On June 27th, 1943, seventy-five years ago tomorrow, the Hatter family drove from their home in Handley, Texas (between Arlington and Fort Worth) to Waco, Texas, to visit Granny and Grandad Hatter. It was a Sunday morning, so as always, the first thing they did upon arrival was to go to church. Robert George Hatter, my mother’s dad, was strict about all matters pertaining to church, including his children: mom (6 years old) and her little brother were not allowed to play, lay down, or sleep during the assembly. Like her older sisters, Bonnie and Novella (from her dad’s first marriage), she was expected to sit up straight, mind her manners, and listen to the preacher. Only if she was sick was she permitted to lay her head against her mom and rest—and today, she was not feeling well at all. Flu-like symptoms had begun: fever, aches, chills. By afternoon at Granny and Grandad Hatter’s house, mom was nauseous and getting very sick. So the family cut the visit short and returned home to Handley.
In the summer of 1943 the United States was at war with the Axis powers. Pearl Harbor had been bombed two years earlier (Dec. 7, 1941), though the invasion on the beaches of Normandy was still a year away (D-Day, June 6, 1944). Newspapers featured stories of American victories in the Pacific that came after the battle of Midway, a turning point in the war the previous year (June 4-7, 1942). Alongside these stories, Texas papers also reported a battle closer to home: a polio outbreak that reached its worst during the summer of 1943. Each week, along with other stories about polio, papers would also report the names of children newly affected by the disease. By year’s end, 1,274 cases would be reported in Texas, the largest number of any state—and by the end of the year, 168 obituaries would be written for these children.
Mom never spoke to my sister, Margie, my sister, or me about her time with polio. We overheard a few sentences here and there over the years when the subject came up in conversations with her sisters, but that and four or five handwritten pages of a small spiral notebook were all we had. Like many other polio patients, she just didn’t like or want to talk about it. So, most of what we know comes from her older sisters Bonnie and Novella. Until… until Margie discovered two scrapbooks in the bottom of an old dresser-drawer after mom’s death and shared them with me. Both books are the work of a six-year old girl (with her mom’s help) with dozens or more picture postcards, get-well cards, Halloween cards, and Valentines cards pasted onto the pages, and just a few short notes written here and there. But, when the room has been dark, and someone lights a candle, suddenly you can see what you never saw before.
The timeline is foggy, but it appears that mom first saw Dr. W.C. Foster (Handley, TX) on Monday, June 28th. On Tuesday, however, what first appeared to be the flu had become a parent’s worst fear in 1943. Peggy Joyce, their six-year old daughter was having trouble swallowing and moving her upper-arm/shoulder: she had polio. She was admitted into Saint Joseph’s Hospital (Fort Worth, TX) on June 29th and then transferred to the poliomyelitis ward of Harris Memorial Methodist Hospital (Fort Worth; pictured above) on June 30th. Here, her condition became serious—if not critical. By the time she reached Harris Hospital she couldn’t move her upper arm/shoulder and she couldn’t swallow at all, a condition that would last one hundred and three days (14 weeks and 5 days, until October 10). So, Dr. C.C. Terrell and her nurses placed a tube down her throat to feed and keep mom alive.
At Harris Hospital, mom came under the care of two special nurses: Miss Pansy Panhuyser and Mrs. Faye Arms. Mrs. Arms would nurse mom for the next thirteen weeks, seven days a week, without missing a day. Meanwhile, with my grandmother taking care of mom’s brother (and steering clear of giving him polio) and my granddad working every day, a special group of women came to sit with mom through the night. In her scrapbook she (or her mother) writes:
Aunt Lucy Adcox, Aunt Nora Little, mother’s sisters sat up with me, Aunt Elsie Bales, daddy’s sister sat up too, Aunt Hazel Mahoney, Itasca, and Mrs. Barnett, Mrs. Dominy, our neighbors, and Mrs. Pigg, our minister’s wife sat up with me for about seven weeks.
During this same time, mom received two blood transfusions: the first from her dad, the second from a family friend, Mrs. Burns. Her sisters were typed for a possible third transfusion. Bonnie was not a match, but Novella was. Fortunately, however, a third transfusion was not necessary.
At the time, the medical community did not understand poliomyelitis—infantile paralysis. About all they knew was that it was highly contagious, primarily affected small children, struck without warning, and had no cure. Most doctors knew that it was a virus, but no one understood where it came from or could predict a patient’s outcome. Many, if not most cases appeared as the flu and left no consequential disabilities. Mom’s brother, Bobby, most likely had such a case. In the summer of 1943, however, fear of polio also reached epidemic levels causing public swimming pools to close, movie theatres to cancel showings, and some people to even avoid phone calls for fear of contracting the disease over the phone lines. Even some doctors would only look at patients from a distance or from behind glass.
It was also a different era in hospitals, with different rules for visitors—including families. Mom’s parents were issued a small pass (pictured) that permitted them to see her for thirty minutes, three times a week. Most of the time, her mother stayed home keeping Bobby. So, it was her dad who came to visit, sometimes with her sister Novella. Bonnie was not allowed to come because she was only seventeen years old. So, when mom began to get better, she would go to one of the windows of her ward on the fifth floor and Bonnie would wave to her from the lawn.
There’s more to this story to be told, but not today. After all, this was not a short time for mom, her family, or Texas in the summer of 1943, seventy-five years ago.
-to be continued-
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.