A TV show premiered on Fox Wednesday night, called “Touch.” It is about a boy who is autistic, doesn’t speak, but has the amazing ability to see all of existence as a mathematical construct. By simply following the number lines he can discover why things happened in the past and, more importantly, what will happen in the future. A few years ago there was a show with a similar plot device, “Numbers.” That one starred a college math professor who helped his FBI agent brother solve seemingly impossible cases through complicated algebraic equations. More recently, “Person of Interest” uses a computer developed by Homeland Security to predict terrorist activities. A rogue agent and a computer scientist mine this information illegally to help prevent crimes.

Scientific Calvinism? Maybe. We are all predestined to do certain things, they seem to suggest, and if we only had the right device (professor, computer, idiot savant) to decipher what is in plain sight we could know the unknowable. Having worked twenty years in the Halls of Academe (and on computers), I’m pretty confident neither will solve the riddles of the universe any time soon.

It is an interesting, if not terribly original, idea. The Greeks had it. They believed in The Fates, consulted oracles and read chicken entrails. More recently mankind developed much more reliable methods like astrology, palm-reading, and head bumps.

Still . . . What if you could follow the threads of your life to see where they went. Well you can, but only retrospectively. It is one of the (few) advantages of being old. So here goes.

Mary and I watched another TV show last night, a documentary on the polio epidemic of the early ‘50s on PBS. It solved a mystery that has been stuck in my craw for over fifty years. It was nice to get the answer, and it led me down a path that led, in a curious way, to Necon. “God draws straight with crooked lines,” Thomas Merton reportedly said.

For those of you too young to remember, the polio epidemic of the late ‘40s/early ‘50s was a scary time. Polio killed and paralyzed thousands of Americans, including President Roosevelt. On Roosevelt’s instruction an aid started a charity called The March of Dimes and turned charity giving on its head. They found it was better to get small contributions from many givers than large contributions from a few philanthropists.

Two researchers, Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin, competed for the money. Salk’s idea was a dead virus vaccine while Sabin wanted one with a live virus. Salk won because his vaccine could be ready sooner. It was successfully tested at two “homes for the feeble-minded.” There was no concept of Informed Consent in the ‘50s.

A press conference was held and madness ensued. Kids could go out to play again and parents could breath a sigh of relief. Labs all over the country started to produce the vaccine and every schoolchild got a shot. I was one of them that first year, the year the ended the polio plague.

Two days later I awoke with a stiff neck. I was in the second grade. I told my mom, who thought I was just trying to skip school. She made me go anyway. That afternoon I came home from school (about a half-mile walk before the days of moms with vans and busing) dragging my left foot behind me.

When my dad got home at five we went to our family doctor. He examined me, made a phone call, and told my parents to drive me to Charles G. Chapin hospital in Providence. My dad had never heard of it, so old Doc McClellan gave him directions. It turns out Chapin was formerly a home for unwed mothers that the state was now using to house quarantined patients, mostly tuberculosis and polio.

My mom was told she couldn’t visit, just stand outside my window and wave. She was pregnant. My dad could come to my room and talk to me, but only from the doorway. I had a spinal tap. I was poked and prodded by a group of about twelve men dressed in white with masks on. One was from New York, another from Washington. I was eight years old.

After about a month there my symptoms gradually left and I was sent home. My parents were never given a proper explanation so whenever I asked what had happened to me I was met with blank stares. As a precaution all of my toys and clothes were burned. The kids in the neighborhood wouldn’t play with me, no doubt on the advice of their frightened parents. Tired all the time, no toys, no friends. And then . . . a miracle!

My parents were not educated past high school but they had a dream. When the door to door salesman told them that the “Encyclopedia Americana” would lead straight to the Ivy League, they believed him. It was a godsend. I spent hours and hours immersed in the written word — dinosaurs, Egypt, the history of flight, whatever occurred to me. Out of this terrible experience were born my love of the written word and my insatiable need to be around friends.

Many years later I was working for fantasy legend Donald M. Grant. Don’s day job was at Providence College, run by the Order of Preachers (Dominicans). When he retired he recommended me to the Vice President for Human Resources and I was hired. I worked there for twenty years. Interestingly, the lower campus of Providence College is made up of the buildings of Charles G. Chapin hospital.

Both of my children (Dan & Sara) are graduates of Providence College, as is Matt Bechtel. All are important to both Necon and Necon E-Books. They probably all had a class in my old hospital room. My love of reading, my need for friends, Don Grant, Dan Booth, Sara Calia, Matt Bechtel, and Providence College: all connected by an invisible spider web of cause and effect leading, inexorably, to Necon (and Necon E-Books).

And the mystery? At the end of the documentary they said that a few labs inadvertently were shipped live polio virus for use in the dead virus vaccine. There was no equivalent of today’s FDA back then. A few hundred kids nationwide got the virus from the vaccine. Some died. Some were paralyzed. Some were lucky and the virus passed through them in a few weeks. When I’m tired I still limp a little, but you have to know me well to notice it.

God draws straight with crooked lines.


7 Responses to Polio, Dominican Friars, and Necon — A Mystery Solved

  1. Matt Bechtel says:

    Matt jumping in with a quick P.S. to Bob’s awesome article — my first three years at P.C., I lived in a dorm on lower campus called Dore Hall. Among its other quirks, Dore Hall was known for it abnormally-high ceilings (in the 12-15 foot range) … because the building was originally the psychiatric ward of the Charles G. Chapin hospital, and the high ceilings were a safeguard against patients hanging themselves. We all used to joke that we lived in an asylum, and that not much had changed over the years.

  2. mary devlin says:

    Bob – soooo well done. A treat to read…..

  3. Mark Angevine says:

    Bob,Fantastic story,incredibly well written.Thank
    you very much for sharing this slice of your life.

  4. T. T. Zuma says:

    Oh man, that is quite the story! I wonder if anyone else you knew back then was affected with that live virus, and if so, whether they came out of it as well as you did.

  5. Leslie Borghini says:

    Awesome…It is amazing how someones medical conditions can shape their lives forever. As a young teen I was misdiagnosised with Leukemia and pneumonia on top of that. Spent the entire summer on the couch, (close to the bathroom and kitchen)I was to weak to go up steps, and I would not let my mama take me to a hospital and leave me. So she tended to me while working full time and everyday she stopped at the drugstore and bought me a new book to read. Thus my love of the written word.

  6. An amazing, poignant slice of history. Thank you very much for this, Bob.

  7. Great story, Bob! I love the way paths twine and connect in life.

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