Mister Polio by Raymond Holmes

Raymond Holmes recounts his experience as a child during the 1950s polio scare in America.

That hot, humid Saturday evening in July, 1951 was the scariest time of my young life - one I would never forget.

The air was like a blanket that covered your body as soon as you stepped outside. The slightest exertion drew perspiration through your skin immediately.

As a respite from the oppressive heat, Mother took me to an air conditioned neighbourhood movie theatre. The cool interior of the building was a blessed relief after enduring several days of that summer heat wave.

We saw "The Bride of Frankenstein." It was a terrifying movie for a seven year-old child to experience. Henry Frankenstein, creator of the monster, was delirious with excitement screaming, "It's Alive! It's Alive!" as he revelled in successfully animating the ugly living thing he had cobbled together with body parts purloined from cadavers.

My hair must have stood on end like that frizzy mop worn by the monster's bride. That grotesque creature and the thunder and lightning arcing over the dark, brooding Frankenstein castle perched high on a cliff was frightening.

When the movie was over, we reluctantly left the comfort of the theatre and ventured back out into the sauna-like environment of the July evening.

Maybe it was the fright-induced rush of adrenaline or the buttered popcorn and grape Popsicle snack bar treats that made me queasy as we left the theatre to walk the three blocks home. I barely made it to the bathroom before everything came up in a mess of purplish mush.

My mother, who sat calmly through the ghoulish horror movie, now displayed alarm at seeing my condition. There was a serious polio epidemic that summer.

In her mind it meant only one thing. That grim reaper of children, Mister Polio, had laid his hand on my shoulder. Mom wasn't alone in her anxiety. Any sign of illness or malaise afflicting a child during those summers of the early 1950's would produce dread and panic in parents.

Most young people, including myself, remained blissfully ignorant of the danger and ignored Mister Polio. Oh, there were reminders of that demon lurking in the shadows ready to strike at any moment, but we were carefree children and disregarded them.

I might have glanced at the pictures of unfortunate children equipped with crutches and awkward leg braces, or those imprisoned in mechanical breathing aids known as "iron lungs," but that fate certainly wouldn't happen to me. Things like that only befell other kids.

I felt fine after throwing up, but Mom was petrified with fear. I started to worry too.

Perhaps I shouldn't have ignored those recent twinges in my joints and muscles. Mother said they were just growing pains and not to be concerned, but now I had an ominous feeling that they were much more than that. The stories I had so casually dismissed of kids with polio rushed back into my mind.

I should have been more careful, but how, exactly?

Perhaps it wasn't a good idea to share that large bag of potato chips with my friend Randy a few days ago. Both of us had put our hands into the same bag. Who knew what germs other kids carried around?

I was in for it. What would become of me? My future, which up to then had been an endless golden thread to be picked up, was uncertain. Soon, maybe I wouldn't be able to walk, let alone pick anything up.

My mind retreated to a childish bargaining mode. Up until then, I hadn't thought much about God, or even acknowledged his existence, but now I needed him.

"Please God don't let it be polio. I'll do anything you want. I'll go to church faithfully from now on; I won't talk back to adults; I'll study harder; I'll do chores without complaining and be real good. Just don't let it be polio," I pleaded.

Mother called the doctor right away. They made house calls in those days and while waiting for him to arrive, she put me to bed in pyjamas, covered with a blanket.

"You need to avoid getting a chill," she said.

Our two story house had no air conditioning and I started to sweat.

She put her hand on my forehead. "My goodness - you have a fever."

I felt okay before being placed in the pyjama and blanket sweat box, but was feeling very uncomfortable now.

About thirty minutes later the doorbell rang. I could hear two muffled voices downstairs - the agitated, higher pitched one of my mother's and the unfamiliar, calmer, more reassuring tone of the doctor's. The sound of heavy footsteps ascending the stairs and approaching my bedroom announced his arrival. Mother followed, hovering anxiously in the open doorway.

"So, young man, you're not feeling well," he said pleasantly, before setting down the small black bag he was carrying.

"I threw up tonight."

"It happens. I did that once after smoking a cigar for the first time. Don't ever smoke young man. It's very bad for you."

I liked him right away for admitting that, but wondered why so many adults smoked if that were the case.

"He has a fever," my mother interjected, her face wrinkled with concern.

The doctor removed a thermometer from his bag and placed it in my mouth. "His temperature is normal," he declared upon removing it several minutes later.

"How can it be normal?" Mother exclaimed. "He's sweating."

"It's summer. The boy doesn't need a heavy blanket and pyjamas on," the doctor replied, before stripping the blanket off.

He removed a large flat stick and a small flashlight from his black bag.

"Open wide and say 'Ahhhh,'" he ordered, before depressing my tongue with the stick and inspecting the interior of my mouth.

"Hmmmm..." he murmured.

"What? What is it?" mother asked.

"His tongue is purple."

"Oh yes. He had a grape Popsicle at the show."

The doctor shone the light into my face and examined my eyes by having me follow his finger moving in, back, up, down, side to side and in circles.

Next, he had me breathe deeply in and out, while applying a stethoscope to my chest and back. Then, he grabbed my head with his hands and moved it back and forth and side to side.

"Any discomfort?" he asked.

"No," I replied.

With my feet dangling over the side of the bed, he tapped my knee caps with a small rubber tipped hammer. After that, he made me raise my legs, wiggle my toes and move my feet in circles from the ankles.

"Stand up."

He instructed me to perform a series of exercises.

Put your arms out to the side.

Wiggle all your fingers.

Move your arms forward.

Now move them back.

Arms up over your head.

Now down to the side.

Swing them around in circles.

Stand on one foot with your hands on your hips and eyes closed.

Bend down and touch your toes while keeping my knees straight.

Walk back and forth across the room heel to toe with your eyes closed.

After doing the last thing, I bumped into a chair on the way back, stubbing my big toe. It hurt.

"Any dizziness?"


"Squat, then stand up five times."

After that, he nodded. Was that a good sign?

My body dripped with sweat after performing all those calisthenics and my calves were hurting as they always did when I touched my toes without bending my knees.

I was glad when the doctor told me to lie down on my back. He raised my legs alternately straight up, then back down. After rolling me over onto my stomach, he bent each leg back until the heels touched my buttocks.

"Have you had diarrhea lately?" he asked.

"No," I replied, feeling my face flush in spite of the mask of warm perspiration covering it.

"He's been constipated," my mother volunteered.

I glared at her. My bowel habits were no one's business.

Mom must have sensed my annoyance. "The doctor's got to know these things," she insisted.

What did irregularity have to do with anything?

"Oh, we can fix that," he said.

I became worried. What did he mean? Was he referring to a dose of god-awful mineral oil or even worse, an enema?

"How's his appetite?"

"He has two big helpings of everything and several snacks a day," Mom said.

The doctor replaced his tools in the black bag and snapped it shut.

"I don't see any reason for concern," he said. "If any weakness, stiffness or pain in his joints or muscles develops, call me right away."

A great tide of relief washed over my Mother.

"Oh, thank God!" she gushed. You could see the anxiety and stress drain away from her face as if she had just set down a load of clay bricks.

The doctor's pronouncement was music to my ears as well, and I felt the tension in my body melt away. I wouldn't be one of those unfortunate, pitiful, handicapped children, impaired in the prime of life with a grim future.

I was still concerned. Perhaps his lengthy, thorough examination discovered something else wrong with me such as the need for eyeglasses, those funny looking orthopedic shoes my friend Billy had to wear for two years, or big, hard to swallow vitamin tablets to make me grow faster. I waited for him to say something about that constipation cure he alluded to.

He pulled out a pad and pencil, and then said to my mother, "I'm going to give you a prescription for him."

That was bad news: some awful tasting medicine from the corner drugstore to swallow three times a day, or big horse pills to choke down.

It was my own fault. I whined insistently for the popcorn and grape Popsicles at the movie theatre. If I hadn't, all this would not have happened. I'd have to suffer the consequences, whatever they were.

It was late and I was exhausted from the stress and ordeal of the examination. Sleep came quickly in spite of the heat.

Early the next morning the door to my room squeaked open. It was my mother with a fretful look on her face inquiring how I felt, and specifically, if any part of my body was stiff, weak or sore.

I replied that I felt fine, but she made me move my arms and legs around anyway just to make sure.

She reminded me about the prescription the doctor had left the previous evening.

I had forgotten all about it.

"Aw, do I have to?"

"Yes, it's for two things," she said.

"Two?" I cringed. "What are they?"

Mom smiled. "He ordered you to have cereal with lots of fibre in it every morning. I'll buy you some All-Bran. Oh - and no grape Popsicles for a week."

That doctor had a sense of humour. If he played tricks like that on his patients in July, what pranks did he resort to on April Fool's Day? I liked him and hoped that the next time we needed a doctor it would be him that came to the house.

"All-Bran" was the only "medicine" I had to take. That stuff was like eating wet, shredded cardboard, so on grocery shopping day I asked Mom if it could be changed to "Raisin Bran" instead. That cereal had less fibre, but always had a free toy in the package, or something you could send away for by cutting out the coupon on the box. The only thing that came with the box of All-Bran was a recipe for making bran muffins. They tasted like dry, roasted cardboard.

Reasoning that some fibre was better than nothing, and noting that the raisins in it were healthy, dried fruit, Mother agreed to the change.

That was the end of it. As far as the whole polio thing was concerned, I thought that adults needed to lighten up. After all, the chance of getting polio was a great cosmic crap shoot. I didn't know anyone who caught it. A few kids somewhere contracted it, but most children didn't, and there wasn't much you could do about it either way. Mister Polio never touched me that summer or any of the ones to follow, but I never forgot him - ever.

Oh - and that desperate bargain I made with God: the promises to attend church regularly, not talk back to adults and study harder if he spared me from the clutches of Mister Polio?

God kept his end of the agreement. I'm sorry to say that I didn't keep mine, but I still eat Raisin Bran every morning.


  1. A tender reminiscence of childhood, gently told, thank you, Ceinwen

  2. The good old days were fraught with diseases now conquered, and the threat of nuclear war. Oh, about that last thing ...

  3. Loved the initial scene-mood setting. Also, your depiction of the doctor's bedside manner was exactly what I remember. In my case, it was Dr. Krueger, who recommended menthol cigarettes for my parents when they had a sore throat. Ahh, the Sixties. Thx for a nice read.

  4. Delightful story, good child voice and a perfect ending. Thank you. I enjoyed reading it.

  5. Family reading which pulls you in to share in the anxiety and the relief.
    B r o o k e

  6. a heart warming, superbly descriptive and evocative story.
    well done

    Mike McC

  7. The story reminded me of one of my childhood fears. I guess we all had them. You encapsulated the intensity of the irrational fear perfectly. Good read.