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Column: Vaccine visions

We were all lined up outside for the vaccine.

It was a sunny, pleasant day, perfect for a new sort of adventure. A little bit subdued and watchful, we were steeling ourselves for the nurse jabbing our arms with a needle.

It was an exotic moment, for in 1955, my group of fellow 4th graders barely understood what was going on at our school. At the time it was one of the largest nationwide vaccination programs undertaken in the country and the menace was polio.

Jonas Salk had delivered his vaccine and the country was on the road to medical salvation.

We were ready to do our part.

I can’t remember if it was my first shot. Back then all kids seemed to have their mandatory bouts with measles, mumps and chicken pox. Vaccines for those familiar maladies were in the future.

So we’d be bedridden and moms would be solicitous, hovering nearby to supply comfort food and tend to our needs.

You dealt with the swollen jaws and skin rashes and stayed home from school for a few days, which back then was considered a kind of deprivation. In suburban St. Louis, in our upper middle class city, going to school was fun, safe and interesting.

Hanging out at home, not so much.

Polio, by today’s plague standards, was nearly a non-event. In the early ‘50s, deaths from the disease averaged around 1,800 a year, while today COVID-19 is killing 2,500 a day in its unimaginable rampage. But at the time polio had seized everyone’s attention.

In our new subdivision we had a case. Stevie Scott, a good kid who had an excellent throwing arm for his size, came down with it and was quarantined at home. I don’t remember if any social distancing rules were in place, but if there were, we neighborhood kids ignored them.

Almost every day during summer vacation we would gather outside his bedroom’s screen window and talk boy talk (the girls didn’t seem as interested) as Stevie propped himself on his elbows in his bed.

He was always in fine spirits and never seemed to be in any discomfort. But we never knew what became of Stevie, polio-wise, since his family moved away to points unknown.

We did not like the childless family that took over the Scott’s house and Stevie might have drifted away from our memory banks altogether had it not been for his mother.

I was not alone in my infatuation with Mrs. Scott. All the boys, and some of the girls, were her rabid fans. She was petite and raven-haired and had no particular physical traits that would account for her attractiveness.

I don’t remember her even showing up that often during our screen-window sessions with Stevie.

When she did, we would be too awe-struck to talk to her so we couldn’t point to any witty mom-badinage on her part, as if we had any notion of what witty mom-badinage would be.

She would say “Hi” and that was about it. But we boys thought she said “Hi” in the coolest way imaginable. From this faraway adult vantage, I can only surmise that Mrs. Scott had that elan that comes from the self-knowledge of her innate hipness. Those people so endowed walk confidently through the world.

As I write, the Pfizer trucks started rolling from Michigan with the plague vaccine. We have no idea how the inoculation routine will go down in the city or, perhaps on the Island. Unlike that day in 1955 at W.W. Keysor School, my arms have been jabbed 10,000 times. But I have never been so eager to get a shot in my life. I hope Stevie Scott is still around, somewhere, to get one.

If Mrs. Scott is still with us, she’ll be the coolest geezer in the nursing home and everyone’s favorite resident. With hardly saying a word.