Depending on how you look at it, Don Billingslea was either quite unlucky — or very, very lucky.
The 68-year-old Coeur d’Alene man was stricken with polio in 1945. He was eight years old then and living in Texas. He woke up with deep, terrible cramps in his legs and could hardly move them. His mother had to help him straighten his legs, but the cramps wouldn’t go away.
“A lot of people were catching (polio),” Billingslea recalls. “There was a lot of talk about it. I didn’t expect it to ever happen to me.”
But it did.
And Billingslea spent the rest of the summer in a hospital. He watched his roommates suffer in iron lungs. He saw other children die.
But — and here’s the lucky part — Billingslea was able to walk out of the hospital. He grew healthy enough to pass the military physical and spent 20 years in the Air Force.
And, years later, he made sure his sons received the polio vaccine.
“Polio changed from the scourge of children to an occasional, preventable disease,” Billingslea wrote in an e-mail. “I wonder how many baby boomers would be crippled or dead if not for the vaccine. The world owes Dr. Jonas Salk our thanks.”
The Spokesman-Review asked readers to share their memories of the polio epidemic. Here are some of their stories:
“In the 1950s, when I was a small child, I developed a high fever for no apparent reason. My parents were worried. Polio was epidemic. … The doctor came to the house (they still made house calls then), but there was no diagnosis, just a concerned look between the doctor and my mother, a look I still remember. It was a matter of waiting and watching.
My mother sat up all night with me, putting a cool cloth on my forehead, reading to me, holding me. In the early light of the next morning, my fever broke. I developed red spots on my face, and my mother jumped up with glee.
‘Honey, you’ve got the measles,’ she said with such joy. I couldn’t figure out why that would make her so happy and was quite put out about it.
‘But I don’t want the measles,’ I sobbed.
She hugged me and laughed and cried. It seemed so strange to me.
Well into my adulthood, my mother told me that was the longest night of her life.”
Stefanie Pettit, Spokane
“My parents were very conscientious about children’s immunizations after having lived through many awful childhood diseases themselves during the 1920s and 1930s.
I received my first polio shot at the doctor’s office before entering first grade, but I clearly remember getting my second polio shot when I was in first grade in Wilder, Idaho. We children were loaded onto school buses and taken to nearby Parma, Idaho, for a shot clinic. On the way, we encouraged each other not to cry.
“We were guided into lines into the gymnasium that moved past rows of tables where the injections were given. It seemed like a huge line, but suddenly we were through. No one cried in our class, except the one boy that had seemed the toughest. We girls felt we had earned a reputation as ‘big girls.’ “
– Linda Marler, near Pullman
“Polio was rampant in the city when my father was a child. My granddad did not want his family to contact the disease, so he sent his three children and my grandmother to live on the beach at Coeur d’Alene Lake every summer for three years. …
When my sister was a baby, they thought she had polio, and I remember the terror in my mother’s eyes. We were very lucky, and it was not polio.
I remember standing in long lines with my sister and mom at the Coliseum to get the polio vaccine, and later the polio drink. The big deal was not to cry in front of the vast throng of people.
I went to kindergarten at Emerson School. There was a large round thing by the gym, which turned out to be part of the furnace. I thought it was an iron lung, which I had seen pictures of in the newspaper. “
– Nancy Hartley, Chattaroy
“It is quite possible that I am alive today thanks to the polio epidemic in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I was born in December 1945 in a small town north of Minneapolis, Minn.
When I began to crawl, my family visited an aunt and uncle who had a leaky oil stove for heat. My uncle had put a coffee can behind the stove to catch the drips of fuel oil, and I found it while they were not paying attention to me.
I tried to drink the fuel oil. … I managed to suck a large quantity of the oil into my lungs as well as swallowing a few large gulps.
My parents rushed me to the hospital, where I was put into an iron lung which kept me breathing until they could purge the oil from my lungs.
The iron lung was in that small rural hospital because of the threat of polio, which was ever-present in all communities.”
Glenn Lange, Marcus, Wash.
“I remember there was a boy in our second-grade class that got polio. He was gone for most of the school year. I remember we all made him pictures and sent them to him. I remember when he came back to school, he couldn’t stay in the class all day because the teacher said he had to go to a special room and rest. …
“I remember having to have the polio shots. We all had to go to the cafeteria and line up. I hated shots so bad I cried and cried.
“I held my arm in one place for a long time, and then it wouldn’t move without help. I remember that we weren’t supposed to drink out of the fountain at school after Andy got sick.”
– Jackie Beaudry, Spokane
“… For a time, I recall being kept out of school and home taught, as it was believed being in crowds was too dangerous. Of course, we could not go swimming in a public pool nor play at a community center.
When I was about 7 and my sister about 5, my mother parked the car at a public meter and left us in the car while she made a brief stop at Montgomery Ward (in San Diego).…We had been given strict orders not to speak to anyone, of course, so when a lady came up to the car and started commenting on ‘how cute we were’ I knew I had to get rid of her.
“I told her she had better leave, as my sister and I had polio and my mother had gone to get the doctor.
She indeed left in a hurry, only to return with a policeman. You can imagine my mother’s shock when she returned to the car to find it surrounded by passers-by, policeman and a very irate woman.
… I don’t know how my mother got herself out of the fix I put her in. All she told me was, ‘that dang-blasted woman didn’t have any business talking to you kids in the first place.’ I was sure glad I wasn’t in trouble.
We were all very grateful when we could finally be vaccinated.”
– Deanna Schneider, Spokane