When the dark cloud lifted

When the dark cloud lifted

As preparations went forward earlier this spring for the British royal wedding, my thoughts went back to the summer of 1981, to the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, which I watched with my daughters all those years ago.

For that wedding – which started with shy smiles and royal glitter before dawn on a Maine morning and ended with divorce and death in a short, stubby traffic tunnel in Paris – I had risen early to make raspberry muffins. Celebration was in the air.

This year, when the royal carriages creaked to life for William and Catherine, I didn’t even make coffee. In fact, I slept right through it. The hour was early. I needed more sleep. Not even herald trumpets could blast me out of bed.

Ageing, ah yes, the process of growing older. It’s one of the things you notice when you contemplate things like royal weddings or women’s health over the decades.

You notice it, too, in darker episodes of life – including the sense of terrorism revisited that struck a few days after the wedding, with the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Looking back now on becoming an adult in the mid-20th century, I’m most thankful for something that is no longer a part of our lives. It can be summed up in a single five-letter word – polio – that hung over the summertimes of those years like a dark cloud glued to a paper horizon.

No question, today’s children are by no means immune to fear. Terrorism, tornadoes, tsunamis – all the “terrible t’s” and more loom as daily headlines in their lives. But the polio years were different.

Polio was a personal disease. It lived next door. It was transmitted by viruses in a personal way from swimming holes and neighbors in a crowded movie theater. The results were visible and unavoidable – from the paralysis that bound a president to his wheelchair to the barely perceptible limp of a friend. And always there were the unspoken questions. Is polio stalking me? Will I be next?

Into that fearsome world at mid-century stepped two remarkable scientists, one named Jonas Salk, the other Albert Sabin. Working from different vantage points, they attacked the virus that had attacked so many children. They developed vaccines – one injectible, the other oral, one using deactivated virus and the other using live virus – and despite societal odds, they put them to work.

In 1960, there were 2,525 cases of paralytic polio in this country. By 1965, that number had dropped – plummeted, really – to 61. As the century moved on, between 1980 and 1990, the number of paralytic polio cases in our country ran no more than eight per year. And none of those cases was caused by the wild polio virus. In fact, no case has been attributed to the wild polio virus since 1979.

And for the real crown of laurel leaves, consider this: In 1994 polio was declared eradicated in all of the Americas.

That is a majestic human achievement.

Yet for those of us who remember viscerally the gut fear of polio, the memories continue to play out. And fear plays out with them.

It is still hard for me to write about an outing I took with my parents as an 8- or 9-year-old to the train depot in Lewiston to see a special visitor to our Twin Cities.

The train stood silent on the track for visitors to board. My parents and I joined a long line of people stretched along the platform. All quiet, all looking apprehensive and vulnerable. I wasn’t sure what was going on.

We walked slowly up and across the narrow platform and into the even narrower corridor of the train itself. There, inhaling and exhaling in laborious mechanical rhythm, stood an enclosed metal bed. For a moment I thought it was a deep-sea diver come ashore. And then I looked again and marveled, part in fear, part in admiration, at my first sight of an iron lung.

Inside lay a young woman, her eyes alert, her hair carefully brushed, looking at us in a small mirror angled over her head even as a nurse monitored her constantly for any sign of trouble. I didn’t realize it then, but the sight was one of the most indelible I would ever see in my life.

The machine linked the young woman to life. And she knew it.

I was far luckier. I had the Sabin vaccine.

And the poliomyelitis virus had no place to hide.


Nancy Grape served for 16 years as an editorial writer and member of the editorial board for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. Her column commenting on state and national affairs for the Telegram ran for 25 years.

Nancy Grape

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