The Lucky One

Note to readers: first, thank you for following my blog posts. I am deeply grateful. I have been doing this for over a decade—having written well over 500 posts– and am amazed how many of you have stuck with me. My posts have for the most part focused on politics, personal (often disastrous or humorous) experiences, travel, religion, and issues of the day. In a recent post, “A Haunting Memory” I added a new category which falls under “reminisces,” which this story fits into. I plan to add more of these in future posts. And I am grateful for and appreciate your comments.

In the summer of 1952 when I had just turned ten, I attended a YMCA camp in a state park near Nashville where I had a stomach virus for a good part of the two-week sleepover camp. My counselor, a thin guy in his twenties with a shaved head refused to allow me to miss any camp activities, calling me a wimp and a pussy. I returned home two weeks later, having lost about ten pounds, to the horror of my mother. I recovered but a week later, when my temperature reached almost 104 degrees, my father called our family doctor, who put me in the back of his car and rushed me to Vanderbilt Hospital where I had a painful spinal tap. The next day the diagnosis came in: polio.

It is hard today to exaggerate what polio meant to people in 1952 when there was no vaccine. It was the plague of the era, which I have written about in my book Civil Rights Journey. I missed two years of school but had “home bound teachers” who enabled me to not fall too far behind my classmates. It may sound odd but looking back on the experience, I have positive feelings and believe, though difficult, it was a pivotal experience in my life.

 I had friends come by to see me on a regular basis, and Allen, my best friend, came by almost every day. This made all the difference. The two of us will turn 82 in the first half of April this year and still talk by phone once or twice a month. How important it is to have long and lasting friendships!

I say that I am the lucky one because if I had been born a few years earlier, I would not have made it into my twenties. Because my stomach muscles were most affected, the second year following my initial convalescence, my backbone looked like the letter “C”. It turns out that your stomach muscles are what keep your backbone straight when you are still growing. With a backbone the shape of a “C” my organs would have been out of place, and I would have been a dead duck in a few years. While a spinal fusion is commonplace now, it was not the case in 1954. It was a new procedure that had  been developed to enable a surgeon to cut open your back, straighten the bone, and fuse it with a steel rod– or in my case a shaving off my shin. I was told there was a 50-50 chance that it would work. If it failed, then he would try again. I had a young, arrogant, hotshot surgeon who had been trained in this procedure, which improved my chances. I would not know if it had worked until several months later, but, of course, it did. I still have a bias that if a surgeon is not young, arrogant, brash, cocky, and lacks the most basic people skills, I want nothing to do with the person. (I note, however, that two of my best friends were orthopedic surgeons and this observation does not apply to these kind, gentle people, but still….)

 I had to lie on my back in bed, not elevated by more than six inches for a year, and then wore a body cast for the next several years. But I made it through this ordeal and have lived a normal life. In fact, for most of my adult life I have been a fitness fanatic, for many years running 20-25 miles a week and running 10-mile races and occasionally longer ones. I finished at mile 20 of the Marine Corps Marathon (my goal) when I peaked in my mid-forties. After my knees gave out in my fifties, I became a devoted walker and still am, albeit now at a very slow pace and with the aid of a walking stick.

So, the “luck” had to do with the time I was born—ten years earlier it would have been a different story. It also had to do with the great care I received including spending six months in Warm Springs, Georgia, site of the nation’s best polio clinic, having great, loyal friends, and a supportive family. There were a few incidents, of course, though ironically these happened well after I was on my way to recovery when I was no longer in a wheelchair and would appear normal to anyone who did not know my story. My senior year in high school I attended a week-long event called Boy’s State where one boy from every white high school in Tennessee (which at the time was totally segregated) was selected to participate in a camp-like experience focusing on civics and political engagement. To my surprise it was run mainly by retired military personnel and had a paramilitary atmosphere more like a boot camp. The counselors were focused on toughening us up and their favorite tool was humiliation. Every morning at ten hundreds of white, high school seniors spread out on the ground for calisthenics on the football field in the stadium of the college where the camp was held. Calisthenics were not what you would call one of my strong points then or now. Having paralyzed stomach muscles, sit-ups were beyond my ability and still are. Toward the end of the exercise routine, over the loudspeaker all us boys were ordered to do sit-ups. The meanest and toughest of the counselors, who on numerous occasions had called us campers “sissies” and “softies” saw that I was struggling. He slowly walked over to me and with a gleam in his eye and a microphone in hand bellowed out over the loudspeaker, “Stop. Everyone stop!”  The field of boys became silent as all activity came to a halt. The guy then asked me my name and which school I was from. All eyes were on me.

“Ok,” he said in a sarcastic tone, “Now, Mr. Joe Howell from some fancy prep school in Nashville, do a sit up.”

I gave it everything I had but nothing happened.

“I said, do a sit up! That is an order!”

Except for a few snickers the football field was deathly silent.

“This will be my third and last order. Do a sit up now!”

I looked up helplessly at the guy noting his sadistic smile and wishing that there was some way that I could just disappear. He then turned his back on me and over the loudspeaker repeated my name sarcastically using me as the number one example of how in our generation there were too many pathetic weaklings. The exercises continued for another five minutes as I sat there wondering what to do next. As I was getting up when the exercises were over, a boy I did not know wandered over and pated me on the back, saying, “Don’t let the jerk get to you, he is an asshole.”

So, there were occasional moments that were not pleasant. When I thought about it, I had to agree that for a healthy high school senior not to be able to do a sit-up probably was not a good sign, and the instructor had no way of knowing that I had had polio. I moved on and overall had a good experience at Boy’s State. But that I can visualize the event so clearly now– some 65 years later—suggests it had an impact.

I had several similar experiences to my Boy’s State nightmare in physical education programs at Davidson College. The first was when I was directed to wrestle a big guy, in a required physical education class. I had doubts about being in P.E. but never mentioned to any of the coaches that I was a polio survivor. In fact, during what was the tail end of my recovery period, I did everything I could to be “normal” and not to be known as the polio kid. I looked at the huge guy, who could have been on the football team, and concluded I had no choice but to inform the wrestling coach that I had had polio and that to wrestle this guy was probably not wise. He replied, “You wimp, get out there and wrestle. The best wrestler I ever coached had had polio.” My opponent dislocated my shoulder in the first 30 seconds of the match, sending me off  to the college infirmary. Nevertheless, I persisted. I continued to keep my polio a secret as best as I could. Then came acrobatics class. Jumping up and down on the trampoline was not that much of a challenge, but when the coach yelled at me, “Now do a flip,” I hollered back while in the air, “Not a good idea!”  I gave it a try anyway, missed landing on the trampoline by about ten feet, and mercifully landed on several of my classmates softening the fall. It was at this point that I went to the college administrators asking them to allow me to skip the PE classes, which they did after receiving a letter from my doctor.

Yet, looking back on my polio experience, I see it as a hugely positive and important experience. There are two primary reasons. First, it gave me a new perspective in identifying with people who were trying to overcome obstacles. I identified with the underdog and with people who were struggling with disabilities and (later) with poverty, social class, and racial discrimination. I remain an unapologetic bleeding heart. Second, I was determined not to let the polio experience keep me down. Studies show that most polio victims of the 1940s and 1950s developed Type A, never-give-up personalities, who were determined to be just normal people. I also acknowledge that compared to other victims of polio, my case of polio was probably somewhere in the middle. Others had much tougher challenges to overcome. My three roommates at Warm Springs were far much worse off than me, confined to wheelchairs probably for their entire lives.  I sometimes wonder what happened to these three guys. After graduating from Union Seminary in 1968, I entered the Planning School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I began my serious running routine, which I was able to keep up for decades. I achieved my goal of leading a normal life. And finally, I never experienced the dreaded “post-polio syndrome” that cruelly has affected so many polio survivors.

I truly am the lucky one.

9 thoughts on “The Lucky One

  1. Across the decades, this remains such an inspiring story. Here’s to all you Type A Bleeding Hearts!

  2. Oh Joe this is so important that you have shared this. I have heard bits and pieces of what happened but never so fully. Thank you. Everyone you have come in contact with has benefited from your incredible empathy and generosity – without a doubt greatly due to these early experiences. Love

  3. Wow, Joe. More incredible stories. We’re lucky to read them!

    Thank you for sharing. And bravo for the courage to pull through those tough times.

    1. You didn’t even mention your sailing exploits, one of which was your amazing skilled performance skippering the yacht across the Adriatic with wind gusts across the long reach to Africa threatening to blow us all overboard…and the container ship crossing our path.

      1. You are exactly right and you two get the Heroes Award for surviving that ordeal. I am going to write several posts under the heading of “A Sailing Life” and that story will be one of the best (or worst depending on your point of view.

  4. Joe,
    Thanks for filling in many holes for me in your polio story.
    You have beaten those macho dudes who tried to shame you before other colleagues.
    Most of those coaches and counselors would never have guessed that you would become
    the Vice- President of the Senior Class of an elite high school and eventually get the highest / “distinguished alumnus award” from one of the top-rated colleges in the south.,
    I have nothing but admiration for you. Persistence and determination are two of your biggest hallmarks plus your empathy.

  5. Joe,
    I knew your surgeon well. He was one of my mentors, and ironically retired to my area where I was able to renew our relationship. We were both aviators and both crashed a plane. I walked away from mine; he didn’t, sustaining multiple fractures and not getting back on his feet for months. He lived to be almost 95,
    It is beyond doubt in my view that you would have been half the human being that you are absent your polio experience. The other side of the luck part of your story is that if you had encountered Polio a mere four years later, you would have had the protection of the Salk vaccine. I’m sure all lives are flavored with what-might-have-beens, some positive, some not. You managed to turn your most negative one into a positive.

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