By ice rivers
As I’m sure it is obvious to anyone who reads my words that stay, I spent a large part of my childhood in terror. My family was loving, forgiving and fun. My neighborhood was supportive, diverse and down to earth as a mud puddle. Yet, I was constantly afraid of two killers that persistently stalked me. Killer number one was the atomic bomb. Killer number two was polio.
I was a member of a kindergarten class that was regularly pulled from the classroom into the hall way while air raid sirens were shrieking all around us. The message was clear that f we didn’t get into the hallway when we heard those sirens, we would be blown to smithereens if the bomb hit our school. Apparently St. James School in Irondequoit, New York was very high on the communist hit list.
Most of my classmates took the whole thing as a game but I took it seriously. I was much too aware that my life could end at any second and that my odds of reaching fifteen much less fifty were extremely poor. As a matter of fact, the odds of the earth lasting until I was fifteen were equally poor.
But all of that is another story. My story today deals with polio.
Polio was a child killer. I knew at least three children on my block children on my block who had polio. One of the children had died. We used to talk about when (not if) we got polio, we hoped we would only be paralyzed or in an iron lung for a few years.
Also according to neighborhood mythology, everything used polio. If somebody spit on you, you could get polio. If you ate the wrong food, you could get polio. If you got bit by a dog or even petted a dog, you could get polio. If you were “bad” you could get not only coal from Santa Claus but also polio.
Almost as terrifying as polio and atom bombs were “shots” at the doctor’s office. I remember my first shot at the doctor’s office. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that for no ascertainable reason, a stranger called a doctor was going to stick a needle into my arm. I couldn’t believe it and certainly didn’t believe the stranger when he said “this won’t hurt.” Of course it hurt. I mean this is a needle going into my flesh etc. I sure as hell wasn’t gonna take another one without fight or flight. I can still recall being chased around the doctor’s office by the stranger, eventually cornered, physically overpowered and punctured.
The doctor I’m sure hated to see me as much as I hated to see him. He made our rocky relationship very clear to my parents.
Somehow I made it to second grade, although most of my fingernails didn’t get that far. I was doing great in school. The kids liked me. I was the best reader in the school, even sent up to the eighth grade to show them how to read with “expression.” I was still scared of polio and atomic bombs and shots but reading and enjoying my classmates made school seem to be fun.
I considered school to be a safe place except for the occasional air raid sirens which came less frequently but even then I figured that the walls of the school were thicker than the walls in my house, plus I had my desk which I would hide under as another level of protection. Sometimes I wished my parents were in school with me because if two bombs fell, one on my hose the other on my school (both still high of the commie target list) I didn’t think it was right that I would be safe and my parents would be mertilized (whatever mertilized meant )
I believed in my teachers. They liked me. They thought i was smart and cute. they knew I was obedient. So one day when Sister Denise told us that we all had to go to the nurse’s office, I felt pretty secure. The nurse was a nice person. I never had a fight or flight experience in her office. I kind of liked o visit her. She was lie a teacher but she had a uniform. She was cool.
As we walked to the office, I asked Kristen Luce if she knew what was going on. I figured it was a hearing test. I didn’t mind that because I could hear and it didn’t hurt. Kris told me that we were all gonna get a shot and she showed me the piece of paper that she had in her hand with her parents signature and the words Polio Pioneer on the top.
What a scene of horror. Kids walking in a weary line toward a puncturing dungeon and calling themselves pioneers. I wanted to start running until I realized that I had an out. I din’t have one of those pieces of paper with my parent’s signature on it. I was gonna escape this particular terror.
One by one, the kids entered the dungeon. Nobody ran. Nobody resisted. The phrase “lambs led to slaughter” still comes to my mind when I recall that moment. Most of the lambs were indeed silent. A few people cried, somebody screamed but the procession continued. as my turn approached, I said a silent prayerful thanks to my parents for not being cruel enough to put their names on that terrible piece of paper. I got just outside the door, when I decided to make my case.
I said to the Nurse, “ I don’t have one of those pieces of paper so I guess I can’t be a pioneer.” I faked disappointment.
The nurse took a kindly look at me and said “don’t worry, you are still a pioneer. I have the permission slip right here in my hand. You parents brought it in earlier this week.”
I said “there must be some mistake.” I firmly believed that my parents would never do such a thing. I asked to see the paper with my own eyes. The nurse showed it to me. There on that piece of paper was the signature of my mother AND my father.
I remember walking into the picturing zone thinking “if they drop the bomb on us right now, my parents can stay at Parsells Avenue. Defeated, betrayed with the nurse cutting off my escape route, I went in got the shot and became a Piofreakineer. The shock of betrayal dulled the pitch of the puncture.
It took me a long time to trust my parents again. It took me an even longer time to trust school again.
Then I heard that his was only the first of three shots that we were going to have to get. The next two were called booster shots and would come in the near future. The boosters would be equally dreadful and complicated. I think you can fill in the dots, the futile strategies, the outsmarting, the fear and loathing, the betrayals “for my own good” etc.
Anyway, bottom line. The Salk vaccine actually worked. We arrested the serial killer. I was part of the squad that nailed polio. I was a pioneer.
A few years later, the scare started again. The scare wasn’t that polio was loose again. The scare was called the Sabin vaccine which sounded even more terrifying than the Salk vaccine. By this time my brother had to get the Sabin treatment.
The Sabin treatment turned out to be an oral medication.
I was pissed that my brother didn’t have to get a shot.