Shared Stories: Here I Am, Ready or Not

Mervin Chantland wore a body cast for eight years of his childhood as treatment for a severe case of tuberculosis diagnosed when he was two. His loving family found medical help in Iowa City, over 200 miles from their family farm, and every few months Mervin made the journey to have the cast replaced on his growing body.

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

I was born December 13, 1934, on a small farm just outside Badger, Iowa, and was given the name Mervin Darvin Chantland. I was the ninth of Carl and Cora Chantland’s 11 children.  My claim to fame in my first year of life was related to be by my sister Jeanette. She said I walked at a younger age than any of the other children – in my crib at seven and one-half months and on my own at nine months.

Mom had been so lonesome for her life in Battle Lake, Minnesota, that Dad said she should go back and visit. My sisters offered to take care of me, only two years old at the time, but Mom said she wouldn’t go without her baby. Jeanette tells the story of how she and the other girls went into town and bought me “the cutest coat and cap set” to wear on the trip. It was dark blue.

Dad took the two of us off by first driving us to Minneapolis where we took the train to Dalton, Minnesota to stay with Mom’s relatives, the Fashaugs. All this time I had been fussing and crying that my hip hurt every time I walked.

Mom couldn’t figure out why I was so fretful. This just wasn’t like me. And Mom wasn’t able to get very much rest as she tried everything she could think of to make me comfortable. From Dalton, we took the train to Duluth, and went from there to visit Mom’s brothers and sisters in Mahtawa, Minnesota.

After our trip, when Dad came to pick up us, Mom said, “I never want to go back to Battle Lake again. It is not what it used to be.” Mom was exhausted, and Jeanette says she believes Mom was pregnant with my sister Doris at the time.

“Walking at nine months!” That turned out to be pretty ironic, considering the rest of my story.
Dad took me to a doctor right away, determined to find out why I had seemed to be in such pain during the Minnesota trip. The doctor moved my leg and I cried out. An x-ray of my hip showed I had Tuberculosis (TB) of the hip bone.

I was taken for treatment to Iowa City University Hospital. Jeanette remembers that when they took me there and left me, I cried so loudly they could hear me from out in the street. Mom was so thankful to soon receive a letter from a nurse informing her that I had settled down all right and that they loved me very much.

When my mother was tested, she was found to have TB as well, so she had to leave her family and go to live in Oakdale Sanitarium near Iowa City. All of our family members were tested, checking to see if they reacted to a patch test on the arm. Older members were also given x-rays. They all turned out to be fine. Even Dad had escaped the infection, thank God. 

All of our family members had to take cod liver oil – to make sure everyone remained healthy. Even all of the children who attended school with my brothers and sisters had to take the terrible-tasting stuff. According to Jeanette, this brought a lot of criticism on our family. My siblings were called “TB kids” and were teased and avoided in school.

That’s how it was back then. TB was very contagious, could cause a lot of complications, and often required harsh treatment. My family stood it as best they could. They didn’t have a choice.

When I finally came home from the hospital, I was in a body cast. This covered my entire right leg, went up under my arms, and then went down to my left knee. A bar was attached between my legs, to keep my legs separated and he hip stable. It was believed that I had contracted the TB from my mother, from having been a nursing baby.

Mervin with his sister, Jeanette, when he was in a full body cast. Photo courtesy Mervin Chantland.

Mervin with his sister, Jeanette, when he was in a full body cast. Photo courtesy Mervin Chantland.

With our mother away, it fell to Dad and Jeanette, the oldest girl at home, to take care of me on the farm. It was very hard on them. Since someone had to be up with me most of the time, Dad and Jeanette had to take urns every other night. I had to be carried everywhere, and the cast made me very heavy and clumsy to handle. I was basically a cheerful child, but I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly not able to get down and play and walk around like I wanted. And it was hard for me to rest comfortably for very long at a time.

In nice weather I was placed on the cellar lid outside so I could lie there and watch the other kids play. They tried to include me and make my life as normal as possible. Being in a cast during the summer was really miserable. It was very hot; but to make things even worse, I would itch everywhere under the cast and couldn’t scratch myself. Back in those days, the women wore corsets made with “stays,” long, flat metal pieces that kept the garments stiff. Jeanette took one of the stays from a corset and slid it up and down inside my cast to attack the itchy spots. It’s unbelievable how good that felt. 

Eventually Dad decided that they couldn’t continue to provide me with the constant care I needed. It was very hard on Dad and Jeanette to let me go, but they had become so worn down that they were afraid they were putting the health, and maybe even the lives, of all three of us in jeopardy. Jeanette still gets tears in her eyes when she ways she was afraid I was not going to live.

I was three years old when Dad hired Lou and Prof Knoll in Gilmore City, Iowa, to take me into their home and care for me. This was over 20 miles from our farm in Badger. Dad paid the Knolls $39 a month for my care and took them meat, eggs, and milk from the farm to help out.

The above chapter has been reprinted with the author’s permission from his book, “Can’t: No Such Word.