The Last Time I Saw Franky

For those of you not old enough to remember let me point out the COVID quarantine is not the first time in my lifetime that this has happened. In certain parts of the country in the summers of 1953 and 1954 normality was suspended due to the polio virus. Swimming pools, theaters, camps, schools, you name it, social gatherings were closed and we didn’t have social media to entertain us or to inform us or, more importantly, to scare us. Anyway, I’ve attached a short story I wrote about the time; it took an honorable mention in a national short story competition earlier this year. I’d attach a copy of the certificate but the committee says the COVID situation has put them behind in getting out the awards. So, here goes, let me know what you think.

The Last Time I Saw Franky 

It was July 1954 and the day was hot and wet.  You know that kind of mugginess you get in a river town.  I was seven and a half, Franky was eleven.  He was in his usual position propped up on his crutches behind me at home plate.  As usual the mask I had was too big and it kept turning sideways as I would bend down in my catcher’s stance.  The chest protector was also too big, but that problem was handled by its bending at one of the creases in the cotton batting as I squatted.  The leg protectors rattled a lot when I ran but my legs were round enough to secure them in place with the elastic straps.  

            “Ball one!!” Franky was loud when he called the pitches.  The pitcher was a twelve-year-old with thick rusty-red hair that resisted combs and brushes.  Ironically his name was Butch. He was new to the neighborhood.

            “What’d you mean, Ball?  That pitch was straight down the pike.  You’ll never see a strike that good.”

            Jerry, the first baseman jogged over to the pitching mound, yes there really was a little rise on the field that served as a pitching mound.  He spoke briefly and earnestly to Butch, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

            Jerry jogged back to first.  Butch just looked at me and said, “Gimme the ball.”  

            I threw it back to him then adjusted my mask and chest protector and squatted back down.  I knew what Jerry had said even if I couldn’t hear it.  It was an admonition that Franky’s calls were sacrosanct and were not to be challenged.  We all knew Franky could handle himself in a verbal altercation but everyone, and this was before I became an accepted part of the group, had agreed that Franky was impartial and fair and therefore they would accept his calls.  He was the stabilizing force in an otherwise volatile world of sandlot baseball.  No, well few, fights broke out on calls and Franky not only called the pitches, but he would call the close plays at first, second and third as well.  You might not agree but it was the accepted protocol that Franky was in charge of the game.

            We didn’t think this was strange at all.  It was just the accepted norm.  An eleven-year-old polio victim with heavy iron leg braces and two wooden crutches was in charge of the games we played.  I don’t know how or why it happened, like I said, it was that way when I arrived.  I was the youngest player by three years on the field.  They only let me play because Franky had seen me playing catch with my father in the front yard and apparently thought I could protect him from pitches better than one of the two catchers they already had.  So, I played catcher because of Franky.  

            Franky lived across the street from us in the projects.  That’s what they were called, the projects.  They were brick apartments that had been built during the Second World War to house workers for the nearby Army and Navy supply depots.  After the war they converted them to housing for low income and welfare families.  Franky’s mom worked in one of the cafeterias in the new Air Force supply depot.  His father had died in World War II. Franky’s mother had his picture and his Purple Heart on a table near the window.  Franky looked a lot like him.

            Franky had come down with polio in 1952.  He told me this one morning sitting on the porch of our duplex which was shaded from the morning sun and had a ceiling fan.  Franky would come and struggle up the two steps and sit with me.  Sometimes Dora, our maid, would mix up some frozen orange juice for us.  It didn’t taste much like orange juice, but it was cold and, if you sipped at it, was ok.

            Franky told me he had come home from school one day and thought he was coming down with a cold or maybe the flu.  His temperature shot up and he had the chills so bad his teeth were chattering.  He thought this was funny and would act it out like, “Annnnnndddddd, IIIIIIII thoughtttttt IIIII wassssss aaaaaaa  skeletoonnnnnn.”  He would chatter as he played out the sounds his teeth had made.

            “And then my head began to hurt, like real bad.  I mean like reallll bad and then the pain moved down my back and into my legs and the muscles started to cramp up and my toes curled up.  My mother didn’t know what to do so she came over here to your neighbor, Doctor Danny.  He came over and wrapped me in a blanket and took me to St. Joseph’s emergency room.”

            Doctor Danny Fisher was our neighbor.  He was a resident at St. Joseph’s Hospital where he was studying to become a surgeon.  He was a nice man, but it seemed like he was hardly ever at home.  We would take in his milk for him and collect his paper.  He would stop at our door on his way in and get his things, sometimes my father would offer him a drink and they would sit on the porch.       

            Well anyway, Franky had polio and it hurt just to listen to him describe the muscle cramps, and the pain, not just the pain of the disease but the pain of the rehabilitation.  But Franky wasn’t mad.  He said that this had to be the worst thing that would ever happen to him and he was just as glad to get it out of the way early on.

            Now you can tell I thought Franky was swell, I mean, after-all he was the reason I was playing baseball and not standing behind the backstop like twenty other kids who wanted to play.  And that’s what Franky called us all, ‘Kid.’  As in “Hey Kid, don’t back up when you catch unless you want me to fall on top of you.  Ain’t like I’m going to get outta your way.  Or, “Hey, Kid, straighten your mask, you’re throwing off my line of sight.”  Franky could be a real card with his comments.

            Sometimes Franky and I would talk about things, you know, just things like kids talk about. Maybe we’d talk about what we wanted to be when we grew up.  Franky said he had thought about being a soldier like his dad but that had stopped when the polio got him.  Now he said, after all the time he had spent in the hospital he thought maybe he could be a doctor.

            “Yo, Kid you think a doctor can get around on crutches?”

            Now I had never given any thought to the subject, but I remembered seeing a Dr. Kildaire movie where Doctor Gillespie was in a wheelchair, so I told him I didn’t see why not.  So, we decided Franky would be a doctor.  As for me, well in those days I was all about being a garbage man.  See, I saw them swinging on the back of the garbage truck and jumping off before it stopped and heaving full cans of garbage around as if they weighed nothing.  Yes, when I was seven and a half, I wanted to be a garbage man.  

            We played ball every afternoon, except when it rained, and Franky never missed a game, so it was odd that one Tuesday he wasn’t there.  We waited and someone ran to his apartment but came back and said there wasn’t anybody home.   Well, you can imagine how the game went; it was a disaster.  We had four or five arguments and a fist fight broke out at second over whether I had thrown out Kenny trying to steal or not.  I left the field feeling a little broken and disoriented because order had gone, and everyone was mad at someone for something.  But after my bath and as I pulled the single sheet over me in bed, I was comforted by the thought that Franky would be back tomorrow, and we would have a great time playing baseball the way it was meant to be played.

            But Franky didn’t come back tomorrow or the next day, or the next.  The games deteriorated into tribal warfare where every pitch and every play was contested.  Nobody was seriously injured in the fights, a few cut lips and black-eyes, skinned knuckles and maybe a dislocated thumb, but nothing serious.  After a couple of weeks, I stopped going.

            All I could learn from Franky’s mother, who was almost never home, was that the polio had taken hold of Franky again.  That’s all she would say.

            School started and our playing baseball became a thing of the past.  We listened to the World Series on my father’s Zenith Transoceanic radio and saw one game on television.  Nobody was really interested because it was the Giants and Indians.  We were all Yankee and Dodger fans.

            One Saturday a telegram arrived for Doctor Danny who, as usual, was at the hospital.  My father signed for it and then said he was going to take it to the hospital because you never knew what might be in a telegram.  We had just finished a war in China, or someplace, and Doctor Danny had a brother in the Army.

            Anyway, my father and I climbed into our Dodge and drove the three miles to St. Joseph’s Hospital.  We went to the main reception on the first floor and my father asked to have Doctor Danny paged.  While we waited, I wandered around looking down the halls that sprouted off the reception area.  In one of the halls two people pushed this large cylinder that was mounted on tall legs that had wheels.  They came towards me and as they got closer, I recognized it as an iron lung.  Everyone in the 50’s knew what an iron lung looked like.  But then as they were passing me, I saw Franky.  He was pale but it was him.

            “Franky!!”  I shouted forgetting I was in a hospital.  I ran over to the front of the thing.

            “Hey Kid, no don’t stand there, I can’t see you. You have to stand at the top of my head so I can use the mirror.”  There was a mirror above his head.  

            “Franky, boy am I glad to see you.  Nobody knew where you had gone.”  My enthusiasm was great, forgetting momentarily the circumstances of the meeting.  Franky smiled back at me in his mirror.

            “Great to see you kid.  How’s the games going.”

            “Aw, they’re not the same without you there to keep things right.”  I told him the truth.

            “Ha, I knew they couldn’t play without me.”  While it was meant to be a humorous comeback there was a ring of truth in his voice.  A knowledge that he had mattered.

            “So, when are you going to beat this polio thing and come back?”  I honestly wanted to know; I was after all just turned eight.

            “Well, Kid, you know when I told you about polio being the worst thing that was going to happen in my life, I didn’t know I wasn’t through with it or it with me.”  As I remember it, he spoke like an elder statesman or someone who had had a conversation with God.

            “So, this is going to be the worst thing that happens in my life.  I’m not all that worried but, in this lung, I’ll tell you one thing, I don’t have to worry about you knocking me over at home.  And there’s another thing I’ve learned from being in this; You always need to keep you chin up.” Here he cut his eyes downward toward the rubber membrane just under his chin that moved in and out as the machine breathed for him.

            He laughed.  “It’s a joke Kid.  Keep your chin up.  Get it?”

            I got it and laughed.  “Yeah, keep your chin up Franky.”

            “Gotta go Kid, see you around.”

            “Yeah, see you around.”

 But I didn’t.  That was the last time I saw Franky.

3 thoughts


  2. When I was small, I had asthma and allergy issues. I went to a children’s hospital al to to see my pediatrician. I can remember glancing into some rooms with rows of iron lungs. The gravity of it was lost on me then. In 1982 I came down with Guillan Barre syndrome. An aftereffect of a virus (years earlier people had been affected similarly by swine flu vaccine). Basically a rapid demyelination of the myelin sheath that covers your nerves.Muscles quit working. Doctor told me that there was a chance I could go into an iron lung if it progressed to a certain point. Fortunately it didn’t. I didn’t even have to quit smoking! (I have since). Needless to say I have a healthy respect for viruses .

  3. What a story about Franky. I’ll never forget it. And a great story of success about my dear brother, Somer.

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