EDITORIAL NOTE: Norm Jenson often contributes amusing vignettes of life to The Elder Storytelling Place. Today, I am reprinting a piece he published at his own storytelling blog, Mostly Anecdotal, because it is crucially important.
In recent years, I have been alarmed to read of the anti-vaccine movement, parents who refuse to have their children inoculated against childhood diseases because they think the vaccines cause autism and other conditions.
I well remember the summer of no-swimming-allowed that Norm recalls here. I also remember quarantine signs posted on houses in my neighborhood when kids contracted whooping cough, diphtheria or small pox (with universal vaccination not yet in place). I remember school friends who were crippled by polio and a couple who died of it before vaccines relieved humankind of these scourges.
The parents of the anti-vaccine movement are not only endangering their children, they are endangering everyone else's children. I suppose I could spent some time on research and do the math to estimate how many children would have died in the half century since my childhood without the miracle of modern vaccines. But I think it is enough to merely ask the question.
You may have your own memories of these terrible childhood diseases. Feel free to share them in the comments sections and, urgently, with any parents you may know who withhold vaccines from their children.
Here then is Norm's story.
They Called Him Gimp
“I told you not to go swimming,” she said.
She was angry, really angry. Mom never got angry, not like this, and she never cried, but she was crying.
“What’s wrong, Mom,” I said. “You know I’m a good swimmer.”
“That’s not the point. I told you not to go swimming and I expect you to obey me,” she said.Mom always had good reasons for her rules. She said it was dangerous, but wouldn’t say why and being a boy, when my friends asked I went swimming anyway.
It was the year I learned what fear looks like in a mother’s eyes.
The day I went swimming was hot, 90 plus, the year was 1953 and I was eight years old. It was the year polio arrived like a freight train out of control, mowing down thousands of kids, kids my age with paralysis and worse. But I didn’t know anyone who had the disease and it was hot.
A few years passed and so did my naïveté. Friends contracted the disease. I participated in a trial of a vaccine that would silence the nasty virus, though I had to get vaccinated twice, once in a trial and later when I found that I’d been given a placebo.
It wasn’t so bad, I didn’t get polio and Mom was not quite as worried as she might have been. She told herself that I had the real vaccine.
I called him Davey; the other boys called him gimp. His twisted limbs made walking difficult for him and painful to watch. He had polio. The disease twisted his legs and it took a steel brace to make it possible for him to walk.
Note to self: when Jimmy and Joey ask you why you are hanging out with the gimp, tell them he’s your friend and that his name is Davey. They will laugh at you and tease you, but you don’t care. When Davey wants to join the pickup baseball game, choose him. There are more important things than winning.
The years passed and I lost track of my friend and forgot about the handicap he dealt with every day. A few years later I saw him again in high school. The memories flooded back when I saw him “walking” down the hall, the brace still in place. High school was different in some ways. The open taunts were gone, but were replaced by snickers from those who didn’t understand that it could have been them.
We went our separate ways after high school. I saw Davey a couple of times after that, but didn’t stop to talk. And now 40-plus years later, I see his obituary in the local paper - his life over, undoubtedly shortened by the disease we all feared so much.
But we never learn. I see well meaning people blaming vaccinations for autism and other ghastly things. They have no evidence, but it doesn’t seem to matter. They are taken in by the woo. They are taken in by the liars who make their livings catering to fear - not the fear we felt in the fifties before there was a vaccine, but the fear that paralyzes with inaction.
They are afraid, but have learned nothing from the past. They follow the woomeisters. The result is predictable. The childhood diseases are returning and this time there is no reason for it.
Note to self: it was scientists, not movie stars, who found the answer to polio. It was scientists who did the hard work to develop the vaccines that time has demonstrated are effective and safe. They are the men and women who understand that correlation is not causation. And now they are being replaced by the woomeisters who haven’t learned the lessons of the past.
They are the ones that make their appearances on the TV talk shows spouting bullshit. The celebrities who fancy themselves as experts in fields they know little about. They practice their make believe not just on the screen, but where it can destroy lives. They are the ones we need to fear, not the vaccines they rail against. If my friend Davey were still here, he would tell them.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Celia Andrews recalls a lot about cars and some other stuff too in Dad and Westport.]