When Bud Grant was stricken with polio as a kid, iron lungs were used to treat the disease. Precursors to modern breathing machines, iron lungs didn’t completely cure polio victims but they did save lives.
Yet as is the case today with ventilators needed to treat people seriously ill with coronavirus, iron lungs were in short supply. Also, they were expensive, about $1,500 in 1938, when Grant contracted polio at age 10. That was the average cost of a house at the time.
“There were fund drives to try to raise money for iron lungs,” the retired Vikings coach said.
Grant was speaking the other day from his Bloomington home, lying low like most everyone else. In more normal times, he might tune in a televised ballgame. Otherwise, except for news programs, he’s never been much of a TV watcher.
So until he can chase wild turkeys when seasons for those birds open in coming weeks, he hangs out with his partner, Pat Smith, decides with her which game bird or venison cut they’ll extract from their freezer for dinner, reads long nonfiction tomes (“Seven Pillars of Wisdom”; “The Allies”), and watches history repeat itself from the perspective of a 92-year-old.
Polio epidemics, he said, struck somewhere in the U.S. virtually every summer during the first half of the last century. No one knew where they came from or who would catch the debilitating disease next.
When Grant started limping, neither he nor his parents knew what was happening.
“I was taken to a local doctor, and though the accepted therapy at the time for polio was rest, he told us just the opposite,” Grant said. “He said, ‘Get the boy a baseball glove and get him playing ball. Don’t let him turn into a turnip.’ Which is what we did, and I started playing more and more sports. But we couldn’t afford a new glove. So dad gave me his.”
Scariest about polio was that no one knew anything about it, except that it was caused by a virus and moved unseen from house to house, community to community.
Homes that were stricken had signs posted on their doors and were ostracized.
For Grant and his family, the sickness struck when the United States was in the throes of the Depression, when millions of workers had lost their jobs and hundreds of thousands of Americans went hungry, and in the years leading up to World War II.
Both, Grant said, were cataclysmic for the American psyche.
“Like today, with the threat from coronavirus, those were highly stressful times for everyone,” he said. “The Depression was catastrophic, and during World War II we weren’t sure if the Japanese would bomb the West Coast or the Russians would come at us over the North Pole. We lost more than 400,000 soldiers, sailors and Marines in the war. But we survived these major crises, and did well afterward, which gives people my age perspective and confidence we’ll survive this one.”
Yet a major difference exists between people’s reaction to the coronavirus menace today and their forbears’ responses to previous national calamities, Grant said.
“You can be scared because you don’t know anything about a threat, which was the case with polio, and you fear that unknown,” he said. “Or you can be scared because you know too much, as is the case today due to all of the media coverage of coronavirus. Not everyone is able to decipher what’s important and what’s not. Instead they believe everything, and that can be scary.”
Typically at this time of year, Grant would be at his cabin in northwest Wisconsin. Songbirds have completed their migrations north, deer can be spotted rummaging in fallow fields and wood ducks are setting up camp in man-made boxes hanging from trees and standing on posts.
But Smith, who Grant says has a tape measure permanently deployed to 6 feet should unexpected guests show up at their doorstep, has put her foot down on travels.
Cracks in her armor seem to be appearing, however.
“Maybe if we get the TV hooked up at the cabin,” she said.
Until such a translocation occurs, Grant thinks not very often about football or other sports, except to say they will eventually return.
Instead he focuses on the coming autumn, when with Smith he hopes to hunt ducks and geese in North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and with some luck draw down on a good buck at a friend’s place in Roseau County.
He and Smith both felled 8-pointers there last fall — hers was bigger — and now, during the coronavirus lockdown, he recalls that field memory and many others, among them the day last November when he sat alongside his 15-year-old grandson while the youngster killed his first buck.
“I’m thinking about that and thinking also quite a bit about the type of hunting I do now compared to how I hunted when I was younger,” Grant said. “I can’t hunt grouse or pheasants anymore because I’m not mobile enough. Instead I hunt turkeys, ducks, geese and deer — game that comes to me.
“But is that ‘hunting,’ waiting for animals to come to me? Or should I call it something else?”
Grant affords himself such musings because he’s confident the sun will rise tomorrow.
One of his legs is shorter than the other and one foot is smaller, due to the polio.
But his doctor’s worst fears were never realized: He didn’t turn into a turnip.
“We’ll survive,” he said.