Polio Summer

In the United States, the 1952 polio epidemic would be the worst outbreak in the nation’s history, and is credited with heightening parents’ fears of the disease and focusing public awareness on the need for a vaccine.[20] Of the 57,628 cases reported that year 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. — Wikipedia

Most of those polio victims were children. I can’t attest to the accuracy of these numbers, although they are documented. But I can attest to the fear.

I was reminded of it when I read an article the other day about Mark O’Brien, a poet who was stricken with polio at age six and confined to an iron lung for the rest of his life. He died at 49. (His story inspired the movie, The Sessions.) As I read, the memory of a particular summer in our small town came flooding back. I’m not sure it was 1952. It may have been a different year, but it was our personal summer of terror and dread.

It was probably a typical Mississippi summer–the smothering heat, the mimosas in bloom, the late afternoon thunderstorms that didn’t cool things off but made steam rise from the pavement, the attic fan that barely stirred the hot air inside the house.

Ordinary, until children started becoming ill at an alarming rate.

As panic spread, my parents kept me out of crowds and away from swimming pools. My best friend’s younger sister and brother came down with severe cases. My friend did not. Her sister was transferred to a Vicksburg hospital, designated a regional pediatric polio center, where she would receive more treatment and therapy. Just as many other children did, that little girl spent weeks there, far from home. She would have been about five years old. What must that have been like for her? What was it like for her mother and dad, to be separated from her?

Boy and Vaccine Syringe / Photo by Sura Nualpradid / Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Boy and Vaccine Syringe / Photo by Sura Nualpradid / Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I had other sick friends, too, and there was little anyone could do to help. My mother suggested I share some books with a friend who had a fairly mild case of polio but still faced a long recovery. So I gathered books, and one of my parents delivered them (whoever took them would not have entered the house). I didn’t know my books wouldn’t be returned. They were burned.

The worst case, the one that affected all of us more than any other, was a young boy so severely ill that he required an iron lung. I remember our prayers for him at school and in church. I remember the day the teacher told us he had died. In my memory, it was September; we were back in school, and I was sitting in art class. Dead? My reaction was selfish. I was terrified. A child could die? Old people died, not children.

I didn’t get sick that summer. My friends got well, eventually. My best friend’s sister was left with scoliosis that would plague her for the rest of her life. None of us would ever be the same. Whether we were directly touched by polio or not, we learned some hard lessons: that our parents, no matter how good they were or how strong or how faithful, no matter how much they loved us and cared for us, couldn’t always protect us from harm. That our bodies were frail. That disease and death were real and close, lurking in the innocence of a shared sip, a touch, the water in a swimming pool.

In 1955 the Salk vaccine was introduced. A godsend, but it was too late for many.

Thinking about that long summer has been interesting. I’m surprised by the details I remember, like the burned books. The memory of the fear is so real it’s almost visceral. I’m surprised, too, by the things I feel I’m recalling incorrectly. (Was the child who died a boy, or was it really a girl? I can’t say for sure.)

Memory is a slippery thing. It warps our stories and makes liars of us, even when we’re trying our best to tell the truth.

Do you have a memory that eludes you, that’s difficult to recall truthfully? How do you feel about the fictions our minds create about the past? 

19 thoughts on “Polio Summer

  1. Reading this makes me think a lot about vaccinating children today. I know some moms who want to delay or skip vaccinations all together, and I think it’s because most of us were born in the 80s and don’t have memories like yours about the polio scare. It’s scary to think that if we hit a threshold where not enough children are vaccinated, we might have epidemics and outbreaks of diseases that we assume are gone. Thanks for sharing your memories and reminding those of us who weren’t there what it was like.

    1. People are really divided on the vaccination issue. It’s a tough question, but I do worry about the recurrence of certain diseases if enough children aren’t vaccinated. And polio still exists in other parts of the world. You’ll be dealing with this question pretty soon, won’t you? : ) Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Emily.

  2. Gerry, I love your writing and I’m sorry I haven’t gotten here sooner.
    Polio hit my little town of Wytheville VA- there has been a book published and an area of our local museum dedicated to the “polio summer”. Apparently, there we signs posted on the highway telling people not to stop in the town.
    Aren’t all writers liars to an extent? How about, we strive for verisimilitude- sounds more sophisticated and poetic. I agree with Amy- boy or girl- who cares. The important details, about iron lungs and the line about “Children don’t die, old people do”- those details are what matter and capture our hearts as readers.
    Besides, the little liberties we take with memory make stories more interesting.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Julia, I’m glad to see you here! I came up against the “creative” part of creative nonfiction in this piece, I suppose–where we fill in what we don’t remember with details that make the most sense. I think we’re all liars when it comes to remembering the past, whether we write fiction or not. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  3. Absolutely beautiful– I mean, sad truths, but beautifully told. It’s so vivid and personal, and yet universal (it seems many generations have a plague of some sort, whether illness or poverty or racism or, in one year I remember from my childhood, an uncaught pedophile on the loose) — making for a powerful memory or backdrop for an interesting story! Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Gerry! It really helped me to understand, in a visceral way, the history of polio and its effects on communities. I like how you bring up the idea of memory as a slippery thing; I think “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes explores this notion well.

  5. Wow Gerry, that’s a most powerful story. I’m so glad you’re my friend that I got the chance to read it. Once upon a million years ago, my first husband, who was chronically ill his whole life, contracted TB out of the blue. Naturally the children and I were tested, the children, negative, were immunised immediately but I tested positive. It was routine to immunise children against TB in Prague and no one had my records from there. Thank goodness for the tell tale shoulder scar. I worry sometimes for Robert who hasn’t been immunised for anything. His father strongly believed in naturopathic therapy and believed he cured himself of polio and he passed down his beliefs to his son. Well, I won’t let him travel too far, that’s for sure, but at least I have some comfort in the herd immunity theory. I’m so glad you were one of the lucky ones. I’m so glad you were ok.

    1. Thanks, Veronica. When I read that piece about Mark O’Brien, I knew I had to write this. There’s another comment here about the vaccination issue. My children had them all, but that’s not so common these days. I’m glad I was lucky, too, although I think, young as I was, there was a little guilt associated with that. I appreciate the thoughtful comment. Thanks!

  6. This is the most compelling post I have read in a long while.
    I don’t think memories make liars of ourselves. “Truth” is in the eye of the beholder. It’s all about perspective. Does it really matter if it was a boy or girl who passed away? The emotion that this memory has carved into your heart — that is what matters. That is the truth.

  7. My mother tells me of the summer that her mother and grandmother forbade her to go to the swimming pools on the Jersey shore. The scary thing is that they still went. So looks back on it now and realizes that they had no idea why they weren’t allowed to swim and how frightening it was that they did anyway and no one knew the wiser. I’m sure my grandmother and great-grandmother didn’t want to scare them by telling them why they should avoid the swimming pools so it goes to show you need to explain some of the danger in these situations, even if it means a little loss of innocence.

    1. Some things are so difficult to explain to a child. I recall knowing what was happening, and I understood it, to some extent. But that experience was definitely a loss of innocence for me. Until then, I had lived in a protected and loving world. That child’s death was a hard reality.

  8. This was before my time — I was born in 1960. My memories of polio are mostly those of getting the shot. But in my twenties and early thirties, I was a social worker with people who have disabilities and I met many people who had been sick during that frightening summer, and before and after. There were also many who survived “Tallahassee Polio,” which was actually eastern equine encephalitis — but produces the same symptoms.
    Sad time, and I wish people who are so callous about vaccination nowadays would talk to somebody who live through them.

    1. People still suffer from after-effects and complications of polio. And there’s a family of viruses now that’s very similar to the polio virus and causes similar symptoms. The whole vaccination issue is a troublesome one. Thanks, John, for reading and adding your perspective.

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