Forgot your password?

We just sent you an email, containing instructions for how to reset your password.

Sign in

  • My Polio Summers

    In Cambridge, Mass, the last terrible summer before the Salk vaccine, my friend and his wife got bit by the polio bug, he in the legs, she, with a more deadly-minded germ. in her lungs. He lay in the hallway outside an overcrowded Boston hospital ward; she was in a ward full of bulbous breathing machines; the grandparents cared for their infant child. I visited them in that quietly frenzied world, fetched warm compresses for his limbs, gently squeezed her hand. My other friends, fleeing to their Eastern hometowns or Mid-Western hamlets, (to which, they had sworn never to return again) thought me crazy. I stayed on; I had been bitten by that bug before.

    My polio summer was almost ten years earlier, in 1944. That June I graduated from Junior High School, the allied armies landed on the beaches of Normandy, my parents sold the suburban home where I had lived since birth and moved into a 2 bedroom apartment in the city, and I was enrolled in a boarding school 70 miles away.
    We had a beach house in New Jersey, on a long, narrow sand barrier island., connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway and some wooden bridges. It was a city kind of house in the most settled town on the island. I spent my summer vacations there, sailing, surfing, hanging out with a big gang of similarly situated teenagers, generally up to no good by 1944 standards, which actually were pretty tame – we drank some, kissed the girls. disturbed the quiet nighttime peace.

    He used to hang around on the fringes of our amorphous crowd when we were playing volleyball (no net, only a much disputed line drawn in the sand), or touch football, or just sitting looking out at the surf and talking back and forth, maybe deciding where we'd meet that night. He was about my age, chunky, curly-haired, a good looking kid. He'd laugh at someone's joke, smile a lot; but he didn't really seem to know anyone of us. Like he didn't really belong, but wanted to; like me, in fact.

    One day I walked over to him, told him my name, Michael, and he said he was Dick. So we sat together in the sand and exchanged the vital statistics of being 15 – where do you live (in a house next to the big yacht club, with its own private dock and a power boat with a cabin), and in the winter (in another suburb, on the New Jersey side of our city), what grade are you in (in my grade, in the same prep school I was headed to), do you have a brother (one, older), a sister (no), me just the opposite. So it went. And after that, he became one of our shifting group, learned our names, occasionally joined in some of the banter; generally he was a quiet kid, a good humored, unassuming presence whom all of us liked and who seemed to like and need us.

    And gradually, he and I became very good friends. He began to walk the dozen blocks over to my house; we'd surf together on the beach in front of our house, sit shivering on the sand next to my older sister. who was heading to college in Massachusetts in September and spent a lot of time lying by herself on the beach. Sometimes when I dashed into the water to try body surfing on what looked to be a big set of waves, he'd stay back with my sister on the hot, dry sand; it was like they had things to talk about that he and I couldn't share.

    We'd divy up sandwiches and cool fruit juice from the thermos bottles that we brought to the beach; pretty soon he'd show up with his own lunch bag and a soda. Then he began to come to our house. Downstair, there was a big room with a glazed brick floor and a big fireplace and rustic furniture. On rainy, cold days or after several hours on the beach, the three of us, and sometimes one of two other kids, would sit around and play noisy games of monopoly or hearts. We began to sail together in our nineteen foot centerboard sloop, marconi rigged with a jib and mainsail, that could go anywhere in the bay, even across the mud flats at high tide to mysterious sand and scrub covered deserted islands where we'd explore and picnic. All through late June, and July and into mid-August, our idyll promised never to end and I felt as though I had never been so close to anyone in my life.

    One day late in August, he joined us on the beach. He seemed upset. After a while, and a long silence, he said that he couldn't see us anymore. He said that his father had ordered (that was his word, “ordered”) him not to see us. “Why”, we asked, “why would he do that?” “Because you're Jewish,” he said. That was why. And that was that.

    Just after Labor Day, after a day out on the sailboat, in the hot sun of a brilliant not yet Fall day, I came home and felt very tired. A great lassitude came over me. And a fever that became higher and higher. Sunstroke, my mother thought; you spend way too much time out in the sun. When the doctor came he thought otherwise; I was the third such case he had seen that week. It was polio.

    And I was a lucky one; no paralysis, no damage to those intricate networks that control the limbs and lungs. Just a few months of slow convalescence, a missed term of school; and the end of a friendship blighted by disease.
    • Share

    Connected stories:


Collections let you gather your favorite stories into shareable groups.

To collect stories, please become a Citizen.

    Copy and paste this embed code into your web page:

    px wide
    px tall
    Send this story to a friend:
    Would you like to send another?

      To retell stories, please .

        Sprouting stories lets you respond with a story of your own — like telling stories ’round a campfire.

        To sprout stories, please .

            Better browser, please.

            To view Cowbird, please use the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or Internet Explorer.