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An hour of happiness

There was a time when the living room lights dimmed, the click of a radio dial cast a faint glow, and a family impatiently waited for static to clear and the program to begin.

On Feb. 16, 1928, 27-year-old Helen Norris’s dream was coming true. Actors in San Francisco began to perform the first radio script she had ever written.

Sitting with her family in their Phoenix home and hugging her constant companion, her fox terrier, Helen turned up the volume.

Helen’s life had not been easy; although, in the beginning, living on a farm near Portland, Maine, was a joyous child’s world of wonder and adventure. She loved the cold winters, the fringe on the roof of her father’s carriage, the horses, and the gathering of daisies in summer.

Her brothers taught her to swim like a fish, but they could never get her interested in fishing. It was the worm, you see. She just couldn’t bear to bait the hook. Her brothers teased her, her first taste of humiliation, but not the last.

The night before Halloween, 1909, while watching her brothers carve a pumpkin, Helen’s legs suddenly felt prickly and too painful to move. The doctor was called and diagnosed her condition as infantile paralysis — polio.

Her parents refused to believe she would never walk again. Painful treatments followed but did no good.

In 1913, they moved to Southern Oregon and her father bought an orchard in Phoenix.

It was her brother Bob who insisted that even though she couldn’t walk she had to go to school. She called him her “legs.” “Every morning,” she said, “he took me to school in his horse and buggy. Then he carried me from floor to floor. He made me feel that there was nothing strange about it.”

Before beginning her junior year at Phoenix High, “Bob, my sturdy, trusty legs, left for the war in Europe,” she said, “but my schoolwork did not stop. Classes were arranged so that I could sit at my desk all day without moving, but this proved detrimental to my health and I could not finish high school.”

Although confined to her home, she had been a talented student who had won many essay competitions. The University of Oregon Extension Service agreed to help her continue her education and kept her mind moving in a positive direction.

“I’m going to be a writer!” she said. “My worst enemy is sensitiveness. It smarts and hurts to be carried around like a baby before crowds of curious, pitying eyes. But this is all part of the fight.”

She would never walk again, but she won the fight. One radio script after another left her bedroom in Phoenix and were heard up and down the West Coast. By 1930, her stories were touching listeners from coast to coast on the CBS and NBC radio networks.

“I had no idea,” Helen said, “of the many thousands of people who are sincerely interested in my plays, until the flood of letters poured in. I have had a great many letters from those who cannot see. To bring them an hour’s happiness makes me very happy.”

The only letters that made Helen furious were those that said they felt sorry for her.

“Sob stuff!” she said. “I have never pitied myself. I want to compete in the world upon the merits of my work alone. ... To make people forget heartache, even for a few moments, is gloriously worthwhile to me.”

Helen continued to write up until WWII, when she married and moved to California. She died in May 1972.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.