The Measles Crisis of October

health measles crisis of Coctober

There was a time when measles was all but wiped out

I remember a time, not so long ago, when measles were just a memory.

Now the political debate over measles and vaccines has exploded creating a stand-off between those supporting vaccines and the anti vaxxers.

The last time politics and measles were merged together for me was in the fall of 1962, those harrowing 13 days in October that nearly brought us to the brink of thermonuclear war.

I didn’t know until years later that they called it the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In my mind it would always be remembered as the “German Measles Crisis.”

It was late October, Halloween was just a few short weeks away and as luck would have it, I came down with a nasty case of the measles.

The itchy red spots were spreading from my face to my body as quickly as Communist aggression was visualized on maps and films at school.

Those scary red splotches of Communism shown slithering around the globe, oozing over continents, a ready reminder that the Russians were hell-bent on world conquest, were a familiar feature in My Weekly Reader.

Now the measles red rash was on its own expansionist path with me.

German Measles

Illustration of German Measles and vintage Nazi stamp

German Measles were goose-stepping across my ravaged body. (R) Vintage German Nazi Stamp “Victory at Any Price”

To make matters worse, I learned it wasn’t just plain old measles.

They were German Measles; Nazi measles goose-stepping across my ravaged body.

Despite having been born a full decade after the end of WWII, which in a child’s mind is an eternity, I was tormented by the very thought of Nazis.

I used to have nightmares that men in brown shirts, black jack boots, and wide Sam Browne belts, rank and file members of the Nazi Party would storm into my suburban ranch house, lustily humming the Nazi anthem Hort Wessel Song, brutally taking me away.

Now the Germans and their horrors fused with the Russians and their nuclear bombs, and there was nothing to stop the fiery red rash that was charging across my 7-year-old body.


vintage photo doctor making house calls

House Calls

Monday, October 22 began as sunny clear day. A burnish of autumn on the sycamore trees that lined my suburban block made everything look peaceful and predictable.

But all was not quite on the Western Park Drive front.

Inside my house things were anything but peaceful; I awoke with a fever, sore throat, blotchy skin and the streaming morning light burned my watery, red-rimmed eyes.

My body was clearly sending out distress signals. With a sinking feeling about the telltale rash, Mom called the doctor.

Within the hour my pediatrician came to the house and confirmed the diagnosis.

The spots had Deutschland written all over them – German Measles – Rubella.

Solemnly my pediatrician Dr. King informed me that to prevent the spread of the very contagious disease, I would have to be quarantined.

Like a heat seeking missile, a careless sneeze, or an explosive cough could shoot troublesome germs in your direction at a mile a minute speed. In case they invaded the tissues of your throat, you could be in for a cold, or…worse.

I was to get back to bed mach schnell. And stay there.

Think Pink

Besides bed-rest, baby aspirin and fluids there was no cure. A big brown bottle of soothing Calamine lotion along with a suggestion to clip my fingernails to stop me from the inevitable scratching were the doctors best suggestions.

Not even the venerable Ben Casey could come to my rescue.

There was no debate about the merits of a vaccine because there were none. A vaccine would become available for measles in 1963, a rubella vaccine wouldn’t exist until the end of the decade.

The Longest Day

Missiles Cuba Collage

Mom had already had her longest day dealing with the measles crisis when the Cuban Missile Crisis was announced. (R) Headline of NY Daily News announcing the Cuban blockade

October 22 was also my parent’s 12th wedding anniversary.

They had planned on going to the movies that evening to see “The Longest Day”, that star-studded spectacle about D Day the Normandy invasion.

But now that our normally germ-proof home had itself been invaded with a contagious disease, plans were promptly cancelled.

John Wayne would have to wait.

Besides which my parents were anxious to watch President Kennedy’s live broadcast on television that evening.

Panic Goes Viral


President John Kennedy addressed the nation of the Cuban Missile Crisis on television

At noon, while Mom was preparing lunch , JFK’s press secretary Pierre Salinger had made a dramatic announcement that the president would speak that night “on a matter of the highest national urgency.”

The crisis that was brewing in Cuba that had begun a week earlier had been kept top-secret. Now with rumors circulating, there was a nearly unbearable sense of foreboding and tension.

Across the country while American’s eyes would be fixed on their TV sets gripped in the most intense moment of recent history, I was confined to my bedroom without a TV. At a loss, I trained my ears to tune in to the console playing in the living room.

We Interrupt This Program…

At 7:00, I could hear the TV announcer from the popular game show based on the game charades saying: “Stump the Stars will not be seen tonight so that we can bring you this special broadcast….”

Along with 50 million other Americans my parents listened in pin-drop silence as President Kennedy spoke about Cuba.

Sitting behind his desk, a solemn President Kennedy got right to the point. This was no time to play charades.

He grimly announced to a shocked nation that Russia had sneaked missiles into Cuba just 90 miles from Florida. Along with the Offensive Missiles, Khrushchev had deployed bombs and 40,000 Soviet troops.

The alarming evidence from photographs showed that nearly every city from Lima, Peru to Hudson Bay, Canada would lie within push button range of thermonuclear bombs in Cuba.

Panic was about to go Viral

Cuba Missile crisis distances-of-major-cities-from-cuba

Every major US city would lie within push button range of thermonuclear bombs in Cuba.

“To halt this offensive build up,” a determined Kennedy said, “a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment to Cuba is being initiated.” The Navy’s mission was to block the flow of Russian weapons to Cuba.

Like me, the Russians would have a quarantine imposed on them but Dad wasn’t convinced this was the best tactic. It might work for preventing the spread of the measles but not for the missiles. If Russians didn’t withdraw the missiles as demanded, a U.S. pre-emptive strike against the launch site was inevitable.

The United States would not shrink from the threat of nuclear war to preserve the peace and freedom of Western Hemisphere, Kennedy said firmly.

The Presiden’ts voice faded away as my parents grimly turned to another channel to watch “I’ve got a Secret.”

Struggling with the ramifications of what they just heard, the longest day was about to get a lot longer

A Rash Decision

Health of Nation Cuba Missile Crisis

Temperatures were rising as the Cold War heated up. (R) JFK clashed with some military advisers about invading Cuba. After criticizing Kennedy’s call to blockade Cuba as too weak a response, General Curtis LeMay Air Force Chief of Staff (seated closest to JFK in photo) told the President that his refusal to invade Cuba was a mistake and would encourage the Soviets to move on Berlin. Photo by Abbie Rowe National Archives

As the cold war heated up so did my fever, and I was wracked with chills.

Despite being doused with great blotches of pink calamine lotion I was struggling not to scratch the angry rash that was invading my body.

Hot and bothered, the US military were having the same problem.

Just itching to go to war, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to restrain themselves from scratching that very dangerous itch.

The Soviets had crossed the line. They had come into our Hemisphere, their nuclear warheads aimed directly at us and we had to make sure they didn’t strike first. The time had come for a direct military showdown with the Soviet Union.

Luckily cooler heads prevailed.

We Can Work it Out?

On Wednesday, when Soviet ships changed course rather than make contact with the naval blockade, there was some relief.

No new weapons were being shipped to Cuba. But Hi-ho-hi-ho it was off to work they go as industrious red dwarfs continued to work day and night on the existing missiles which would soon be operational.

The pressure on the President to order an air strike or an invasion was mounting.

As the tension grew, many atomic armchair strategists felt strongly that the best defense was offense – get ‘em before they hit us. “If the Russian offensive build up continued, Kennedy would have no choice but to unleash the mighty US force,” Dad remarked  gravely.

Russian nuclear retaliation would be inevitable

Going on the Defensive

collage Fallout Booklet and picture of child with measles

Short of building a fallout shelter, there was little anyone could do about the missile crisis, but it was all out war on the measles at my home. (L) Vintage booklet “Fallout Protection Kit” for your shelter

An air of crisis hung over the country.

Short of building a fallout shelter, there was little anyone could do about the missile crisis, but it was all out war on the measles at my home.

Prepared to do battle, Mom took the offensive with the pre-emptive striking power of Lysol, Lestoil and Listerine, to immobilize and incapacitate any rogue germs. There was a full frontal attack on dirt – every counter every surface in the house was scoured and sanitized, hands were washed and rewashed until skin wrinkled and puckered.

School Daze

Atomic Bomb Coloring Book

A Page out of history (L) Vintage illustration from “Our Country Historical Color Book” 1958 depicting the Atomic Blast at Hiroshima

With the containment policy strictly enforced, the days passed slowly for me but I busied myself with Colorforms, Crayolas and coloring books.What better way to pass the crisis than coloring in a picture of the Atomic Blast at Hiroshima in my American History Coloring Book.

Barricaded in my bedroom, I could still hear the ominous sound of the air raid drill alarm ringing every few hours at West Hempstead High School a few blocks away. I could picture all the frightened school kids jumping out of their desks as I had done countless times, kneeling underneath desks, hands clasped behind necks, eyes closed waiting for that imminent flash.

I had little sense how school officials were currently scurrying to make all sorts of contingency plans for what seemed like the possibility of a real attack.

Several years earlier, my school district had developed a plan for evacuating elementary school kids in the event of a threatened enemy air raid upon NYC. We had been issued plastic dog tags with our picture and address on it that we were to wear in case of an attack.

collage vintage illustration school children and Atom Bomb attack duck n cover

School Day drills (R) In a photograph published in Colliers Magazine June 1952, schoolchildren in Nevada practice what they have been told to do in case of an Atomic attack:lie flat on the ground, shield their eyes with one arm and protect their head with the other arm

On Thursday my fifth grade brother brought home a printed permission slip for my parents to sign, allowing students to participate in a practice walk-home air raid drill.

In case of emergency it was thought better to be incinerated at home rather than at school.

Irritable and impatient as only a sick 7-year-old could be, I was deeply disappointed that I would miss out on the fun of the walk home drill. Pleading with Mom to let me out of my sick room long enough to view the march, I wistfully watched from the living room window as my classmates, lined up in size order, earnestly paraded down my deserted block.

The loud roar of an overhead jet temporarily distracted me.

Anxiously I scanned the blue skies from our picture window for an enemy attack, as though it were WWII and I were a spotter standing on a rooftop scanning the skies for the sight of a Japanese flag painted on the belly of the aircraft.

I was too young to comprehend the total annihilation of nuclear war. All I knew was, we were to be prepared. I knew a nuclear attack could occur any time anyplace any day. Would this be the day?

My parents would shake their heads, as they watched me but neither of them had the heart to tell me what they already knew – that now, by the time you eyed the enemy…it was already too late

Tossin’ and Turnin’

collage Missile Crisis and the Measles Crisis

By Saturday I had taken all the orange flavored St. Joseph aspirin that I could, yet my fever had still not broken. Along with the shivering and shaking, there was a whole lot of tossin and turnin’ as the red splotches of German Measles continued their assault goose-stepping across my body.

A vaporizer had been brought in to help with the breathing and between the fog and my feverish delirium, disparate sounds and thoughts merged in my mind, as I drifted between states of fractured foggy wakefulness and fitful sleep.

Have Gun Will Travel

Blending with the hushed anxious tones of my parents, the shrill, ear-piercing, buzzing signals on the radio during the CONELRAD broadcasting system tests and the ominous news bulletins, were the incessant commercials constantly blaring on TV…

“…..And now a word from our sponsor… This is only a test…In a world threatened by thermonuclear holocaust…. it’s new…. its different….it….gives the surest protection-the new Missiles with Gardol, wonderful new Anti-Russian fighter forms an invisible shield of radioactivity around them….They can’t feel it – taste it – see it – but its protection won’t rinse off or wear off all day, just like New Pepsodent…..

“…Don’t settle for wishy -washy conventional weapons….New deep penetrating Thermonuclear Bombs bring speedy relief from Reds…. Goes in-goes in fast….help restore restful democracy, relieves pesky Russian interference…

“Yes, fast acting Ajax the white tornado…. Ajax missiles kill millions of people associated with Communism, ..Reaches all infected areas in minutes….shrinks populations, restores free way of life. An exclusive anti communist Ingredient….That’s all there is to it…

“…This is not a test…we now return to Have Gun Will Travel…If this had been an actual emergency ….. take 2 aspirin and call me in the morning…”

As hot as I was with fever I knew things were only going to get a lot hotter once this thermonuclear war began.

On Sunday morning my fever broke and Moscow announced their decision to dismantle the missiles and return to sender. I wouldn’t understand until years later that the Russians backed off or as Dean Rusk was to famously say “We were eyeball to eyeball and they blinked first.”

Though my fever and measles eventually healed, the cold war chill I caught that week would never leave me.

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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  1. Wow. Great post. Love the parallelism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post. Entertaining, educational, and captivating. Love your writing style!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had forgotten that there was a German measles outbreak with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. oh2bhuman beat me to it! What a post! The two threats mesh incredibly well together, and you, not surprisingly, demonstrate that in your stellar style! Sally, you are author of one blog I never skip!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so much, your encouraging support means a lot to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. sdaven5191

    Loved the way you meshed the two crises together that way! It was certainly an experience I would not have forgotten, had I been aware of it when it occurred. I recall being vaguely aware of something serious that had all the adults in a dither, but I was blessedly unaware of the individual details. They were certainly the subject of much conversation later when I was in school, but definitely after the fact.
    I was two years behind you in my own “German Measles Crisis” as I really don’t recall too much about the Cuban Missile Crisis, being 5 that year, and my family was going through its own form of “thermonuclear meltdown” by way of that very early 60’s hush-hush crisis of divorce. It would take a book to detail, and I’ll spare everyone the experience. Leave it to say that there was no bigger crisis in my life at the time than that. My mother was not the culprit in the breakdown, but was the victim of society’s blame machine, and I was left to find my own way through the shock and painful confusion. We ended up homeless, and living in the spare bedroom of the couple who would end up as one of my new cherished aunts and uncles, when my mother and the new aunt’s single older brother married in November of 1963.
    I had already begun 1st grade at the age of 6, that previous September, in the traditional post Labor Day Back To School mad rush. I was taken to school daily, and retrieved again by my aunt-to-be, as my mother didn’t drive, and they did not live in the same district as the school I would be attending once my mother remarried and we moved into the house they were buying and we would be living in following the marriage. Living together without benefit of clergy and wedding rings back then was a bigger scandal than the divorce had been, and this was the best alternative to changing schools two months after beginning. So, even my long anticipated joy of being able to ride the bus to school each day was postponed for me! But, it all finally came together, and the wedding was held, I garnered a huge family I had never known the likes of before, being the child of one only child, and the other with only one unmarried, much younger brother before this. I got a huge extended family of new grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, all of whom made my previous life pale in comparison.
    The following fall, in 1964, I would begin 2nd grade, and within a month would be sent home from school with a rapidly blooming case of chicken pox! I spent almost two weeks stuck at home, watching my neighborhood classmates go back and forth, one of whom would drop my assignments off each afternoon and pick up the previous day’s work to return to the teacher.
    I was really getting antsy to get back to my own school day routine when the spots were almost gone, and finally it was determined I would get to go back to school the next day! I was grateful to be released from my prison of friendless days and endless nights. Although I had secretly enjoyed the extra time I spent with my mother each day while everyone else in the neighborhood was in school, and I was enjoying a late morning breakfast in front of the TV! She was also a teacher in her pre marriage years, and helped me daily with my homework assignments. As an only child, I was in a special world of my own, which would soon be invaded by the entrance of three siblings in short order, but this was my world for now.
    But, back to my return to school. I had picked out my “return to the real world” outfit, carefully ironed to a well starched crispness by my mother, and hung up on a hanger on the closet door handle, with all the required undergarments, and cotton slip (under the obligatory dress, you know) shoes, sox, hairbow nearby and ready for my triumphant return, and all schoolwork packed into my book bag nearby. I had a hard time sleeping, but it turned out it wasn’t just from anticipation and excitement. When my mother came at my urgent call early the next morning, she stopped at the door, gasped and said “Oh dear!” I was scratching an itchy spot on my face with one hand and my arm with the other, and felt hot and awful. I thought the chicken pox had come back to plague me, but it turned out while I was at home all that time with them, I had also been incubating a raging case of German measles at the same time! My already challenged immune system wasn’t able to keep them at bay any longer, and according to the doctor, I had a worse case than I might have had otherwise because of this. They apparently had also been going around my school at the same time as the chicken pox, and I had been exposed to not just one, but both sequentiality!
    This time it would be even worse, as far as confinement was concerned though. Apparently there was great fear of eye damage, up to and including blindness with German measles, and I was confined to my room, the curtains drawn and the window shades pulled down, no sitting in front of the TV watching while I ate my breakfast, no reading stories in my school books or my story books, completely miserable from sickness on top of rampant boredom. It got so bad that my mother put a small table top radio in my room by my bed, do I would at least have some music go listen to. It was an awful ten days while my assignments piled up waiting for me to be released from my dim, cheerless jail. My mom found me more than once sitting on the floor at the door to my room, trying to watch the TV in the living room, because I was bored to tears. Besides all the itching, the fever, chills, sore throat, and everything else, the confinement was almost worse!
    My dress and other school clothes had been returned to their place, in favor of daily clean pajamas, and waiting once again for me to be pardoned from my prison, and my return to the outside world! By the time that happened, it was almost November, and cold enough for me to exchange the sox for tights! My classmates had been going on of course with things besides what had been sent to me, and I had some more work to catch up on as well as what I had already completed at home. I almost didn’t know them, since it had only been a few weeks into the school year before I got sent home for almost a month! But, it didn’t take long to get back in the swing of things, after having gotten through two major childhood diseases almost simultaneously!
    Oh! I almost forgot. In addition to the interruptions of illness and confinement, when I got back to school, the paperwork and other legalities, of which I had been unaware at the time, had almost been completed by the courts for me to be legally adopted by my new stepfather, and give me a new last name! So, in addition to coming back to school nearly unknown from the start, I got to spring that one on them as well! It was kind of fun, and certainly an experience that few of my other classmates ever got to have!


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  11. Thanks for this, Sally. I love how you wove the two stories together, though braided seems a better analogy. I remember the CMC well, though my memory of Kennedy’s press conference that first Monday night is that he stood. Funny stuff, memories. One more addition: we like to say Krushchev blinked first. It’s good PR. But the negotiations were a bit more sophisticated. We removed our missiles from turkey (that we’re pointing at Moscow) in exchange for the USSR removing theirs from Cuba. Tut for tat. Quid pro quo. Whatever. Funny too: I also remember never feeling it was a real possibility. It was only decades later, in college learning about that era, that I realized just how dangerous a time it was. What a precipice we were teetering on.


    • The deal they made to remove American missiles wasn’t revealed until years later. It certainly looked better to say that The Soviet Union blinked and capitulated. Perhaps because I lived in NY and NYC was likely a target it, the crisis was taken quite seriously and even as a child I felt the tremendous concern for safety. Years later I would learn how very justified those fears were. We really were on the brink of nuclear war.


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