The 1952 polio epidemic was the worst outbreak our country has ever seen. Nationwide, there were nearly 60,000 cases reported in that year. Over 3,000 succumbed. Over 20,000 individuals were disabled and limited in their ability to walk.
Polio is a virus that is spread by fecal matter in the water. It was and still is, very contagious.
One of the symptoms is muscle weakness, usually in the legs. President Franklin D. Roosevelt went swimming on a family outing one day. Other people were in the water with him, but he was the one who got infected. That disease, as terrible as it was, did not slow him down nor keep him from becoming one of our greatest Presidents.
December 1954, I was seven years old. As I mentioned before, my mom was in the hospital enduring a slow recovery from TB. We were living in El Centro near the Mexico/US border. My father could not work the long hours that he did and be a parent so he took my two sisters and I to stay with our godparents. He left my brother to stay with our grandma in Oxnard.
Uncle Max and Aunt Nellie lived in Port Hueneme, California. That’s them shortly after I was born. Oxnard was just a few miles away.
We lived a short distance away from the beach. At night when the town was quiet and I was trying to fall asleep, I could hear the waves breaking.
“Polio is in the water.” That is why we were never allowed to go swimming, in public or private swimming pools. The memory of FDR and his condition was still a fresh memory.
“The water. The water.” My seven year old mind was telling me.
Christmas in Oxnard in 1954. Many visitors and relatives often gathered at my grandmother’s house.
The old house is still there. It looks different now. Back then it had wooden siding. Now it has stucco. There used to a hedge that actually hid the house from view. That’s the place. A lot of family memories there.
There’s my brother Carlos in the striped sweater. He came over from Oxnard because it was a special day. My sister Teresa was having her First Communion. Yes, that’s her on the right. My cousin Mina is next to her. I still think of her as a big sister. She’s trying to hold me still. It was silly of them to dress me in white. I was a natural born dirt magnet. On the far left is my cousin Artemis. She lived next door to us. My sister Chris was next to my brother. I have no idea who the boy in back is.
Behind us, where those trees are is the US naval base at Port Hueneme, Home of the Fighting SeeBees.
“The water. The water.” My seven year old mind continued telling me. The great Pacific Ocean, a few blocks away, the wharfs, Bubbling Springs was a short distance away, a small smelly creek was a short walk from our house, I was surrounded by water.
“The water. The water.” I heard the old ones say.
Back to Christmas in Oxnard in 1954. My grandma’s house had a big kitchen, a big living room, and one and a half bedrooms. There was not much room for the multitudes of relatives that were constantly there. Gatherings such as this were a common experience during holiday seasons. Sometimes there were even double this amount of relatives squeezed into that small house.
That is me, sitting on the floor with my Aunt Nellie. There’s a story that I wrote about this particular occasion. It is called, “The Old Ones.” Look it up on my list of stories.
Off we go, the youngest of us. That took at least six out of the house. Grown-ups need their space for cooking and catching up on the latest gossip.
The Vogue Theater was a few minutes walk from the house. It is run down now, but it used to be a real nice movie house back then. “White Christmas” was playing for the first time that year. Even now, once in a Christmas or two, I will watch it on TV. Hollywood entertainment at its best.
My family and I take up most of a row. The lights go down. The curtain moves aside. The screen lights up, wide screen Vista Vision, the first movie to use this process, glorious Technicolor. I was in movie lover’s heaven.
“Uh ho. I gotta go.” Everybody was grumbling as I stepped on their feet as I made my way out. It’s their fault after all, I was eight years old. They should of let me sit in the aisle seat.
Off I go. I took care of business and I was heading back.
“Water fountain.” I heard myself say. I felt thirsty. I stepped up and took a huge drink. I felt the cold water trickle down to my stomach. Then it hit me.
“The water. The water.” I heard the old ones say. “You catch polio by drinking dirty water.”
“Oh no! What did I do? I’m going to catch polio! I am going to get stuck in a bed with an iron lung! I just saw that on the news reel!”
I felt my stomach twitching and my knees started shaking. I could not undo what I had done. I felt my world getting smaller. My mom was confined to a bed in a special ward for tuberculosis. That was going to be my future as well.
“Dead boy walking!” Was what I heard as I took my death march back to my seat. “When is it going to start? When am I going to start feeling bad?”
There was lots of music, singing and dancing. There were lots of laughs but I remembered very little of it as I sat there waiting to be sick. For weeks after that I waited for the symptoms to start. They never came, but I wasted a lot of time being scared over that.
That next year Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first effective polio vaccine. Because of that, the average number of cases dropped from around 45,000 a year to around 900 by 1962.
I remember our family participated in a nationwide campaign called “K.O. Polio.” We drank a liquid dose several times. After that we were safe, we were immune.
Thank you Lord, for Jonas Salk.
October 28, 1914 – June 23, 1995