The following chapter is excerpted from the autobiographical book, "The Gift." We will be sharing a new chapter in each issue.
Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you – and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have memory; but it has you!
John Irving ~ American novelist
I was born on February 7, 1950, the youngest of three sons of Kenneth R. Elzey and Leona Lucille Graham. We lived on Daubert Street, just one block east of San Fernando High School. The high school was famous because Ritchie Valens, the singer of La Bamba, went to school there.
The earliest memory I have of my life was being in an iron lung and looking at the mirror above my head. I remember the beige color paint on the walls. I vividly recall the location of the continuously swinging doors, where my iron lung was in relationship to others in the room and the black nurse who took care of me. I’m not sure why, but the nurses would move us from time to time. I remember once they moved my iron lung next to a window overlooking a parking lot. I recall looking through the overhead mirror, through the window, and down to the sparkling wet parking lot. It was raining as people hurried to and from their cars. I have no idea what floor the polio ward was on, but to this day I remember the rain falling on the people in the glossy wet parking lot.
It's funny how memory works. The places and events I remember were not traumatic, yet I remember them with vivid accuracy. Logic says I would remember the traumatic events during my long hospital stay, but I remember little else but the iron lung.
One of the last conversations with my mother before her death was about an event I vaguely remembered. Had she not mentioned the event it would have no doubt remained one of those childhood happenings half remembered.
I was six years old and I’d been out of the hospital for a few months. We were getting all dressed up as a family to go somewhere. I remember my older brother Darrel fastening my seatbelt while we were standing in the doorway to our small San Fernando home. I recall standing in the driveway of a man who lived at the end of the small block next door to friends of my parents, Rose and Pinky. Yes… that was their real names, scouts honor! Pinky happened to notice his next-door neighbor washing his car and me standing at the end of his neighbor’s driveway. He watched the event unfold from his kitchen window. His neighbor yelled something at me, then he began drenching me with water from the hose. Pinky ran out of his house yelling at him as he ran to pick me up. I vaguely remember Pinky picking me up and carrying me home. That’s the extent of my recollection.
My mother filled in the gaps on what took place in August of 1956. She couldn't recall where we were going but did remember we were getting all dressed up. Pinky ran inside our home after carrying me back to our house. According to my mother he was so out of breath he could hardly talk. He started telling my parents what had happened. My father immediately started to go to the man’s house. Pinky, a man in his early-sixties with a prosthetic leg, stopped my dad and would not let him leave the house until he cooled off.
My mother said Rose, Pinky’s wife, called the police, then began berating the man, daring him to spray her with the hose. Everyone in the neighborhood could hear Rose's barking voice. Pinky, concerned Rose would escalate the matter, went home to defuse the situation between Rose and the man. Rose could handle herself and was egging the man on to spray her with the hose. After the police arrived and my father had settled down, the man claimed it was an accident. My mother told me had Pinky not been there to defuse the situation it would have ended much differently.
No one will ever know for sure what happened that August afternoon of 1956. Whatever it was it disturbed my parents to such an extent that by October they had sold our home. Our family moved to a little town twenty-five miles southeast of Phoenix named Gilbert, Arizona.
I was six years old when we arrived at our new home at 502 South Catalina Street. It was Columbus Day 1956. Nearly four of the six and a half years we lived in San Fernando I spent in the polio ward of the Los Angeles County Hospital. The length of time I was in an iron lung and the incident with this man were the only events I remember. The mental snapshots of those two events have been with me since.