- Written by Bill Levine Bill Levine
Last year I attended my class of 1969’s 50th high school reunion. It was a meaningful event for me because for one night, I was together with fellow baby boomers who marched lockstep in time with me from hula hoops to Hulu TV.
Our small group of 150 classmates had, in turn, marched together through time with over 3.5 million American boomers born in 1951.
Now, six months later in the age of coronavirus, my age cohort is answering the question, “Is this the big one?” in the affirmative. COVID-19 has clobbered the protective comfort of our daily lives, internal thoughts, and bank accounts, while promising to launch an unsettling new normal.
I am positing that my 1951ers are no strangers to adapting to an unsettling new normality and facing existential dread.
I have picked the following events as the “pulling loose the societal threads” events we 1951ers have survived. They are in order, from apocalypse-no-go to apocalypse-go-and-ponder, as follows: the 1979 gas shortage, 9/11, the Vietnam era, the 1960s nuclear annihilation era, and a polio epidemic, a solid runner-up to the coronavirus.
We 1951ers have already survived our first virus epidemic, which struck in the summer of 1952. Polio closed down pools, thwarted teenage romances in movie balconies, home-quarantined potentially contagious people, closed transportation routes, kept kids on their front lawns, and scared our parents.
In 1952, polio was runner-up to nuclear annihilation as Americans’ most-feared event. In that year, there were 58,000 total cases, 21,000 cases of paralysis, and 3,200 deaths.
In the summer of 1952, it was a parental nightmare. As 1-year-olds, we were in the crosshairs of polio, as we are now very vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. In fact, 95% of polio cases had no symptoms at all, which implies that many of us 1951ers were unknowingly exposed to the polio virus.
Ironically, polio, it turned out, thrived more in antiseptic environments because the virus most likely passed from feces to unwashed hands to the hands or mouths of others.
Unlike COVID-19, polio struck more at the middle class than the poor because the children of the underclass got exposure early on via unsanitary conditions, while the improved hygiene of the middle class left children with no immunity.
In 1952 no one knew what caused polio and how it spread. The public did know about the wake of the greatly feared paralysis that it left. The polio epidemic of 1952 was a horror movie: It was out there and had the dreadful mystique of unknown origins and an unknown contagion process.
COVID-19 in 2020 is a disaster movie. We knew, like a tsunami, when it was coming and how it spread its deadly force, but the dread is 100,000 dead, and we can’t stop it.
I actually met a polio victim my age in the late 1980s. Joe, like me, was a middle-class Massachusetts native. I asked Joe about his limp, thinking it was a weekend-warrior injury, but he matter-of-factly said that it was from polio.
I thought then that it hadn’t been inevitable that I would survive the epidemic of 1952. I could have been Joe. For the first time, I was aware of the potential physical damage that my cohorts and I had mostly all dodged.
The polio epidemic of 1952 was the one event we 1951ers have lived through that even very remotely rivals the combination of angst, fear, and social disruption of our current coronavirus pandemic. Polio in the early 1950s loomed over suburban neighborhoods like the diabolical clown in Stephen King’s IT.
Hence, the emotions below when a vaccine was approved:
When Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was approved on April 12, 1955, “People were hugging in the streets, kids were let out of school,” according to David M. Oshinsky, author of Polio: An American Story.
“Salk was invited to the White House, where Eisenhower broke down in tears thanking him … The nation went into this extraordinary, almost unprecedented celebration short of anything but the end of the World War.”
No doubt that, 12-18 months from now when the coronavirus vaccine is announced, we 1951 boomers and all generations will go crazy, knowing the world will soon be able to hug again.
Times Square will be semi-crowded with 6-feet-apart celebrants. Hug emojis will be all over the place.
Bill Levine is a retired IT professional and active freelance writer. Bill aspires to be a humorist because it is easier to be pithy than funny. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.