My Dad is 95 years old.  He’d come up in the great depression without a father.  Because he spoke German and Yiddish, during his stint in the army, he met with survivors of the concentration camps.

Interview with my 95 year old Father about the Polio Epidemic  

Interview With My 95 Year Old Father About The Polio Epidemic

After serving in World War II, he came back to Los Angeles where he and his brother started a business that has grown as the city has grown. 

Until he was forced to stay home by the COVID-19 shelter in place orders, he went to work every day of his adult life.   

We were talking about what it was like when they first started his business.  Of course, like all good businesses, it started in a garage. 

But in 1946, they were selling boxes, not computers.    He and his brother shared a suit and they shared a car. 

Even though they weren’t the same size, one brother would wear the suit and talk to customers; the other would make deliveries in the car.   

At that time, most people he knew were getting married, buying houses under the GI bill and having children.  

It seemed like there were no limits. Then, polio struck.  After surviving the depression, then war, fear came back into his life.

In the early 1950s, before vaccines were available, polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year.  

In 1952 alone, 58,000 cases were reported. Of those, 3,200 died and 21,000 were crippled. 

At that time, the US population was about 40% of what it is today.  

Polio is transmitted, among other methods, through airborne droplets from person to person.

The incubation period is between 6 to 20 days, and it remains contagious for up to two weeks after infection. 

Polio paralyzes muscle groups in the chest needed for breathing and swallowing; once that happens, death often follows. 

In the 40’s and the 50’s, it seemed as if the disease attacked randomly and those impacted most were children.

The random pattern made parents feel helpless, as did the lack of a cure. 

When children in San Angelo, Texas developed the disease, Texas Health employees spray DDT over vacant lots in the city to combat a recent increase in the number of polio cases.

All theaters, swimming pools, churches, schools and public meeting places were closed. 

Across the country, parents were frightened to let their children go outside, especially in the summer when the virus seemed to peak.

Travel and commerce between affected cities were restricted. Public health officials imposed quarantines. 

In addition to confining people who were sick, quarantines separated and restricted the movement of well people who may have been exposed.  These people were restricted to their homes. Towns were shut down with no one allowed to leave their borders.

The “extreme reaction” to polio, social distancing, closing of public facilities, etc., is similar to what we are experiencing today. 

The key difference was only those who had polio or who were suspected of having polio were required to shelter in place. 

Today, this requirement applies to everyone.   

Like today, this “extreme reaction” was controversial.   Many thought government interventions deemphasized diseases that posed more serious health threats, such as TB and flu.   

As is the case with COVID-19, doctors knew that most of the people who had polio didn’t even know it, and of those that did, most recovered with no disability.

Like today, diseases that showed up suddenly, as polio did, coupled with the fact that no one completely understood the disease, caused a great deal of fear. 

My Dad felt like we were not paying attention to the lessons of the polio epidemic. “There was no HIPAA then.  If someone in your family had polio, the local public health department put up a sign on your house. 

They let the neighbors know.  People would leave casseroles at the door, and people who were sick stayed home. 

There was a sense of social responsibility all around.“  

Community rights superseded individual rights.   When the local government felt it needed to step in, it did.  Today, it’s all about the “ME” and my rights. 

By taking away the power from our local communities to determine who might be at risk then mandate those people’s activities be restricted, we have had to, instead, restrict the activities of everyone. 

Requiring everyone to shelter in place impacts everyone.   Economic havoc and uncertainty are the results.

For the lucky ones, it means sitting this out at home.  For others it means the loss of jobs, uncertain futures, and instability.”  

Another critical thing he felt had changed among the economically disadvantaged was the feeling of neighbor helping neighbor is gone. 

Today, the lady upstairs wouldn’t offer to look after your kids while you ran to the store.  Most people don’t know who they live next door too, let alone the lady upstairs.  

People took things as they came.  Almost all of the people my Dad knew had grown up in poverty. Food, clothing were luxuries. For the most part, while I was growing up, the parents of my Dad’s friends still lived in the low income neighborhoods where they had raised their kids. 

“People helped where they could.   Iron lungs were expensive; they cost about the same as a house. If one of the neighborhood kids needed one, the expectation was that you would find a way or you wouldn’t.  If you didn’t, that was just the way it was.”  It was harsh, but it was real.     

The big lesson he learned growing up was that money is finite.  You could only get what you could afford. 

“If you buy things you can’t afford, you will pay. There was always a consequence and the consequence was always bad.   With no one to bail you out, you could be hungry or out on the street. 

Long term survival and ultimate success was contingent upon knowing the difference between immediate gratification and building and conserving resources to own something in the future of real value. 

Those who could take the long view did well.

Dad sees what’s happening as a test of entitlement.  “If we continue on the path of entitlement it will be the end of us.

Too many bailouts! 

We bail out the rich; we bail out the poor; but, the middle class always seems to pay. 

We need to restore our sense of responsibility for our own actions at all levels.   If we are going to give people money now, there should be something they do for society to earn it. 

Even if they do something small. When the rich take food out of the mouth of the poor, they should be punished.

The big companies, like Harvard University, with its $40 billion endowment, that have stepped in and taken the money meant for the small companies, their leadership should be punished.”  

To my Dad it all seems very simple:

  • Take care of your business and you will be taken care of!   
  • Anyone who takes care of their business, supports their family, no matter where they are on the economic ladder, is due respect.
  • Those who don’t, need to face the consequences of their actions and their bad decisions.

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