It seems wrong to chuckle at a memoir about polio. Yet Richard Hardine’s recently published account of living with polio glimmers with amusing and eye-popping anecdotes of growing up in a bygone era of rough-and-tumble suburban childhood — leg casts and wheelchairs notwithstanding.
Riding on a sled while getting pulled behind a car driven by someone's dad? Check.
Setting balsa wood airplanes on fire and then trying to fly them? Check.
Punching a bully in the school hallway, only to get flattened by a crutch-wielding teacher, herself a polio survivor? Check.
"The more I got into each year, the more interesting and enlightening it became," Hardine said of the writing process. "It was like my memory started coming back to me. The more I got into it, the more fun it was.”
The 112-page book, "Lessons Learned: My Lifelong Journey with Polio," is divided into 13 chapters, plus a 14th chapter with the perspective of his wife, Karen, and several friends. Sprinkled throughout are the lessons polio taught him, such as this one, gleaned from hanging out with a pack of rascals who lit fireworks inside a school building: "Don't put yourself in a position where you'd need to run if you can't."
Hardine, who now lives in the Alexandria area, was born in Illinois in 1950 at a time when polio crippled more than 35,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
He was only 9 months old and starting to take his first steps when he woke up with a cough and a fever. He had contracted the most severe form of the virus, and the most deadly. Totally paralyzed and unable to breathe on his own, he was placed in an iron lung, which aids in breathing.
By the time he was 15 months old, he'd regained some use of his arms. The years that followed were filled with doctor's appointments, surgeries, wheelchairs and casts. He learned to walk, although his lower body never fully developed and he fell frequently. His parents were determined that he would do as much as he possibly could. If he wanted a toy that was across the room, he had to go get it himself. They recruited him to mow yards, shovel sidewalks and deliver newspapers.
At times, his parents' friends disapproved of their strategy.
They persevered even in the face of their disapproval, and Hardine calls his mother "one fantastic woman" who helped him understand what he could accomplish.
“My mother always told me, you are what you make yourself, and I’ve always reflected on that,” he said. “I think it’s important in this day and age that parents of children who are sick or injured, or normal kids, don’t spoil the kids. Make it clear to them that you have to do these things yourself. We’re here to support you.”
Hardine went on to work as a lifeguard, get a master's degree, get married, have a career, and go on rustic camping and fishing trips with his friends, for starters. He built a log house on Lake Ida for his wife, Karen, and later helped design accessible housing. In his woodshop, he created cutting boards and wooden boxes that he would display twice a year at downtown Alexandria's Wine & Art Crawl. He served in many local organizations, including Douglas County Public Health, Calvary Lutheran Church, Ducks Unlimited, and the Lions and Rotary clubs.
His 40s started out well.
The doctors had always warned him about the long-term effects of polio but he brushed aside their warnings, not wanting to accept that his abilities might shrink.
Nevertheless, he could feel himself getting weaker. The book's final chapters take on a poignancy that no amount of positive attitude can mask.
Researchers have named what he is going through Post-Polio Syndrome, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says the syndrome attacks polio survivors 15-40 years after they had the disease. Post-Polio Syndrome can cause fatigue, muscle atrophy, and difficulty breathing and swallowing. There is no cure, only ways to manage the symptoms. According to RareDiseases.org, the cause of the syndrome is not known.
"Although exact numbers are not available, it has been estimated that there are 300,000 polio survivors in the United States and that from one-fourth to one-half of them may ultimately develop some degree of post-polio syndrome," the organization says on its website.
Polio is considered eradicated in the U.S. and in most parts of the world.
Today, the Hardines live in a fully wheelchair-accessible home. He no longer drives or walks. He cherishes his friendships; some friends have modified their own homes so that he can continue to visit them. He's also happy he can help around the house by dusting and running the dishwasher.
"Lessons Learned" is Hardine's first book. Self-published through Beaver's Pond Press, it is available at Cherry Street Books in Alexandria and on Amazon.