John Maciejewski knows how to turn the word victim into victor. Being stricken with polio at age six, John learned that life was not going to be easy and he would have to strive hard against the odds.
Paul and Amelia Maciejewski began their family in Bay City, Mich. John, the oldest of his brother and sister, grew up on a farm. His mother taught him to read and he was reading mysteries before he even began school. When John was a little boy, he thought he would like to be a truck driver.
“I saw those guys come onto the farms. They would step out of their truck with their creased blue jeans and their boots and their western shirts and all the women would just drool over them,” John laughs.
He left his parents' home to live with a friend when he was just 16. John worked at a restaurant, finished high school and joined the Navy leaving a dark secret behind that he later reveals.
“My roommate Dwayne and I went down to join the Marines. We wanted to jump out of airplanes - don’t ask me why,” John laughs and later shares that he is afraid of heights. “The Marine recruiter wasn’t there and the Navy recruiter started talking to me about submarines. I had an uncle who was on a submarine in WWII,” John says.
“My entire career is nothing but being in the right place at the right time. I went to electronic school - and the Navy was pretty smart; they showed us a movie of what it was that we were going to be doing. They showed an electronics technician climbing the mast of a destroyer working the radar at the top while it was at sea. It was swaying exceedingly with the guy strapped in and climbing this mast. The only thing I am afraid of is heights and I thought, ‘What the heck am I going to do? I can’t do that!’” John says, “The very next day a submarine recruiter came in and pitched what they offered, which was also $200 extra a month. I signed up that day.”
John was never bothered by the closed-in feeling of a submarine - it was apparently a good fit. “I went to nuclear power school but they didn’t have enough submarines at the time for all the guys that were graduating as a nuclear reactor operator. I was extremely fortunate to be sent from Connecticut to the Keys to ride a diesel sub - an old WWII boat. That was the best year of my life!” John exclaims.
“We hardly ever wore uniforms, just T-shirts, dungarees and no hats. It was awesome - like stepping back in time. The captain advised me, and he was a good man, he said, ‘You’re only going to be here for a while. I can’t keep you so you need to get qualified - quickly’. Qualified means you have to know everything on a submarine - where the emergency valves are, where the major breakers are, to know where the damage control equipment is, where the breathing apparatus and fire extinguishers are, etc. I did that. And not long after that, I got my transfer papers to a fast attack submarine in New London Conn.
“Once you learn everything, you do a walkthrough of the boat with the captain and he asks you questions and once you pass that - you get your dolphins.”
John displays a pin of dolphins and says, “It’s called ‘getting your fish’. You wear them on your uniform over your left chest. The bottom ones are from when I left the fast attack boat, the Dace, which was a hunter-killer submarine. I went to an FBM (Fleet Ballistic Missile) submarine which is the submarine that shoots missiles. You don’t really do anything. It’s boring. I made four patrols on that, getting four stars and you wear that one below your dolphins.”
John’s stands in front of a bookshelf that displays all of his Navy life. Pointing to a photograph he laughs, “I actually wore a clean T-shirt that day!”
John’s Navy buddies referred to him as “Ski.”
What brought him to Chattanooga? “The federal government made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” John says. He worked in the security field.
John married Sherry Streety in 2002. They have had quite a few adventures together as well. “John loves the water,” Sheri says, “he had me learn to scuba dive and we took several trips to the Bahamas on diving trips.”
Though having adventures on submarines, with government work and trips with his family, there is something he experienced as a child during a very dark time in his life that is an underlying reason of why he goes at life full steam ahead.
“I had polio as a child when I was six years old. I woke up one morning and my legs were just burning,” he describes.
“I was in the last polio epidemic. I was born in 1945 and it happened around 1951,” John says.
As he gives an account of his experience he goes back and forth from first person view to second person view as if to shield himself from that painful time while he recalls his memories as a six-year-old frightened boy.
“You wake up and your legs are just killing you. You go to the doctor. The doctor looks at me and he does a few stretching things and says, ‘This child has polio’. Immediately, they put you in an ambulance, take you to the local hospital, and put you in an isolation ward where you are behind glass the whole time. All the nurses are wearing masks. They didn’t know what caused polio back then so you were isolated.
“This whole hospital was specifically for polio patients including some iron lung patients. Everybody was mixed together – it was a terrible experience,” John winces visualizing once again what his young eyes saw at that hospital.
“My family lived quite a ways out of town so I only got to see them every couple of weeks, and that was through a glass. They put you in hot tub baths. They would lower you down on a stretcher and, when you got into this really hot bath, a therapist would bend your legs. I couldn’t walk. I got into braces and learned how to walk again. I went through the first grade in braces and crutches. By the second grade, I had progressed out of all that. I was fine, I outgrew it,” John insists.
“When I went into the Navy, I had to fill out this form and I listed that I had polio and rheumatic fever as a child, I was a really sick little kid. The recruiter looked at me and said, ‘Do you really want to go into the Navy?’ and I said, ‘Yes sir,’ so he ripped it up and said, ‘Check no for everything and don’t ever tell anybody.’ So I did and I passed every physical I ever had,” John insists.
John’s past did not hold him back in his career or any quests.
He worked in Japan for a year, living in barracks with the local workers. “I ate whatever they served in the cafeteria. I ate things I had never seen before - like live shrimp. The wheels (executives) would come down from Tokyo every now and then to see how we were being treated. They’d take us to these fancy restaurants. I have eaten probably everything you could eat,” John says.
What was the weirdest? “That blow fish thing. They have a poison sac… we did a lot of sake before we ate that!” John proclaims. My boss, Jack Ferguson, was an influential guy; he was president of Virginia Power for a while. He told me to put canned peas into a bowl and when you can pick up each pea individually and not drop one – you will know how to use chop sticks. He had built the first nuclear reactor with the Japanese and that is how I got selected to go over to Japan,” John affirms.
John never had trouble from the polio during his adult life until later when the pain came back to haunt him. “I never told anybody until I got back to Chattanooga and I had been with my local doctor a while. He was a former Air Force doctor. I finally told him and he chewed my butt out. He told me about the rheumatic fever and what it can do to your heart so I take preventative medicine before I go to the dentist, but my heart valves are fine, I have good circulation… everything is fine,” John claims.
Polio attacks the nerves and when the nerves die, the muscles die. According to estimates by the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 440,000 polio survivors in the United States may be at risk for post-polio syndrome.
“I went along living my life - I hiked, biked and I am a PAD instructor, but after I retired, I noticed that the more I walked, the more my legs hurt. I joined the Sports Barn and they set me up with a bunch of exercises telling me that I need to work my legs more because my muscles weren’t built up. For most people that might be the right thing to do, so I did but the pain got worse. It just progresses,” John divulges.
Interested in antiques, John became a collector of many items. “I used to collect canes… now I find myself using them. It started out with a slow ache and it got worse and worse. I went to a back doctor for back problems that I was having – I thought I was in perfect health. I casually mentioned that I had had polio and he said, ‘Tell me about the pain in your legs’ – and that was it,” John says, as he realized that the pain of polio was a factor once again.
“I have been lucky to be able to do all that I have done. Warm Springs, Ga., is the place that Roosevelt went and it is still in operation. They have a wing where they treat post-polio patients and they fit you for braces, which I might need someday,” John fears.
“They give you advice and the biggest advice they give you is - if your legs hurt – don’t walk. The more you walk, the more pain. It is like a bank and you can only take so much out to spend. If you take more pennies out of the bank the next day, you have less to spend. I can forget and go out and cut the grass and the next day, I will pay for it. It will burn and hurt and there is nothing I can do. I will be laid up for a couple of days with heating pads and soaking in the tub,” John avers.
“Ten years ago, they didn’t even recognize post-polio syndrome (PPS). Doctors didn’t recognize PPS as a problem; they didn’t realize that the effects came back.”
“There were people all over the world wondering what was wrong with them, thinking they had beaten it. They had no strength in their legs and can’t move like they use to. The fatigue is awful,” John asserts.
‘The interesting thing about post-polio patients for the most part is, they are type A personalities. They beat the disease and they got better never telling anybody. At the time you were like a leper, ashamed that you had it. You were shunned by your neighbors - they didn’t know how you caught it and you went through school with crutches and canes. That made people strive harder,” John says.
He attended an international three-day conference in Warm Springs for doctors and patients. “I met the most amazing people. Even doctors who had had it and were in wheelchairs - they went in that field so they could do something about it.”
Many people suffer from PPS but there is still not a lot of awareness of the condition. “I did everything thinking I beat it and now my legs are pretty much shot, I can’t even walk to the corner. I have an electric wheelchair because I can’t walk a long distance. If we want to do anything, I use that,” John says.
The pain can get pretty bad, but John is a fighter. “My doctor told me, ‘Look at all the stuff you have done,’ and he’s right. I have traveled all over the world, lived in Japan for a year and worked on nuclear reactors, built nuclear reactors, I have just had a very fortunate life,” John says, “I have just always been at the right place at the right time and, looking back, I have done so much that other people hadn’t. I go through my down times, but for the most part I am pretty optimistic. You don’t give up – you keep living your life.”
John spends time online with a PPS support group and also finding people he used to serve with who were submariners. A sea lover, John used to take out his 36-foot Trawler for adventures before he sold it recently.
Pirate? John laughs and admits to liking Jimmy Buffet. Then he pauses with a pensive, delighted look - most likely imagining life on the sea once again. He grins and answers the question, “I could be…”