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BODY WATCH : APPRECIATION : A Bug, a Nation's Fear--and Jonas Salk

June 27, 1995|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the AIDS of my generation, kids growing up in the '40s and '50s, a generation that knew nothing of sexually transmitted diseases or drug overdoses.

It was polio. A big, bad bug sitting out there ready to pounce on us.

The President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been its most visible victim, a constant reminder to our parents of how this awful disease ravaged the body.

"You can't do this, you can't do that"--how often we heard these words. My sisters and I weren't allowed to go to the movies--or any other public place where there were apt to be lots of children--during polio epidemics, which struck most often during the heat of summer.

But when we did go to the movies, we were apt to see on the screen appeals for the March of Dimes and poignant short news features of Sister Elizabeth Kenny, who worked tirelessly to restore life to the arms and legs of polio victims through physical therapy.

Because my father was a career Army officer, we moved from city to city every two or three years. By chance, we were living in San Antonio during a severe polio epidemic and I remember the terror of learning that a little schoolmate had been stricken with polio and encephalitis, a horrible one-two punch that apparently was not uncommon. She never returned to school.

During summer vacations, we would often visit my maternal grandmother, who lived in Manhattan. As it happened, she was co-owner of a public swimming pool in the city, but we were forbidden to swim. It was hard for us to understand that it was "for our own good."

In school, all the children would try not to stare at the child with the clunky metal leg braces, moving paralyzed limbs step by tedious step with the aid of crutches.

Sometimes this evil bug had been a little kinder. We knew, without having to be told, why some children had one leg that was larger or longer than the other, and what had caused that perceptible limp.

My childlike imagination would run wild as I thumbed through Life and other magazines that came to our house, transfixed with the photographs of hospital polio wards with their rows upon rows of victims--many of them my age--doomed to spend their lives locked inside iron lungs.

Then one day in the mid-'50s, we lined up outside a junior high school auditorium in Coronado and waited to get our polio shots. The Salk vaccine meant that the next generation would not face this scourge.

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