Your Favorite Western Stars Cheered up Children with Polio

Once again, the thanksgiving turkey looked like the bleached bones from a Chisholm Trail cattle drive gone bad. Everyone was well-fed and content. As usual, the kids, grandkids, neighbor kids and grownup kids were waiting for another Crossdraw Kid story. Rather than spend too much time trying to answer the unanswerable, such as, “Can the Lone Ranger beat up the Power Rangers?” just asked by six-year-old Sean Patrick, The Kid told them about a time so long ago that even the old folks in the room were young. A time when the real heroes were the children of America. A time when, no matter how tough things were, so many had real reasons to give Thanksgiving.

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Like the rest of his pals who were kids during World War II, Crossdraw had been very savvy when it came to rationing books and the three gallons of gas a week. His mom’s 1940 Buick, known to all as “Mahitabel the Gas Hog,” had an “A” sticker. Most of the time, it sat in the garage just waiting to take a trip to anywhere. The Buick was a Super Deluxe and came from the factory with twin carburetors to give it more power. Crossdraw’s dad blocked one off before he went back into the service to give the car a little better milage while he was gone. But, even then, you can’t go far on three gallons a week, so, every Saturday his mom would drive to the service station and get her three-gallon allotment, drive home and park. Sometimes, after saving for weeks, the fuel gauge read close to half full, and Crossdraw and his mom and friends would head to the beach and after a fun day at Santa Monica Pier, they’d slowly drive home and start the whole three-gallon thing all over again. Apparently, there wasn’t really a gas shortage—the big problem was tires. So, they rationed gas to save tires. Anyway, that’s what The Kid remembers. Every bit of rubber went to the war effort. So, if you had a good set of tires, you had to make them last for the duration of the war. Many times, Crossdraw and his pals would hear a car noisily clanking down the street on one or more of the car’s bare rims, going from service station to service station looking to buy a very used tube and tire.

Finally, by June of 1948, gas, tires and finally new cars were available again, and everyone was planning for the big trip. For The Kid and his family, this meant Route 66 and beyond, in Granddad’s new four-door Chevy. Joanne, the girl next door, and her folks were going to visit relatives in New York. The two families planned to start out on July 4, caravan to Oklahoma City, and then go their separate ways.

Polio Arrives

So, The Kid had a whole month before heading off on this great new adventure. There were Westerns to be seen, bikes to be fixed, rival cowpokes to deal with, and good times to be enjoyed. For most, this meant the local park and swimming pool followed by a cowboy matinee at the El Portal or Valley theaters, just up the street from Universal Studios on Lankershim Boulevard. The pool was great—the life-guards were neighbors, not much older than some of the kids in the water—so a little horseplay wouldn’t get you banished for life. And, at that exact moment in the lives of Crossdraw and his friends, girls were just a minor nuisance, someone to ignore or tease. Not too much, or you’d hear about it from your dad, or their big brothers, who were probably ignoring or teasing your older sister. So went the lazy days of early summer.

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But by late June, something peculiar was happening. The Kid kept hearing strange new words being whispered. His mom was always on the phone, many times crying along with her friends. It seemed to everyone that the whole world sort of stopped on a hot, humid day in 1948. No one was allowed out of the house, pools were drained and padlocked. Movie theaters were closing, one by one. Newly polished bikes grew dusty in the garage. Distrust, even among friends, was thick in the air. Infantile paralysis had struck, and struck hard. This deadly polio epidemic, which was to last for over a year, would take some of the best and brightest of The Kid’s generation.

Joanne, The Kid’s neighbor, was the first of several on their block to be stricken. A high fever, followed by general muscle weakness, were the first signs that sent parents into panic. “You get it, and you never get better,” were the words of the doomsayers. “You’ll always be a cripple.” Just what frantic families wanted to hear.

There was a ray of light, however, that offered hope to the children and their families. An Australian nurse, Sister Elizabeth Kenny, and Los Angeles’ Children’s Hospital teamed up and came up with a plan to help get these kids, and kids from all over the world, back on their feet again.

Ray Of Light

In the beginning, Sister Kenny’s methods were not shared by many in the medical field, but she knew that “her” kids would respond. And respond they did! Hot whirlpools in a metal pool called a Hubbard tank, physical therapy all day, every day, hot packs on the affected limbs—it all started to get results. The language uttered by the kids, who were in such pain, would many of the parents. But the have shocked therapists just told the kids to stick their heads under the water and yell all they wanted. And, boy they did.

Now might be a good time to mention that even with the best intentions, the food was terrible. All the kids hoped that whoever visited them would bring some sort of real food, like cookies or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Anything that didn’t include Jell-O or spam, which everyone, including the nurses, was sure was surplus from World War I.

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Joanne had both ambulatory and respiratory paralysis, so for a time, she was in an iron lung that breathed for her. Always a fighter, more than once, she’d yell, “I hate lying on my back looking at the world through a mirror—everything’s backwards!” Joanne and the rest of the kids worked hard, and by the holidays, hope was in the air.

Christmas was coming, and every floor was decorated just like home. It wasn’t home—it was still just a smelly old hospital—but big plans were brewing. The kids knew something was up. The “old-timers” said it was just going to be Santa Claus making his yearly visit. Not this year, Mortimer! Christmas Eve started with a song! From out on the lawn, the children and staff could hear the voices of the St. Charles Choir singing “Jingle Bells.”

The children who could make it to the windows shouted to the rest, telling them of the wondrous sights below. There, like a dazzling, life-sized Christmas display in the windows at Bullock’s downtown department store, were at least a dozen real horses, with wire and paper antlers tied to their heads, like reindeer. They were pulling a huge wagon filled with brightly wrapped presents. Leading this remarkable sight were more Western stars than the kids had ever seen, even in the movies.

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Roy, Dale, Hoppy, Wild Bill, Smiley, Monte, Duncan, Johnny Mack, Rocky, Fightin’ Bob Steele, Don “Red” Barry, Max Terhune, Jimmy Dodd and Eddie Dean were just a few of the names that were called out by the excited children, some of whom were leaning precariously out the windows, as their frail friends held them fast by the heavy steel braces on their legs.

Within moments, the doors of the hospital were thrown open and the voices of cowboys and kids could be heard melding in the halls. Each floor had stars passing out presents to the kids, and autographs to the doctors and nurses. Legend has it, these same nurses, who were really extraordinary but very strict, wouldn’t let any pets in the wards. Well, no one told Roy’s wonder dog, a German shepherd named Bullet. Roy and Bullet started on the top floor and worked down, stopping at each bed to say howdy, sing a song or two, and pass around Roy Rogers six-shooters, Roy Rogers Rider’s Club Membership Cards and comic books. The rest of the stars did the same. Soon, the melodious voices of Roy, Dale, Monte Hale and Eddie Dean were leading everyone in “Silent Night” on the hospital speaker system. Those scratchy old speakers never sounded so good. This was truly a wondrous moment.

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Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were the first to stop on Joanne’s floor. Dale gave each girl a beautiful Dale Evans cowgirl doll dressed in light green. She hung Joanne’s on the edge of her mirror so it could always be seen.

Roy went to a young boy, standing shyly by his bed, and with a sly wink of recognition, Roy said, “Say pardner, you look like you’re doing pretty well, why don’t you round up all your pals, go on over to the window, and when I ride out on Trigger, I’ll wave to you and all your buddies.” And with that, Roy gave the youngster a real, new-in-the-box Roy Rogers wristwatch, with a genuine leather strap, and his very own Roy Rogers Rider’s Club Membership Card #331.

Road To Recovery

All too soon the day was ending, but what a day! To a lot of these kids, this Christmas was a turning point in their recovery. It sure was for the boy with the real Roy Rogers wristwatch. For the first time, without help, he locked the knee on his leg brace and clomped over to the window to wave goodbye to all his old friends, especially Roy, Dale, Trigger, Buttermilk and Bullet.

The young boy, already well on his way to recovery, started getting even better, right from that very day. Soon, he was walking with a just a knee-high shoe brace, and by the next school year, he could get around really swell, with only a funny-looking pair of heavy, high-top black shoes. One was built up on the outside edge, forcing his left leg inward.

Even those soon found a place in the back of his closet when the new girl down the street asked him to go roller skating one bright sunny day. This was his first of many, many lessons in the powers of female persuasion. And besides, you couldn’t clamp skates on those ugly, black, built-up shoes. But, at that moment, The Kid didn’t have a real pair of shoes, so he borrowed a pair of his dad’s brogans and stuffed the toes with a pair of socks so they would sort of fit.

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Oh, by the way, Joanne’s granddaughter still has the beautiful Dale Evans doll that was given to her grandmother so many years ago. And Crossdraw still has his like-new Roy Rogers wristwatch, with the genuine leather band and his treasured Roy Rogers Rider’s Club Membership Card #331.

Giving Thanks

Many decades later, Roy often reminisced with The Kid about those dreadful days so long ago. And The Kid never stopped thanking him for all that he, Dale and so many others had done for countless kids like him across the country. And in case you’re wondering, you’ll still know it’s The Kid, even today, if you hear him walking down a quiet tile hallway; he has a real distinctive, cloppity gate. Sister Kenny and the Children’s Hospital did their job, and did it well.

As the Thanksgiving fire burned low, the youngsters were full of questions about this polio stuff that they heard about for the very first time. Even their parents never really knew much about it, but remember taking the Salk vaccine on a sugar cube when they were in school. And, of course, little Sean Patrick wanted the Kid to clop down the hall like a duck.

This article originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.