By: Donald Zelle
(This short story, though fictional, is filled with facts, recollections and experiences that I, Donald Zelle, had as a young boy in the mid to late 1950s. I was 16 to 18 years old.)
Kenneth Lamprey was his name, but almost no one called him that. O, his schoolteacher did. When she took roll every morning in school, she called “Kenneth Lamprey,” and he would answer. Now and then, when he spoke too softly or misbehaved, our teacher would call out more loudly “Kenny!” but usually it was Kenneth. You couldn’t miss Kenneth. It was the way he walked. When he stepped down on his right foot, it was the front of the foot that met the floor first, not the heel. The foot was also turned inward a bit and this is why he limped with his right leg. Because of that, most people called him Limpy instead of Kenny. That nickname stuck with him for the rest of his life. This is the story.
Kenneth Lamprey was born in a small mid-western town. He was the second of three children. He had an older brother Ervin and a younger sister Susan. O yes, there were his parents, of course, Eldor and Rachel Lamprey. They owned a house at the edge of town that had a small farm behind it that stretched out toward a large woods to the north. Besides the usual crops, Mr. Lamprey grew all sorts of vegetables – corn, squash, cabbage, tomatoes – produce that could be sold at their vegetable stand in front of their house on West Road. The whole family helped with the work, both in the field and at the roadside vegetable stand. In the winter, when there was less regular work to do, Mr. Lamprey was employed at the Cumber Lumber Company on the east side of town.
Eldor Lamprey depended on his boys to do the preparation of the ground, the planting, seeding and weeding, under the supervision of their mother. For the most part, they were willing to do it, but the older boy Ervin was the first to show that he was not so much interested in a vegetable farm. That’s when more of the work fell to Kenneth.
He was about fifteen years old when, all through America, young people mostly, but also older folk, were getting sick from a strange disease. No one knew what it was or what caused it. Some children while walking or playing, felt as if something was grabbing the back of their legs or that the leg was stuck in mud and had to be pulled out. In others, an arm became stiff and difficult to move. Still other people had an ache in the stomach and felt nauseous. It seemed that the illness increased among children in the spring of the year and was the worst during the summer.
Throughout America, the problem increased for several summers. Doctors and hospitals took care of these patients but didn’t really know what to do for them. Many people, boys and girls also, began wearing facemasks for protection. Others stayed home from school at the first sign of a symptom, and in the summer, swimming pools were almost always vacant, because parents did not want their children in public and possibly have them exposed to the disease.
Well, despite all the precautions, it still happened. It started first in Kenny’s right leg. There was a feeling of tightness and a little pain. When he tried to run, he could only go a few steps. His family knew right away what it was. It was the disease that was being called “Infantile Paralysis.” Anyway, that’s what the doctors and nurses called it, and the newspapers. Some people went so far as to use the official medical term: Poliomyelitis. Most people just said “polio,” and most everyone was afraid of it. Kenneth was afraid too, and what his parents had him do, upset him even more. Not only did they take him to a doctor, but they also had their own ideas of how to care for him. They had him sleep upstairs in a room by himself. In fact, much of the day he was in that room alone. When the family came to see him and bring him food, they wore masks over their mouths and noses so that as they talked with him, they sounded strange. His mother thought he would be better in a dark room, so she pulled down the green shades over the two windows in the room, one on the south wall and the other on the east. Then, because the shades did not quite reach to the bottoms of the windows, she taped newspaper over the glass to keep the sunlight out. He was quarantined!
Kenny spent most of the summer break from school that year in that upstairs hot bedroom. Except for grocery shopping, the family pretty much stayed home. Other families too, only went out to shop or to work. There was no going to visit cousins or grandparents or even attend church. No one came to visit either, and there were no ballgames in the back yard. It was a hard summer. Kenny was not getting better. Because polio put pressure on the spine, he could not bring his right leg forward in the normal way. The muscles would not respond, and he developed the problem that caused others to call him “Limpy.”
When September came and school began again, Limpy attended but he could not run well and usually stood to the side during recess. He could participate in almost no sports and even found it hard to help his father with chores and the vegetable farm. Yet Limpy was good-natured. He did not get angry when he was teased. He especially made friends with other young people who were suffering the effects of polio. There were a few girls who enjoyed being with him because he was funny sometimes. Though they were occasionally embarrassed about it, they got used to having him put his hand on their shoulder while walking with them or trying to run. Sometimes when asked how he was doing, he would answer, “Well, I’m still limping along,” and they would both smile.
During that school year, the city, county, state and national health departments were trying to figure out how to help people who had polio and how to stop the disease. Someone had invented what was known as an “iron lung.” It looked like a large barrel in which a person could lay with only their head exposed. The movement of air in the iron lung helped the person to breathe. That invention saved many people during the time their chest muscles were not strong enough to draw air.
By this time citizens of the United States had learned that even President Roosevelt had suffered from polio, although those close around him tried not to make it obvious. Whenever the president made a speech, he was seated at a podium, in his wheelchair, and only his face and upper body were pictured in newspapers. Limpy was aware that in this way he was very much like the President of the United States!
To give the people of the nation an opportunity to address this health crisis, President Roosevelt had asked that a collection be taken all through the country and that the money go for research on this terrible disease. It was not long after the great recession, and people did not have all that much money, but he asked for only a little. “Let dimes be collected,” he said, and so began the March of Dimes!
The March of Dimes began as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and funded research to fight polio. Medical schools were working on vaccines in their laboratories. Some declared that everyone should be vaccinated to prevent catching the disease. There were others, however, who did not trust the serum. Parents had to make a choice whether their children would be given the vaccine. Many feared that inserting the germ that was in the serum, whether a dead germ or alive, would only spread the disease.
In that small town there was a children’s home that a Lutheran church had begun. It was a home for children who were left orphaned by the loss of their parents or who were in need of help in growing up. The administration of that children’s home decided that all of the children in their care would be inoculated. All had to participate. In other cities, those who were in charge of other people’s children did the same. This vaccination of children on a large scale encouraged parents to have it done for their own children. The vaccine was named after its maker Dr. Jonas Salk. Not all went well, however, because a large supply of the serum became tainted while being produced. Those who received it became very ill. Only after the problem was discovered and corrected did the large-scale vaccination of children continue.
Everything seemed to improve that winter. Most children were in school. Attendance at social events in the community and at church improved. Yet many were concerned that the warming temperatures in the spring would bring another outbreak.
Spring came and the mayor could not decide whether the swimming pool should be opened or remain closed. People spoke for it and against it. The letters to the editor of the local newspaper were evenly divided on the subject. Then something happened that determined it for everyone. The summer began very warm, and already in early June, there were new cases of polio. There were children who became ill and also some adults. One of them was the mayor’s son. The pool would be closed!
It was too late for some, of course. Before July 4th of that hot summer, several families had children come down with the cramps and muscle weakness. There was shock through the whole town when the Shultheiss family, living on the east side of town, had their two children in the hospital and their mother as well! The father was almost beside himself. He was sure their whole house was infected with the polio germ. He would no longer live there, he said. He moved some belongings out of the house and asked the fire department to come and burn down his house! It happened on a sunny Monday at the end of July. There was a large fire just east of the Cumber Lumber Company. While the house burned, many people stood at a distance to watch. Some just shook their heads and walked away. Some cried. The newspaper didn’t make much of it. It just described it as a “controlled burn” and did not even show a picture of the house.
For Limpy, the worst was yet to come. He survived the illness. Ervin and Susan, his brother and sister, did not catch it nor did his father. But then there was his mother. It happened quickly. It was early August, and she had been in the vegetable field, but came home late in the morning with a headache and stomach cramps. She did not make a meal that noon nor did she say much to anyone in the family. She went straight to an upstairs bedroom, pulled the shades and opened a window for a little breeze. “I’ll just take a good, long rest,” she told herself. She knew what was to come. She called for her husband Eldor, and he gave her a sponge bath to cool and refresh her body. But her breathing was labored and she felt stiff all over. She rested that day and through the night. Early the next morning, she died in bed.
Limpy and his family were struck dumb! Wasn’t it enough that one of them should carry the marks of polio for the rest of his life? Wasn’t it enough that children all through the town were suffering? Why should mothers now catch the disease also? There were not many at the funeral. They were afraid of the disease. When Limpy made his way to his mother’s casket and stood there, he was determined! He was determined that he was not going to let any little germ of a disease ruin his life forever. He was determined that he was not going to feel sorry for himself. He was determined to do the work around the house that his mother had done and care for the kitchen. His determination encouraged the rest of the family and it made life bearable for him.
Kenny graduated from high school that coming spring. He had started dating a girl who was also in the senior class. She was one of those who did not mind when he put his arm on her shoulder. They laughed about it now. They were married. Kenny also found work outside the farm and vegetable garden. He applied for a position as a custodian at a small bank in town. Before long he was doing similar work at another bank on the far end of Main Street. He was not fast in his work, but he was careful. His mother had taught him that. Everyone appreciated his thoroughness. When they entered the banks to do business, people of the town who knew him looked for him. “How are you doing?” they would often ask. As usual, he would answer with a smile, “I’m still limping along!”
Kenneth and his wife raised a family there in that small town, two girls and a boy. He worked as bank custodian until he was 64. When the local newspaper, some years later, gave the notice of his death, the heading said more than many would ever know. It read, “Kenneth (Limpy) Lamprey, age 75.”