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My day at the Topsham Fair in 1947
I was just a teenager then; a youth, no longer a child but not yet a man. I was too young to drive so I rode my bicycle the four miles from Brunswick down Maine Street, then over the bridge that crossed the Androscoggin River to Topsham and to the Fair.
I had been to the fair before, when World War II was still raging in Europe and in the Pacific, but then I had gone with my parents and my older sister. My parents liked to visit the agricultural exhibits and look at the sheep, the cattle, and other livestock on display. My sister liked to watch the pitch men in the booths that lined the Midway as they demonstrated their skills. She enjoyed listening to their spiels of how the kitchen utensils they sold would make life easy in the kitchen. She would also show off her own skills by winning prizes at the ring toss booth. She was good at it and even won for me a Lone Ranger Statute.
But on this trip I looked forward to other things and after I had taken a ride on the Ferris wheel and tried out the Tilt a Whirl, I headed through the crowded Midway towards the big tent with show I wanted to see, the girly show. The master of ceremonies and master of the spiel stood on the wooden stage in front of the tent where a good sized crowd had gathered. He pointed with his baton to each of the three beautiful women standing beside him and sang out his spiel: “Hurry, hurry, hurry. See the dancing ladies from Skowhegan. From here to there, they’re paralyzed. From here to there they’re hypnotized. But from here to there, all your dreams materialize.”
I was absolutely fascinated and I stood there hypnotized until I had memorized his patter. I had little money so I couldn’t pay the fee to go into the tent to watch the ladies dance and do whatever else they probably did. But I could well imagine!
I was certain that when I next traveled on the bus to an away track meet with the other members of the Brunswick High Track Team I would be able to recite the spiel and entertain everybody with my story. I even had the rhythm of the spiel down pat.
When the outside performance on the girly show stage closed down, I licked from the container of pink spun cotton candy I had purchased and wandered around the Midway for a spell and took in the sights. Then I headed towards the entrance booth to pick up my bicycle and start on my ride back home.
But I paused when I noticed a small line of people waiting to enter a white trailer building. I walked over to see what was going on. I learned it was some sort of Polio exhibit. I was curious. I knew my parents had worried about us kids catching Polio. Everyone was fearful back then. That was before a vaccine had been developed that could prevent the disease. I knew President Roosevelt had been afflicted and that was why he couldn’t walk well. I myself had been quarantined some years before and nobody, even my father, could come into the house for a visit and I couldn’t go out and play. I never did learn if the doctor was worried about Polio or something else, but I did remember my parents talking about Polio.
The line in front of the white trailer moved slowly but I finally went up the few stairs and entered the room where posters were displayed that explained the device on display. It was an Iron Lung, a large seven foot long metallic tube that stood on metal legs that straddled some machinery that exuded a freighting rhythmic sound. A woman’s head extended outside the metal chamber and rested on a pillow.
The woman’s eyes were open and she looked up at a large mirror that enabled her to view us as we passed slowly and looked.
I then understood that the woman’s chest was paralyzed and the device helped her breathe and kept her alive. I wanted to speak to her, perhaps to say something like “I’m sorry,” but I stayed quiet. But I knew that was a terrible way to live. She would never see her dreams materialize.
As I bicycled back home, I tried to understand how anyone could live like that, paralyzed in an Iron Lung. The contrast between her and the other women I had looked at on the stage at the girly show, and who we had been falsely told were also paralyzed, was so striking.
I never forgot that day at the fair. And I never recited to the guys on the track team the patter of the pitchman I had memorized.