I joined the club back in January (2018). After three days of miserable sickness, I went to my pcp. He asked me what my symptoms were, and I told him I had them all. “You name it, I’ve got it.” His assistant did a flu swab up my nose, and when the doctor got the results, he remarked, “Wow! A double whammy!” I shuddered to think what exotic disease I had contracted when he explained, “You have influenza A and influenza B.” What the??? Well, I thought, nothing a little Tamaflu can’t tackle. But that wasn’t the end of it. I contracted bronchitis the next day. Ironically, I had received a flu shot! My doctor told me that 80% of his patients who had contracted the flu had also received a flu shot.
Still, I consider myself lucky. I was good to go in two weeks. Others were not so fortunate. A friend contracted double pneumonia after the flu, spent time in the ICU, and after being discharged, had to spend one month on oxygen. Still others, thinking they had a simple case of flu, are no longer with us.
Two weeks confined to my house summoned recollections of my childhood illnesses. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, there were few vaccines, leaving us open to multiple diseases.
When I was a kid back then, the flu was a common illness, just as it is today. According to my mother’s notations in her Your Baby’s Record book, my sister Sandy and I had the flu in March of 1956, and Billy and Shirley contracted it on October 9, 1957. Then there was the family scourge of 1959. Four of us siblings came down with the flu at the same time—between March 18 and 20, 1959. Can you imagine my poor mother caring for four sick-as-a-dog kids all at once? The only sibling who did not contract the dreaded plague that year was Sandy. She was only three years old and not yet in school, so my mother had to deal with a little one bounding around the house while tending to four sick ones. The ides of March must have been hell for my mother in 1959.
The influenza vaccine was first approved for civilian use in the United States in 1945. However, I don’t remember getting them as a young child. The standard vaccines that we received in the 1950’s and 1960’s were polio and the threesome of diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough, including boosters.
There was also the mighty smallpox vaccine that left an unmistakable depressed round scar on the upper arm of every kid who got one. Well, almost every kid. Mine never showed up, which could have been a problem because some schools and facilities used the “vaccination mark” as proof that the child had indeed received the necessary inoculation. It was just as legitimate as a paper document. My mother worried about mine not being able to be seen, so the doctor repeated the vaccination for me. That didn’t work, either.
Routine smallpox vaccinations ended in 1972 when the disease was eradicated in the U.S. If you see an American with a scar ring on his upper arm, he is most likely around 45 years or older. I have seen some marks at least an inch in diameter.
Today’s required vaccinations include polio; the threesome of diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis; the threesome of measles, mumps, and rubella; plus hepatitis B and varicella (chicken pox).
Now, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it seemed like a kid’s rite to passage into adulthood was acquiring the “big three”: measles, mumps, and chicken pox. They were hard to escape, and they could be brutal. I had them all. So did my brothers and sisters and most of my classmates. Yes, without vaccines, the big three ran rampant through schools and families.
Just about everyone who was a child of the 50’s or 60’s contracted chicken pox. It is a highly contagious viral infection, and once it started in your family or classroom, your chances of getting it were great. There were 50+ students in my Catholic school classroom, so there were 50+ ways to catch it. There could be 10 kids absent with chicken pox at the same time. Besides the usual symptoms, such as fever and headache, you were treated to itchy pink or red bumps that developed small fluid-filled blisters. Those eventually broke and leaked, forming crusts and scabs. If you were really unlucky, it would travel into your throat and eyes.
In PLOS Blogs, Sharon P., a lawyer in NYC, reminisces: “I had chicken pox in the third grade. I got hundreds, in my nostrils, in my throat, on my scalp, everywhere inside and outside. I couldn’t blink without it hurting. I wore gloves at night so I wouldn’t scratch my face. I couldn’t swallow, so I couldn’t eat. When I was finally better and put on shoes, they were too big because I’d lost so much weight. It was horrific. I was 8.”
Oh, it was nasty. According to my mother’s records in her book, I had chicken pox in 1954 when I was 3 years old. I wasn’t attending school yet, so one of my brothers and/or sisters must have shared theirs with me. Thankfully, once you get chicken pox, you will be almost guaranteed to be immune for life.
The chicken pox vaccine was licensed in the United States in 1995.
Remember the highly contagious measles? It starts with fever, runny nose, cough, and inflamed eyes. Three to five days later, a flat red rash develops on the face and then spreads to the rest of the body.
According to the New York Times, “In 1963, when the vaccine first came into existence, measles virus infected about three million people a year in the United States, hospitalized 48,000 and killed 500. By the turn of the 21st century, however, measles infections had been virtually eliminated.”
According to my mother’s records and substantiated by her recollections, I had a mild case of measles when I was a baby about 6 months old in 1951. That’s no surprise considering that Eddie, Billy, and Shirley had it as well at the same time.
I’m sure that was another epic event that Mother had to deal with in addition to cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry for seven people. It is commonly believed that once you get measles, you are immune for life, but there have been exceptions . . . and I am one of them. I got full-fledged measles on January 24, 1964.
I also had German measles, otherwise known as rubella or 3-day measles, in 1955 when I was 4 years old. It is not related to measles (rubeola) and is milder than that disease, exhibiting symptoms similar to the flu. German measles were quite common among kids from 5 to 9 years old in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but greatly subsided with a rubella vaccine introduced in 1969. You rarely hear of a case today.
Then there were the mumps, a contagious viral infection that swells the salivary glands. They made you look like a chipmunk, but not a happy one, that’s for sure. I was somewhat lucky; I only had the mumps on one side. Having it on both sides was double the pain and anguish: fever, headache, muscle aches, and loss of appetite. Even if you had an appetite, the pain inside your mouth made it nearly impossible to chew or eat for days.
Complications of these “big three” childhood diseases are bacterial infections, pneumonia, encephalitis, and meningitis, among others.
When it came to my school attendance and that of my siblings, my mother was as unyielding as General Patton. Your throat could feel like a raging brush fire. You could be sneezing, snorting, and sniffling with a Kleenex plastered to your nose to catch the drippings. You could have a beastly belly ache. Long story short, you could be on death’s door, but unless you were throwing up or had a rash or fever of 99+ degrees, you were going out the door. There was no use embellishing.
On the other hand, when my mother had determined that we were legitimately ill, she morphed into Florence Nightingale. She did whatever it took to comfort us: placing a cold compress on our foreheads, rubbing Vicks Vapo Rub on our chests, massaging our legs with lotion until the pain subsided. She always had the “puke basket” at the ready and never complained about cleaning up messes.
One of my fondest memories was my Mother entering my bedroom with lunch on a metal tray, a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup with oyster crackers lifting my spirits on the spot. We had no dishwasher, which was the case in most American homes until the 1970’s, so whenever even one member of the family was sick, she boiled water and poured it over every dish and utensil that we seven inhabitants used.
If you are a baby boomer or older, you may recall “house calls.” A real doctor, typically your family doctor, came right up to your bedroom to examine you. That was way better than having to drag your feverish, spotted body to the doctor’s office, where you could infect the whole waiting room with one cough or sneeze. I still remember Dr. K at my bedside, leaning over me with his stethoscope, assuring me that I would get better soon.
Sadly, once the worst was over, and I was welcoming myself back to the land of the living, Florence Nightingale turned back into General Patton. My joy was promptly stifled when Mother mounted the stairs and turned the corner at the landing with a pot full of warm, soapy water in her hand. Then she rummaged through the hall closet and pulled out the red rubber water bottle and all its dreaded attachments. There was no doubt at that point. My fate was sealed. She was preparing to give me an enema. It was a common practice in the 50’s and earlier, even routine in some households, but the red rubber contraption mainly came out in our house when we were sick. It was considered a “physic,” which would detoxify our bodies, so they said.
Against my will, she led me into the torture chamber formerly known as the bathroom. She made me take off my clothes and lie on a cold hard torture slab formerly known as the bathtub with just a towel between it and me. The tears flowed; I was so frightened. Why had my mother no compassion, I asked myself? Okay, enough of that harrowing memory.
The best thing about having measles and mumps was soon to follow. My mother strictly adhered to Dr. K’s instructions, including this one: Do not send your child to school until 24 hours after his/her fever has returned to normal. Well, one can function adequately at 99℉, so that meant NO SCHOOL, and I could play quietly all day. Unless another sibling was also home sick, I had the house all to myself (not counting my mother), a rare occurrence in our household of seven. I could read The Wheel on the School, make pot holders on my loom, or play Uncle Wiggly with myself.
If you were “jinxed,” your bliss would be disrupted by some fool sibling bringing home school work so that you could get caught up.
By the way, remember the old oral mercury thermometers that you had to shake and then keep under your tongue for 3 minutes? The glass was easy to break, but then you got to play with the mercury!
If you grew up in the seventies or beyond, you may have never experienced the wonders of measles, mumps, or chicken pox (or enemas). Disappointed to have missed out? If you haven’t been immunized, and you try hard enough, you might able to rustle up a case of chicken pox, which at your age, could be especially dreadful.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.