We attended a fair last week—three days in a row—and it was great fun with a surprising undercurrent at the end. Unfortunately, I didn't think about blogs and didn’t take a picture. For that reason I thought of writing about something else but, in true blogging fashion, decided to focus again on personal life
My husband Ken’s and my involvement with fairs was limited when we were children because our parents were concerned about exposure to polio. In my family we knew fear. Our children look at me blankly when I mention this, but polio was perhaps a bit like West Nile Virus today—only pervasive. Everyone knew someone affected by polio. My mother was one of those who had been afflicted.
After the Salk and Sabin vaccines, everything changed. My husband Ken and I attended the Minnesota State Fair when we lived in the Twin City area, and we’ve attended fairs off and on ever since. This year we joined our oldest daughter and her family at the North Dakota State Fair.
On Thursday night we attended the grandstand show featuring Casting Crowns, a Christian band based in Atlanta. In spite of the decibel levels, they had a gentle spirit. To add to the excitement, our son-in-law, who went early to save seats, did not find something near the ground. To join him we had to climb—I didn’t count the steps. To my family’s and my amazement, adrenalin kicked in and I did it. Fun.
On Friday morning Ken and I slept in while our family was busy. Our granddaughter is a gymnast whose gymnastics club rents a fair building. Because of that connection, they were busily involved with fair activity. But in the evening we all trucked off, this time to see exhibits.
Although I didn’t grow up on a farm, I grew up in a farm community. And although I didn’t go to the fair myself, I had friends who not only went but who exhibited their 4-H projects. Entering 4-H buildings brings back memories of boasting rights over blue ribbons and other achievements.
Animal exhibits are interesting for additional reasons. As a free-lance writer I once covered the dairy and livestock beat for a regional farm paper. I was disappointed the beef cattle judging was over—the barn empty. But I loved walking through the dairy barns. North Dakota cows don’t take a back seat to anyone. The Holsteins were huge and sturdy in spite of the inbreeding that threatens domestic dairy herds, and their milking capacity seemed even larger than when I coved them. Then there was the gentle Brown Swiss. And a new (to me, anyway) breed—Milking Shorthorns.
Goats aren't major players in North Dakota, but they're fun. Some sheep were huge. Our granddaughter knows a family that raises sheep and says they’re raised for meat as well as wool, so size makes sense. And even rabbits of all sizes with different shaped ears and different faces were interesting.
Of course, we slept in again on Saturday, but decided to go again when the family worked from 4:00 to 8:00 that afternoon and evening. This time we ambled: visited a commercial building, rested, visited another commercial building, rested. We entered the Ward County Historical exhibit, not part of the fair but adjacent to it and open to fair visitors. We looked into the usual—a church, log cabin, store, barbershop, blacksmith shop. Then we entered a nondescript building housing artifacts not yet set up in their historic surroundings. There we saw an old printing press, old cars—and
an Iron Lung.
And that’s when I came unglued.
Polio affects muscles, often paralyzing them. Paralysis of arm or leg muscles caused crippling. Paralysis of chest muscles affected breathing and often resulted in death.
Iron Lungs were used to treat polio victims and the names is descriptive. They are body-size tubes made of iron that enclosed all of the body except the head. A rubber casing around the neck made it possible for the iron lung to maintain fluctuating air pressure inside the chamber that inflated and then deflated the lungs—and saved lives.
I’d seen many pictures, but this was the first time I’d seen one in person. It looked so cold, so hard, so impersonal.
Even though Mom had polio before I was born, it’s part of my lifescape. And there were other victims in my life as well—a neighborhood friend I’d played with almost daily during summer—a man who spent life in a wheel chair due to polio. And others I didn’t know well.
My mother contracted polio in 1931, the August after my oldest brother was born. My father transported her by train from Montana to the Minnesota University Hospital, a hospital where Sister Kenny’s treatments were accepted and applied. I know these details only because I asked Dad before he died, but thinking about them seemed to make him reflective, sad. Although Mom’s polio was the most severe type, affecting muscles of both limbs and breathing, and although life proved challenging after polio, she went on to have more babies and to take care of her home. She died when I was a college student.
Something raw and wounded in my psyche was exposed when I saw the iron lung, something I had suppressed because our Norwegian heritage translated into being reserved. In matters of personal pain, say and do nothing. But that no longer works for me—this is one more thing I must somehow give to God so He can provide the healing that’s available only through Him.
When I saw the iron lung I felt Mom did spend time in one, but I don’t know for sure. Yesterday, home again, I called my older brother to ask if he knew. He didn’t. Then I called an older cousin. She said her mother expressed sorrow that my mom struggled because she had been so sick, but that she had never provided details. More interesting, she said our mothers didn’t talk about it.
I have no one else to ask. On the internet, I learned patients were usually in iron lungs for a one to two week period when paralysis was most severe. I found a picture of a hospital ward housing hundreds of polio patients kept alive during their crisis by iron lungs. And I learned there are still about 400 people living inside iron lungs today—patients who were in them long enough for muscles to atrophy.
While at the fair, however, Ken and I dealt with my surprising reaction the way Norwegians often do—we ate. Then a look at more 4-H exhibits and it was time to meet our family.
So, the fair was a time of fun—of entering mainstream society, brushing elbows with all walks of life in a leisurely fashion. And it was a time of sorrow over a past I’ll never understand. I’m grateful for the full experience.
8 years ago