Eradicating Polio

Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast…

So wrote William Congreve in his poem, The Mourning Bride, in 1697.

More than three centuries later, in my own lifetime, there has been practically nothing so savage in choking the life from the breasts of innocent children than the scourge of polio.  During the mid-part of the twentieth century, polio paralyzed or killed over half a million people a year worldwide.

Everyone who grew up in the years of my childhood came to dread the very word.  Who among us does not remember the iron lung—a lifesaving device for so many of the afflicted, but a terrifying monster in our minds—lurking in wait, a spectre that haunted our dreams.

polio-national museum of health and med

Those of us who managed to remain healthy all knew of someone who was not so fortunate.  Richard Rhodes, an American historian and journalist, wrote of polio in his autobiography, A Hole in the World:

Polio was a plague. One day you had a headache and an hour later you were paralyzed. How far the virus crept up your spine determined whether you could walk afterward or even breathe. Parents waited fearfully every summer to see if it would strike. One case turned up and then another. The count began to climb. The city closed the swimming pools and we all stayed home, cooped indoors, shunning other children. Summer seemed like winter then.

Today—thanks largely to the development of effective vaccines, and mass immunization programmes—the disease has been almost eradicated.

Almost.

In 1988, there were an estimated 350,000 reported cases of polio worldwide; by 2016, that number was 37, a remarkable decrease of 99%.  And yet, it lives.

The global effort to combat the disease has been tremendously effective, but as long as even one child remains infected, children everywhere are at risk.  A failure to completely eradicate the disease could spark a resurgence all over the world.

And so, to the power of music to combat all that is savage.  A men’s chorus of which I am a proud member, Harbourtown Sound, recently partnered with Rotary International in support of their Polio Plus campaign, hailed as “one of the finest humanitarian projects the world has ever known”.  Rotary fundraising has enabled the inoculation of more than 2.5 billion children, at a cost of $1.3 billion.

Twenty-one local Rotary Clubs recently joined with our chorus in a special Christmas concert to add to this global initiative.  Thanks to those committed Rotarians, to philanthropic sponsors working with them, and to the organizational efforts of one of our singers, a Rotarian, more than $130,000 was raised in one afternoon.

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For us on stage, it was a labour of love, singing glorious songs of the season—melodies as familiar to us today as the fear of the polio scourge was in days gone by.  For those in the audience, it was more than just a concert; it was an opportunity through their generosity to assist in the eradication of polio forever.

The Rotary International outreach is described at this website—

https://my.rotary.org/en/take-action/end-polio

More information about Harbourtown Sound can be found at our website—

http://www.harbourtownsound.ca/,

or on our Facebook homepage—

https://www.facebook.com/harbourtownsound/?fref=nf

HTS award

For Always

A number of years ago, my grandchildren were visiting their Nana and me when November 11th rolled around.

“What’s ‘Membrance Day, Gramps?” the oldest asked.

Re-membrance Day,” I replied.  “It’s the day when we remember the soldiers who fought in the wars.”

“What are wars, Gramps?” the youngest asked.

I found it astounding, and heartbreaking, that they were still so innocent.  And I wished they could be so for always.

It was difficult to explain the premise of warfare to them—the sheer gall and hubris and stupidity of humankind in seeking to settle what are sometimes legitimate grievances by killing each other in remote fields of mud and gore.

I couldn’t convey the sense of awe that washed over me, when I had stood years before in one of the cemeteries where poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row—scarcely able to believe the enormity of the carnage.  Nor could I explain to them how I was brought to tears by the simple inscription on too many of those markers—

Here Rests in Honored Glory, A Comrade in Arms, Known But To God

unknown soldier

Despite the fact that they couldn’t really understand, I told them we try now to remember the men and women who gave up their lives in defense of our country and its values, in all the wars in which our soldiers took part.

“Why do we hafta remember them?”

“Well, I guess it’s because we hope we won’t ever have to fight a war again,” I said.

Even as I talked about it, the thought occurred to me that the war with the most significance for me is one I don’t really remember at all.

My parents did, though.  For them, it was the war, one of the most significant events in their lives, an event that shaped many of their attitudes and beliefs forever.

My recollection of that war has come through them, formed as impressions and feelings, prompted by bits of memorabilia, by oft-repeated stories, or by the singing of wartime songs.

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I have a picture in an old family album, a now-faded snapshot with large white borders and scalloped edges.  It was taken at Christmas time in my grandparents’ living room during the winter of ’44.  I’m in the picture, right in front on my mother’s lap, not yet two years old.  The whole family is gathered around us beside the Christmas tree.

My mother’s parents are there, and her three sisters.  Her sister-in-law and two of her cousins complete the group.  With the exception of my grandfather (and me, I suppose), there are no male persons in the picture…no sons, no brothers, no husbands.

Whenever I look at it, I try to imagine what that Christmas must have been like for my family, most of them younger than my own children now.  I think about a song that became popular around that time, a young soldier’s promise that, “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”

I'll_Be_Home_for_Christmas_Bing_Crosby

 

So, when my young grandchildren asked about Remembrance Day, I tried to convey those same feelings to them.  Not what war was really like, because I don’t know.  Rather, how I still feel when I hear that song at Christmas time, or when I look again at that old snapshot.

I told them about my aunt who married her beau mere days before he shipped out, and that they didn’t see each other again for more than three years.  How he met her brother—his new brother-in-law—for the first time while they were both stationed in England.

brothers

Not one of my family’s young soldiers was home for Christmas that year.  One of them, an uncle I might have grown to love, never did come home.

I remember hearing my parents talk of them long afterwards.  I’d hear words and phrases that prompted my recollections—words like wartime and overseas, or phrases such as V-E Day and killed in action.

“If Jimmy had come home from overseas,” they’d say, “he’d be almost eighty now.  Can you imagine!”

Together, they’d sit quietly, thinking back, I guess—remembering how it was.

I knew my grandchildren would not be able to comprehend a war that ended more than half a century before they were born, or even understand what their great-grandparents went through.  But, in hearing about it from me, I hoped they would develop some sense of the meaning of freedom and democracy, and of the sacrifices that were needed and made.

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And I hoped that, once they knew, perhaps they’d understand why we remember.

For always.

 

She Married Her Father-in-Law!

Around the community where we live, I am known to most of our neighbours as Donna’s husband.  This, I think, is due more to my wife’s friendly, caring nature with everyone she meets, than it is to my somewhat more reserved approach.

I don’t mind, of course, because it garners me automatic entry into the circle of regard in which she is held.  I benefit from instant credibility, instant relevance, instant acceptance.

“Oh, you’re Donna’s husband!” is an exclamation I often hear, followed quickly by a wide smile from the speaker, sometimes even a hug.

hugging

Among my own family, however, my identity has morphed into something I never quite anticipated.  Increasingly now, whenever I encounter sisters, nieces and nephews, or other extended family members, I am told I look like my father.

“You’re just like him,” they declare.  “You even sound like him.”

They’ve heard me sneeze, you see, which reincarnates my father every time.

Although I loved him very much while he was with us, I confess I never aspired to be exactly like him.  I wanted to be my own man—not so unusual a desire, I suppose, for sons of successful, admired fathers.

As a young man encountering people who knew him, I would often hear, “Ahh, you’re Bill Burt’s boy.”

And I would struggle to suppress the haughty reply, “Actually, he’s my father.”

But now, happily entrenched in my mid-seventies, I am no longer possessed by that same hubris.  Just as I am inordinately proud to be both a father and grandfather in my own right, I am more than happy to be recognized as my father’s son.

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My beautiful picture

 

 

 

 

Still, it comes as something of a shock to be reminded by those who knew him that, more and more, I behave just like he used to.  In photographs, I gaze at the camera with the same bemused expression he always had.  I remember thinking he was trying for a mix of casual and noble at the same time; I don’t know what I’m attempting to do, but I somehow attain the same inane facial expression.

My mouth, at rest, turns downward at the corners, making me appear grouchy, when I am anything but.  I try to smile broadly for the camera, as he did, if for no other reason than to dispel that impression.

In many pictures, I’m sitting the way he did, or standing with the same posture.  As my jowls begin to droop, as my hair turns white, my profile shots are becoming eerily similar to his.

In videos, I walk the way he used to, shoulders hitched slightly high, strong chin tucked in, eyes peering out from under raised eyebrows.

And (somewhat depressingly, I must admit), I feel awkward now as I clamber from my easy chair to my feet, as I try to step into my trousers without falling over, as I walk slowly upstairs one-step-at-a-time—just as I remember my father doing at my age!

upstairs

I must confess, however, that I do like it when the comparison is reversed; for example, when my grandchildren see a picture of my father (whom none of them remember), and say, “Wow, Grandpa, he sure looks like you!”  That turns the corners of my mouth up every time.

And I appreciate the truth now in the lines from William Wordsworth—

…So was it when my life began,

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old…

The Child is father of the Man.

No one in our community ever knew my father; but if they were ever to see a picture of him, I’m sure I’d no longer be known as Donna’s husband.

Instead, the whispers would be, “Can you believe it?  She married her father-in-law!”