Growing up in Milwaukee, Glenn and Nancy Grundman were quarantined as children during the polio epidemic when they were most susceptible to the crippling virus. Now, as seniors, they’re once again part of an at-risk group and quarantined due to COVID-19.
The Grundmans, who now are married and longtime residents of Kokomo, grew up on different sides of Milwaukee as children. Though they didn’t know each other during the city’s six-week polio quarantine during the summer of 1944 that kept thousands of children home, they had similar experiences.
“It was very, very scary for everybody, including the children in those days because almost everybody knew someone who had polio, and most children ended up either being crippled or dying from it,” said Nancy, who was 8 years old during the quarantine. “Even as a child, you were aware of that and scared of it.”
The polio epidemic reached its height from the 1940s through the mid-50s before a vaccine came out, and it peaked during the summer months, killing an average of 1,900 people annually during those years.
Many of those who didn’t die were treated using an “iron lung,” a device similar to a ventilator that the Grundmans said caused even more fear. Patients were encased in the metal chamber for months, years, or life. It was attached to two vacuum devices and worked by changing the pressure inside the machine to expand and contract the chest cavity to fill it with air.
“Your whole body was in it except for their head, and it was considered at that time a respirator of sorts. But that was a big deterrent, absolutely scary,” said Glenn.
In Milwaukee County in 1944, at least 11 children died from polio, prompting Milwaukee to initiate a polio quarantine late that summer, during August and September. Children ages 12 and under were regulated to their homes and backyards.
Houses in the city, Nancy said, were close together – around six feet apart – and backyards were separated with metal chain link fences that, in effect, separated the children. There were strict orders from parents for children not to hang on the fences or touch them while talking to children in neighboring yards.
“We could not go close to that fence,” said Nancy. “And we obeyed our parents.”
Nancy said she was fortunate in that she had a swing set and slide in her backyard that she and her younger brother would play on. She had a sister who was eight years older, but she wasn’t quarantined due to her older age.
The children found ways to keep themselves entertained, she said. She would bring her dolls outside to play, and she and her neighboring friends found innovative ways to talk to each other. Using string, wax, and tin cans, they created their own telephone system.
“We would take tin cans, punch a hole in them, wax the string, put the string through them, and knot them from the inside of the can,” Nancy said. “We’d do the same thing to another can and then throw it across the road – the roads weren’t very wide – to our friend who lived across the road from us or down a house or two beyond ours on the same side of the street. We talked to them that way instead of trying to shout.”
On the other side of the city, Glenn, who was 10 at the time, was doing the same thing. He remembered taping stones inside of the cans to throw them farther, and he used his mother’s paraffin wax she used for canning to wax the string.
As long as the string didn’t get too long, he said it was an effective communication device.
For Glenn, his backyard was much smaller than Nancy’s, and he didn’t have a swing set for entertainment. Instead, he remembered sharing books with his neighbor. When they were done reading them, they’d throw them across the yard or have their parents take them next door to swap them out.
He also spent time in his basement using his parents’ lead burner to make molds of toy soldiers.
“I would make believe it was war or something, but there were things like that that we did to try to keep ourselves busy,” he said.
For Nancy and her brother, they spent time in their dad’s workshop, making wooden toy guns. They’d also “play war,” though Nancy said their guns never really resembled guns, but not for lack of trying.
The quarantine took place during World War II, adding hardship to the situation. Nancy had an uncle who lived with her, and he was drafted into the war. He left her his portable phonograph and his records, and during the quarantine, she remembered going up to his room and listening to his records.
“I would go up there and turn that crank on and think of him because he and I were very close. He was one of my favorite uncles, and I just missed him very, very much,” she said.
She also would pass time writing letters to him that were mailed overseas.
For Glenn, he remembered his chore list expanding.
“My parents, we came from a very less than middle class family,” he said. “But my father and my mother, besides any job they had, they were all looking for some way to make more. Well, my mother decided she wanted to stretch curtains.”
Glenn’s father made a sign that was put in their front yard, advertising the curtain stretching service, and Glenn became a big help. His mother would take the lace curtains, pin them to large racks that took up about every corner of their small house, and Glenn would help fold the curtains when they were done and ready for the customers to pick up.
While they remembered many of the activities they did to stay busy during the quarantine, one thing that really stood out for the Glundmans was the feeling they felt when the quarantine finally was lifted.
“When it was finally lifted, it was really neat because then you went to see your closest friends, first of all, to be with them and catch up on them and see how they were,” Nancy said. “I had some buddies that were about a mile away, but you just went there, walked there quickly because you wanted to see how they were. That was what you did right off the bad.”
Glenn felt the same way.
“I remembered the same thing. We felt liberated. I guess we learned to appreciate our friends even more, and you learn to appreciate the freedoms that you have,” he said.
Luckily, the Glundmans said none of their friends were diagnosed with polio as children.
Glenn and Nancy, now ages 86 and 83, met in college in 1954, and they married in 1959. They moved to Kokomo in 1972 when Glenn was transferred to Delco. Now, the pair is quarantined in their home together as seniors. The situation, they said, is reversed from what they experienced as children.
Instead of their parents worrying about them as children, their children now are worried about them as parents.
“We both found it very ironic that today is just the reverse,” said Glenn. “Our kids now are concerned about us. They’re using social media to keep in touch because none of them live here, but they’re real good about checking in on us and warning us and making sure we obey the rules because we’re in the susceptible group.”
The Glundmans said people today are lucky to have multiple ways to communicate and stay in touch with each other while separated physically — and they don’t have to make do with tins cans and string.
“They’re really at an advantage that they have all of these things that they can use,” Glenn said. “Appreciate what you’ve got because just imagine not having it.”