The first few days this past March, my parents, Joe and Pam, were in New Orleans for a conference. My mom is on the Clearwater Power Board of Directors, and this conference revolved around those duties. After they returned home, Dad then traveled to Boise for a meeting. Yes, they were “out there” during the rising panic about COVID-19. I was extremely worried. They were not.
I’m the youngest of their three kids, and even though I’m 50-years-old, for me to scold my parents is still not something I typically do. However, their travels warranted a stern phone call at the very least.
“Aren’t you worried you’ll be exposed and catch it?” I asked Dad on the phone. It was mid-March by this time.
“No,” Dad laughed, “I’m from the generation that got through the polio epidemic. I tend to take these things in stride.”
His comment sat on my mind for a few days. I’d also chatted with Mom, and she was aware of the growing concerns across the country and world, but also felt like she could weather the brewing storm. They weren’t careless; they were concerned and took the suggested precautions. But I never sensed any type of panic or that they would drastically change their lives due to COVID-19. They farm in Potlatch, and farming never stops.
After speaking with my in-laws, Roger and Diane, I realized that they, too, were aware of the situation and taking care, but not making drastic changes to their daily activities.
Meanwhile, back in my world, The Fabulous Las Vegas Strip, along with all gambling in Nevada, was shut down March 17th, along with every business not deemed essential. These measures were unprecedented. I felt panic begin to bubble. So what was it about my parents and in-laws that made them mindful of COVID-19’s serious nature, but not to the point of being alarmed? Dad’s comment about poliovirus started me thinking.
What other viruses or contagions did their generation face? How were those national and international health issues handled back when they were kids and young adults? I always knew their generation was robust because their parents were—they lived through the depression and WWII. True grit was expected. My curiosity and penchant for writing nostalgia sent me down the rabbit hole. With a little old-fashioned research and interviews with them—Mom, Dad, Roger, and Diane, as well as my sister, Tracy—I took a step back in time to understand their current mindsets.
My parents and in-laws were born in the early 1940s and raised within Latah County. Way before they landed on earth, ravaging illnesses like smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, diphtheria, and the big whopper, Spanish Flu, spread through the US, leaving its devastation through death and economic disruption. Since Dad specifically mentioned polio, I started my research there. Polio appeared in the US first in 1916 but continued its havoc until 1955 when a vaccine was developed. According to the CDC, by that time, 3,145 people died in the US, with a total of 57,682 cases.
“As kids, we knew about polio because of our parents’ concerns,” Mom said. “My family didn’t know anyone who had it, but my parents put the fear in us. Polio could affect your breathing and eventually lead to paralysis or death.”
“My parents were afraid—really afraid—of polio,” Dad remarked. “Swimming at the lake was ok, but pools were suspect. But there were no businesses shut down, and people weren’t quarantined at home. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had polio and was in a wheelchair sometimes. As kids, we collected dimes and donated them to Roosevelt’s National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. That’s how the March of Dimes came about.” And why FDR’s image is on the dime.
“Polio was a big fear growing up,” Diane said. “People were crippled and twisted up, landed in an iron lung, or died. We had a cousin who was disabled for life. There was a boy in Genesee we knew who had it, too. I saw what it did to people, and if they lived, there was usually always everlasting effects. It scared me.”
Roger, however, didn’t remember polio as a looming fear when he was a kid. His terror was the measles. “I remember being completely afraid of the German Measles,” he remarked. “But I think that fear revolved around getting a shot more than getting the actual disease. Back in those days, the doctor came to our house, and it seemed like I always got a shot. I swear he used the dullest needle he could find. It always took several tries to stick me. It felt like a ten-penny nail going into my butt cheek. I screamed just at the sight of a needle.”
When the polio vaccine became available in 1955, it was such a big deal, both Mom and Dad belted out at the same time without hesitation, “Jonas Salk.” Indeed, Salk, the developer of the vaccine, rose to hero status. Luckily for Roger, the polio vaccine consisted of eating sugar cubes dosed with drops of vaccine, rather than a shot.
A variety of serious illnesses swirled around the country between 1950-1970. “Mumps, measles, chickenpox, all the kids had them,” Mom shared. “You expected to get those things as a kid.”
“Everyone eventually caught everything,” Roger laughed. “The first kid to get whatever illness was run around to all the other kids, so everyone who hadn’t had it to that point caught it.”
“I think it may have been easier on the parents if all their kids were sick at the same time,” Diane remarked. “Back then, parents just handled it and got through it. It was rare for a kid to go to a doctor or hospital unless it was serious.”
And just like catching some of those illnesses was expected, so was immunization. Pam remembers, “We lined up at school to get our polio sugar cubes. The smallpox vaccine was a scratch on your skin that welled up into a scab. I never had one take; I must’ve been born immune to it.”
Diane and Roger both received their vaccination shots by going to the doctor’s office in Genesee.
“It was never a question to get vaccinated,” Dad observed. “Everyone got their vaccinations. And when Pam and I became parents, we never questioned whether we would get our kids vaccinated. The disease was worse than the shot.”
“Plus, the kids had to be up-to-date on immunizations to be able to go to school,” Pam added.
“There was never a question of whether Roger and I would vaccinate our kids, either,” Diane shared. “The shot protected the kids and everyone around them.”
Even when my sister, Tracy, became a mom for the first time in 1989, vaccinating children was the norm. “My husband, Cary, and I figured the alternative was worse. Why would we make our kids possibly go through those awful illnesses? Both my kids got the chickenpox—there was no vaccine for it then. They stayed home for a few days, and we got through it.”
Mom, Dad, Roger, Diane, and Tracy all agreed they’d never seen quarantines for any illness. “If you had a fever, you stayed home a few days, but other than that, you went to school or work,” Mom pointed out. “I never remember school activities being canceled, or school for that matter, at least in Potlatch.”
“Unless there was blood or a fever, you had to go to school,” Joe laughed. “And farming never stopped for illness unless you couldn’t move.”
Vaccination shots included DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, and peruses), developed in the 1950s, and MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella), developed in the 1960s. I vaguely remember getting some of my shots, and I wear the scar on my shoulder from the fear-inducing, pain-inflicting jet injector with pride. I survived the chickenpox and mumps (so did my siblings). The biggest fear of getting chickenpox was itching to the point of causing a scar. Mumps just hurt my neck and throat. I never feared death.
Mom, Dad, Roger, and Diane all agreed that as young parents during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, they never really worried much about any of the illnesses, even epidemics or pandemics. They all expressed it was a different time back then.
“The world was a smaller place,” Joe pointed out. “We lived in a rural area, so a lot of the illnesses never hit, or if they did, it wasn’t wide-spread.”
“Our generation never had to face the same things the younger generations do now,” Diane contended. “There were fewer people.”
“We were tougher back then,” Roger claimed. “Not to criticize the generations now, but back then, if penicillin didn’t cure it, you were screwed. If you got sick you still worked. That’s just the way it was.”
However, when HIV/AIDS arrived in the early 1980s, it hit Roger and Diane close to home. “We had a friend who had kids that went on a trip. Their boys came home with the disease and eventually died from it.”
“It was scary because at first people didn’t know how it spread,” Diane shared. “But once we knew, we didn’t worry much, although we felt for the folks who suffered and died.”
“Of course, we didn’t like to see people die from AIDS,” Joe shared. “But it was never a concern for me to catch it, even when I traveled.”
Tracy was in high school at the time of the outbreak. “HIV/AIDS wasn’t really an issue for me,” she explained. “Kids in school made fun of it; it was distant and not in our area, so it was easy to joke about it. It was on the news, so I was concerned, but I wasn’t scared to catch it.”
I personally wasn’t concerned, either. However, when I took my Human Sexuality psychology class at the University of Idaho, we were encouraged to get tested for HIV. My friend, Robert, and I marched up to Student Health and went through the process. It was anonymous and felt a little ominous. Robert was fearful because of some life choices he’d made over the years. I couldn’t relate to his fears; I knew I was in a low-risk category. When our tests came back negative, he took me out for a beer at Gambino’s out of sheer relief. I then realized how close it could’ve come to me and how vital a cure or vaccine would be. Now HIV/AIDS is controlled through proper medical care and medicines. To be honest, there was a time I wondered if anything would ever stop that horrendous virus. Now people live fulfilling lives with it. There’s no cure, but education and precaution allow for it to exist, but not destroy.
Right now, our world faces yet another deadly virus. When I asked my “experts” about COVID-19, they all had about the same response and understood the serious nature of the illness.
“At first, I thought it was a lot of to-do,” admitted Dad. “I thought it wouldn’t hit our area too hard, and that it would be like a lot of other illnesses. I took precautions, but given the time of year, farmers still have to work. I don’t see much of a difference in how I live. The 6-foot social distancing rule isn’t anything new; anyone I work around usually stays that far apart anyway. With county and state offices closed for the most part, it’s making signing up for the 2021 Farm Program interesting. As a nation, the US is mobile and enjoys its freedoms, so it doesn’t surprise me that we have a high occurrence of cases and deaths.”
“I’ve had my Clearwater Power Board meetings scheduled at home until further notice,” Mom said. “And I take care when we have to go get groceries. But our country won’t be going back to the way it was before, no matter what.”
“I don’t think America realizes yet how big of an effect it’ll have on us,” Diane speculated. “Social gatherings will be different; we’ll change how we live until we get a vaccine.”
“Shaking hands may never happen again,” Roger said. “The things we’ve always done socially and taken for granted may never come back.”
“I’m more afraid of getting diagnosed with cancer than I am getting diagnosed with COVID-19,” Tracy shared. “But for now, we limit access to people, and it’s been a struggle not seeing my kids and grandkids. But if we exposed any of them it would be devastating so we stay apart. I wouldn’t say I’m fearful, but I’ll wear a mask to the grocery store. Everyone is being cautious.”
They all expressed positive comments about how their city, county, and state officials handled the situation, and seem optimistic as long as people continue practicing social distancing.
“COVID-19 is the disease that took away so much from so many,” Diane said. “No matter what avenue of thought you take, it has or will hit everyone in some way.”
As I read about previous epidemics and pandemics, I unearthed a few interesting tidbits that seemed to stand consistent through the ages and relevant to share:
- Sometimes, the tables were turned on what the experts projected to happen vs. what was actually happening. Age, speed of spread, and gender/race affliction didn’t necessarily match up with predictions.
- There was always a portion of the population where people with no symptoms tested positive—asymptomatic carriers.
- The response time of worldwide leaders always differed.
- There were always two camps of thought, no matter the illness: one said it wasn’t a huge concern, and the other said it was.
What lessons will COVID-19 teach us? Will our lives be changed long-term? Will the “Corona Generation” resemble past generations because they, too, share this unparalleled worldwide experience? Will spending more time at home unwittingly create a “back to basics” culture, where families and friends revive things like Sunday dinners, game nights, baking bread from scratch, gardening, and canning? Will there be more flexibility regarding working at home or less hours per week? Will anyone ever take toilet paper for granted again?
When this issue of “Home & Harvest Magazine” is available, a few weeks will have passed sine I wrote these words. I wonder what questions will have answers, and what others will arise?
Author’s note: First, and most importantly, thank you, Heather and Tony, for this wonderful publication. Second, no one mentioned in my article judges how anyone, past or present, handles illness or immunization. The purpose of this article was not political or to stir controversy; it was purely selfish. I wanted to talk to my family and tie current events to the past. I tend to look back to look forward. – Temple