Cover image for A nearly normal life : a memoir
A nearly normal life : a memoir
Mee, Charles L.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Boston : Little, Brown and Co., [1999]

Physical Description:
227 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
RJ496.P2 M526 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In the summer of 1953 the author was a carefree, athletic boy of fourteen. But after he collapsed during a school dance one night, he was suddenly bedridden, drifting in & out of consciousness, as his body disintegrated into a shadow of its former self. He had been stricken with spinal polio. When he emerged from the grip of the disease, he was confronted with a life change so enormous that it challenged all he had believed in & forced him, despite his young age, to redefine himself. His once stereotypically normal life, filled with baseball & swimming pools & dreams of girls, had been irreversibly altered. He was almost the same person he had been; he was nearly normal. His moving personal narrative is a textured portrait of life in the fifties - a time when America & her fighting spirit collided with this disease. Both funny & profound, he is a gifted, unique writer, who unravels the mysteries of youth in a Cold War climate, who gives voice to the mind of a child with a potentially fatal disease, & whose recognition of himself as a disabled outsider heightens his brilliant talents as a storyteller.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In 1953, Mee was a normal, healthy, football-playing, suburban 14-year-old. That life ended one night when he collapsed after a school dance, stricken with spinal polio. After weeks of wracking pain and fever and floating in and out of consciousness, he awoke able to move only the fingers of his left hand. His sense of identity would never again reside in a body he felt had betrayed him; instead, it moved into a mind that could take flight when escape was needed. His account of rehabilitation and reintegration into mainstream adolescence in the can-do '50s--when it was trumpeted that an optimistic, cheerful "good handicapped person" could solve problems by will, determination, and good old American ingenuity--consistently fascinates. The era's refusal to recognize the possibilities of failure and of problems that have no solutions, Mee says, fostered a silent subculture of denial and shame. Silence now broken, Mee provides pertinent historical facts about polio and its treatment, as well as a penetrating look at a society unwilling to see unsolvable problems. --Whitney Scott

Publisher's Weekly Review

"You don't recover from the events of life, you take them with you, you knit them in, you grow with them and around them; they become who you are; they are life itself; how else my life might have been is unknowable." The tone of Mee's memoir of learning to live with polio is an unlikely marriage of elegy and resentment overcome. Well, mostly overcome‘and it's the degree to which Mee hasn't completely reconciled himself to the past that gives his book a nostalgia-puncturing edge. A playwright (The Berlin Circle) and historian (Meeting at Potsdam), Mee recalls how his world changed when he was diagnosed with polio. It was 1953, and he was 14. Although Mee recovered and fought to rebuild his damaged body enough to walk with the aid of a cane and a crutch, his carefree days of football and swimming were over. Mee evokes the aggressive optimism of the 1950s, when physicians and nurses staunchly insisted that anyone could recover and refused to acknowledge the despair of the patients in their care. As a result, many polio victims were subjected to useless operations and treatments because their frustrated doctors needed to "do something." Mee also describes the pervading climate of fear that polio triggered among parents and provides an informed account of how the Salk vaccine ended the epidemic. While he acknowledges that society's insistence on recovery and self-reliance did, in fact, play a role in fortifying his will to survive, Mee can't hide a certain bitterness about the emotional cost of keeping a stiff upper lip. His book is better for his honesty. Agent, Lois Wallace. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Playwright and historian Mee (Playing God, S. & S., 1993) explores the many challenges he has faced and successes he can claim as a polio survivor. Beginning with his diagnosis at age 14 and ending with his current struggles with the symptoms of post-polio syndrome, he is always witty and sometimes profound. Mee adds texture and credibility to his already strong writing by judiciously using other sources: personal stories of fellow polio survivors, historical profiles of the 1950s, and histories of the polio virus (including Jane S. Smith's Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine, LJ 4/15/90). Consistently, he refers to his favorite works of scholarship and classical philosophy (particularly the dialogs of Socrates) to illustrate the crucial roles books have played in his "re-birth" and self-discovery after polio. In addition to the importance of reading, the need of those who have had polio to be perceived as "survivors" rather than "victims" and of others to focus on the survivor's abilities rather than on his or her disabilites are major interrelated themes in the book. Recommended for both medical and memoir collections in public libraries‘Ximena Chrisagis, Wright State Univ Libs., Dayton, OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One It had never occurred to me that anything bad might happen to me. I was fourteen years old that summer of 1953, with buckteeth, a crew cut, a love of swimming, football, and comic books. I had a dog named Pat. I was a Boy Scout. I liked girls. I was just out of my freshman year in high school. This was in Barrington, Illinois, a little town, population 5,320, thirty-five miles northwest of Chicago. Where I lived in the village, you could walk to the end of the block and out into empty fields, rolling hills of tall grass; no one owned this land as far as we knew. It had little lakes where we would cut down saplings and build lean-tos and sometimes camp out overnight--no grown-ups, just the kids, boys and girls. My sister Bets, three years older than I, was one of the oldest of the kids; she was always my best friend, and with her, I knew I was always safe. But parents lived in constant dread those days, especially in the summertime, fearful that their children might come down with polio. Polio struck suddenly, without warning, and left its victims dead, or paralyzed, washed up in wheelchairs, white-faced shrunken, with frightened eyes, light blankets over their legs, or lying on their backs inside iron lungs--great heavy contraptions, like little one-man submarines, constantly shushing and hissing with the intake and exhaust of the air pressure that made a person's diaphragn expand and contract, breathing for him because the muscles in his chest had stopped working--his head and feet ticking out uselessly at either end. Parents were crazed by this. There was no cure for polio, not even any reliable treatment. It could not be prevented. It triggered the sort of anxiety and frenzy and sorrow that have been set off in recent years by AIDS, or, long ago, by the bubonic plague. Medical researchers had known as far back as the turn of the twentieth century that polio was a virus. Later it was discovered that the virus entered the mouth, usually, traveled to the intestinal tract, and then invaded the nervous system. It was called poliomyelitis, I was told, because it stripped away from the nerves their myelin sheath, which acts like insulation around an electrical cord, so that the nerves short-circuited, sizzled, and died. They stopped sending signals to the muscles, and so the muscles stopped working. Arms and legs lay limp and useless. some children with polio could no longer raise their heads off their pillows. Some could no longer breathe. But no one knew what to do about it. And not everyone believed the medical researchers knew what they were talking about. There was a constant buzz about polio back then. One magazine article that summer said polio was related to diet. Another article said it was related to the color of your eyes. Kids at summer camp got it, and when a boy at a camp in upstate New York got it that summer, a health officer imposed a frantic quarantine and said no one would be let out of the camp till the polio season was over. There was a lot of it that year. The newspapers published statistics every week. As of the Fourth of July, the papers said, there were 4,680 cases in the United States--more than there had been by July 4 in 1952, which had been reckoned the worst year for polio in medical history. The final tally at the end of that year had been 57,628. Of course, none of these numbers were reliable; odd illnesses were added to the total, and mild cases went unreported. Someone said that public gatherings had been banned altogether in the Yukon. In Montgomery, Alabama, that summer the whole city broke out; more than 85 people caught it. An emergency was declared. In Tampa, Florida, a twenty-month-old boy named Gregory died of it; five days later, his eight-year-old sister, Sandra, died of it while their mother was in the delivery room giving birth to a new baby. The rules were: Don't play with new friends--stick with your old friends, whose germs you already have; stay away from crowded beaches and pools, especially in August; wash your hands before eating; never use another person's eating utensils or toothbrush or drink out of the same glass or Coke bottle; don't bite another person's hands or fingers while playing, or (this one for small children) put another child's toys in your mouth; don't pick up anything from the ground, especially around a beach or pool; don't have any teeth pulled during the summer; don't get overtired or strained; if you get a headache, tell your mother. Even so, kids caught it. In the big city hospitals, kids were stacked like cordwood in the corridors. Massachusetts General Hospital, it was said, looked like a "medieval pest house." Carts and wheelchairs clogged the aisles; sixty monstrous iron lungs had been jammed into one ward room. On the South Side of Chicago, a mother cried just to see the name above the door of the place where her child was taken: the Home for Destitute Crippled Children. Maybe the worst trauma I had suffered recently had been my father's insistence that now that I was out of grammar school, I needed to throw away my comic book collection. But even that blow had been tempered by my mother, who interceded to rescue the "Li'l Bad Wolf " series of comics, which she said were not bad for me. My greatest passion was football. I'd played it since I was five or six, with the certain assumption that I would be a college player, maybe a professional. The best college team in the country then was Notre Dame, and my father had a friend, an automobile dealer, who had a friend who was friends with Notre Dame's athletic director, Moose Krause. So, three times in my growing-up years, we drove to South Bend, Indiana, to see Notre Dame play. These were the days when Frank Leahy was the coach. It's hard to imagine what that name meant to a football-playing boy in the Midwest. Michael Jordan. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Obi Wan Kenobe. I remember going into the locker room before a game against Michigan State and seeing piles of hundreds of jerseys. Each player had several dozen jerseys with his number on them, and it was explained to me that these were tear-away jerseys, so that if a tackler got hold of nothing but your shirt, it would just come off in his hands, and you'd be gone. My plan was to play quarterback for Notre Dame, and I was encouraged to believe--by Frank Leahy and Moose Krause and the coaches back home--that this was not impossible. My father didn't discourage this ambition, but he was a man who wore a three-piece suit and bifocals with thin silver rims. He shined his shoes and put shoe trees in them every night. Handsome, dignified, graying at the temples, he was unfailingly gracious and considerate (my mother said a gentleman always considered not simply another person's rights but also her preferences), as well as short-tempered and given to sudden rage if another driver pulled out in front of him so that he had to call the bastard a stupid son-of-a-bitch. My father was a businessman, at that time a vice president of the Commonwealth Edison Company of Chicago, and he believed in the promise of technology. In those days, when Ronald Reagan appeared in television commercials for General Electric and said, "Progress is our most important product," my family agreed with him. We had driven cross-country that summer to Colorado, where my sister Sookie, five years older than I, was finishing her junior year at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Well, Bets and my mother and I drove out; my father took a plane out and back because he was busy at the office. My mother was a timid driver. She was the baby of her family. Her older sister, Douga, had gone to New York to be an actress, and instead became one of the stars of radio, among the inventors of the early-morning talk show. Douga met and married the founder and publisher of Yachting magazine, and the two of them lived in a triplex on Park Avenue, just like New Yorkers. But my mother was shy and tender. And I always felt, as the baby of my family, that she and I knew each other intimately, without a need for words: we were always close. It took several days to get to Boulder, driving through the cornfields and the wheat fields of Iowa and Nebraska and on into the tornado lands of Dorothy's Kansas, staying in small motels along the way. This was the first time I'd gone farther out into the world than to South Bend, and I was excited to see other people's lives and wonder about how they lived them. My friend Dave's grandfather, Grampa Buckley, who had a seat on the Chicago Grain Exchange, used to drive out this way a couple of times a year to look at the fields. He would get out of his car and talk to the farmers, walk out into the corn and wheat and soybeans and feel the crops with his own fingers. This was how he discovered one year that the soybean crop was going to be a disaster--and the coming shortage of soybeans would drive their price sky-high at harvesttime. As he went from town to town, he would call back to his office in Chicago and say, "Buy soybeans, buy soybeans," until he cornered the market that year in soybeans. This country, in the fifties, was the most wholesome country history has ever seen. Of course there were no drugs in schools, and no guns. For a girl to get pregnant in high school--as one did in Barrington--was a major community event. The child's father was a star on the high school basketball team, the president of the Honor Society, a bright boy with a promising future. The mother was a cheerleader, and a bright girl with a promising future. The town's consensus was that the girl should drop out of school right away to prepare for the birth, and the boy should be allowed to finish his junior year in high school and then get a job to support his family, which is what they did. When the child was three years old, the mother got a job at the checkout counter at the Jewel Tea supermarket. Driving cross-country, across a country distinctly intact--in such sharp contrast to all the photographs of war-ravaged Europe that had recently filled the minds of growing children--a boy could be forgiven for having a sense of the ever lasting peace and prosperity that President Eisenhower liked to talk about. We drove through small towns that had not changed in decades. Wherever new houses had been built, they were ranch houses, with vast picture windows on their fronts. Imagine feeling safe enough to put nothing but a sheet of glass between yourself and the world. In the Middle Ages, as in most periods of history, people built homes with walls two feet thick, massive bolted doors, ironwork over the windows. But in these past ten thousand years, for a period of about twenty years, so secure did an entire nation of people feel that they opened themselves up with complete vulnerability to anyone who had a rock. This is how safe we felt we were in the fifties, how safe I felt driving cross-country with my mother and Bets. I thought of Sookie, the eldest of the three of us children, the way Winston Churchill said he thought of his mother: "She was like the evening star. She loved me dearly, but at a distance." Sookie was glamorous to me. I'm talking about a college girl from the Midwest, but she seemed immensely sophisticated to me, and she was dating a guy at the University of Colorado who wanted to be a professional golfer. My father thought he was a bum, and I guess he was, but he was a goodlooking guy, maybe a little too slick, and very cool, the way natural athletes are, with their loose-limbed, easy way of moving. I tried to imitate him. That may have been where I picked up the virus--in Boulder, or somewhere along the road to Boulder, in Kansas or Nebraska, from a water glass in a roadside diner, or a doorknob at a motel. I don't know. No one knows. But the incubation period is about fourteen days, and it was fourteen days after we arrived in Boulder, when I was back home in Barrington) that I came down with what felt like the flu, but not quite: an ache, a general sense of unease, a little lightheadedness, that whiting out around the edges of my vision that I noticed first in the sun at the swimming pool where I was that afternoon. My lower back felt as though it needed stretching out. I thought maybe I'd pulled a muscle diving off the high board. For a while I lay beside the pool, waiting for the ache and tiredness to go away, but, feeling restless, I got up again and went home to lie down out of the sun in the coolness of the living room. That night I had a date, finally, with Stephanie Sibley for a high school summer dance. There was to be dinner and swimming. A local country club had let the students use its clubhouse, and there would be an evening of wandering out onto the veranda, strolling out onto the golf course--like a black-and-white movie from the thirties. She had gotten a formal dress. I had rented a tuxedo with a white jacket. I was anxious about my date, but nothing else, not wanting to be sick so I couldn't go. By the time I picked up Stevie--an older friend was double-dating with me, and drove--I was working hard to be relaxed and casual and happy. I told her I didn't feel well; I didn't want her to catch whatever it was I had. She laughed and said she didn't care. In the parking lot at the club, I felt dizzy. Entering the club, I would have felt self-conscious and out of place, intimidated by the doorman, but my attention was too narrowly focused, by now, on how unsteady I felt on my feet. This began to seem strange to me, but so strong is the dating instinct for an adolescent boy that I repressed any thought that I was sick. A buffet dinner was set out in the club's large dining room--little hors d'ouevres, a vast salmon lying stretched out on the table, I don't know what. I was hungry and ill at the same time. I took something in my fingers and looked for a place to put it down. Stevie had gone somewhere. I sat down, my head between my knees. And then we danced. A vast ballroom, all white, with a crystal chandelier, great windows on two sides overlooking the outdoor swimming pool, all lit up and alive with teenage boys and girls, and the eighteenth green at the edge of the darkness. I could hardly stand. Weak in the knees. Rubbery. Going for a swim was out of the question. To think of it made me shiver. We went down to the pool, where some of the kids had brought out some Scotch to drink. I couldn't stomach it. I was beginning to panic. A girl was pushed into the pool with her dress on. Some boys were thrown in with their tuxedos on; others jumped in fully clothed. Much laughter. Good times. I needed to go. The fear had begun to overtake me--deep down somewhere in the reticular activating system of the brain, some danger signals were going off, telling me that this was not a previously recognized sort of sickness--but I fought it off. Our double-dating foursome drove back to Stevie's house, which had a rec room in the basement--a private place for teenagers in the fifties, if they had permissive, not to say lascivious, parents: a cozy paneled room with easy chairs, a couch, Coke in a refrigerator, a phonograph. Elvis had only just begun to play the guitar; Bill Haley and the Comets were about to record "Rock Around the Clock." The rec room was where I had imagined, for more than a year, that I would first kiss Stevie. At the top of the basement stairs, I stopped-- aware, suddenly, that I was about to fall headfirst down the stairs. Holding the railings on both sides, I took a step down. My knees turned to jelly. The others, already at the bottom of the stairs, looked up with concern. I said I had to go home. The other boy came back up the stairs and held me while I turned around and got back up to the top. He said he would give me a ride home, but I said no, I would walk, I was fine-- needed a little fresh air, that was all. I don't think I said good night to Stevie. I felt nothing so much as humiliation. This night was the beginning, and the end, of my adolescent entry into the world of sex and the transition to adult love. My rite of passage into grown-up love would have to be scattered messily through my twenties and even thirties, a moment of transition returned to again and again before I got it quite right. They watched me go out the door and stagger across Stevie's front lawn. I was maybe fifteen blocks from home. And I don't remember the walk home well. These were small-town suburban blocks, brick and wood frame houses from the twenties and thirties mostly, some new ranch houses with big lawns both front and back; I knew just which back yards I could cut through. I fell down many times, weaving through these familiar yards. Sometimes I thought I would not be able to get back up. Once when I fell, I stayed down for a long time, thinking I would nap and recover my strength. I was shivering. It was a warm summer night, but I had some unreasoning fear I would die of exposure. This no longer seemed like the flu, but it was not like anything I knew either. Any boy's mother or father would have recognized these symptoms right away in those days, but I was not a mother or father; I was a growing boy oblivious to the possibility that some dread disease might strike me. At home, I crawled up the stairs on my hands and knees to my room, my parents calling out from their room to ask if I was all right. I reassured them. But then I couldn't stay in bed. My legs hurt so, and were so restless. I walked up and down the hall. The light went on in my parents' room. I went back to bed. Both my mother and my father came to my door. I told them how I felt--a little nausea, the relentless aching in the legs, the weakness. They phoned Doc Welch, the kind of guy in those days who made house calls in the middle of the night. He said we should meet him at the hospital. This was three or four o'clock in the morning. My father backed the car out of the garage. I lay across the back seat, with a kitchen pot at hand in case I needed to vomit. The hospital was eighteen miles away, past farms in the countryside, past cornfields and woodlots, through the kinds of hills where we had built our lean-tos, to Elgin, a little town big enough to have a hospital, Sherman Hospital. We were met at the door of the emergency room by a flurry of nurses and orderlies with a wheelchair--and because, by this time, I could no longer walk, I was lifted into the chair, and we made our way, this little band of panic, nurses and orderlies in their noisy, rustling, starched white uniforms, through the disinfected corridors, into the elevator, up into another, nearly deserted, wing of the hospital, and down a darkened hall to an examining room, where a single light was found and turned on, so that deep shadows filled the corners of the room. The orderlies lifted me onto a high table, and the crowd of nurses parted to let an immense red-haired woman, the head nurse, step forward, look at me lying on the table, and pronounce without hesitation: "This boy has polio." Copyright © 1999 Charles L. Mee. All rights reserved.