How many people dream that they are lying totally paralyzed in a large metal tube that looks like a giant water heater, with only a small rectangular mirror over their foreheads extending from the cylinder so they can see around them? I still do, because in my nightmares I have contracted poliomyelitis, a disease that only thirty years ago meant a lifetime on crutches or an iron lung for its victims, and today remains a source of terrible memories for many members of my generation.
In Eighties’ terms, polio was a sort of Legionnaire’s disease, herpes, and AIDS all rolled into one, only worse because it randomly struck mostly children — hence the name “infantile paralysis.” It was a disease that raged across the nation, striking nearly 60,000 in the U.S. in 1952. But since then it has been all but eradicated in this country (only six cases were reported in 1981, and the average person today probably doesn’t realize the degree to which polio affected our lives in the late Forties and early Fifties.
My family was more concerned about health than most; my mother saw that no germs entered the house on soiled clothing or dirty little hands. Our washing machine was always running and our cupboards contained more boxes of detergent than breakfast cereal. When I was about four or five, my mother sat me in a kitchen chair and read me the riot act because, while playing in our yard, I had accidentally got a large smudge of dirt on one of the sheets she was drying on the clothesline.
She constantly primed me with the usual assortment of childhood vitamins, sometimes saturated in candy syrup, and warned me about the dangers of doing some particular thing or other. One time she noticed that I was eating too fast at the table and solemnly assured me that if I didn’t come up for air I’d die, a little piece of advice that has stuck with me to this day.
When polio began to break out more frequently soon after the war, my mother became even more protective, and she was now supported by my father, who didn’t want to see his only kid become a cripple, or worse. I remember once during a particularly bad August in the late Forties, with numerous cases turning up in San Diego every week.
I wanted to see Mighty Joe Young at the neighborhood movie theater. We lived in East San Diego, near Forty-first Street and El Cajon, and the Vista Theatre was only a few short blocks away on University. My dad, however, wouldn’t let me go anywhere that weekend, let alone to a place crowded with other youngsters. Another time there was to be a yo-yo tournament at the school playground, and because I was fairly adept at it, I had a good chance of winning. But again, my father made me stay home, safe from the crowds.
Our parents didn’t know what to do to protect us except to isolate us from other children, a most unpleasant alternative for anyone who wanted his kids to grow up normally. One time I stuck my hand through a window and badly cut myself, and despite several stitches and wads of protective bandaging, my father still grounded me that week for fear polio germs might filter in through the sutures.
Polio truly began to take on Herculean proportions for us kids by the end of the Forties. Every time one of our buddies got sick, we figured he was headed for the iron lung. Pretty soon we began playing inside our houses just in case the germs wafted through the air, and one time I remember seeing a kid on our block wearing a surgical mask. Fortunately, most of the terrible epidemics took place in the summer when we weren’t spewing our germs on each other in school, or San Diego would likely be a ghost town today.
And then one night in the second grade I thought it had happened to me. I remember waking up with a severe stomachache and a vague feeling of hotness, which in my susceptible mind became a full-fledged temperature. When I screamed my symptoms to my parents in the darkness, they immediately called the doctor. Since by this time I had also imagined myself into having a stiff neck, another sure sign of polio, I began to wonder whether I would just be a cripple the rest of my life or permanently stretched out in an iron lung.
While I lay moaning in the back seat of the family car on the way to Mercy Hospital, I tried to think who I was going to leave each of my toys to after I was totally paralyzed and couldn’t use them anymore. It’s funny when you think you ’re a goner at seven; I really didn’t feel so much cheated out of the rest of my life as the next few days of horseplay with my friends. When the doctors examined me I had already steeled myself for the worst, and God only knows what was going through my poor parents’ minds. Finally the analysis came back: acute appendicitis, immediate surgery required, one week in the hospital and then home with clamps on the incision.
But not everyone was so lucky. A few short years later, when I was ten, polio robbed me of my first love, a girl whose face will always haunt my memories. I had met little Karen with her bright green dress at one of the recreation department dances held at Central Elementary School, over on Polk Street. The instructor, realizing the awkwardness of most preadolescent boys compared to the maturity of the girls at that age, had arranged a box-dinner party for us one night (this involved the boys bidding on anonymous dinners prepared by the girls so you’d never know whose you got until you bought it). Finally it came down to the last box, and guess who’d been too shy to lay out his dime. After the dance teacher sold me the dinner, a girl came along with it who was so beautiful that I couldn’t believe my luck that she was still left. Karen and I hit it off right away, enjoyed our meal — I can still remember the greasy hands I got from her fried chicken — and then began to move around the floor to the scratchy old records as we tried to avoid stepping on each other’s feet. We danced time after time, and later as I walked the short distance home I began counting the hours till I would see her again the next week.
When she didn’t show up then I was naturally disappointed, but when she didn’t come the next Friday either, I began to get worried. I can't remember how I got the news that she was seriously ill, but before I could get in touch with her I learned that it was too late. She had contracted “bulbar” polio, the kind that strikes the central nervous system and destroys its victims.
I never heard about any funeral arrangements or the gory details of how long she lingered, or if there ever was any hope. The disease was considered highly contagious, and for all I knew they burned the victims ’ bodies in order to prevent spread of the virus. Understandably, the neighborhood parents really began to panic after this. Another friend of mine broke his arm, and even though there was no external lesion or blood, his parents wouldn’t let him play indoors with us for fear the germs might somehow invade his fractured limb.
With the coming of the Fifties, science began to make some progress toward understanding the disease. We were warned that the deadly germs were probably spread in liquids, so we stopped going to beaches and swimming pools. In San Diego, those were considered to be the prime sources of contagion. Now we washed our hands before going to the bathroom as well as after, never used another kid’s canteen or drinking glass, and kept our fingers and hands out of our mouths and noses. These precautions took a lot of fun out of growing up, and though I don’t know to what degree I was permanently affected by them, how many adults today refuse to use a public drinking fountain? How many hold their breath every time an ambulance goes by? How many are honest-to-God hypochondriacs?
When Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin completed their pioneering research and came up with practical preventatives for polio, it offered us a new chance at life; now we were free to be kids. Church bells rang out across the country one weekday morning in April of 1955, heralding the news that tests had shown the vaccine was safe and effective. You can bet that my parents saw I was among the first to take the Salk shots, and later I gladly swallowed the Sabin vaccine — you could never be too sure with polio, and if there’d been a third or fourth vaccine I’d gladly have taken them also.
Only later, when problems developed with the live-virus Sabin method and a few cases of polio reappeared, did I realize how lucky I was not to have brought on the disease myself.
Those years are long past now, and I wonder how many people under forty or fifty even know about them today, how many can recall the pathetic poster children wearing those awful metal braces sitting in wheelchairs, or even worse, the photographs of the kids with paralyzed bodies lying in the iron lungs. The March of Dimes, the biggest charity, maybe the only one I can remember that fought polio, has now become a crusade against birth defects. But whenever I see a person my age with leg braces or using crutches, the fears from those days still return, and for those of us who lived through the polio years, I suspect that they always will. □