WORCESTER – As Michael Schildcrout lies in bed at night in a nursing facility breathing with the aid of a respirator, his head is filled with adventures of Mousie and Lousie, two human-like mice that he writes about, patiently typing their endless escapades one letter at a time with only one finger.
At 74, Mr. Schildcrout, a physicist, keeps his mind active at the Wingate at Worcester, where he has lived nearly five years, with his passion for writing children’s books. His first book, "The Adventures of Mousie and Lousie," published in 2015 when he was 72, is a collection of 15 short stories and is available on Amazon. His second, "Mousie and Lousie Return to Mars," is a short story continuing their adventures and is available digitally on Amazon and barnesandnoble.com with the paperback version coming soon, he said.
In poor health since childhood, Mr. Schildcrout persevered. He contracted polio in August 1955, when he was 12, he said - one of the last people from his home state of New York to be diagnosed before the vaccine became available. It caused a severe curvature in his back.
He underwent three partially successful operations for it, but the lasting effects of polio left him without the use of his right arm, and weakness in his left arm and legs. He would go on to earn a doctorate in physics and work as a physicist for the government on aircraft carriers and submarines with the Office of Naval Intelligence for 34 years until he retired in October 2010 in Charleston, South Carolina.
“For a long time after contracting polio, I was able to walk without a cane and carry on a normal life,” he said. “That ended with the mitral valve defect.”
After retiring, he underwent open-heart surgery in July 2011 to repair a defective mitral valve discovered in his heart.
“The operation was a failure and made my condition much worse,” he said.
After spending a short time at a nursing facility in South Carolina, he transferred to the facility in Worcester.
He never recovered from the heart surgery and, unable to speak, communicated for a year with an iPad and dry-erase board, said Robert E. Boylan, director of respiratory care at Wingate, who has become close friends with Mr. Schildcrout over the years.
“When Mike first came here, he couldn’t speak for months before we could get him to speak,” Mr. Boylan said. “He came from South Carolina and his first words were spoken with a Bronx accent. We were all surprised to hear that.”
In the past five years, Mr. Boylan said he converted Mr. Schildcrout from a Yankees to a Red Sox fan and taught him how to play chess, with the two competing in fierce chess games online.
“If we lived like we play chess we’d both be covered in blood and have broken bones,” Mr. Boylan said jokingly, who is an expert in the game. “The whole staff finds him an inspiration - to write a book with one finger, he has to really concentrate and work harder for everything. He’s had a lot to overcome. He was working as a physicist for the government, and then after he got sick, had to really work to be able to speak, again. The day he did and I heard his accent, I decided he really had to become a Red Sox fan.”
Talking this week to a reporter with the aid of his speaking valve that attaches to the outside opening of his tracheostomy tube, Mr. Schildcrout eagerly shared his world of Mousie and Lousie, brought to life for others to delight in through his books. Taking breaks because the speaking valve makes breathing more difficult, he explained how his lovable, furry characters came to life when he and his sister, Alice N. Schildcrout-Lloyd, 65, were children.
“He told me new ones every night,” Ms. Schildcrout-Lloyd said. “He was always creative and artistic and had a great imagination. Even with his physics, he would tell me stories about black holes and alternate universes. I learned a lot of my science through him as well.”
Though obviously difficult to breathe, he did not let it stop him from sharing his enduring love for his creations.
“I used to tell my younger sister stories when she was little,” he said. “She’s nine years younger than me and I just made up the names ‘Mousie and Lousie.’ They come from a community called Mouseville composed of intelligent mice and they walk on two feet and they wear clothes and they don’t have tails. Lousie has a tendency to get Mousie into trouble.”
He chose mice because they can be cute and intelligent, he said. He and his sister, who worked in children's publishing for 25 years, worked with illustrator Ruth Flanigan, who came up with the pictures.
“They have mouse features, but they are like little people in the stories,” Mr. Schildcrout said. “They are treated just like everyone else. There’s Professor Ushgloshkiss Vernes, a genius who works with the mice from Mouseville and he builds or invents all kinds of gadgets, but especially he builds the rocket ship that Mousie and Lousie use to go to the moon and to Mars.”
He also talked in detail about a fuzzy, bouncy ball-like character “Frataslas,” a secret creature with eternal life and telekinetic powers who lives on the moon in a cave growing a garden that includes a plant that tastes like green cheese, the “holy grail” for mice living in Mouseville.
“He wants to keep his identity secret because he’s afraid if anyone told what he was, they would send scientists to the moon to find out what kind of life form he is because he is so unusual,” he said. “I go to sleep and wake up thinking about the characters. It motivates me. Some of the stories I think of at night and then I write it down the next day.”
Like Mousie's and Lousie’s cousins, Mopsie, Topsie and Lopsie, who may appear in his next book, he said.
His sister is looking forward to it.
“Michael has always been an incredible brother to me,” she said. “I have fond memories of him telling me stories. Those were like our favorite bedtime stories. There was always a lot of reading in the house, but this was very special.”