WARM SPRINGS, GEORGIA — I went to put my feet in the tiny puddle of Warm Springs, see what was left of FDR’s Honeycomb Hideout there. They said they had to drain the pools because someone had sucked out the minerals from beneath the concrete. They said they were diverting what was left of the healing waters to a private hospital, that FDR’s polio Lourdes hadn’t worked anyway, had near about caved in.
I walked down the old gurney ramp into the empty chamber. The pool walls reflected sun and what wasn’t there. It was the tunnel from when you die and come back, blinding hot and bright white. Ghosts of rigid kids bobbed and splashed in the air around me. A small bubbling fountain slicked the only wet spot. I took my sandals off and slipped my toes in. I expected healing hot springs, not tepid trickle. No wonder debate still raged about what really happened there.
These are the facts. An abandoned metal gurney pushed behind a row of swimsuit changing rooms. Middle-class mothers walking door to door collecting shiny dimes. Crippled water basketball kids slam-dunking their way back to life. Heavy Georgia heat. Poolside war dispatches and grim-suited cabinet members sleeping in wooden cabins. A photograph of a stricken President nicknamed Rosie smiling and swimming and crutchless and free.
In the Little White House, dozens of canes hung on the wall. People had carved them for their favorite President with their own pocketknives. Some had smiling bear heads. People didn’t know their President would crumble like matchsticks if he leaned on them. It was “a splendid deception,” some dim scribe scribed, that FDR’s fancy convertible was hand-controlled. That the only thing between the four-term Harvard President and a sidewalk belly flop was a secret wheelchair shrouded in dark blanket. FDR wanted people to love and elect him. Knew they wouldn’t if they remembered legs rot.
I saw FDR’s shame. An elevated box-top toilet and bathtub handrails. I stared. The country’s first Americans with Disabilities Act was as secret as what Oppenheimer was up to. But someone outed FDR the day he died, leaked how crippled he was. Maybe to freeze him shrunken and withered once and for all, but maybe the just-as-bad opposite. Maybe to enshrine him, to prove that useless legs made him a saint. Staffers preserved the last roll of toilet paper he ever used. I saw its tissue browned in a glass box on the wall, ridiculous and eerie — lonely testament to the failed Presidential body.
In the iron lung museum at Warm Springs, I met a woman who at four-years-old had attended FDR’s broken kid Thanksgiving feast. She worked for the State Park Service and was a secret living exhibit there. At four, she had been club-footed and scared. When her parents dressed her up for the holiday, she thought she might be on the President’s menu — that he might be one of the doctors who poured paraffin-like gravy to warm her bone china in a mold. And no wonder. Who knew who it was who said this won’t hurt much! right before he ratcheted her ankles straight?
“No. Not at that time. I don’t recall many retarded kids there,” she told me. “Maybe some Cerebral Palsy. But then maybe only the ones who could talk or were Polio-connected. They were strapped. Needed all they had for the normal ones.”
They don’t work right now — her ankles. She lifted her pants leg to show me her black orthopod burden and tough leg braces because I would look. She admitted that she tries to go without the clumsy pods, that the turkey was good that day, that without the hard shoes, standing alone, her ankles break.