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Pandemic rekindles memories of scary times — and a vaccine that brought relief

I remember doubting that a Kool-Aid-tasting dram in a little white paper cup could defeat a disease that could land us in an iron lung, or worse. Nevertheless, I downed the serum.

Staff in a Rhode Island hospital examine a patient in an iron lung tank respirator during a polio epidemic in 1960.
Staff in a Rhode Island hospital examine a patient in an iron lung tank respirator during a polio epidemic in 1960.
CDC

Many of us, mostly septuagenarians by now, have vivid memories of scary times in the 1950s and early ’60s, rekindled by the present pandemic.

As a young boy, all kinds of things scared the bejeebers out of me: crayfish, tornadoes, phony phone calls, murky water, choking on a grape, Nikita Khrushchev, the Wicked Witch of the West — and polio. Mostly polio.

Many of us knew someone — the kid from around the block, a classmate, friend, friend of a friend, relative — who fell victim. I remember at school someone showed us a photo of a child (around our age) lying face up in the dreaded iron lung. I suppose it was meant to scare us straight about the consequences of not washing hands and sharing food. It worked. (Not unlike when a few years later in driver’s education class we were made us watch the films “Death of the Highway” and “Signal 30” that showed actual gruesome aftermaths of fatal car accidents. That worked, too.)

We knew not to pooh-pooh polio, even after the first of Jonas Salk’s mass inoculations came to the rescue a few years earlier and we were made relatively safe. Even after that we stayed on guard and afraid.

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‘Keep your arms at your side’

That’s about the time my family watched a movie called “The Five Pennies,” a semi-autobiographical story of jazz trumpeter Red Nichols. It has to be one of the all-time sure-bet feel-good movies. But one scene scared the daylights out of me. It’s when Nichols’ daughter, Dorothy, contracts polio. In a gut-wrenching scene — it is even now, having watched it again recently after many decades — Nichols, his wife and other parents, gowned and masked, are instructed by a hospital nurse:

“You are about to enter a contagious disease ward. Please be as quiet as possible. Keep your arms at your side. Keep your distance from the patients at all times. Do not touch anything. If you drop anything don’t pick it up. … Please do not touch the patients or any things the patients have been in contact with. Follow me.”

Richard Schwartz
Richard Schwartz
Then the parents walk through a line of children my age lying face-up in their iron lungs.

Only a few years earlier, Mom had to whisk me out of the Orpheum Theatre when the Wicked Witch of the West flashed her green tongue, turned over a humungous hourglass and cackled at a different Dorothy, “This is how much time you have to be alive.” Nothing haunted me as much until I saw those children’s trapped heads protruding from those monstrous contraptions.

On a Sunday morning in 1962, my parents prepared to take my sister and me to our local elementary school for the newest (and first of three) doses of the oral vaccine.

To ease my worried “What if?” mind, Mom had cut out a photograph of a little boy swigging his vaccine from a mini-paper cup on the front page of the Minneapolis Tribune and set it next to my breakfast plate. The caption read, “Tom Hobert, 3, chugged it down.” Probably because it was a Viking football Sunday, the bold print above the photo proclaimed, “Polio Vaccine — Skoal!” That made me feel better. But not much.

Line snaked around the block

I remember how the line of subdued grownups with their children in tow snaked around the block and into our neighborhood school gym. At the front of the line, parents were encouraged to donate 25¢ to help defray the cost of the vaccine for those who couldn’t afford it.

When it was my turn, a nurse let me choose from cherry or lemon.

I remember doubting that a Kool-Aid-tasting dram in a little white paper cup could defeat a disease that could land us in an iron lung, or worse. Nevertheless, I downed the serum.

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“Well, that’s over with,” my mother said confidently. At least that’s how she sounded to me.

Sure enough, her upbeat declaration did the trick. I obsessed less over the iron lung and even occasionally skipped the hand washing and snuck a share of a kosher pickle or gum wad with my buddies.

When two and two come together

But inevitably in every child’s life there comes that harsh wake-up call when two and two come together. In my case it was when Mom’s “Well, that’s over with” only meant “…  for now.”

Which brings me to that “now.”

Polio and COVID-19 are different. We know that. But for those of us who’ve known both, the fear and dread are the same. And that’s mostly what I’m thinking about while I await — still — my family’s, friends’ and my turn to receive the COVID vaccine.

I look forward to a time — soon I hope — when Mom’s comforting words again come to fruition:

“Well. That’s over with.”

At least for now.

Richard Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.

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