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He presents a clear and comprehensive view of his...
He presents a clear and comprehensive view of his experience with polio. Every episode he reviews is stimulating and told with candor. His ability to attain the equivalence of a college education, despite being physically unable to enter the classroom, is a subtle but strong display of his strength. The vision and determination which became evident during this long challenge were, without a doubt, significant elements which enhanced his effectiveness as an advocate to improve the welfare, comfort, and safety of the severely disabled patients who lacked adequate resources.
I've always enjoyed poems, those childhood rhymes that most children were taught when I was young. I especially liked the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. We had an early edition of A Child's Garden of Verses, and my parents read to me as I looked at the illustrations. Later, probably by the age of eight or nine, I discovered the difference between poems and poetry. My ears would perk up if I heard someone reading something by Robert Frost. One of my favorites is Frost's "The Road Not Taken." It ends with:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I- I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
I liked that thought-taking the road less traveled. A psychologist might analyze my feelings and presume that this is based on the fact that my life has been different. This analysis might be right. I've certainly taken the road less traveled, even if the decision was not entirely my own. Circumstances surely had a role in which road I took.
Then, recently, a new book of poetry was given to me. In it was "The Road Not Taken." As I read it again, savoring the flow of Frost's words, my thoughts were suddenly interrupted. It was as if my brain yelled, "Hey! Wait a minute!" I re-read the last two lines:
I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
The questioning part of my brain exerted itself and seemed to ask, "How could a person know if one road, 'made all the difference' without traveling both roads?"
Mrs. Truxaw, my sixth grade teacher, taught her students to read with a critical eye. She urged us to decide for ourselves if an author's words spoke truth to us. I guess I'll have to blame her for my skepticism.
But, as my mother would probably say, I'm getting ahead of myself. I guess I'd better start from the beginning.
I was born on June 14, 1940, at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles, California, and was the last of my parents' four children. My brother Robert is three years older, my sister Ann is eight years older, and my brother Rodney Jr. is almost exactly ten years older.
Let me provide some historical background, to put my story in context. June 14 is Flag Day in the United States. On June 14, 1940, the German army entered Paris and, on the same day, a group of 728 Polish prisoners became the first residents of the Auschwitz concentration camp. A few days before this, the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from Dunkirk and Winston Churchill had addressed the British Parliament, saying, "We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
Across the Atlantic, the United States was attempting to stay out of this new war. The top recordings of that year were, "In The Mood" by Glenn Miller, "I'll Never Smile Again" by Tommy Dorsey, with the vocal by Frank Sinatra, and "When You Wish Upon a Star" from the Disney movie Pinocchio, with the vocal by Cliff Edwards.
The highest rated movies of 1940 included The Grapes of Wrath, The Philadelphia Story, and Pinocchio.
When I was born our family lived at 411 East 109th Street. This was my home for the first ten years of my life. My father and grandfather had built our house themselves in 1932, with some of the plumbing and electrical work contracted out to my father's friends. This was during the Great Depression, and those friends needed work.
The neighborhood consisted of modest, middle-class homes and ours was the largest and nicest on the block. I believe it was the only two-story house. We had a sort of Daggett family compound, since my father and my grandfather owned four adjoining lots. Our house was built on the easternmost lot. Aunt Evelyn's house was next to ours and my grandparents had the house next to her. The remaining lot was vacant, except for my grandfather's garage and workshop.
Our lot was not big, but as a child it seemed big to me. In the beginning, the front lawn sloped gently toward the sidewalk. In 1945, my father added a low cement retaining wall that leveled off the lawn. Aunt Evelyn did the same thing. They probably did it for aesthetic reasons but to us kids it made a much nicer, flat area to play outdoor games. I used the low retaining wall as my "launching pad" when I was learning to ride a full-size bicycle. I would stand on the wall and swing one leg over the bicycle seat, keeping one foot firmly on the wall. When I felt steady, I would propel myself forward.
Our backyard was divided by a low picket fence. The part nearer to the house was planted in grass and flowers, and beyond the fence was what we called "the way back." It was mostly bare ground with colorful shrubs around the perimeter. During World War II we had a Victory Garden in this part of the yard, and after the war my father built a large swing in this area. At the end of the yard we had a covered area with a picnic table and large brick barbecue. Behind the garage we had a chicken yard, although the chickens were gone by the time I was five years old. I remember my father cutting the head off a chicken. It ran around in crazy circles, splattering blood on Aunt Evelyn's garage. After the chickens were gone, my brother Robert and I used the empty walk-in chicken coop for our club house. Between the garage and the chicken coop was a small, L-shaped building we called the wood shed. The lawn mower, garden tools, and some lumber and plumbing supplies were kept there. It was usually dark and, as a young boy, it seemed spooky to me. I hated to walk in there and get tangled in spider webs. When I was older, we built secret panels between the club house, the wood shed, and the space between the garage and our neighbor's yard. We probably got the idea for secret panels from watching so many Saturday afternoon movie serials.
My father built a small room in the attic of the garage. He called this his "dog house" and I think it probably served as his refuge from four active kids. Access was by steep, narrow stairs with a right angle turn halfway up. He had a desk and his self-made photo enlarger in the room. On the desk was a typewriter. Before I could spell or read I would sit at the desk and "type." I would type three to five letters and make a space, then three to five more letters, continuing all the way across the page. When I finished a line I'd move the carriage to the beginning of the line and type over my first letters, each time making sure to use a different letter. The first time I did this my father looked at me and asked, "Just what are you doing?" I told him I was typing Chinese.
The room had a padlock on the door and was off-limits unless we were invited. Of course, anything that is off-limits to a child is a tempting target. There was one small window in the gable end of the garage that provided light and fresh air to this small room, and a portion of one inside wall was hinged and could be swung open to provide the room with cross ventilation. When I was eight, I found a way to climb up on the garage roof trusses and work my way into the room through this hinged portion of the wall. There wasn't much up there that was of interest to a child, but getting inside was a goal in itself.
One of my earliest recollections is of my father building our backyard swing. He put a single, large pipe in the ground. The top of the pipe was over eight feet high. At the top of this pipe he fitted another large pipe going horizontally, with the other end attached to the roof of the wood shed. The swing hung from this pipe. It was the largest backyard swing I can recall ever seeing. I was getting over some childhood illness when he was working on the swing, so my mother let me sit outside and watch him. I remember sitting in an old wooden highchair that all of us kids used when we were small.
I also remember walking around the house on my sister's feet. She would hold my arms up, I would put my feet on top of hers, and I would walk backward as she walked forward. Once we walked all the way to the Diamond Market this way.
The Diamond Market was just north of the corner of 109th Street and Avalon. It was an old-fashioned market, with the front open to the sidewalk. All of the fruits and vegetables were displayed in large bins with metal wheels. A canvas awning rolled out to cover the area. When the market was closed, the bins were pushed back into the building, the awning was retracted, and large sliding doors were closed to secure the building. This left an extra-wide concrete sidewalk that we used for roller skating.
A block north of the market was a small variety store called Martha's. I enjoyed going inside and looking at the toys and games. It rivaled the Sears catalog as my favorite "wish" place. * * *
We had a Sears Silverstone combination 78-rpm record player and radio. It was in a large, wood-veneer console that was part of the living room furniture. The record player also had the capability of making our own records. Not tape recordings or wire recordings, but actual 78 rpm records. One Christmas, the microphone was passed around the room for each person to say something or perform. Ann sang "Away in the Manger," but the only thing they got out of me was a very faint, "Hello, Mommy!"
We had a collection of classical records that I called "the oatmeal records" because of the color of the album cover. Robert and I would play Rossini's "William Tell Overture," and when the "Lone Ranger" theme would start, we would run around and around from the living room, down the hall, into the kitchen, through the breakfast room, through the dining room, and back to the living room. There were also selections by Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and others. We had another album with Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Basil Rathbone. I've heard many later versions of this classic narrated by other people, but in my opinion none of them compare to this version. We weren't force-fed classical music, but it was always a part of our environment.
I remember a time at school when our music teacher played some familiar excerpts of classical music on the record player. She asked the pupils to raise their hands if they could identify the music. One piece she played was the "William Tell Overture." Almost every pupil raised their hand. In unison they shouted, "The Lone Ranger music!" One girl and I were the only ones to offer the correct name.
At home we also had access to a variety of books and magazines that helped in our education. There were always reference books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias in the house, and my parents always encouraged us to, "Look it up." My parents subscribed to National Geographic and several art and literature publications. We visited our local library often. Even before I could read, I would sit on the floor in the children's section and leaf through the books with pictures.
* * *
My father worked for Western Electric, a division of AT&T. He was an installation supervisor, managing the installation of communication equipment at large telephone offices and many major aerospace corporations. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, although she was active outside the home in church, the PTA, and other civic and cultural organizations.
My mother was a wonderful cook, and I enjoyed watching her cook and bake. As I grew older I often helped prepare simple meals. There was very little candy or junk food in the house. The closest I came to eating junk food was when I'd make a peanut butter and brown sugar sandwich.
When I was young, my mother would often fix a special breakfast treat for me. She called it a "smashed egg." It was a freshly hardboiled egg that she mashed with a fork, then added a very small amount of salt, pepper, and butter. In the summer months I'd usually have cold cereal and in the winter months I'd have hot Wheatena cereal or sometimes hot oatmeal with raisins.
A lot of kids balk at eating foods like spinach or Brussels sprouts, but I never did. Like most people, I have some favorite foods, but there are not many foods that I really dislike. However, my mother served beef tongue for supper once when I was a child and I protested very strongly. I think it was more the look of it rather than the taste. Maybe if my mother hadn't told me what it was, it would have gone down easier. Mushrooms and shellfish round out my list of least favorite foods. Most other foods, including all types of vegetables, are part of my regular diet. Even as a child I had a small garden patch at the side of our garage. I grew spinach, radishes, and rhubarb.
If I had an upset stomach, my mother would give me sips of 7-Up, and if I was recovering from severe nausea, she would make nonalcoholic eggnog. She said these drinks would make me feel better. They probably did, but I can't think of either one now without their association with feeling ill.
* * *
In 1946, my father converted the unfinished second story of our house into rooms for us boys. My brother Rodney had a bedroom facing east, Robert and I shared a bedroom facing west, and there was a multi-purpose playroom facing north. That room had a large window that could be opened like a door and led out onto the patio roof. We would sometimes go out onto the roof to watch the Fourth of July fireworks. We could see the aerial rocket display above the Los Angeles Coliseum.
My brother Robert would sometimes jump from this roof to the lawn below. I wanted to, but I always chickened out when I got close to the edge. One time, when I was standing on the edge trying to get up the courage to jump, he came up behind me and said, "Pretend I'm a Jap and I'm going to stab you with my bayonet." World War II was still a vivid memory. He started yelling and making menacing faces as he came closer. My imagination overcame my fear of jumping and I leaped off the roof. I landed on the lawn, turned around, and looked up toward Robert still standing on the roof. It hadn't been as difficult as I had expected. I ran back in the house, up the stairs, out onto the patio roof, and jumped again.
* * *
About twice a year I would go with my mother to downtown Los Angeles. We would walk from our home near the corner of 109th and Avalon to the streetcar stop at 108th and Broadway. I would tag along as she shopped at the large department stores. Sometimes we would stop at the Red Goose Bootery to buy me a pair of shoes. The store had a kind of fluoroscope that would give a view of a child's bone structure inside a pair of shoes. The child would stand on a shelf, with his feet sticking in an opening, and the shoe salesman would look at the child's feet through a viewing screen. I would often ask to wear the new shoes on the way home, but I usually regretted it by the time we got back to the house. The distance from the streetcar stop at 108th and Broadway to our house doesn't seem very far now, but I remember it as quite a hike for a small child in new shoes.
When I was a child I often wore a sport coat and bow tie to church or special occasions. I enjoyed wearing nice clothes. Once, when I was twelve, I went to a Saturday afternoon movie with one of my friends. I wore a clean white shirt and dress slacks. My friend came out of his house in old Levis and a shirt that had been worn for several days. His mother looked at me and made him change into something better. He didn't like doing that, and said to me, "Why do you always have to wear your good clothes when we go places?" I didn't have a ready answer for him. I just thought it looked better.
Excerpted from Not Just Polio by Richard Lloyd Daggett Copyright © 2010 by Richard Lloyd Daggett. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 21, 2010
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