Poliomyelitis and ‘the Gun:’ a West Warwick Girl’s Memories of Life in the 50’a and 60’s

It’s street name? Polio.

It’s what scared us to death in my growing up years of the 50’s. Its advent and its conquering was what got vaccination its well-deserved recognition as life-saver…at least in that time period.

Polio was as feared in its day as AIDS would be decades later. Or the zika virus which threatens a pandemic, today, considering the Olympics will be held in Brazil, a country ravaged by the mosquito-borne disease.

In my era, all around us were young people succumbing to polio—a terrible crippling disease that cut down many in childhood. The most frightening of all?  Those whose breathing apparatus was affected. The iron lung was devised for those most severely affected, the ones who couldn’t breathe on their own.

They were tethered to a machine that would inhale and exhale for them, imprisoned forever to that metal coffin-like affair.

In my family, my Mom always told us that Uncle Harold was a polio survivor. He lived but his legs were useless as transportation contrivances. He was permanently affixed to crutches encircling his wrists.

Then Dr. Jonas Salk developed his miraculous vaccine that promised to stop the disease’s ravages.

With that, we townspeople all lined up to get it, with parents bringing their children to polio clinics at the granite stone Visiting Nurse building, in Arctic.

Lines snaked around the building as whole families stood together, anxious for the inoculation they hoped would spare them from this horror.

On one occasion, my Mom stood with us in the sweltering heat, about 50 people back in the line. This was a special day, indeed, for the experts had devised a whole new way of getting the serum into us, rather than our quaffing a small plastic capful of the liquid or getting the shot.

I kept fooling around, doing somersaults, straying from the rest, knowing my place in line was kept by family members. Why did I do this?  To assuage my fears.

You see, lining up for the vaccine in the day was a lot like waiting in pews to enter the wooden, boxed-off, Catholic Confessional.

No one knew what really transpired inside. We all just waited our turn.

All  we’d been told in advance was that once inside the Visiting Nurse building, white-uniformed public health nurses took information and oversaw folks filling out forms.

Then the nurses would bring out “the gun,” the latest device to deliver the life-saving serum. To me, even the name sounded threatening. The serum was supposedly shot through the skin at a blistering clip—a clip that was allegedly not felt.

But that last part of the message apparently eluded me…or I didn’t believe it.

And because I didn’t hear “It didn’t hurt at all” from anyone ahead of me (once they were ‘shot’ they left the building via an opposite door,) I did what any self-respecting kid would do:  I conjured up my own thoughts.

With fears running wild (would they call this an anxiety attack, today?), I fainted.

My poor Mom who was all of 5’2” struggled to hold upright a daughter who was already 5’6.” She hoped I’d regain consciousness, but when that didn’t happen, a policeman hurried over to help, carrying me to the shade of a nearby tree where he placed me down. There, I slowly recovered.

They all believed my fainting was due to the heat but I knew the real reason: I expected to be shot dead with Jonas Salk’s famous serum in a “kill the messenger” scenario.

I was assured I was going to be the lone victim of a salk vaccine gone astray whose medicine was far worse than the affliction.

How about you? Do you remember standing in long lines for the vaccine at the Visiting Nurse building (or other facility)? Remember “the Gun”? (a really stupid name, in retrospect).

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Scripps-Howard, and many regional newspapers. She is author to the children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com) and is regular commentator in the Providence Journal. She currently completes “The Asheville Experiment,” the story of her and her husband’s nine year life in one of America’s trendiest little retirement towns—a cautionary tale for all those who consider a move.  In this book, she tells what went wrong and why they returned to live, full time in Rhode Island. Her website is colleenkellymellor.com

Picture of former Visiting Assoc. Nurse Building, one of centers where polio shots given out.VNA