Christmas, 1959 began in September. Well, it really began in the summer of 1954. That was the year when the Salk Polio vaccine was administered to all elementary age children---except for me. Had The serum been available a few months sooner, I would have been included. While finishing my fourth grade I began to have increasing pain in my legs before summer recess. By the final day of school I was in extreme pain and barely made the long walk home with the other boys from my class. The next few days were to mark a major moment in my life as well as for my family and the residents of my hometown.
After a multitude of medical tests it was determined that I had somehow contracted paralytic polio and the prognosis was that I would no longer be able to walk. Although I was only 9 1/2 years old I could have told the physicians that because by that time I had lost all feeling and motion in my legs. This was devastating news to my family and the community. Was I contagious? Was this the beginning of an epidemic? What should be done? It was decided that I should be quarantined at home to avoid transmitting this dread disease to others in the community. It meant that my parents and younger brother would remain at risk but the town should remain relatively safe. Then, for the next nine months, my home was my world.
This unusual set of circumstances was not without its rewards and comforts. Our home had a television (black and white) whereas the local hospital had none. This afforded me the opportunity to watch some of my favorite programs each afternoon. I especially enjoyed the series which began the America way every day: "Faster than a speeding bullet; more powerful than a locomotive..." Yes, Superman became my all-time hero. Why? Because he was able to do all the things I could only dream about. He was able to "...leap tall buildings in a single bound" whereas I could not even stand or walk. I memorized the opening narrative to the show and recited it without error as each episode began. Days, weeks and months passed and this was the highlight of my day.
Another daily treat was the bowl of chocolate ice cream I received each evening for having been such a brave, good boy that day. This pattern continued until late spring, 1955, when our family doctor made his usual bi-weekly house call to monitor my condition. This time when he ran his key along the underside of my feet, I flinched---he tickled me! Suddenly he and my parents looked stunned. He did it again. I laughed again. And then so did they. Dr. Francis described this as a miracle. No one ever recovered from paralytic polio. But apparently that is just what was happening with me.
Almost daily we could see improvement. By the end of that school year, when my classmates were finishing their fifth grade of education, I was learning to walk again. With the onset of summer, my parents conferred with my school and I was able to complete my entire 5th grade during a special-one-student-in-the-class accelerated summer school program. That fall I rejoined my classmates and was able to walk to school with them again.
Each day at home I had "double-homework". Of course I had to work on my school studies just like my classmates, but I had another requirement as well. I had to practice walking to regain my strength and muscle tone. Today we would call this "physical therapy". Also, very early on Saturday mornings my dad began taking me with him when he would play golf with his friends. Dad would play and I would watch and walk. These times became the most memorable five hours of my life. I got to know my dad very well (and vice versa). What a wonderful man he was! His friends liked him, and they seemed to laugh a lot. Apparently he was a good golfer. But most of all, he was my dad.
He soon noticed that I had an interest in the game of golf and so he began to teach me. It did not take long for me to develop a passion for the game for two reasons. First, I enjoyed the game because of the encouragement and teaching my dad provided. Second, walking and playing counted as part of my physical therapy. Each Saturday morning from then until the summer of '59 were wonderful days with my dad as well as opportunities to continue my golf education. As it turned out, by then I was playing better than Dad on most occasions and both he and I could see a future for me in this sport.
By this time I was entering my sophomore year in high school and decided that I wanted to try my skill in football. I had been a successful Little League baseball player after recovering from polio and this seemed like the next logical step. Besides, there were more people cheering and more girls watching the football team than the golf team. So, that summer I participated in two-a-day scrimmages in preparation for the upcoming season.
Needless to say, I had never worked so hard at any sport until then. Practice. Practice. Practice. Running. Blocking. Tackling. Scrimmages. It never seemed to end. Oh yes, and we also played other teams on Friday nights. Eventually, all of this activity took its toll on my still weak knees. Each weekend my dad commuted back home to Fresno, California from San Francisco. My mom met him at the airport, usually with more health insurance forms related to one of my many knee injuries. In the years that followed I would go on to have thirteen serious knee surgeries all of which I would describe as "filet of me". Nevertheless I did finish that solitary football season, but became acutely aware that this was not a career I should pursue. I then returned to the golf course on Saturday mornings with my dad. I was home again---at last.
During the four plus years I had been playing golf, I never wore or owned a pair of golf shoes. Not only did I always feel under-dressed, but I also missed making the "clackety-clack" sound the other golfers made when they walked across the concrete or asphalt parking lot. My steps were silent since I simply wore a pair of tired and tattered sneakers. It was also a bit embarrassing to be seen wearing such shoddy footwear but our family could not afford such extravagance. Of course my dad wore a pair of real golf shoes, but as I remember, they were the same shoes he wore the first day he took me with him to the course that early Saturday morning several years earlier. I imagine he was somewhat embarrassed as well. At any rate, I never asked for what I knew we could not afford. But I always hoped that maybe someday...
So, football season was over and Christmas holidays were approaching. This time of year was, for me, a time of mixed feelings. The problem, you see, was with my birthday---December 29, a terrible date! As far back as I could remember, I always received my Christmas AND birthday presents on December 25. Perhaps I have selective memory but I am so sure I received fewer presents than my brother whose birthday was in April. Surely he got birthday and Christmas presents whereas I received only "birth-mas" presents. I see only now how petulant I must have been.
Our family tradition was to open presents only on Christmas morning. Actually I have never understood why people open gifts on Christmas Eve. Santa doesn't come down the chimney until all are asleep later that night! Still, our family shared the obligatory rituals of reading Christmas stories and having desserts before going to bed far too early.
Finally, Christmas morning, 1959 arrived. Even though I was a few days away from turning 15, I was just as giddy as my four and a half year younger brother. We began to open gifts, one person at a time and one gift at a time. This seemed like it took five years to complete on that cold, frosty morning. Dad gave me my last gift which seemed heavier than I expected. In a frenzy I ripped the paper off even after being instructed to unwrap it carefully so the paper could be used again (we had not heard of the word "re-cycle" yet). And then behold! It was a shoe box! Could this be the year? Could it at last be happening? Was I about to join the ranks of the properly shod golfer?
I plunged my hand into the box past the tissue paper, grabbed the contents, and pulled out---a shoe! But not just any shoe. It was a golf shoe! Sort of. Actually it was not even a real golf shoe. Again because of the expense of new golf shoes we could not afford, my dad had taken a pair of my dress shoes to the cobbler and had those wonderful, glorious metal spikes put in so they would give me a firm footing during my golf swing. But even more important than that, they would make that beautiful, melodic "clackety-clack" as I walked across hard surfaces. I wanted to do it right away but Mom vetoed that idea saying it would ruin the linoleum floors or some such silliness like that.
But wait, I just noticed that I was holding just one shoe. Where was the other? I looked at Dad with a dumbfounded quizzical look on my face, looking for the answer. His reply? "Robb, as you can see, you are holding your left golf shoe which you have received today. Now, on your birthday, four days from now, you will receive the other." I was a little stunned, but ran to hug him and thank him anyway. With my birthday situated the way it is between Christmas and New Year's, it wasn't that much of a surprise or disappointment. The point was that in four days I would become the proud owner, wearer, of a pair of golf shoes. It did not matter that they weren't real golf shoes. I didn't care that they were simulated, imitation, artificial, fake golf shoes. The words "golf" and "shoes" were in there somewhere. And in 4 days, or 96 hours, or 5,760 minutes, I would have my very own pair of golf shoes.
Those days, hours, minutes passed at an agonizingly slow, leisurely pace. When the day finally arrived, I received my companion shoe. Though we would not go to the golf course that day because of the cold, wet weather, I still put them on (outside, of course) and walked up and down the concrete driveway, listening to the "clackety-clack" and smiling constantly for at least an hour before my mom said to come in before I caught my death of cold.
The rest of that day I polished, buffed, and smelled my new golf shoes. This was the best Christmas/Birthday present ever. Later that night, just before bedtime, I took the shoes out to the garage and placed them ceremoniously next to my golf bag. One last look and then I returned to the house, eager to go to bed so that morning would come sooner and I could see my new shoes again.
Morning came, but not soon enough for me. I started my walk to the garage and suddenly had a very queasy, uneasy feeling in my stomach. I began to run to the garage faster and faster. The sounds that I was hearing reminded me of the other gift my brother and I had received together. "Oh please don't let it be what I think has happened!" As I neared the door to the garage, the ominous sounds grew louder. I flung open the door and stepped inside. Immediately I looked to where I had placed my shoes the night before. One was still there but looked unlike before. The other was on the other side of the floor. I say, the other, but what I really saw was what was left of "the other".
In an instant I deduced what had happened. The night before when I placed my brand new simulated, imitation, artificial, fake golf shoes next to my golf bag, I had forgotten about the new, baby German Shepherd puppy we had also received for Christmas. All that was left of my sacred 2-part gift were the soles of the shoes and the spikes. Patrina, the puppy, had consumed everything else. I must have looked very strange as I alternately yelled, cried, and laughed in no particular order. Clearly the new dog had enjoyed my new golf shoes more than I ever would.
I have had the privilege of celebrating Christmas for over six decades. The one in 1959, the one I remember with the greatest affection will always be incomparable due to my dad--and Patrina. Both are now gone, but each December I thank them both for that remarkable event that seems so long ago, but was really just a moment ago.