This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 19, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
This week began with numerous updates on the coronavirus and its effect on our lives, from empty grocery store shelves to a plunging stock market. As I began planning this week’s column, I wanted to retreat from all the alarming news reports by remembering the good old days in the 1940’s (as I so often do). Well, guess what? The news reports in the 1940’s were just as alarming.
After the really good news of World War II coming to an end in 1945, the worst polio epidemic up to this point in U. S. history occurred. There were more than 20,000 cases of polio per year from 1945 to 1949, with 2,720 people dying from the viral disease. People were scared because there was no vaccine for it.
Actually, the first case of polio happened in 1894 in Vermont, but it wasn’t until 1908 that researchers were able to identify the cause of the disease as a virus. Poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis, commonly known as polio, appeared each summer, beginning in 1916, in certain parts of the country, not yet widespread. Much more widespread polio epidemics occurred in the 1940’s and the early 1950’s. In 1952, Joseph Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh developed a vaccine, but it was not approved until 1955. So 1955 was a year to rejoice that this dreadful disease had been conquered.
The good news continued in the 1960’s when Albert Bruce Sabin introduced the oral vaccine for polio.
So, during my happy childhood days of attending Dime Box Rural School, there appeared the dark shadow of polio. Hometown folks thought they were safe from the disease in our little rural community, but one of our young people developed polio and made us aware that there was no “safe” area of the country. Yet I don’t remember being terrified of catching the disease, just a sense of inconvenience, because we were not allowed to go swimming in nearby swimming pools, such as the one in Bastrop. So we swam in our muddy stock pond!
My parents and grandparents were very calm during those years of polio fears, no doubt because they were very devout Lutheran Christians with an incredible amount of faith. Their reaction to the epidemic helped me live through it without any trembling fear. Also the fact that our country’s President at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, having contracted polio at age 39, made it seem treatable. Most of us were not aware of the very difficult time Roosevelt had with the disease, and, by creating the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, he helped buoy our hopes. His March of Dimes Campaign had been launched in 1938, before the major outbreaks occurred.
My most vivid memory of the national polio epidemic is the nationwide focus on our little town of Dime Box in 1944, when Dime Box was first to fill its quota of dimes for the March of Dimes Campaign. CBS radio broadcasted the March of Dimes kickoff in downtown Dime Box, an occasion that was the most exciting event in my ten years of life! We received nationwide attention! I have always suspected the fact our town got its name from folks putting a dime in a cigar box to mail a letter was one reason for its being chosen as the kickoff site.
Reminiscing about those days of confronting and living through a life-threatening virus epidemic gives me comfort in dealing with our current crisis. One thing I remember as a young adult in the 1960’s was going to a center in Houston and consuming a sugar cube with a drop of vaccine on it, and thinking, “How good it is that God provides us with a cube of sugar to protect us from a deadly virus!” We still have that same God!
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.