Shep’s Discount and Salvage, Part Two: The Iron Lung

by Tim Gilmore, 4/3/2020

cont’d from Shep’s Discount and Salvage

1. Ghost in the Machine

The iron lung stands beside the empty shell of an old arcade video game, chests of drawers, lamps and a Singer sewing machine.

The iron lung is haunted. How many people called it home? For how long? Someone who couldn’t breathe without it may’ve spent years inside it, decades. Though it looks like a torture device, it kept her alive. Servant and lover, it embraced her body patiently, diligently, longsufferingly.

Though as I stand beside it, peering through the aperture from which someone’s head once protruded, looking down through rectangular windows, noting the steel portholes which a nurse could open to place her hands inside and attend to the patient, what I’m wondering is:

Did someone die in this machine?

After all, every house, if it lasts, hosts enough lives to host a death, and like a hermit crab’s shell, this machine was somebody’s house. Besides the sensationally tragic story of the 11 year old boy, Audie Barrett, who died in his iron lung when Nashville Electric Service shut off his family’s electricity due to nonpayment on Monday night, October 25, 1965, inevitably, Polio survivors who spent hours that accumulated into years in iron lungs sometimes died in them.

Some Polio patients stayed in an iron lung, a negative pressure respirator, a kind of “Pulmotor,” portmanteau word for “pulmonary motor,” for a few weeks. Patients with permanent lung damage often slept in iron lungs for years. On August 21, 2018, Newsweek ran a story about 82 year old Mona Randolph, one of the last Polio survivors still using an iron lung. She slept in it six nights a week.

from The Decatur [Illinois] Daily Review, October 26, 1965

Walking back through Shep’s Discount and Salvage in the early days of Covid-19 “social distancing,” I castigate myself for being a sucker. My friend Jeff Whipple—the artist whose paintings remind me of T.S. Eliot narrative poems-cum-Magritte, whose plays remind me of Don Delillo’s gone slightly Ionesco— had read my story about Ann Adams, the Polio survivor and artist who drew with her mouth, and asked, “Did you see the iron lung for sale at Shep’s? The real thing. It was there a couple months ago.” Jeff and I both mine this city’s redneck bars, junk shops and flea markets for material.

Jeff was born not long after Jonas Salk’s vaccine, took it on the sugar cube like an alternate Communion wafer, glad to get out of class. Polio’s resultant deformities were common. He says Ms. Bryant taught English in junior high in Elgin, Illinois, in northwest metro-Chicago, from an iron lung. “Terrifying,” he says, “but also normalizing, as that can be for kids.” I dig around in old yearbooks electronically and though I don’t find Ms. Bryant, Jeff’s 10th grade self looks back at me.

Jeff Whipple, 10th grade, Larkin High School Yearbook, 1973

Life stumbles forward in strange designs and patterns. In 1987, Jeff painted broken hieroglyphics in swirls of dark blue punctured by two windows, the bottom one looking at three men wearing gas masks and biocontainment suits, each with a wide push broom. Through the top portal, a woman struggles to unscrew an empty jar or bottle. Containing germs? Ideas? Jeff called this indecipherable dream-parable Janitors.

Janitors, 1987, by Jeff Whipple

2. The Informant

I find a Shep’s employee, leaning back in a chair, hands behind his head, mouth wide open, and ask him, “What’s the story behind the iron lung you’ve got for sale?”

“What about it?” he barks, doesn’t move.

“The iron lung over there,” I say. “Do you know its history?”

When he says, “It’s an iron lung,” I tell him, “I know, but do you know who owned it, or what that person’s story was?”

He raises one hand and rubs his fingers back and forth against his thumb like he’s rubbing dollar bills together.

When I ask him, “What does that mean?” he says, “Money,” and I say, “I know that, but what does that mean, specifically, in relation to the iron lung?” I’m starting to feel like I’m inside one of Jeff’s paintings, a triptych with the iron lung and this geezer. When he says, “It’s goin’ to Africa,” I ask what it’s going to do there and he rubs his fingers against his thumb again. “Ain’t that what our government always does?” he asks and laughs and runs his tongue back and forth across his lips.

3. “No More Bullshit!”

It’s a shock to find an iron lung for sale, but not a surprise to find one here. Shep’s is the junk empire run by the arsonist firefighter, murderer by solicitation and high school football star turned Kingpin of Trash, William Shepard Ellison. Shep’s regularly makes the news for selling rotten baby formula or illegal assault weapons.

You walk through the front doors and into a panoply of Trump flags. Trump as Rambo, again and again. Trump with a bodybuilder’s biceps, holding an assault rifle. “The Rambo America Needs!” and “Keep America Great!” and “No More Bullshit!” I think the latter might be a quote from The Federalist Papers.

The machine before me stands four feet high and six feet long. I stand over the harness that once held someone’s head while iron encased the rest of her body. A pressure gauge stands on top like a finial. Underneath are electrical switches and toggles for “Motor” and “Light.”

A diagram under the side-panel Emerson Respirator instructions shows a woman ensnared in the lung, and it’s easy for me to imagine she’s Ann Adams.

Ann was 20 when Polio struck. She’d studied art at Florida State University and illustrated books and pamphlets for the Florida State Board of Health. When Polio paralyzed Ann from the neck down, she wanted to die, but gradually rebuilt her life and identity and made a new career drawing greeting cards whose designs took her months to complete. She had four of every 24 hours to be productive.

Ann Adams, early 1980s, courtesy The Florida Times-Union

Polio brutalized America. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now known as the March of Dimes, through which the United States finally funded a vaccine for the ancient disease of Poliomyelitis.

Donald Anderson, first “Polio Poster Child,” 1940-2014, courtesy March of Dimes

What story will history tell of Donald Trump’s leadership in the time of Covid-19? Of cutting funding to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control? Of promising the virus would “miraculously go away” by April? Of saying established drugs like Hydroxychloroquine could defeat the virus, causing market runs and depriving Lupus patients of medications that kept them alive? Of saying, “You can call it a germ, you can call it a flu, you can call it a virus, you know, you can call it many different names. I’m not sure anybody even knows what it is,” almost all of which is demonstrably false? Of not knowing people could die from influenza, of confusing coronaviruses with flu, and not knowing why doctors couldn’t just give flu vaccines to Covid-19 patients? Of calling Covid-19 a “hoax” perpetrated by “the LameStream Media” and the “Libtards” (portmanteau of “liberal” and “ree-tahrd”) to keep him from being reelected?

4. “Flee as a Bird to Your Mountain!”

Before my mother died, paralyzed from the neck down, not from Polio, but from ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, I used to sit beside her bed and read her Psalms. These verses were the Scripture that most comforted her and my first immersion in poetry. In an iron lung, she’d have been no less immobile than she was in her bed. When she sat before her bedroom vanity, static and still in her wheelchair, I brushed her long, long hair.

She named her 23 page book for the first verse of Psalm 11: In the Lord Put I My Trust.

The next line of the Psalm asks, “How say ye to my soul, ‘Flee as a bird to your mountain?’”

my mother’s senior yearbook photo, Robert E. Lee High School, Jacksonville, 1953

“What can the righteous do,” the third verse asks, “if the foundations be destroyed?” They can know, the Psalmist assures us, how God hates the wicked. “The LORD trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth.” For “Upon the wicked,” God “shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest.”

God hates those who love violence, so take heart, those who love God, for God shall destroy them with violence! I wonder if Shep’s still has those white pleather Go-Go boots for $2.99 a pair. I hope scientists develop a vaccine sooner than 18 months from now. I hope they harvest antibodies from recovered Covid-19 patients to create and quickly mobilize “convalescent plasma.” I wonder if Shep’s disinfects its boxes of Golden Puffs (2 bags $1). I wonder why that old man thinks the iron lung is headed for Africa. And just what does Trump Rambo think of the 1963 Supreme Court Gideon v. Wainwright decision, of Justice William O. Douglas’s lone dissent in Terry v. Ohio in ’68, or even Frederick Douglass’s criticism of the openness of the Underground Railroad? I mean, by now, my mother’s death is a matter of Stare Decisis, the basis of judicial precedent. So I’d like to know how Rambo Trump’s thinking on such a statement has evolved this last half century. Also, what’s with the figurines of dogs dressed as 1920s’ flappers on sale, three for a dollar? The PVC porcupines dressed in Hawaiian shirts and flower leis? Or the plastic pigs dressed as cowboys? And did any of them spend time in an iron lung?