Doing it their own way
Polio brought them together but it never kept them down.
Two of Carrabelle’s most prominent citizens, City Commissioner Cal Allen, and his wife Tamara Allen, who heads up the Carrabelle Cares organization, each was afflicted by one of the world’s worst epidemics of the 20th century, a scourge that targeted its destructive powers on children until it was finally eradicated beginning in the late ‘50s with the development of vaccines.
This month, Cal turned 82, still active and energetic as an artist and community leader, the only sign of his bout with polio an awkward gait, assisted with crutches.
But 80 years ago, on the eve of World War II in 1940, when he was but a lad of two-and-one-half, growing up in Avon Park near Lake Wales in Highland County, he was stricken with poliomyelitis – a highly communicable disease that eventually prompted government officials to take strict “distancing” measures, such as shutting down swimming pools and large gatherings, and to immediately quarantine anyone found to have it.
“When I was 2, I had been an able-bodied toddler, being perfectly normal. Then I came down with high fever and they took me to the hospital In St. Petersburg, to the American Legion polio clinic,” said Cal, in a telephone interview shared with his wife.
Cal spent seven months in the hospital, gradually improving from a time when he was unable to move either leg. Through therapy he was able to resume use of his right leg and his back.
“It took a lot of therapy,” he said. “Back in those days they weren’t sure how to do it but they did the best they could.”
Cal’s right leg got strong, so much so that he looks back with pride at being able to hurl a knuckleball in fast-pitch softball, and to mix it up with friends playing street football.
“I never let anything hold me back,” he said. “I could climb ladders. My independent attitude got me through.
“If I wanted to play ball with everybody, I did. In college I played on fraternity club. I played quarterback; I couldn’t run very fast but I could throw that ball,” he said.
“I had a wheelchair basketball team in Chattanooga, as coach, manager and guard,” he said, recalling that in one game, he sunk from a sitting position a three-pointer at the buzzer for the win.
“Because I couldn’t run fast, I had to learn to hit the ball where nobody was. I would place it,” Cal said. “One of the things this has done is it gave me a sense of finding my way of doing something. I didn’t always do it the perfect way but I would find a way to get it done.
“I always felt that it has given me a sense of doing it my way,” he said.
In the case of his younger wife, born in July 1947, Tamara came down with polio in the early ‘50s. “I was 7 years old in second grade, it was the second week of second grade,” she said.
The family had just moved to Fernandina from Thomasville, Georgia, and Tamara remembers being a tomboy, “very active, a majorette, a cowgirl. I climbed trees.
“They we had a lot of rules back then during the summer, because we had been having epidemics for years,” she said. “They closed the pools down there and you couldn’t go anywhere where there were large groups of kids.
“If there were kids in town (with polio), they wouldn’t let anybody go near the whole family,” Tamara said. “They were afraid it would be contagious that way. Parents were very suspicious. They’d say ‘Don’t get near her, you might catch it.”
Tamara first traveled to her grandmother’s house in Waycross, Georgia, which is where her treatment began. “They figured I had caught it from an epidemic in Tallahassee that year,” she said. “They ended up putting me in the local hospital in Waycross.”
But, due to the epidemic, the hospital was soon packed and staff was limited. “They told my parents it was either polio or spinal meningitis, and they couldn’t take me,” she said. “I was in isolation in the hospital for two weeks, my mother slept on a cot. It was like having the worst flu I had ever had. They did tests and determined it was polio.
“Waycross only had one iron lung, so they had to do a triage to decide which patients would benefit. They decided I was too far bad to get any iron lung so I got triaged out of that,” she said.
Tamara said many of the iron lung patients, who were treated that way to regain elasticity in their lungs, perished, but she slowly recovered.
“My mother always attributed it to the power of prayer,” said Tamara, who is active in Carrabelle’s Episcopal Church of the Ascension. “So I always thought that was as good a reason as any.”
Tamara’s mother had her daughter moved to the Hope Haven facility in Jacksonville, where she spent 22 months.
“When I went in I couldn’t move anything. I went from being a tomboy, to where I could only move my big thumb and big toe, and move my head back and forth,” she said.
The crippled children’s hospital adopted the method of Sister Elizabeth Kenny, a self-trained Australian bush nurse who developed a new, and at first controversial, approach for treating victims of poliomyelitis.
“She had come up with a treatment (where they would) cut up wool blankets and they would boil them in hot water and wrap your arms and lugs with them,” Tamara said. “They started with that.”
During her nearly two-year stay, she would have therapy each day, in a four-foot by four-foot pool, and regular exercise.
“It was to help your nerves remember their patterns,” said Cal. “They thought that exercise was helpful to get nerves to return.”
When she left the hospital, she was able to walk with crutches, with long leg braces and a back brace, together with a wheelchair, at first a wicker one.
The goal, Tamara said, was to get patients such as her to walk, and that was seen as the primary goal. But in time, she discovered she could do a lot more from a wheelchair, rather than having to constantly struggle with the limitations of walking.
“I was never very functional walking. It was a polio training thing,” she said. “They were anxious, and that was the success rate.”
Interestingly, with the hospitals conducting school for patients, Tamara recalled that she didn’t lose any more school than one would over a Christmas vacation.
“I missed two weeks of school in the whole experience,” she said. “But I couldn’t walk and carry a book at the same time. It became clear to me early on that wasn’t too functional.
“It seemed easier to use the wheelchair. I could do anything in the wheelchair,” she said. “The wheelchair kind of liberated me a little bit.”
For Cal, it was a matter of several surgeries, the first at age 9, then another in junior high, and three or four since then.
“Every three months I had an appointment with the hospital,” he said. “I had one leg that was shorter but my right leg continued to grow, and I wore a lift on that side for a while.
“I tell people I’m bowlegged in one side and knock-kneed on the other,” Cal said.
After a couple surgeries, Tamara’s mother wasn’t pleased with her progress, so at around age 11, she got a pediatrician to refer her daughter to the polio hospital in Warm Springs, Georgia, made famous because it had been where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been treated for his bout with polio.
“It was like a college campus,” she said. “I went in the wintertime and continued school there until I was a teenager. Then I went there in the summer for rehab.”
For Cal, polio slowed neither his education nor his career, as he earned an associate of arts degree in Tampa, and then embarked on a career in radio and what was then the early days of TV.
“I worked in a TV station in high school,” he said. “I would take five couples over to the studio, and we did a program like American Bandstand, with Paul Reynolds in Tampa.”
Later, Cal, whose honey voice has made him a staple in barbershop quartet singing, would work in radio in Kissimmee, Bartow, Palatka and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and he even ventured into the .ministry for several years.
For each of the two, financial help for their treatment and recovery had come from private sources.
In Cal’s case, his family was not well-heeled.
“My mother was from Madison where she did sectioning for grapefruit,” he said. “And Dad built wooden creates used in harvesting. He was from Tennessee, and during the Depression that was the only place they could find work.”
The American Legion helped cover Cal’s medical costs, as they did for so many of the children who contracted the disease.
For Tamara, who grew up in a more affluent family, her father a funeral director, it was the March of Dimes that helped cover costs.
“I think my parents had a bill for a couple thousand dollars,” she said. “The March of Dimes would continue to pay for treatment to make our lives more functional. A lot got done because there was money to pay for it.”
If you’re wondering about their love affair here’s how it happened.
Cal, whose children are from a first marriage, was in Atlanta, taking part in a support group for people with polio, who doctors have discovered often confront the residual effects of the disease much later in life.
Tamara had become an activist in vocational rehabilitation, serving as director of a state agency and as a commissioner in rehab services for eight Southeastern states. Her involvement in the vocational rehab community led to her being a a longtime advocate and leader in the civil rights movement for citizens with disabilities, and to a role on the federal level where she instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
In the late 80s, they met at the support group, and have been together for three decades, overseeing a family of five children and 11 grandchildren spread around the country, who they recently connected with on Zoom.
“I say polio is the best thing that ever happened to us,” Cal said.