Please journey back in time with me to August 17th of 1917. There's someone there that I want you to meet. We're visiting the rather nondescript little village of Meadowvale, Minnesota, distiguished by little but a failing general store and a number of small homesand farmsteads.
It is swelteringly hot, and a seven year old boy trudges slowly up the dirt road toward his home. He wears bib overalls, he's shirtless and shoeless, in all a rather handsome little lad. He's been at the river, fishing and a pair of catfish trail in the dirt behind him. Sweat streams down his small face in disproportion to the heat, and as he walks, his gait becomes more unsteady, stumbling. The stringer of catfish is lost in the dirt, and his pace slows then stops as he collapses face down in the dirt.
No one knows how long he laid there, but his big brother Joe found him before dark, and ran to the house with his little brother slung over his shoulder like a lifeless ragdoll, screaming for his parents. The boy, shivering in the heat, feverish beyond belief was placed on the sofa in the parlor and his brothers and sisters chased away. Cool towels were placed on his forehead as horrible spasms wracked his small frame. His brother Kendall rode Lefty, the plow horse to town to summon Dr. Ryan, the town's doctor.
Ryan headed for the farmstead in his buggy, sure that he knew what was wrong, surer still that the family would soon be calling Mr. Dare, the undertaker to visit the farmstead and take the boy away. One look at the boy told him the truth: that on this sunny August day, the polio epidemic of 1917 had come to Elk River. Daniel Chester Bailey, aged 7, lay dying on a Sears and Roebuck sofa, in the farmhouse's tiny parlor. The doctor could offer no hope to the family. Keep him warm, get fluids in him, but try not to hope too much.
Two weeks later it was clear that he would live and was transported by buckboard to Gillete Hospital in Minneapolis, where he remained for two long years. His family made the 30 mile trip to see him once a month. Occassionally by train, but more often by buckboard. Through it all the little boy remained stolid, determined.
I did not know him until much later, you see. For he became my father in 1949 and I was privileged to know the bravest, kindest man I've ever encountered. As a baby, and until the spring of 1951 when I was a bit past two years old we lived in an apartment fashioned from the upper floor of my grandmother's house. I vividly remember a summer in that little apartment. It had to be the summer I was 18 months old. Intense, richly textured memories of people, places and events.
Wooden steps led upward from the back yard to the little apartment, and I thought that my momma could do magic. Every day, she'd say "Let's go meet daddy!" And we'd descend to the bottom step of the stairs to the apartment and sit down, and in moments my dad's car would pull in to the driveway. It was a long time before I understood how she knew that he'd be there.
The little house's lush green backyard spread around the bottom of those stairs, and directly opposite the stairs stood a small grove of flowering bushes. The bushes surrounded and shaded a small concrete and stone structure that consisted of small bowls made of concrete, staggered one above the other. My father and his brothers had built it when they were teenagers, living in the selfsame house. It was called The Fountain, and it didn't work. It was pretty, even beautiful to my young eyes, but it did nothing. And when my daddy returned from work each day, I'd repeat "make it work!".
Age and neglect had taken a severe toll on the little thing, and though I'd ask each day, my dad would laugh and say "not possible."
The summer wore on, and one day our well worn routine fell apart. Back then, the work week was five and a half days and my dad's office was open on Saturday morning until noon. But one Saturday in August, he didn't go to work. My mother said we were going to go play with my cousins, and curiously my dad was left at home.
Upon our return late that afternoon, we found my dad, sitting on the bottom step, covered in sweat and dirt. He greeted me with a smile and a muddy hug and said, "Watch this." He turned a valve, and then a switch, and water sparkled in the afternoon sun as it filled the top bowl of the little fountain, formed a tiny waterfall which cascaded into the bowl below and then the one below it and into a newly constructed pond which would soon be filled with koi.
Curled into his arms, I heard him say "I made it work. For you." I thought that I never wanted to move from that place and time.