Handicapped children were a fact of life a half-century ago in the Midwest. We weren’t insensitive. We simply incorporated them into the general scheme of things. Life was tough. We were tougher.
I had one friend for years who had hydrocephalus, or “water on the brain.” Her skull was much larger than normal, so we folded her Brownie hat in half and bobby-pinned it to her head. When we had running races at school, I ran for Becky until the very last part, and she always came over the finish line herself. She was usually last, but she made it just fine on her own. In the summer when it was too hot for her to play outside, her mother called my mother, and I came down and luxuriated in Becky’s air-conditioned bedroom while we played paperdolls, Candyland, and Operation. Her headaches got in the way sometimes, and we both just waited them out until we could go about our business.
One little boy in our school — I think his name was Wayne — got horribly burned on one of the oil-lit balls that the road crews used to place around open holes in the streets. His injuries were horrific, but he survived, and the town did what they could to raise money for his family. One mom knitted a whole series of soft but colorful caps for him to wear on his now-hairless and scarred head, and he was never once picked on that I can remember. We felt bad for him, but he was immediately swept back into our games and nonsense the minute that he was up to it.
Wheelchairs, leg braces, and crutches were common denominators to a population graced by the Salk vaccine for only a few years. The repair of cleft lips and palates was crude at best. And dentistry was still all about cavities. Nobody I knew wore braces, but the church did take up a collection to send the son of the maintenance man into Springfield so “somebody could take a look at his double teeth.” Charlie, who was in my third grade class, never lost a baby tooth. Instead, his permanent teeth came in very neatly behind them all. If you gave Charlie a penny, or a bite of whatever it was you were eating for lunch that looked good to him, he would open up his mouth so you could see all his teeth. We weren’t too happy when he went off to Springfield.
Jimmy Crane was an American Indian from the west somewhere, whose mother was dead and whose father had TB. When Jimmy fainted in school because he was hungry, nobody said a word. He was just whisked downstairs to the cafeteria, where he was fed some breakfast — and where he was fed two meals a day for the rest of the time his family lived in town. I liked Jimmy and knew I could find him before school down in the cafeteria, eating oatmeal and drinking milk. I liked to sit with him while he finished up, except for the days we had to line up on the other end of the steam table before school to get a polio shot. They were free, and everybody got them. I don’t remember that my mother ever signed a permission slip.
One boy was born with an extra finger, which almost elevated him to celebrity status. The teacher permitted him to be chairman of our math group when we were learning the 6s of the multiplication tables. He did it again later when we learned the 11s. I was so jealous I couldn’t see straight. And I don’t recall one irate call to the principal, one letter to the editor, or one charge of insensitivity against the teacher.