By Martin Kafka
It’s been a long time since we were children, and for many of us, including myself, I look back on that part of my life during the early 1950’s with an unrequited longing and a micro-filtered recall of positive memories. So, from the vantage point of my current moment, it took a while to recall that our generation did face some very serious common nemeses.
Two related nemeses quickly came to mind: Communism and the threat of an atomic bomb. Communism was an abstract concept for me as a 6-year-old. I was unaware of it as a formidable menace. As for nuclear war, I do remember air raid sirens and bomb shelter drills in school at P.S. 197 In Brooklyn. I recognized even then, however, that hiding under my kindergarten table was not going to make any difference when the Bomb struck.
There was a third nemesis that I recall more personally, a threat posed by an invisible monstrosity that sought out children. It was a threat we all feared, and it must have been especially terrifying for our parents. It was an invisible menace that lurked amongst us like something out of the Steven King’s horror novel “It.” “It” was mostly dormant, patient, hidden, waiting for the right circumstances to strike. “It” had its preferences for warm weather, crowded spaces, and most especially, for defenseless children. “It” was an amorphous, pervasive, and alien creature that, if it could speak in a single voice, would likely malevolently growl, “Give me your children.”
Think summer camps, for example. When “It” struck, “It” could kill, but “It” was more likely to maim or cripple “Its” victims sadistically, as if “It” were engaged in a vengeful war with us and wanted to slowly suffocate children to death.
I remember being a kid with my parents at a summer bungalow colony in New Jersey. “It” struck one of the kids at summer camp. I don’t remember who, as he was not a particular friend of mine, but “It” showed no mercy. After “It” `struck and he died, we cowered in our bungalow, or my brother and I sheepishly played outside on our cabin’s front porch. We didn’t socialize with other kids or adults for several weeks. There was a foreboding silence amongst us, a cloud of fear that crippled our colony’s sense of community. Was there anything we could do? Would “It” strike again? Who might be “Its” next victims?
In 1952, an epidemic year, there were 58,000 new cases of “It” reported in the United States, and more than 3,000 died. It wasn’t until 1955, when I was an eight-year old kid, that I would anxiously look forward to a vaccination shot in my left arm.
Thank God for Jonas Salk. This time, it was American science beckoning to us “Give me your children”– and we did.