When I was growing up, polio (infantile paralysis) was the scourge of all people. If a person got it, he/she could be partially paralyzed, die, or spend the rest of his/her life in an “iron lung,” which performed the breathing act for paralyzed lungs. Some who got it escaped pretty much unscathed. A lot of us were lucky and never contracted it.
Fear of how the disease spread caused parents to warn children to stay away from crowded places like public swimming pools and beaches, and to avoid getting overly tired or using other people’s personal belongings. We were also told not to use public drinking fountains.
The signs of the onset of polio were a stiff neck and cold-like symptoms, so kids were scrutinized daily by their parents. Most of us knew at least one person who had contracted polio. This terrible disease was finally stopped when Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine. Forget the ballplayers and movie stars-Dr. Salk was and still is the greatest hero of all time.
It seemed that back in the early ’50s we were surrounded by communists. Of course, we were exposed to the continual McCarthy Hearings on television, and the names of Nixon, Hess, Chambers, and Rosenberg became household words. This re-run of the “Red Scare” of the 1920s-in the 1950s called “McCarthyism”-made people suspicious of other people who would entertain frequently. The thought was that the person(s) in question were holding pro-communist meetings. A call to the F.B.I. would stop these usually innocent get-togethers. This all ended when Senator McCarthy-after ruining the reputations of many government and Hollywood people with his accusations of treason-went too far with his reckless bullying when he attacked the patriotism of the U.S. Army.
In the early ’50s, the Soviet Union (Russia), our Cold War rival, had exploded an atomic bomb, so the threat of nuclear attack was all too real. To prepare ourselves, we had air raid drills in school. By this I mean that when the siren went off, we would crouch under our desks with our eyes and mouths shut. If we were in a hallway when the siren went off, we were to crouch against a wall and put our hands over our heads.
Some families built air raid shelters in their backyards where they stockpiled food, water and clothing, and other people did the same thing in the basement area. Some families also practiced the “atomic dive” at home so that in case of a night attack, each person would know to immediately roll out of bed on to the floor and under the bed at top speed. This was fine if you were young and the floor was carpeted.
Our lives were generally quiet compared to the lives of later generations of young people, but we didn’t live in a rose garden because the threats of nuclear destruction, premature death or paralysis, and communist subversion loomed over us.