San Angelo is in West Texas. The county seat between Abilene and the Mexican border. Farms, oil wells, and cattle ranches fenced with barbed wire dot the county. Blessed with a warm climate and reputation as a healthy place to live, in one year San Angelo added to its reputation in ways that city leaders dreaded.*
In mid-spring, the newspaper reported that a local child had come down with a viral disease that had occurred in earlier springs like hailstorms and tornadoes. Previously, when this disease occurred, it had not spread. This one, however, did.
Parents began arriving at Shannon Memorial Hospital with “feverish, aching youngsters in their arms,” the local newspaper reported. Within days these children died: 10 month-old Esperanza Ramirez, seven year-old Billie Doyle Kleghorn, four year-old Susan Barr, and others. The city health officer said that an epidemic was occurring. Because the disease had no known cause or prevention or cure, he recommended that San Angelo children avoid crowds, wash their hands regularly, and get a lot of rest.
A month later, with known cases spiking to over 60, the city council voted to close all indoor meeting places, including theaters and churches. Tourists stopped coming to the city. The economy shrank. One local doctor said, “We got to the point … when people would not even shake hands.”
The year is 1949, not 2020. The disease is polio, not Covid-19.
I got polio in 1944, five years before the epidemic hits San Angelo. But I was lucky. I came out of the disease with only a limp from a destroyed calf muscle. Amid the fears of the coronavirus today, I can now appreciate in a way that I could not as a ten years-old, the dread of the unknown consequences for their son that my parents had after I came down with the “plague” as it was called at the time.
Like polio at that time, the coronavirus has no known cause, testing for the disease continues to be slow and hampered globally. There are no medications or vaccine. Even the death rate from the disease is uncertain because of flaws in testing and tardiness in evaluating large numbers of people in China and other countries as the epidemic becomes a pandemic. Political and medical officials advise Americans to wash their hands often and stay away from crowds. Anxieties and fears are as contagious as the disease’s spread from its origins in China to the rest of the world.
Now as an old man, the fear I have of the coronavirus striking my family, friends, and the nation must be close to what my parents must have felt when I got polio three-quarters of a century ago.
Known for centuries but isolated in the early 1900s, the virus had triggered epidemics across the world. What caused children and adults to sicken, become paralyzed and die–the disease was often called “infantile paralysis”–was unknown. Thus, prevention was useless. Fear of contagion was rampant wherever cases broke out. There were no medications. Treatment was a combination of muscle wrappings and massage of limbs to ease damage to the body that inevitably occurred.
In the U.S. it occurred periodically paralyzing children and adults, rich and poor alike. One epidemic in 1916 claimed 27,000 Americans. In New York alone there were 8400 cases and 2400 deaths. Five years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came down with the disease at the age of 39 and wore leg braces for the rest of his life including the years he served as President of the U.S. (1933-1945). Not until the early 1950s did a vaccine become available for children.**
The polio epidemic of 1944 swept across Pittsburgh. I caught it. I remember well the weeks I was in the hospital and the months that I was at home. I recall the anxiety and fears that my parents and brothers had–I was the youngest in the family–since the paralysis could cause loss of breathing (“iron lungs” were invented to keep children and adults alive) and destroy muscles. Both of my brothers had been drafted–it was the third year of World War II–and were serving in the U.S. Navy and Air Force. My parents worried about them and now I came down with polio. Friends and neighbors steered clear of our home.
Most vivid of all I remember my mother massaging my legs with cocoa butter in the hospital. I could not walk after I returned home. Daily she would rub my legs with it. I missed junior high school for a few months and when I returned I had a noticeable limp. The smell of cocoa butter has remained fixed in my head ever since.
So too have I remembered drinking raw eggs every morning before I went to junior high school. Because my leg muscles and body wasted during confinement for polio in the hospital and at home, doctors had told my parents that I needed proteins to rebuild muscle strength. So my father every morning before he would go to work would crack open two eggs and put them in a small glass, stir them into one yellow blob and watch as I drank it. I shivered at the taste. This went on for months until I regained weight and could walk and run, albeit slowly.
My guess is that the fears my parents had that I would die went away slowly as I began to walk and returned to school in 1945. With the end of World War II, my brothers came home. I was getting strong enough to bowl, play baseball, and basketball. As I think back to that time 75 years ago, I can imagine their fears for me as I and uncounted millions of families now face Covid-19.
Like many Americans of my generation, I stay at home a lot, talk on the phone, text, and stay away from crowds. I do fist bumps with family and friends, wash my hands often, watch as cancellations of schools, conferences, sporting events, and entertainment venues pile up. Am I fearful and anxious? Yes. Do I keep my fingers crossed that the virus runs its course and disappears? You can bet on that.
Just like my mother and father in 1944 and those parents in San Angelo in 1949 who faced the unknown when their children caught the polio virus, mothers and fathers today concerned about their children and elderly parents contracting the coronavirus, the past has become the present right before our eyes.
Today, I can still smell that cocoa butter. And I do not like eggs very much even when they are scrambled.
*For the description of San Angelo, Texas and the 1949 polio epidemic, I used David Oshinsky, Polio: An American Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 1-4.
**Ibid., pp. 19-23.