Chester Martin Remembers The Bad Old Days For Kids In Chattanooga

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Only "yesterday" the children of our town were beset with a long list of childhood diseases which have gradually, and gladly, gone away. Or they are so rare that they do not make the headlines anymore.  Seldom does an entire school system have to close due to a whooping cough or measles epidemic. But in my day we could expect to have "mumps" by "this" age, and "chicken-pox" by "that." If you had not had chicken-pox by a certain age, then you could expect to have some other malady before the onset of something worse.

There was an entire rigmarole for what could be expected "next," and "German" measles was especially feared. Fortunately, if a major epidemic did not ensue, the worst effect from most of these diseases was the dreaded sentence of having to spend several days in bed!

But then there was POLIO! That was the great scourge of my generation! It would strike anyone - mainly children - totally out of the blue, and mainly in summer. It could cripple you instantly - for life - to be spent in an "iron lung" breathing machine. We would hear of this terrible disease  suddenly breaking out in a distant city and it would send shudders throughout the nation. These polio epidemics inevitably led to swimming-pool closings - as at our Warner Park and Lake Winnie. (Lake Winnie's pool was where the carousel is today). Any place where children normally congregated was closed. Our mothers would be terrified, clearly, and restrict our movements to our own neighborhood. Movie theaters were also on the list of dangerous places, so there were few "safe" places for kids. Some feeble efforts to have children's programs on the radio were made, but  the ones I heard were not very entertaining. (The age of TV cartoons was still far in the future!)  Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of NYC read the "funnies" to the local kids of New York.

The big Polio scares lasted all through the 1940's, 1950's, and into the early 1960's, when at long last a CURE was discovered! A truly great Jewish physician, Dr. Jonas Salk, made the astounding discovery and oversaw its FREE distribution nationwide! No bureaucratic heel-dragging prevented its immediate dissemination to the public, and long lines formed here in Chattanooga at the end of Kilmer Street, near the entrance to Memorial hospital. A trailer-type clinic was set up there specially for giving out this new and miraculous wonder-drug. My wife and I went as newlyweds and remember the absolute simplicity of taking the serum:  just a small lump of sugar in a paper cup containing Dr. Salk's newfound cure! Why hadn't someone thought this up sooner? Polio was wiped out immediately, and, although there have been very small outbreaks of it since, it is a disease of the past! Dr. Salk could have become a multi-billionaire if he had wanted, but chose to GIVE his great discovery to the American people! Let's not forget him!

At a much earlier age than mine, even, Yellow Fever was equally eradicated by some good old American Ingenuity!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin


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