In the good old days, the little creek that ran through the city park near the house I grew up in ran a different color every day, depending on which upstream factory was dumping in it. Nothing living was ever seen in it. Its topography was littered with old tires and paint cans; it smelt vaguely of sewage. We children played in it, none the wiser. That parents warned us that it was “polio water” only made it all the more attractive.
Polio was an everyday feature of our lives in those days before the Salk vaccine. Every neighborhood had its assortment of twisted limbs and funerals featuring disturbingly small coffins. By the time I was seven, I knew what a corpse looked like. The old man down the street had collapsed in the alley and died of something that would be routinely treated today; a boy in my first grade class perished of what I heard in my muddledness as “romantic fever.” We were paraded in single file past where he lay in his open coffin, white and cold as the snow that was drifting outside. It was what it was, and like children everywhere, we just thought that was what life was like.
Polio was a particularly haunting beast, because when it didn’t kill, it left its victims in varying degrees of disability. The worst was the iron lung, a contraption that looked like a water heater laid on its side, the patient all but swallowed up in it, only the head protruding. A mirror was thoughtfully placed to allow eye contact. When it was operating, it sounded like Darth Vader; I’m certain that’s where Lucas got the inspiration.
Short of the horrors of that was every degree of disability. As a teenager, my friend Jerry was one of the survivors who had managed a limited mobility. His legs twisted like corkscrews, he rammed his crutches into the sidewalk with every step, muscles taut as wires on the verge of snapping. All the same, he got around, as one does, even to the point of dancing in a strangely balletic series of jerks and realignments.
The dances took place on Friday or Saturday nights in a great neoclassical hulk of a building in the center of the park. Whatever its original purpose, in my day it served as a community center, a place for youngsters from both sides of the park, sworn enemies, to come together and play basketball, pool, or ping pong. Or, as often as not, for the boys to fight it out. That boys would fight each other was considered so obvious as to not merit discussion; efforts at mediation were few and feeble, and usually involved trying to get the fighters to put on gloves. The fights actually took place outside the building, in consideration of the generosity of the venue, and the disinclination to follow any rules, Queensberry or otherwise.
The dances were open, and generally peaceful. On one particular night, Jerry was flailing away, dancing with one of the regular girls, who knew and liked him, when a boy from across the park began to taunt him, mocking his awkward moves.
Jerry swiveled around, raised a crutch, and caught the boy on the side of the head with a resounding “Thwack!” The boy fell, the music kept playing, and Jerry and everyone else resumed dancing.
That boy got up, left the building reeling, and never was seen there again. No one ever made fun of Jerry’s dancing after that.