn’t believe that they could say something like that and his “Fuck you. I will,” was not received cordially. But he didn’t care and vowed that he would walk again, no matter how long it took. The doctors spitefully told him that as soon as he was no longer contagious he would be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, somewhere in upstate New York.

So here he was at 5:30 A.M., trapped in his bed, when Nurse Harmon, the ward nurse who he would later come to detest for her callous, frigid indifference to the patients, brought in the juice cart. There was a limited choice; concentrated orange, tomato, or grapefruit, in tiny cans dripping with early morning sweat. “Do you always bring juice this early?” he asked. Nurse Harmon stared at him coldly and ignored his question. “Orange, tomato, or grapefruit?” she asked implacably. “Orange, please.” Their eyes locked and the roots of conflict were born. “You didn’t answer me. Why do we have to get up so early?” She glared at him, hands on hips. “It’s ward policy. Are you going to give me trouble?” He managed to bite back a smartass retort. “No. What happens after juice?” “We wait until breakfast.” “When is that?” “7:30,” she answered, looking at him challengingly. He didn’t respond, beginning to realize that he was trapped in an alien world, with unknown rules.

The wait until breakfast felt interminable. He started to doze off several times, but each time Nurse Harmon appeared, as if by remote control, and stridently said: “No sleeping before breakfast.” “Is there something I have to do?” he asked reasonably. “No.” “Then why can’t I sleep?” “Ward policy. Do you have a problem with that?” He decided not to argue with her until he knew more about the place. “What happens after breakfast?” She stared at him for a moment, then answered in a monotone: “Toilet and personal hygiene at 8:00. School from 8:30 to 12:00. Lunch at 12:30. Physical therapy from 1:30 to 2:30. Hydro therapy from 3:00 to 4:00. Occupational therapy from 4:30 to 5:15. Dinner at 5:30. Ward lights out at 9:00 on the boy’s ward, where you’ll be moved after dinner. Questions?” “I can’t move. How can I do those things?” “This is a rehabilitation hospital,” she explained scornfully. “We’ll help you.” “Oh.”

The only palatable part of breakfast was the ward attendant who fed him. She was a local girl, who in another section of the country would have been a hillbilly. She had stringy brown hair, a pale face, washed out blue eyes, but a ripe body that swelled in the appropriate places. The corn flakes were pasty, the milk watery, the breakfast roll stale, the butter tasteless, but her hand that casually stroked him as she fed him with her other hand, made him forget what passed for a meal. “What’s your name?” she asked nasally. “Billy. What’s yours?” “Lizzie Jo. But you can call me Liz.” And while they talked her hand kept wandering his body and he didn’t know what to do or say. “This your first day?” she asked, while her hand asked something else. “Yeah. What kind of place is this?” “It’s a hospital for paralyzed people.” “I know. I mean what’s it like?” “You’ll find out,” she answered with a giggle. “I’ve got other patients to feed. See ya.” And off she went, leaving him trying to figure out what she was up to.

The rest of his first day at the hospital was as strange as breakfast and passed in a blur. The school teachers treated their physically dysfunctional students as if they were mentally challenged. The level of classroom work was designed for the retarded and that’s how it was presented. He didn’t say anything as he tried to understand what was going on. His unmoving body was shuttled from therapy to therapy. At physical therapy, Stan, a short, stocky, extremely hairy man, seemed to take pleasure in stretching Billy’s limbs until he screamed in pain. Then he explained how it was for his own good. By the end of the day Billy was so exhausted that he had no objections when the lights went out for the night. He lay there in the darkness feeling the shame of being processed like a piece of meat, with as much consideration for his sensibilities. Just before he fell asleep, he vowed to himself that he would deal with this nightmare and someday walk again.

Sleep was an intermittent torment of terrifying dreams of pursuit that he couldn’t escape. A band of ravenous wolves chased him across a snow-covered mountain. He ran faster and faster, but so did the wolves. They caught up, surrounded him and were about to pounce, when he woke up in a cold sweat that he was helpless to wipe off. He lay there quietly trying to calm down, until he drifted off. A group of brutal-looking men threatened him on a surreal city street. He turned and ran and they followed. The street got narrower and narrower and they got closer and closer, cornering him in a dead end. They reached out to grab him and he woke up again in a cold sweat.

He didn’t dare go back to sleep after that and lay awake, a prisoner in his immobile body. He couldn’t move, so all he could do was ask himself why this happened to him. He didn’t know what would come next, so for the first time in his life he tried to pray. He didn’t know how to do it, so he just asked for help. There was no reassuring sign, or soothing voice and he tried not to feel sorry for himself. Suddenly the harsh fluorescent ward lights flashed on, blinding him momentarily. The cold, grating voice of the ward nurse snapped: “It’s 5:00 a.m. Time for juice.” When the cart reached his cubicle, he asked: “Why do we have juice now? It’s still dark out.” She glared at him implacably. “Hospital routine. You’ll get used to it. You can go back to sleep until 7:00.” Instant antipathy flared between them, but they said nothing more. A moment later she put the lights out and he began to understand that he was in a battle and would have to find some way to survive this alien world.


Author Unknown. If you are the author of this essay or know who is, please let us know at r.kv.r.y.editor(at)gmail(dot)com. We lost records when the old website imploded, and would like to fully credit all authors who have generously shared their work with us. Thank you.