Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The "Bomb," Polio, or Brain-washing

There was no hope for survival - either we were going to be blown to bits, paralyzed and maimed,or brain-washed into Communist zombies.

We wore "dog tags" for identification if a bomb hit, heard over and over how Communists hid in every nook and cranny of the U.S. planning the destruction of Capitalism and the slavery of every citizen, and - Then! - came POLIO. It was a disease that would strike without warning to kill and/or paralyze children. Its symptoms were so vague that every child experienced them:

Restless at night
Upset stomach
Sore muscles
Stiff neck

And - "Infantile paralysis" (polio) comes on in 48 hours with nausea, vomiting, and rapid pulse.

The beaches at Port Madison Bay and the west shore beaches (facing Bremerton) were closed to swimming. Outraged voices ranted against the supposed large amounts of sewage being dumped in Bremerton. (No documentation - only rumors reported fastidiously in the local newspaper.) Every mother trembled in fear. Every child suffered suffocating, equally vague, prevention advice:

Don't get chilled
Don't mix with new groups
Don't get over tired
Don't have mouth or throat operations

Public gatherings were banned. Swimming in Puget Sound was as dangerous as never before. Documented cases of polio in Bremerton were sure signs the illness could be spread across the narrow waters seperating the Island from the mainland. The moat that protected us now took on an ominous presence. Headlines across the nation spread the fear like wildfire; black and white photos of stricken young people - their heads protruding body-less from big, white metal tube-like contraptions to ease pressure on their lungs - seared their images in our brains.

Polio had for centuries periodically reared its monster head until Dr. Jonas Salk came up with a vaccination miracle first tested in 1952. Soon we were all lining up for a series of three "shots" but not before several Islanders fell prey - one boy from a well-regarded family died from Bulbar Polio - a type that attacked the brain's stem cells. Even the daughter of the newspaper owners had a case of the disease but fortunately fully recovered. So the panic was more than justified. Now, the world's health organizations are working hard at eradicating polio entirely just as smallpox - another epidemic/pandemic killer - has been eliminated (but is threatened renewal by some lunatics).

On the Island in summer 1943, as cases of polio were announced, Port Madison Bay and the west shore beaches (facing Bremerton) were closed to swimming. Public gatherings were banned - like the Saturday night dance at Foster's, the little theatre at Lynwood, and the churches and schools - day camps, swimming classes. Fortunately it was summer and the public schools were not in session.

When the ban was lifted, the dance hall owners said in a newspaper headline, "Jitterbug Beats Polio Bug," urging people back to dancing.

Nina talks about the "bomb" and polio:

"The next big thing that happened was the atom bomb was dropped on Japan. I remember this day very well because my brother and I had gone down to the beach at Rockaway and sort of waded and played in the water. When we walked back home, my mother got upset because we were so wet. She thought some awful nuclear waste stuff might have drifted in on the Japanese current that hits the coast. Crazy but true. Her other worry was polio. She was certain swimming too much in the cold Puget Sound water might bring it on."

So you see how misinformation played a large part in our lives. At the same time, we were allowed to roam the beaches and woods of the Island, unsupervised. Nina and her brother were five and six years old yet not restricted from the beach in their daily explorations. It was the same in my family and most others. There were close to ten kids in the rag-tag group that I was with nearly every day. We considered the Hawley beach, its swamp, lagoons, and the Sound waters our own playground. My grandmother was in charge as our parents worked. She could not swim and was terrified of the water yet she still let us to go to the beach by ourselves any time we wanted.

Actually the whole Island was our playground. I mentioned its size earlier - approximately twelve miles by three miles. As we grew, our boundaries expanded as we walked to Winslow, Wing Point (by road, or through the woods, or the beach), later clear over to Lynwood for the Saturday matinees. Even adults walked a lot. Not every family had even one car. Hitch-hikers were common. In the local newspaper, there were frequent admonitions for drivers to pick up hitch-hikers. It was the neighborly thing to do.

Homey sort of advice and information always appeared in the paper - its mission was to provide Islanders with Island news. Locations of new stop signs was noted and good thing, too, because the signs were often obscured by wild flaura. Stop signs were painted non-reflective yellow with black letters. At night signs were particularly difficult to see - no street lights anywhere.

Pitch black has to be imagined for most, now. The absence of artificial lighting meant darkness was Really dark. To me the darkness was a blanket of warmth, invisibility - I was a little girl who snuck out of my bedroom window not to explore but to feel the welcome warmth of anonymity and freedom. In the dark I could escape the shackles of oppressing adults - who the hell were they anyway? - they did not understand I needed to be away from them - they were dark, ominous - made me afraid. My grandmother and grandfather were my allies. Grandpa was not aware - but Grandma was! Thank goodness. Her tiny frame enveloped me in security.

Every week Grandma washed the laundry - once the family moved to Hawley, Grandpa awarded her with an automatic washing machine - an absolute reversal of the washing chore for her. Liberation at last - one step at a time. No dryer yet, however. Clothes lines were strung from pole to pole along the north property line. Grampa had also planted an orderly row of some kind of evergreen tree along the line. On a summer morning when I helped Gramma hang wet clothes to dry, the fragrance of the trees mingled with the smell of fresh laundry. It was so quiet then. There was the sound of flapping, wet clothing in the breeze, birds chirping, leaves rustling, Gramma's deep chuckle, ferry and fog horns, bell buoys clanging, the shipyard's noon and quitting-time whistles.

When we were a bit older, we went for swimming lessons at the Navy pool at Fort Ward. School buses picked us up. On the way to lessons, we ate peanut butter sandwiches and pineapple-filled sugar cookies. My sister and I wore bathing suits our mother made us. That may be why I never learned to swim very well - when wet, the suits tended to sag. Both of us clutched at our suits to keep them up. The pool was not very inviting anyway - you couldn't see the bottom. It was condemned at one point and Day Camp at the Sand Spit was our substitute fun. School buses picked us up for that, too. Those buses were community life lines as they offered transportation for voters, PTA carnivals, school plays, and for high schoolers, their way to attend "away" football and basketball games.

Two new words crept into our consciousness - Brain-washing and McCarthyism.
The Korean War was thrust upon us just as we were beginning to feel comfortable in peace. The threat of Communism sneaking into our very homes wasn't enough to scare us into minding our P's and Q's. We were threatened total submission by Russians, Chinese, or Koreans who had methods to control our every thought. Plus Senator Joseph McCarthy convinced the entire nation Communists were hiding everywhere plotting the downfall of the United States of America. How was McCarthy able to stir up our government, schools, churches, parents to such a frenzied state of unaccountable fear? Theories abound but for other discussions. Instead of "Cops and Robbers" or "Cowboys and Indians" we played War. After all our dailey dose of news and education centered on WWII, Communist spies, then the Korean War, the Cold War - we dug trenches and built forts, climbed trees to spy on our neighbors, practiced Hitler's "goose step," pretended to talk on walkie-talkies and throw grenades. On the Island we crouched behind the piles of driftwood on the beach on the lookout for submarine periscopes.

But everything seemed far away - our brush with the world was disconnected.

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