Polio Boys

by Jim Ure

From the opening chapter:

Polio Boys

Hunger begins in the belly, then takes hold of the heart and loins.  You can’t talk religion to a hungry man.

Seven creeks flow into the Salt Lake Valley from the canyons of the snowy Wasatch Mountains.

On City Creek, the first, the Mormon temple sits like a tall-rigged sailing ship. On its mainmast stands a glistening golden angel blowing a horn. He is Moroni, and he announces that this is a new religion, founded in 1830 when he himself appeared to a young man in New York, told him to put special stones on his eyes, and gave him golden plates to translate from ancient Egyptian. The religion gathered adherents and in 1847 my Mormon ancestors sailed away to Utah in prairie schooners.

Clustered around the temple is downtown Salt Lake City. The streets are wide, the blocks long. In 1939 fresh water pours day and night down the gutters of Main Street, making liquid music that delights visitors. Its buildings are mostly pioneer-eclectic granite and sandstone, although the city boasts a Louis Sullivan original, the Dooley Building. One of these buildings soars an eye-popping fifteen stories.

Someone walking south down State Street sees the buildings diminish in height and embellishment until, less than two miles from downtown, the bungalows give way like missing teeth to fields and farms. Fine fruit and vegetables are grown in the limestone-rich soil, in spite of the fact that the valley rests three quarters of a mile above sea level. The farmers are proud of their celery, their cherries, their peaches, their Jersey cows. Many fields are planted in beets, and Utah-Idaho Sugar Company somehow turns them into fine, white sugar.

In early June, when the trout season opens, the rivers run thick and roily and water is drawn to the fields by an elaborate system of irrigation ditches. By autumn, when the deer season opens, you can step across these same creeks.

Counting from north to south, we pass City Creek, Red Butte Creek, Emigration Creek and Parleys Creek. The fifth of these creeks, called Millcreek, was contracted to a single word through frequent use, just as the grist mills on its banks reduced hulls of wheat and barley. Millcreek was given its name by vote of the valley’s settlers on August 22, 1847, at the first general conference of the Mormon Church held in Deseret, which started out as a kingdom, resigned itself to being a territory, and finally accepted a name change and a territorial reduction almost fifty years later. Most of the people around us are devout Mormons. They live by their Word of Wisdom: no alcohol, no tobacco, no caffeinated drinks.

Not my father.

He drinks. He smokes. And he has been crippled by polio since he was three. We are a marked family.