Summer vacation. I started the countdown as soon as my teacher, Miss Kane, tore May off the calendar. At three o'clock on that last day of classes in June, I raced out of Grove Street School as if my pants were on fire. Each minute would matter. I'd stretch out the days like soft bubble gum.
That first morning I got up early and joined my dad and my sister, Linda, for breakfast in the kitchen. Mom had just put a pile of Aunt Jemima pancakes on the table.
"Look who's here!" Linda said. Linda worked first shift at Mansfield-Davis Mill, like my dad. Dad was a foreman in the spinning department at the yarn mill, but Linda worked in the office.She was a secretary--her first real job after graduating from high school that May.
"What are you doing up?" Dad asked. "No school today, remember?"
"My friends are coming over early."
"Hmm ... which friends?"
I sighed. I knew Dad would be mad. Bobby and Lenny.
Lenny-with-the-leg. That's what some people called him. Not me, though. Lenny and I had been friends since first grade. One day he was sitting behind me at school, snapping my suspenders and hollering out the answer when it was my turn, and the next day he was absent. And the next day. And the next week. His mother said he must have caught a virus. That's what everyone thought until the doctor gave Lenny's parents the bad news. Polio. Lenny had polio. From time to time Lenny's mother would phone my mother with updates on his condition.
"That poor woman just cries her heart out," Mom said, "and sometimes I just cry along with her. I don't know what they're going to do about those hospital bills. Lenny's father doesn't makeall that much money selling life insurance. Life insurance--isn't that a twisted thought! Who can be sure about anything?"
I sure missed Lenny. There was a classroom full of kids, but it was lonesome without him. Lenny went through some tough times for a couple of years. He stayed in the hospital for months.
"Children's ward. Breaks my heart to even think of a place like that," Mom said. "I sure hope that little guy makes it."
And he did. He pulled through. But now he wore a heavy metal brace on his right leg, and he had an odd, hitch-along walk, his leg sticking out at an angle. After he'd been tutored at home, this had been his first year back in school.
"Bobby and Lenny," I answered.
"Lenny? That polio kid?" Dad shouted. "I told you, I don't want you hanging around with him! Bad enough he's right there in school with the rest of you kids! I don't want you hanging around with him!"
"Now, Joe," Mom said. "It's perfectly safe. He's not contagious. I've told you that. And Junior's all set. He's had his polio shot. Dr. Lewis said there's nothing to worry about."
I remembered the day Dr. Lewis came to our school to give us our Salk vaccine. Dr. Lewis's daughter Nancy was in my class. We were all lined up, and Nancy was right in front of me. When her father swabbed her arm with alcohol, Nancy pulled away.
"I don't want a shot!" she yelled. "It's going to hurt! It's going to hurt!"
"Now, Nancy, you've had shots before. You're a big girl. You know it will sting for only a second," her father said.
"No, no!" She was crying, wailing.
"Nancy!" Dr. Lewis said. "Stop carrying on! You're scaring the other kids."
Well, that was true. I gulped. My legs were shaking a little, and I was starting to sweat, too.
"Stop! Stop!" Nancy cried. "I'm going to faint! I'm going to faint!"
Dr. Lewis grabbed her arm and stuck in the needle. "There. You didn't faint. It's all over--until I see you at home tonight!" Then he called, "Next? Hi, Junior!"
"Junior's all set," Mom was telling Dad.
"I know what I know, Carol! It's 1956, and thetown still hasn't reopened the swimming pool at the playground because of those polio germs. I know about polio!" Dad said. "A little sore throat, a fever, a few aches and pains, and the next thing you know Junior can't walk. Maybe goes in an iron lung--can't even breathe!"
"But, Dad," Linda said. "President Roosevelt had polio. You liked him. Give Lenny a break."
"And who asked you for your two cents? You just sit there and keep quiet." Turning back to me, Dad said, "I don't want you hanging around with that kid. You hear?"
I wished Dad would leave me and Lenny alone. Didn't he know how mixed-up he made me feel? He was asking me to choose--him or Lenny. And I didn't like making him mad. He got mad enough about other things.
"We hear you," Mom said. "We hear you." She moved behind Dad's chair and winked at me. "Better watch the time, Joe. It's getting late. You, too, Linda."
"Yes. I'm leaving now." Linda grabbed her purse from the back of the chair. "Oh, and I'm not eating supper tonight, Mom. I have a date with Roger."
"Roger! Hmph! What do you see in that good-for-nothing?"Dad said. "A pinsetter at the bowling alley!"
I had to agree with Dad on that one. A couple of days before, I'd come into the house to get my baseball cards, and I heard Linda on the phone near the hall stairs.
"He's so proud of that car, you know. It's like it's his whole life!"
She was talking to her friend Rita about Roger's brand-new red-and-white '56 Chevy. It was some car all right. When the streetlights hit all that chrome, it turned night into day. Linda's back was to me, and she didn't know I was there. She was talking about Roger--I had to hear this! I slipped back into the living room.
"Promise you won't tell a soul, Rita. Oh, it's so embarrassing. Promise. Whenever Roger and I go out, I have to pay for everything ... . I know. I know. But he's always broke because of his car payments."
She sounded so miserable, I almost felt bad about eavesdropping.
"And there's something else," she went on. "Whenever we go to Debby's Donut Drive-in, we have to get out of the car and eat outside. Why? He doesn't want crumbs in the car! It's soembarrassing! I know. I know. And one time at Hamburger Heaven I spilled a little soda on the dashboard, and he went wild."
"I don't know how he can afford that fancy car of his," Dad was saying. "A pinsetter at the bowling alley!"
"Daddy, I told you. Roger's going to the community college this fall," Linda said.
"Yeah, and pigs'll whistle!" Dad yelled after her.
"Don't worry, Joe. She's a smart girl," Mom said. "She'll soon see the light of day. She's a lot like me--she has a mind of her own."