I had the usual childhood visitations of chickenpox and measles, and a few colds and bouts of the flu, but nothing very much laid me low for very long. In that I was fortunate because some kids who got seriously ill in the 1950s didn’t even make it out of that decade. It was also a time in which they yanked everything that was considered a threat. I was almost resentful that my tonsils hadn’t been extricated since almost every kid I went to school with seemed to have been through that little surgical trauma. A tonsilectomy wasn’t quite as cool as a broken arm — no cast to sign — but it was certainly a sort of mini-martyrdom that appealed to kids.
“Yeah — I did the tonsil thing. It was brutal. Blood everywhere, but I didn’t cry.
I was a bit resentful of my middle brother who came down with the mumps. When he got them, my mother followed the protocol of the day by exposing my youngest brother and me to him during his contagious stage in hopes that we would get them too — in childhood, to avoid a later visitation of testiculus giganticus in adulthood. It didn’t work. I resented that. If you remain well, then you must go to school
There were, of course, more severe illnesses at the time. There were such things as rheumatic fever, and I knew one kid who had to take a year off school because of that, and he was left with a weakened heart and could play no sports. I thought it was kind of neat that he got to cop out of PE, which was a fond dream of mine. On the other hand, I didn’t fully appreciate all the ramifications of a permanently compromised cardiac function.
By that point in history there were antibiotics, and that was a blessing. Without penicillin and other ‘confections’ the postwar kid population would have been smaller, no doubt. Yet, while such drugs existed, they were used sparingly, unlike today when so-called ‘superbugs’ have been rendered immune themselves due to overuse and abuse of prescribed meds. Indeed, I don’t think I ever had a prescribed antibiotic until I was an adult, at which time a doctor doing the prescribing asked me if I was allergic to penicillin. “I haven’t got a clue,” I replied. “I don’t think I’ve ever had it.”
As drugs were used sparingly, attitudes in my childhood were mighty casual about disinfecting anything a kid came in contact with. Bacteria were not a particular taboo, and I only remember being chastised when I was very little for two ideas that seemed like good ones at the time: eating dirt (I don’t know why), and attempting to drink out of a puddle in the driveway. I’d seen the cat do it, and it hadn’t hurt the cat.
Otherwise, we came in contact with a lot of dirt, crud and filth, and didn’t even wash our hands all that often. Therefore, I submit that my generation developed immune systems that were pretty close to those possessed by the strong ones who survive in the back-streets of Calcutta.
The specter of one particular illness filled every parent and kid with dread, and had a powerful impact in that less-sensitive time: polio. Most children in the 1950s knew at least one other kid who had been struck with the illness that chilled parents to the bone every time their offspring even got the sniffles in the summertime.
Summertime was polio-time since the hideous illness spread with warm weather, and public recreational spots – like beaches and swimming pools – were deemed to be the places where infantile paralysis beasties swarmed. Those concerns were somewhat valid, though not entirely.
So, we went to school with kids who had leg-braces, and withered arms, or were wheelchair bound, and we’d all heard the tales of even less fortunate contemporaries who had ended up in ghastly iron-lungs. In fact, the iron-lung thing was sometimes used as a threat if we, as kids, thought we might be able to sneak off to the beach.
“Do you want to end up in an iron-lung? What’s wrong with you, for heaven’s sake?”
“But-but-it’s summer. It’s the beach.”
“Go outside and play with your little brother and don’t let me hear any more about the beach.”
For personal, and for more far-reaching reasons there is much truth to the understanding that an entire generation of parents and kids would have gratefully kissed the ground upon which the good Doctors Salk and Sabin walked were they given the chance. Via their research skills a postwar nightmare was brought to an end.