Thursday, August 9, 2012

Nap Time and Polio

These lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer bring back many personal memories. One involves the overwhelming fear of polio during my early childhood. It would be several more years before the first successful vaccine was developed and distributed.

During the winter of 1952-53, my older brother and I developed mumps. We looked like chipmunks preparing for winter. As goofy as that was, fever and pain made it no fun. Parents viewed it as one more childhood disease to get out of the way while we were still young. If a kid had measles or chickenpox, kids who hadn’t come down with it yet were sent to play with the sick kid in hopes that they, too would catch it and get it over with.

Yeah, I know, intentionally exposing children to diseases sounds like cruel and unusual punishment. In those days, the theory was that children could weather them far better than adults could. Adults sometimes become sterile or died from so-called childhood diseases.

For whatever reason, I developed a case of meningitis along with the mumps. The symptoms were scarily similar to those of infantile paralysis, a.k.a. polio. Being only four at the time, I don’t remember all that much except how worried my parents were and not feeling at all well.

Polio terrorized everybody in those days. President Roosevelt had struggled for years and eventually died from polio. There was no cure or vaccine. Pictures of hospital wards populated by children of all ages confined in bulky iron lungs that forced their paralyzed bodies to breathe were used as threats if children were reluctant to take an afternoon nap. Rest and good nutrition were considered preventive measures. Plenty of sunshine and fresh air were what Dad believed in so I spent many summer afternoons napping on a blanket in the back yard.

We lived outside Chicago with all it’s big city attractions. One particularly enticing destination for every kid was Riverview. It was an enormous amusement park, built in the early 1900s with games and rides that appealed to everyone. Some parents, including mine, saw it as a place seething with unsavory characters and germs, particularly the polio virus. Children everywhere whined and connived in utter frustration only to have their parents stand their ground against visiting this spectacular, maybe naughty place. I will always regret that. It closed the month I went away to college.

I cannot remember how old I was when I was no longer forced to take an afternoon nap. It seemed like forever.  When I complained, Mom would always say I didn’t have to sleep, but I did have to rest so that I wouldn’t catch polio.

While I languished in angry frustration in my room, I could hear the other neighborhood kids continuing to play outside. I always lost the argument that THEY didn’t have to take naps and THEY never got polio! I felt utterly and completely deprived!

I’m pretty sure that, at the time, it never crossed my mind that my parents loved me and were constantly concerned for my welfare. Being reasonable was not part of my character back then. All I saw was the injustice of being forced to abandon my playmates in order to take a stupid nap that I didn’t even need.

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