Stuff On My Mind

Epidemics, pandemics and plagues are on my mind, for some reason.

My dad had scarlet fever when he was a young boy. I’m not exactly sure of the timing, and there’s no one to ask anymore, but I’m thinking he was ten or younger, as it stunted his growth. Both of his brothers – one younger, one older – topped out taller than six feet with broad shoulders and solid, if not exactly burly, builds. Dad was five-seven, maybe five-eight, and was maybe 150 pounds when he went into the Army at the age of twenty.

He remembered their home being quarantined. No one in or out. The house still stands across the street from the Lutheran Church in Cambridge, Minnesota, somewhat neglected but still occupied from what we could tell during a stop at the adjacent cemetery last summer. It’s not large at all, and I imagine it was crowded and probably tense during the weeks of quarantine.

Let’s say Dad was ten when he was ill, making it sometime after the autumn of 1929. That means that the eldest of his seven siblings was nineteen and the youngest was six. Now, my Aunt Emeline, the eldest, may have already left home to be a teacher, but still, that leaves seven children and my grandparents and Uncle Charlie – my grandmother’s uncle (whose rocking chair sits in our bedroom) – all cooped in a smallish house. I don’t know what time of year it was, but it had to be uncomfortable as well as frightening.

I don’t really know how prevalent scarlet fever was, so I dug a bit and found a chart at the website of the Minnesota Department of Health that noted there were 4,030 cases in Minnesota in 1930, with thirty-eight deaths. (Two decades earlier, in 1910, Minnesota saw 4,117 cases with 284 deaths, which tells me the incidence of the disease was probably higher than in 1930, assuming a smaller population in 1910, and treatment was much less successful.)

Over the years, I’ve thought about plagues and epidemics on a historical level, reading about the Black Death’s periodic visits to Europe in the Middle Ages and other outbreaks. I recall one fine book, Justinian’s Flea, which examined the source of the plague that devastated the eastern Roman Empire in the sixth and seventh centuries CE. And now I read about a pandemic in my state and nation.

I’m too young to actually remember the polio epidemics of the late 1940s and early 1950s. My mom once told me that the fear was palpable, especially among parents of young children, and towns and cities were eerily quiet. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The previously referenced chart says that there were 258 cases of polio in the state in 1940, and then lays out the total for each year in the first five years after World War II:

1946: 2,881
1947: 201
1948: 1,387
1949: 1,715
1950: 502

I was born in 1953, and it was not uncommon during my childhood to see people – usually children but sometimes adults – using crutches and wearing bulky braces on withered legs. To a kid who was maybe eight, that was scary. By then, there were vaccines, of course, first the Salk and then the Sabin, but even if we were safe from polio, what else might there be out there that could kill us or – likely worse to the eight-year-old mind – cripple us?

And now, there’s novel corona. I’m sixty-six, and I long ago had a lung ailment that’s seemed not to have left any lingering damage, but still, that’s there. So I have some anxiety, even as we do the things we should here. And I’m reasonably certain that if everyone does the things they’re supposed to do, we’ll get through.

And here I take a deep breath and offer Holly Wilson’s bossa nova take on Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.” It’s from her 2006 album Pink Floyd En Bossa Nova. Enjoy (and ignore the line about racing towards an early grave).

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One Response to “Stuff On My Mind”

  1. Alison McDermott says:

    I contracted polio in 1947, Australia, six weeks of age It was so hard for my parents, I was the youngest of three.

    Love your musical essays. Stay safe.

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