A close call with polio

August 22, 2022 William A. Gralnick
Head shot of writer William Gralnick
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Come summer in Brooklyn, it was time for the pilgrimage to the Catskills. We were part of it. This continued until I was old enough for summer camp. The summer Polio hit New York; the pilgrimage became a mad rush with swarms of people hitting the road. Everyone thought it would be safer in the mountains than in the hot, humid, more densely populated borough. It was a moment in life when truth and reality came together.

We were not a Brown’s or Grossinger’s family. My parents, a circle of friends, and my uncle and his family found a place called “The N.” Owned by The Nichols family, It was easily seen from the highway because a large N had been cut into the forest. It was a small resort without the hoopla or activity directors of the big-name resorts. There were card rooms, a large lake full of shoreline lily pads that held giant bullfrogs. They would celebrate the night with basso calls to one another and an occasional water snake winding through the water, looking to surprise one of those frogs and have it for dinner. 

On land, there were pine needle-laden walking trails. The pine needles held three treasures. First was the smell that wafted up as you crushed them underfoot. That smell stayed with me. Pine Sol is my favorite smelling cleaner, 70 years later. The second was an actual semi-treasure. Glinting in the sun, having been disturbed by walkers, were garnets. The family has several beautiful pieces of jewelry made from those garnets that are being passed down through the generations. 

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Garter snakes and salamanders were the third treasures for this boy. It was the first time in my life that I caught and held a snake and felt that oily feel on its skin that never came off on your hands. The salamanders that the snakes didn’t get, I tried to get. At the end of every stay, I came home with one or two, built a terrarium, and cared for them. They always disappointed me by dying.

Speaking of dying, we come to the two times I almost did or was told I might. One summer’s day, I was treading the pine needle path down to the lake when something caught the corner of my eye. Even though I was late for a swim lesson with my uncle, I just had to stop for a quick investigation. As I approached, I heard this distinct hissing sound. I didn’t see its origin. Then I did. I was face to face with a Copperhead rattlesnake. He was coiled and ready to strike when suddenly appeared my uncle, who had come to see where I was. He picked up a huge rock. Two-handed, he lifted it over his head, like in the Scottish sports games, and heaved it. His aim was true. The snake was dispatched. That stopped my wandering off the beaten path for Inspector Clouseau-like investigations.

I survived that one, but the next was a problem of a whole other sort. I was diagnosed with polio. One day I began to feel ill. I spiked a fever. My head was splitting. What really rang the alarm bell was when I awoke one morning and couldn’t lift my head. It seemed like my neck muscles had left. There were no replacements to raise my head. Panic set in. I was rushed to the country doc, who we were assured had been treating the area’s folk with care and competence for well… forever, I guess. We got to his very country-looking house and were ushered into his very pine paneled office. The pine was dark, and the lighting didn’t change that. It was a little spooky, and so was he.

He thoroughly examined me and then had his nurse usher me into the waiting room. “Be a good fellow and go sit out there while I speak to your mother and father.” He told them he thought I had polio. They came out of his office pale as two ghosts. We would be heading back to Sodom and Gomorrah to see our doctor. He saw us immediately. His office was refreshingly white and well-lighted. I knew him and the office. I relaxed. He did another thorough examination and then wheeled out a machine that looked like it was straight out of a science fiction movie. It was a large glass oval seated atop a motor. It had a squiggly tube dangling around. He flipped a switch. The creature began to rumble and then settled into a steady hum. Then the doctor un-dangled the arm and stuck its tip so far up my nose I thought it would exit from the top of my skull. The oval began to fill with disgusting stuff, a description of which I will spare you. With his hand on my forehead, the doctor had me vocalize the letter “K” repeatedly. Don’t ask. I don’t have a degree in that. But the gook kept comin’.

It seemed I had the sinus infection from hell. What I didn’t have was polio. The next day we returned to the “N.” We stopped at the doc’s place. My father, in the medical profession himself, ate the man for lunch.

Brooklyn, and the other boroughs, are facing Corona redux, Monkeypox, and now polio. ‘makes me wonder if Chicken Little wasn’t right. But know this—your fears and anxieties about Polio? I feel ya!

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