We Have Been Here Before…

As a boy, I contracted the polio virus and was hospitalized. I was lucky the infection did not lead to paralysis and so I was not put in an iron lung, as were two other children in my hospital ward.

Thus, when I read the short essay below written by my colleague Richard Broderick on his friend who had polio about the same time I did, I thought Rich’s words captured an important reality, which I want to share with you:

End Times at Play

by Richard Broderick

His name was, ironically enough, Jimmy Walker – ironic in that at an early age he’d been inflicted with polio during one of the waves of contagion that spread across the country – and world – from time to time.

Polio’s most famous American victim was FDR, but Jimmy was the polio survivor I knew best. He lived a few doors down from my house on Rainbow Trail. And while he had not suffered a case of the disease severe enough to doom him to life in an iron lung, his right leg was withered from the knee on down and he was hobbled with a limp that was impossible to overlook. It’s an ill-wind, of course, that blows no good and with Jimmy, that good was the tremendous upper body strength he’d acquired from years of walking on crutches and canes. By the time we got to know each other, the crutches and canes had disappeared, but his formidable musculature remained.

He and I played on the same baseball team in the Hub Lakes League and it was always remarkable to watch this limping 12-year old drive a ball 400 feet into the woods beyond left center field, then trot awkwardly around the bases as members of the opposing team scrambled through the trees in search of the ball. They rarely found it and the one time they did retrieve it in time to relay the ball to home plate, Jimmy simply charged through the catcher causing him to drop the ball and earn Jimmy another round-tripper.

Though friends, he and I still enjoyed bouts of pre-teen male rivalry. When off the field, we’d spend hours sitting on the bed in his room arguing about such profound topics as which was better, the American League or the National League. Living 35 miles outside of New York City, we both were avid fans, he of the Brooklyn Dodgers, I of the New York Yankees, where the die-casting company that employed my father had season tickets just behind the first base dugout. This, during the Golden Years of the Yankees, when Maris, Mantle, Elton Howard and Yogi Berra stepped to the plate and Whitey Ford and reliever Juan Gonzales took the mound.

But Yankee prowess was not the crux of my argument on behalf of the American League. In one of the most clever, yet absurd rejoinders imaginable in answer to Jimmy’s passionate fandom, I would remark, with shrewd bravura, “Yeah, well at least we know what country the American Leagues is from. The National League could be from anywhere.”

Game and match to Mr. Broderick!

It’s been a lifetime since Jonas Salk created a vaccine against polio, but those days feel eerily similar to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world today. I remember one truly lamentable occasion when my family happened to be on vacation in Quebec City and a sudden polio outbreak led officials to ban swimming in public pools. Today, owing to COVID-19, I would not even be able to cross the Canadian border, let alone dip a toe in one of the country’s public pools, but the apocalyptic feeling was very similar, magnified by the equally terrifying prospect of the nuclear war we were guaranteed would wipe out half the American population – about the same mortality rate as the Black Death – and schools like mine held weekly air raid drills in which we students had to crouch beneath our desks as the nuns (members of the aptly named Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother) lovingly described how when the shock wave that shattered the wall of windows, we would all be slivered into bite-sized pieces before being burned to a crisp by the ensuing waves of intense heat. It was many years before I stopped waking in the middle of the night at the sound of a fire siren, my heart pounding, my breath caught in my throat.

The lessons we should have learned then are the same as the lessons we should apply today. Don’t panic. Take reasonable precautions. Remember – as in 1918 and then in subsequent epidemics of polio – we are, for better or worse depending upon how we conduct ourselves, all in this together, including not just political and business leaders, but also those rare individuals like Jimmy Walker, who turned what seemed like a curse into a costly, though lifelong advantage.