The other day I went for a walk in the park. Off in the distance, I recognized a familiar figure coming towards me. When we met up, I realized that it was the handicapped checkout person from the grocery store. I’d always go to his station because he was so personable. I saw him once a week for years. Unfortunately, I never asked him his name. Well, there we were standing face to face, and I said, “I know you from the grocery store.”
He said, “That’s right. Been a long time.”
I replied, “So how the hell you doing?”
What was interesting about our meeting was the fact that he wears a polio brace, and I wear a below-the-knee prosthesis. We both have issues. Because of his polio, his left leg is severely deformed. So, when he walks, he throws his leg forward in order to take a step. Standing still on an incline is something that I haven’t mastered. He saw me swaying and suggested we sit a nearby picnic table. Jokingly, I said, “I’ll race you.” We both laughed.
Curious about his past, I had a lot of questions. His name is Marvin Petersen, and he was born in South Korea. He came from a broken family, and for a time was living on the streets with other homeless children.
Try to imagine being 8 years old and begging for food. He would go door to door until some kind soul gave him something to eat. The people from whom he was begging were also poor. After a time, they’d stop feeding him and he’d go to another neighborhood. Sometimes when food was scarce, he’d tear a hole in his shirt to appear even more destitute. When it was cold, he slept in empty garbage bins.
South Korea in the 1970s is not the advanced country we know today. Back then, street traffic consisted of bicycles, rickshaws and buses on dirt roads.
One day while Marvin was standing on a corner, a van stopped, an adult got out and threw him in the back of it. It was full of other homeless kids and the smell was awful. The organization behind the sweep was Korea’s version of Boys Town. He was taken to a shelter with very strict rules. Kids who got out of line where hit over a bare butt with a paddle by the nuns who ran the place. Sometimes repeat offenders were bloodied.
After his stay there, Marvin was taken to a halfway house where he began learning to read and write. He didn’t realize it, but he was being prepared for adoption. The couple that eventually adopted him (Arnold and Jeanne Petersen) were from Omaha. They already had six children but wanted to make a difference. They hoped to adopt three girls, but the adoption agency said in order to do that they had to adopt a child with a disability. Lucky for Marvin.
Visiting with Marvin was inspirational. He was able to overcome horrific obstacles yet remain positive to lead a productive life. His adoptive parents were saintly in rescuing four children from hopelessness and giving them a life.
Our talk also made think of virus control in the United States. In the ’70s, South Korea’s medical system was lacking. It had no mass vaccination program, which resulted in Marvin contracting polio. He was forced to adjust to the realities of being handicapped and wearing a brace. In the United States, Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine. Individual states mandated vaccinations, people cooperated, and this country has been polio-free for decades.
Fast forward to 2021. We have vaccines to fight the COVID virus that’s taken more than 600,000 American lives. The vaccines are effective and widely available. Health officials have aggressively encouraged people to get vaccinated. Still, a segment of the population refuses to cooperate for a variety of reasons. “Government can’t tell me what to do,” is often cited.
For the defiant, here is something to consider: If you get vaccinated, you may prevent the virus from spreading and claiming another victim. Just as in the fight against polio, we need to unite as a nation and do what’s best for the common good.
George Mills is a former Douglas County Board member and Husker defensive lineman from the early 1970s who has a master’s degree in urban studies.