Social Distancing 1946

These past three weeks I have written about a family matter of 1950s origin. It concerns my father’s work as the secretary of a union local and his encounter with a couple of legendary figures, John F Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa.

My renewed interest in this episode of family history was sparked by the recent release of a book and a Netflix movie about Hoffa’s disappearance and presumed murder. The book, In Hoffa’s Shadow by Jack Goldsmith, was of special help to me since it affirmed a couple of key points I believed to be true based on my mother’s fragmentary recollection of what happened when I was too young to understand the full implication of my father’s close encounters with the famous and the infamous.

Oddly enough, I must commend the self-quarantine restrictions of the Covid-19 lockdown for helping me add a little more substance to the residue of mother’s memory. My antidote to the boredom of isolation was scouring family memorabilia horded in cardboard boxes confined to the closet in their own form of social distancing.

Among the many treasures saved over more than a century of family history were three newspaper clippings, which supported mom’s account of dad’s participation in a reform movement that brought him into contact with a Senate investigation committee, of which Kennedy was a member, and an open conflict directly with Hoffa. Dad won. And he outlived them both, passing away at home, peacefully in his own bed and the age of 68. Kennedy and Hoffa did not do so well.

There was another interesting find among the paper ephemera that is providing me with the content of this week’s message. It was an invitation to a birthday party for my older brother. In 1946 he turned two years of age and the invitation was sent to a couple of our cousins. It would have been a pretty common affair and of little concern to me more than seventy years later except for one little side note my mother penned to my aunt.

In addition to the time, date and place of the party, my mother thought it necessary to let her sister-in-law know that there was a local outbreak of polio in the small town where my parents were living post World War II. Mom promised that no other children would be invited to the party as she had wished. This was something of an enticement for the other family members to make the short trip from where they lived so that they could be together one more time before my folks left Oklahoma for good in pursuit of the sunny promised land of California.

Social distancing during the summer months when polio outbreaks were common though unpredictable was not mandated by the state or federal governments. It was something people did on their own back then to protect loved ones from infection. Mom’s note on the birthday invitation indicates how she put the cautionary measure into practice, shunning non-family members but holding close to blood-kin as a safe way to fulfill the need for social support sans masks.

Covid-19 has brought fear into the lives of people once again just as polio once did, spanning a lethal tide of death and disability over several decades, not just a season or a year or two. The development of a vaccine changed all of that to the point where people today probably never give a thought to being afflicted by something prior generations regarded with abject fear.

Today Dr. Anthony Fauci has emerged as something of a folk hero for daily reporting on the nature of the Covid-19 threat in terms people generally understand and trust. But his celebrity status pales in comparison to that of Jonas Salk, whose team of researchers produced the first polio vaccine used in the US in the mid-50s. It is said that when President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded Salk a medal in a Rose Garden ceremony, that the leader of the free world teared up when making the presentation, which is something he did not do just a few years before when he announced the defeat of Nazi-led Germany. This gives us some sense of the magnitude of Salk’s discovery in delivering relief from a terrifying though unseen enemy.

I can remember lining up at school (likely as a first grader) to be vaccinated. I promised myself not to cry like the other babies in my class, simply because my best friend was standing next to me and making taunting comments about the criers. I remained brave through the entire process, being more fearful of shame than the needle. And as I recall this was an annual process as Salk’s vaccine had a short-term benefit. Better was the eventual use of an oral vaccine discovered by Albert Sabin and his research team. Not only did this eliminate the trauma of standing in line waiting to be poked with a long, silvery needle, but the new delivery method was that of a sugar cube, which was no more traumatic than having dessert.

I share this story with those who fear that life as we knew it just a few months ago will never reappear for us again. Such a mindset seems to me to be too much the result of watching programs which dramatize various projections for a zombie apocalypse of cataclysmic proportions. If any of these modern day prophesies prove to provide a foretaste of life in permanent lockdown, then it would be catastrophic since I am anxious to see how well Tom Brady does as quarterback of the Tampa Bay Bucs. And it would be tragic if the US women’s soccer team achieved payroll parity with men by both of them earning zero, meaning not playing.

I am a believer in the efficacy of science to deliver us from the current evil. We just need the politicians, mainstream and social media mavens, and our beloved late-night talk show hosts from getting in the way by exploiting peoples’ fears. Let the Salks and Sabins of the world do their work. We need to be encouraged with leaders who model patience and have some faith in the wisdom of an ancient king who comforted his people with the certitude that “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

So will birthday parties, World Cup glory (with pay equity) and possibly a playoff berth for Tampa Bay.

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