A Child's True Story - Sonny and the Six-Penny Nail

Vol. V No. 3 - SPRING 1994

By: Carl Helbig

It was 1933, the year of the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. The boy’s given name was Carl. He was eight years old, blonde, blue-eyed, small for his age, with a round baby face. His nickname, Sonny, was a reflection of his happy, always smiling, friendly disposition. He loved to sing and whistle. On Sundays, he would go to the Highland Avenue Methodist Church and sing “Jesus loves me, yes. I know, for the Bible tells me so:

Sonny’s favorite toy was his tricycle. One day he took it up on the front porch and tried to ride it down the stairs. He got hurt. His father gave him a spanking as well.

He also got an earache. The home remedy was a cloth sugar bag filled with hot salt, but it didn’t help. He developed a fever. His father put a pillow in a wooden wagon and pulled Sonny five blocks to the doctor.

“He needs to be in a hospital,” the doctor said. The next day Sonny and his father took the streetcar to St. Joseph’s Hospital. After learning that his father was an unemployed bricklayer without any financial resources, a nun ushered them out the door. She told Sonny that he should go “fishing in the sun” with his father on Montrose Pier. But Sonny was in too much pain to go fishing.

The family lived in a two-bedroom home. His sisters slept in the spare bedroom, Sonny in the dining room. It was the Fourth of July. Sonny pleaded with his father to “please make them stop shooting off firecrackers. They make my head ache.” But his father couldn’t.

Sonny became delirious with a high fever. His parents continued to pray for him. Their prayers were answered when a neighbor told them about Children’s Memorial Hospital. The neighbor, Mr. Lepper, who owned a Model-A Ford, took Sonny to the hospital.

When he awoke in the hospital, Sonny was in a strait jacket. “What a helpless, hopeless, inhuman feeling!” he thought. He was kept in restraints for three days.

Sonny had mastoiditis. He would have to have a major operation. A porous bone behind his ear had become infected. The part that was infected had to be removed.

After the operation, with his head wrapped in bandages, Sonny was given a blood transfusion from his mother. They laid on two separate cots, side by side so they could see each other, with the red tube connecting them.

Every day the nurses would take Sonny’s bandages off and put a silver nitrate stick in the hole that was left in his head after the operation. It burned! Now that doctors have penicillin, they no longer perform this operation. But Sonny’s doctor did not have any penicillin.

Sonny’s mother came to visit every day. On Sundays, his mother and father came. His father usually had a Hershey bar or Cracker Jack for him.

One day while he was getting better, Sonny rang for the urinal. No one came. He was forbidden to get out of bed. There was a wash basin at the end of Sonny’s bed. He used it. When the nurse finally came, he said, “Too late. I’ve already done it in the sink.” He thought she’d be glad that he saved her the bother.

The nurse didn’t say anything when she left, but came back with help. They wheeled the bed out in the hallway, with him in it. How embarrassing! Everybody going down the hallway would look at him. And his mother was coming that day.

“Please put me back!” he pleaded. His mother came. “What are you doing in the hallway?” she asked. He lied and told her. “They are running out of space.” Now both he and his mother were embarrassed by being looked at. That night they put him back in his room. He never did that again or, if he did, he never admitted to it.

One of the foods the hospital served was raisins and chopped carrots. Sonny thought it tasted icky. He did like the chopped apples with raisins and walnuts though.

One of his parents must have told someone that they had taught Sonny to drink raw eggs. One morning two raw eggs were on his tray. All the nurses from that floor came to watch little Sonny suck raw eggs out of their shells. He became a celebrity! Every time he’d get raw eggs to drink, he’d have an audience.

After being in bed for so long. Sonny forgot how to walk. Sonny couldn’t believe he couldn’t walk! The nurse was kind and told him it wasn’t his fault. She helped him balance himself until he wasn’t so shaky. When he could walk again, there wasn’t any reason to take up space in the hospital. So, after being in the hospital for 13 weeks, Sonny became an outpatient.

Many years later, World War II began. When he graduated from school, Sonny decided to volunteer to become a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps. He passed the mental test and went to take the physical.

“You wear glasses?” the doctor asked. “Since I was eight.” Sonny said. “You can’t be a fighter pilot,” the doctor said. “They should have told you that when you took the mental test.”

Sonny waited to be drafted. He became a radio operator with the Combat Engineers. He sent and received Morse Code. Even with his bad ear, Sonny earned two battle stars in the European theater of operations.

“Perhaps the old rhyme was right after all,” thought Sonny:

For want of a nail, a shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost.
For want of a horse, a battle was lost.
For want of a battle, a war was lost.
For want of a war, a country was lost.
All for the loss of a six-penny nail.

If it hadn’t been for Children’s Memorial Hospital, the United States Army would have been one soldier short.