Friday, June 27, 2008

The Daviess County Fair

I must confess I haven’t been to the Daviess County Fair in years. However, the fair was the highlight of my summer when I was growing up. Although it now begins in late June, in my younger days, the fair was held near the end of July and always ran through some of the hottest days of the year. Even so, I always looked forward to attending. I loved the crowds, the exhibits, the Midway, and the overall sights and sounds. For many years during the 1950’s, the fair parade included rodeo riders. The local fair organizers ‘pulled some strings’ and made it possible for me to ride a horse in the parade accompanied in the saddle by a real live cowboy. I did that for about three years in a row. Pictures of those happy rides are in my family photo album.

Many stars of the Grand Ole Opry appeared at the fair. I still have an autographed program signed by country comedians, Homer and Jethro. I also saw Little Jimmy Dickens, Roy Acuff, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs among others. I don’t remember the year, but one of my most exciting nights at the fair was watching Joie Chitwood’s Auto Thrill Show. The grandstand was packed and the action was exciting and non-stop.

During the 1950’s, my parents and I went to the fair nearly every night. They worked in one of the ‘restaurant’ tents, selling fish sandwiches, lemonade, and homemade ice cream. Food was provided as payment to the people who volunteered, so they made sure I never went hungry on those nights. Fair food was more than ‘fair.’ It was fabulous and always seemed to taste better than anywhere else. I don’t think I’ve ever had a fish sandwich as good as those I remember at the fair.

When I was a kid, fair week was the one time of the year that my allowance was substantially increased. With proper budgeting (and a few extra coins slipped to me by my grandmother), I would have money for a Ferris Wheel ride, some cotton candy, and maybe even enough left over to toss a baseball at the ‘impossible to topple’ milk bottles or the weighted cats on a shelf. When I was about thirteen years old, my dad allowed me to shoot the .22 rifles in hopes of winning a nice, big stuffed animal. After missing several shots, I soon figured out that the rifle’s sights were ‘off,’ so I compensated by altering my aim and won a couple of nice prizes before being told to move on.

Later, during summer breaks from Purdue, I sold admission tickets to the fair a few times. One year, many superstars of wrestling were part of the entertainment. They included Cowboy Bob Ellis and Haystack Calhoun. The gate at which I sold tickets was wide enough for a vehicle to drive through, and on wrestling night, in came a car with the biggest star of all, Dick the Bruiser, in the passenger seat. He passed within three feet of me and spoke. It made my night.

One memorable night at the fair occurred when I was probably about ten years old. I was walking down the Midway and stopped at a stand where you tossed nickels, hoping to land one onto a plate or into a glass. If you succeeded, the item was yours. I had eight nickels, but was hesitant to try my luck. While I was deciding, I unconsciously stood one of the nickels on its edge on the counter. The man operating the stand saw what I had done said, “Hey kid, I’ll give you a penny for every nickel you can stand on edge.” Thinking this was easy money and not realizing my nickels were at risk, I proudly stood up all eight of them. The man immediately raked my nickels into his hand and laid eight pennies on the counter. Although I pleaded for their return, he wouldn’t budge. I walked over to the tent where my dad was working and told him the story. He asked for the pennies and told me to stay there with my mom. A few minutes later, he came back, handed me eight nickels and said, “I hope you learned your lesson.” I don’t know how he got them back, but after reading The Godfather many years later, I like to think it was because my dad made the guy an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sixty Years Later

Has it really been sixty years? Wow, as they say, time flies when you’re having fun. However, June, 1948 was not much fun for six families in Elnora. It was the time of a near polio epidemic in our small town and changed my life forever.

The following quotes are from a clipping my parents saved from one of the Washington, Indiana newspapers:

“Washington, Ind., June 23 (Spl.) A second case of poliomyelitis from the town of Elnora, in northern Daviess County, was in an Indianapolis hospital today. Wayne Edmondson, 16 year old son of Mr. and Mrs. Hollis Edmondson, was taken to Robert Long Hospital yesterday. His physician in Elnora, J. R. Rohrer, said the polio symptoms were all positive, including an arm paralysis. However, the hospital had not confirmed the case as of this afternoon.

Last week, 4-year-old James Emerson Johnson, Elnora, was admitted to Riley Hospital with severe paralysis and the hospital confirmed the case was polio. Four other cases were reported in Elnora. These cases were described by the doctor as the abortive type, where symptoms are present, but there is no paralysis. Citizens of Elnora were reported today to be considering closing public meetings. The Daviess County Board of Health said no other cases had been reported in the county as yet.”

I’ll never forget the day I went to Riley Hospital for Children. It was just three months before my 4th birthday, and most people don’t usually remember much from such an early age. However, that June day in 1948 is imprinted in my memory forever.

My symptoms began with a headache the previous morning while I was playing in my grandparents’ front yard. My body temperature became elevated to the point that my grandmother called my mother home from the restaurant. Dr. Rohrer said he suspected polio immediately, and by the next day, he was certain.

I was taken to Riley Hospital by ambulance. Dr. Rohrer rode with me, and my parents followed in their car. Sherman Anderson, who later owned the Anderson-Poindexter funeral home in Sandborn, told me at my mother’s funeral in 1974 that he was the young ambulance driver who took me to Riley that unforgettable day. It was a hot, steamy ride and the ambulance was not air-conditioned. I had a high fever and cried nearly the entire trip.

Upon arrival at the hospital, I was immediately placed into the isolation ward and my parents could only look at me through the glass windows. For two weeks, my brain nearly fried while my temperature hovered near 105°. When I developed respiratory problems, I was placed into a 7 foot long, 750 pound iron lung to help me breathe. Luckily, I only had to be in one of the monstrous devices for a few days. After much care, treatment, and therapy by the wonderful doctors and nurses at Riley Hospital, nine months and two days later in March, 1949, I walked out of the hospital. Both legs were paralyzed and I was left with a weakened left shoulder, but with the aid of leg braces and crutches I was on my feet and ready to face the world. Other polio victims weren’t as lucky.

Most people today have never seen an iron lung. Two years ago my wife and I were at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis and as we rounded the corner leading to a new exhibit, I froze in my tracks. I was face-to-face with a big, imposing, ancient iron lung. Memories flooded back and I got cold chills, started shaking and breathing heavily, with tears coming to my eyes. It reminded me of a time I never want to remember but can’t forget.

Just a few weeks ago in May, 2008, 61-year-old Dianne Odell of Tennessee died during a power outage when the electricity that operated her iron lung failed as did the back-up generator. She had been in the device for 58 years, and was thought to be the oldest living polio survivor still confined to one. Only about 30 iron lungs are still in use in the United States today.