This interview ran in the Journal Sentinel April 25th, 2013
Jerry Apps' nightmare arrived in the middle of the night in a setting Stephen King would have loved: an isolated Waushara County farmhouse buried under January snows.
This nightmare began in 1947 with what seemed like a simple sore throat, but the horror quickly seeped into Apps' right leg, paralyzing it at an angle. At age 12, Apps had been stricken with polio, and his world would never be the same.
Today, Apps is 79 years old, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an author who's spent decades writing about history and rural life, especially in Wisconsin. His works include more than 30 nonfiction books and four novels, and he's a regular guest on Wisconsin Public Radio. A Wisconsin Public Television documentary, "Jerry Apps: A Farm Story," is airing nationwide in 2013.
But he's never told the public about his polio. Until now.
His new book "Limping through Life: A Farm Boy's Polio Memoir" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press: $22.95), is a highly personal story, one he repeatedly refused to write. It's also a chilling visit back to the time when the word polio caused nationwide panic, and Americans remained helpless against epidemics of this mysterious, crippling and often fatal disease.
Poliomyelitis had Wisconsin in its grip from the mid-1940s until the introduction of the Salk vaccine in 1955. The Fox River Valley was one of the worst polio hot-spots in the country. Hospital hallways there were filled with the polio victims, some breathing only with the help of monstrous "iron lung" respirators. Many victims died.
Yet Apps lived, and faced a lifetime of challenges caused by the disease. He talked about those challenges and his new book.
Q. Why did you write "Limping Through Life"?
A. For years and years I didn't want anyone to know the polio story. I had no intention of writing it. One day my editor Kate Thompson asked me when I was going to write it and I said "Never," and she said: "One day you're not going to be here, and it will be lost." So I sat down and started writing, but it was difficult, so personal. I was a miserable, ornery little kid who couldn't walk after I got polio, and I wasn't so sure I wanted to share the story. But there comes a time in your life when you don't care anymore, so I shared it.
Q. Do people today remember polio?
A. People remember that there was such a thing as polio. My kids remember it because they were vaccinated. To my grandkids it's a piece of history. What's missing is what polio meant beyond the disease. What I tried to show in the book was that in many ways the psychological ramifications of polio were much more severe than the physical. I was mostly able to overcome the physical through lots of exercise, but my own family can't understand that when you're 12 and going into high school, and the expectation is that every boy would play baseball, well . . . . Wild Rose High had only 100 kids and everyone participated, but I couldn't so I developed this tremendous feeling of worthlessness that has plagued me. There are two directions you can go with this - become an alcoholic and go into a funk or become an overachiever. I took the second way. My wife can't understand why I work on two books at the same time. I can't help myself.
Q. Describe the kind of impact polio had on people in Wisconsin at the time.
A. There was panic because they didn't know how it was transferred. It's actually an intestinal virus transferred person to person through poor sanitation. I have no idea how I got it. The neighbor kid got it and died. My two brothers didn't get it. The swimming pools, the county fairs, were closed because of polio. People didn't know if they should just stay away from you.
Q. Was any part of the polio epidemic peculiar to Wisconsin?
A. The Fox Valley was devastated during the late '40s and early '50s. The hospital in Wild Rose was overrun. The doctor who treated me said to me, "You're lucky!" I said "Why?!" He said: "Because you're alive."
Q. Who or what helped you most in your fight after you got sick?
A. My eighth-grade teacher, who went beyond the call of duty and would stop by the farm every day and give me the next day's school lesson. My father. When he decided he'd had enough of my moping around the house because I couldn't walk, he put me on a tractor and said, "You have to help us out." I said I couldn't, but he made me, and when I had to use one of the tractor brake pedals to turn at the end of the field I couldn't push down on the pedal because of my leg and I hit the fence. I thought he was going to chew me out. But he didn't, and after a couple of weeks, my legs worked well enough to work the tractor. It was an uncanny approach to physical therapy.
Q. Looking back, how did the disease affect your choice of career?
A. I had wanted to be a farmer. But in the midst of my recovery my aunt bought me a diary and told me to write things down. In high school I was editor of the school newspaper. One teacher suggested I take typing at a time when no boy in his right mind would be typing. Another teacher, Paul Wright, quickly saw I wasn't going to be able to play sports, and he knew I was suffering. He put a microphone in my hand and then I was announcing basketball, and I've had a microphone in front of me ever since.
Q. What advice would you give to people facing such health challenges?
A. You can't do it alone. Allow people to help you. And that goes for a lot of profound experiences. The vets coming back from Afghanistan with amputations are facing this big-time.
Q. What mark has polio left on today's society?
A. My limp is getting more profound, and I asked my young family doctor what kind of research is going on about post-polio syndrome. He said, "Almost none," and I said, "Why?" and he said: "Because you're all going to be dead soon." On the one hand polio has been eradicated, but it's still alive and well, and I can't understand how any parent can jeopardize his or her child by not having them vaccinated. Once you have seen what it does physically and emotionally, you would never turn down the vaccine.