For me, 1963 was a momentous year. A lot of firsts, a lot of unforgettables, and then that horrible public trauma, the assassination of a President.
I didn’t experience the JFK assassination at school with the other third graders. Once again, I was home sick with something or the other. My mother was not teaching that year, and we were watching television in the kitchen with her when Walter Cronkhite made the sad pronouncement.
This essay isn’t about grieving for John Kennedy, it is about my family’s near miss with calamity because “childhood illnesses”, the ones the wife of a now former White House staffer thinks we should “bring back”. Let me put it this way — she is so wrong.
In September 1963 my parents decided that my younger sister should start pre-school. This was 1963 so the rules and regulations, especially rules about staffing a pre-school facility, were very different. Let’s use the word “lax”. My sister sucked her thumb, a common self-soothing behavior seen in some children. A behavior that makes it essential to keep a child’s environment as clean as possible.
Within a few days of her pre-school career my sister contracted the mumps and brought them home to me (we shared a room, cute double beds and all). As I recall the mumps were more boring than anything else, but I liked to read so it was ok with me. This lasted about ten days. My sister’s next attempt at pre-school resulted in a case of the measles, or make that two cases, because, I of course, also came down with the measles. They were itchy. My mother was anxious. There was probably a trip to the pediatrician, Dr. Greenman (my mother preferred white doctors). And there were another ten days or so when I did not go to school.
Once we were cleared to return to school after our bout with the measles, my sister returned to pre-school. This time she brought home chicken pox. I still have the scars. Chicken pox may not be “fatal” but its a miserable slog with itchy, pus-filled skin eruptions that are not supposed to be scratched, get infected, and which (at least on my skin) left ugly, ugly scars. Having two little girls with chicken pox was the limit for my parents. No more pre-school.
Now all of this could probably be chalked up to another case of misadventures in parenting except for the one thing I left out, my brother was a newborn during this siege of common “generally harmless” childhood illness. Newborns die of measles. That must have aged my mother and upset my father to no end. I have no idea what they did with him. I know had I been in their shoes I would have been torn to pieces: how to care for my two sick girls? how to keep my precious new baby boy healthy and safe?
My parents did not have to worry about medical treatment. We had insurance. With my mother not working that year (maternity leave) childcare wasn’t an issue. But how would a single mother working a minimum wage job, who used a county clinic for her children’s care and had a new baby and two very sick older children have fared? My intact family survived mumps, measles, and chicken pox with a lot of amenities that many families with young children didn’t have in 1963 and still do not have in 2019.
As I think back, I don’t believe the two younger children in my family (my baby brother and the baby girl that followed him a few years later) had any of these three diseases. The not worrying was worth a lot to my parents. Frankly its worth a lot to many, many parents. Its freed up doctors and scientists to work on other serious medical problems in children, like leukemia. It means that kids go to school regularly and are not mostly absent, which I was for much of my third grade year.
My position on vaccines (even as a non-parent) is summed up in this story: Word comes that a dam has broken and a flood is headed for a particular farm house. At this point a neighbor drives up and urges the person standing on the porch to get in the back. The person waves the driver off with the statement “God will provide.” The guy in the truck drives off.
Very soon there is water up to the porch. Another neighbor comes by in a boat. Again, an urgent plea is made for the porch person to get in the boat and escape the flood and once again the response is “God will provide.” The guy in the boat rows away. Shortly after this, when he is now standing on the roof, miracle of miracles a helicopter appears and over the loud speaker offers to drop the man a rope he can tie himself up to and be flown to safety. Again, the offer of desperately needed help is rejected in favor the expectation of divine intervention. It comes, a huge burst of flood water and debris rises up, destroys the house and the man drowns.
At the gates of Heaven, the newly departed is asked to explain himself. Well, I was waiting for you God. To which the Deity responds, and who do you think sent the truck, the boat, and the helicopter?
In short: vaccines are a blessing. If you believe otherwise, so be it just don’t expect the rest of the herd to follow your line of thinking.