By Ted White
The current coronavirus situation reminds me of a summer in my youth.
It was the mid-’40s. World War II was ending, and I was about to start first grade at Madison School, on North Washington Street.
I lived on North Tuckahoe Street, just east of Broadmont, separated from that neighborhood by a thick patch of woods. Tuckahoe was then unpaved, a gravel street. It had been surveyed by my grandfather, who lived next door, and the first neighborhood houses, down the street and to the east, were built in 1940 and 1941, just before the War.
As a child, I welcomed neighbors. Some of the new families had kids my age, potential playmates. Over the course of the next few years I made several good friends, kids I saw daily and with whom I went through the Falls Church school system.
Well, some of them did. The Arlington County line crossed Tuckahoe in mid-block, just down the street.
The Day family lived just over the line, in Arlington. Mrs. Day and my mother were good friends – she sometimes worked as a teacher in my mother’s private kindergarten – and I knew both her sons, the younger one being my age. We hung out together, part of a small neighborhood group of kids all roughly the same age.
My friend Bob lived a short block away, at the corner of Sycamore and 11th. His family moved into the new development at least a year after the families of the other kids, and Bob was two years older than we were, so initially we were afraid of him. But he wasn’t a bully, and we all became friends.
So one mid-summer morning it was bright and sunny as I walked over to Bob’s house. But instead of Bob, I was greeted by his grandfather. Bob’s grandfather was a kindly man who often gave us kids nickels or dimes for the ice cream truck. A nickel bought a Popsicle; a dime bought a Good Humor bar. You could hear the truck’s slow progress from a block away.
But on this day Bob’s grandfather had nothing for me but advice: “Go home, Ted,” he told me. Bob would not be coming out to play with me. Nor would any of my other friends.
My mother explained it to me: One of Mrs. Day’s sons had polio.
Polio! Of all the then-prevalent childhood diseases, polio was the most dreaded. This was before most current vaccines were available. Childhood was a gantlet of mumps, whooping cough, chickenpox, diphtheria, and at least two kinds of measles (I had both), as well as the mysterious pink-eye. But polio stood out. You got sick from the other diseases, suffered through it, and in most cases recovered whole.
Not polio. Many of those who survived it were permanently crippled. Even those who appeared to be fully recovered often suffered relapses later in their lives. This was true of both a cousin and an aunt of mine. And we all heard horrible stories about children who spent months or even years in something called an “iron lung.” This was a respirator in which the paralyzed child was confined, day in and day out.
My neighborhood went on effective lock down, at least as far as we kids were concerned. Polio was a children’s disease. So I’m not sure of the degree the adults confined themselves, but the kids all had to stay by themselves.
Fortunately, it was summer and I had those woods that bordered our back garden. I loved to play in the woods, finding secret trails and building hidden “forts.” And, if I had an excess of energy, there was the ongoing project of damming the stream, a swimming hole being the ultimate goal (it was never achieved).
But I missed playing with my friends. We all did.
I have one abiding memory from that occasion:
My grandparents had taken the sick Day boy to a hospital, perhaps in D.C., in their car, a 1940 Hudson sedan. When they got back, the car was parked in the drive, not driven into the garage, and my uncle Paul wrestled the back seat out and brought it to the middle of my grandparents’ front lawn (a lawn I mowed far too many times as a kid).
There the seat stayed, for most of the day, until evening shadows made it pointless. The object had been to bathe the seat in sunlight, since direct sunlight as we all know is an abundant source of ultraviolet (UV) light, and UV light is a disinfectant.
How long did our lock down last? I’m not sure. It felt like forever, but at that age that’s not surprising. Probably until a period — a week or two — had passed and no new cases turned up. An adult decision, to which we kids were not privy.
But it was a shocking change in our daily lives for us, one without precedent in our short existence, and wrenching emotionally, fraught as it was with the pervasive fear of catching that dread disease.
This time, of course, is different. Rather than a local problem, it’s global. And the disease is different – maybe worse, maybe not, but deadly for some all the same. I wasn’t around in 1918, so I have no idea how this pandemic compares, in terms of our responses, to that one.
But I am familiar with the emotional impact we’re all experiencing. I’ve felt it before.