Pools, Polio and a Mid-Century Miracle

Vintage magazine illustration Al Paker mother and daughter swimming; vintage March of Dimes Poster

L) Vintage Magazine cover Illustrator Al Parker (R) Vintage poster National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis March of Dimes 1951

Against the carefree fun of a 1960 summer lingered not-so-old fears of Polio.

I would have been very happy spending all day in the turquoise tiled pool at my grandmothers suburban beach club  splashing about till all my digits puckered.

But my grandmother always seemed very jittery about the amount of time I spent in the crowded pool despite the fact that my mother watched me like a hawk, and I always waited the full hour after I ate –not like some others who waited -god- forbid- only-30- minutes, before going back in the water.

It was something else, something that ran deeper.

So obediently I would exit the pool leaving a trail of water in my wake like Hansel and Gretel, padding back to the cabana to change into a fresh swimsuit, since sitting around in a wet suit was as dangerous as running with scissors, sitting too close to the TV .

Little did I know that old fears of polio hung in the air.

A Summer Fear Forgotten

Vintage picture of iron lung

Vintage Ad 1945 for US Rubber Co makers of rubber bellows for the miraculous iron lungs treatment for polio patients

Only five years earlier there would have been no children splashing and swimming in public pools since most municipal pools were closed for fear of polio.

Sun drenched summer was open season for the dreaded disease.

After hibernating all winter, the deadly virus would reappear, coming out of deep freeze like Nana’s mink stole plucked from cold storage. No disease struck the same terror as polio. And for good reason- polio hit without warning, arbitrarily attacking good clean wholesome American kids.

How was it possible that in this antiseptic, odor-free, spic n’ span  country where confident post war Americans were not just clean but Clorox clean, where  physicians worked twice as fast for faster relief and creative chemistry worked wonders killing germs on contact by the millions , polio had still prospered so recently.

It didn’t matter how good you were, how clean or how rich or poor, Polio was the great American equalizer.

A Mid Century Modern day Miracle

picture Dave garrowy host of Today; vintage illustrationcrippled boy walking

Host of NBC’s today Show Dave Garroway announces the polio vaccine works.

I would take for granted one of the most remarkable developments in modern history.

The polio vaccine, approved only a mere two weeks after I was born was nothing short of a modern miracle. [1]

During polio season, Mom like other nervous mothers, zealously checked and rechecked my brothers every symptom.

A very relieved Mom, along with most Americans of that age who were frantic to protect their children, would remember exactly where she was when she heard the groundbreaking news.

Early in the morning on April 12 1955, with the dishes washed, laundry folded, baby bottles being sterilized in the electric bottle sterilizer awaiting refill of formula, Mom could sit back, relax and give me my mid morning feeding.

As she warmed up the bottle, she warmed up the TV. With the skill of a safe cracker she delicately adjusted the large knobs on the mammoth mahogany encased set. Shaking the baby bottle, the milk felt pleasantly warm on Moms wrist and I drank it in satisfaction.

She settled in with a soothing cigarette in one hand my bottle in the other just as the easy-going voice of Dave Garroway host of NBC’s Today Show could be heard.

“And how are you about the world today? he would begin, the relaxing conversational tone making Mom feel as if she were sitting in the studio with him.

“Lets see what kind of shape it’s in; there is a glimmer of hope”.

Of course that was the understatement of the day when with his chimp side kick Fred Muggs at his side, the scholarly looking Garroway jubilantly announced: “The Vaccine Works. It is safe, effective and potent.”

The once- in-a- lifetime excitement felt, Mom would recall, as if it were like another V-J Day, the end of a war. That it was announced on the ten-year anniversary of FDR’s death added to the poignancy.

The bespectacled Garroway’s trademark sign off of an upraised palm, uttering simply: “Peace” had never seemed more prescient.

It would be a terror I would never know, but like a toxic overspill, some of the fears still lingered.

[1] Jonas Salk using March of Dime donations had successfully developed a vaccine to prevent polio


Copyright (©) 20012 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved

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