Shared Stories: Gilmore City, Here I Come

Mervin Chantland spent nearly eight years of his childhood in a full body cast because of damage done to his bones when he contracted tuberculosis at age two. When his family could no longer care for him and do all of the work required on the farm, Mervin’s father arranged for Mr. and Mrs. Knoll in Gilmore City to take care of the young patient. This section is from Chapter 2 in Mervin’s book. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Mervin Chantland

Calvin Knoll got his nickname, Prof, because he had once been a teacher, as had his wife, Lou. When Dad took me to live with Prof and Lou, I was a very confused and angry young boy. There I was, separated from my family in a strange house and unable to get up and run like I wanted. 

I felt like a caged animal and could not understand why my family had abandoned me. Once when Lou leaned over me, I bit a hole in her arm! Prof told his wife, "You have to take him back." But Lou replied, "No, he needs me." That's the kind of woman she was, and I learned to love her as time went by. I have no doubt that she really cared about me.

Lou and Prof had two sons, Stanley and Sterling, although Sterling was the only one still at home when I went to live there. When World War II started, he joined the Navy; and he would always send me home something. One time it was a sailor's hat. Another package contained a record of "Popeye the Sailor Man." Sterling seemed to understand how hard it had been for me to make that adjustment to a new "home." He was really great to me.

When I was old enough to begin my education, it was arranged for a box to be hooked up by telephone line to the school. And that was how I "went to school." I could talk to the teacher and the kids in class, but it was very hard to learn that way. I believe I was able to learn as well as I did only because Lou and Prof had been teachers and were willing to put in the extra effort to help me understand.

I find myself wishing we had computers in those days. It surely would have made things much easier. I can only imagine being able to actually see my class and watch the same teacher's instructions as my classmates. It may have helped me to learn more easily and motivated me to. keep up with the rest of the class. That could have made such a difference in my life.

My medical care was another area that required special arrangements. Every three months, an ambulance-type vehicle with a stretcher and seats for other people would pick me up and take me to the hospital in Iowa City for a checkup and a new cast. 

The trip was over 200 miles each way, as we meandered from farm to farm to pick up other patients. I remember that we always stopped to eat on way, and I had the same thing every time - a hamburger and vanilla ice cream. That was a special treat.

Oh, spinach! How I hated it! The first time I went back to the hospital for a checkup, spinach was served with the food. I was told to eat it, but I didn't want to. I hated that stuff So the nurse forced it into my mouth. It almost made me throw up. But I learned from that first time what to do. I got an old sock and took it to the hospital whenever I had to go back. When they brought the food with spinach and they weren't looking, I would put the spinach in the sock and stick it in a drawer in the nightstand.

They would come back later and say, "Oh, you ate it. Good boy." When they left I had a smile on my face and thought, Yeah, right! Then I would take the sock home with me and throw that horrible green stuff away.

Another unnerving thing for me in the hospital was having an aid or nurse give me a bath. And I'm talking about a very thorough, whole-body bath. It was so embarrassing to have these strangers see me naked. Most of the time I was treated with respect, but one nurse seemed to enjoy the embarrassment it caused me. And she was mean, too. She seemed to love to dig under my fingernails until they bled.

All the children in the hospital stayed in a ward, which is a large, long room with beds. During one stay, I had been given the first bed, right next to the door. I could see down the long hall leading to the room, and once I saw this lady come in at the other end of the hall. She looked familiar, and as she got closer I realized it was my mother! Wow, was I ever excited! She was still living at the TB sanitarium, but just happened to come to the hospital for a checkup at the same time I was there.

And my mother was so thrilled to see me! It had been extremely hard on her to leave her family and give up the chance to raise the little boy that meant so much to her. She had also given birth to my sister Doris while she was in the sanitarium, and my older sisters Kay and Jeanette took the "perfectly healthy" baby girl home to raise her. My mom missed out on a lot during that time, and I don't think she ever recovered from the losses.

It was around 1938, when I had gone to the hospital for a checkup, that they phoned my dad and said I would have to have an operation on my hip. Dad told them to go ahead. Mom, who had just returned home from the sanitarium, was so upset she insisted on being there with me. 
Although it was a hardship, Mom made the long trip to Iowa City. The operation resulted in an infected portion of my hip bone being removed and my hip fused. Then I was taken back to live with Lou and Prof. I still couldn't walk and had to lie in bed until I was healed up.

I don't remember the name of the doctor who operated on me, but I was told that he had come from Germany in the 1930s, just as Hitler was coming into power. After he got to America, he was well thought of and went to the Iowa City University Hospital to practice and teach.

While I was lying in bed wanting something to do, I told everyone I wanted to learn to play a guitar. So my family got me one, and I tried to learn but didn't have any luck. Maybe I didn't really want to play it, or it was just too difficult to learn. Anyway, the guitar went into the corner and just sat there. Bummer! I would like to have had that skill all these years.

I remember at Christmas time that year, I said I wanted an Erector Set so I could build things. Well, I was sure surprised to get two Erector Sets for Christmas! I started right away to build a lot of stuff, and the sets included electric motors, so I made things that moved! I felt like I could really accomplish something, even though I couldn't walk around. That was so wild!

I was about nine years old when the doctor called my Dad and told him they had a new medicine that they would like to try on me, and Dad gave his consent. About one year later, my hip seemed well enough that my cast was removed and I was given crutches to walk with. I was so happy! However, I took just one step before the crutches hit a water spot on floor. I went down on the end of my foot and broke my ankle. I was back in a cast! I had been free of a cast for only about one hour. Unbelievable!

After healing up, I had the cast taken off again. Since my right leg was weak and a lot shorter than the other one, I was fitted with a leather and metal brace with a peg on the bottom. I was finally able to start walking around and feeling more like the other kids, but they called me "Peg Leg." That bothered me at times, but I learned to ignore them. They were just being kids. I think that kids are probably the most cruel because they aren't able to understand how much they can hurt someone with the things they say.

Back home on the farm, my brother Douglas Arthur was born, the eleventh and last child. Poor Douglas was only thirteen months old when he died from TB meningitis. Another painful loss for my family! My sister Kay wasn't able to get back for the funeral, so Mom had a picture taken of Douglas in his casket to send to her. We were each given one of those pictures. It was so hard to look at it.

When my first son was born, he was a beautiful, blond baby. As he slept in his basinet, he looked so much like little Douglas that it scared me. At night, I kept my son's basinet beside my bed with my hand in it; and I would jump awake whenever the baby moved. I was able to get over my fears eventually, but it took some time.

(This excerpt is from Chapter 2 in the book, “Can’t: No Such Word,” by Mervin Chantland. Available on Amazon here.)