I was still in the sixth grade or had just finished. I remember puzzling about what went on the junior high school next door that I was going to enter in the fall. As a child I did a lot of thinking to myself, telling little of it to adults, and I was not particularly figety in the line with my mom, as long as we kept moving, I could think my own thoughts, and the light, pleasant breeze blew by us on a day that was slightly, lightly, overcast.
Then we were in the door and moving slowly down the hall, shiny sky blue bricks on the walls, blonde wood class doors, and dark and light linoleum, stripped and shiny from fresh wax, four tiles each, alternating in squares that went on forever. Finally, we went through a door to the left where nurses in white had stacks of tiny paper cups into which they were measuring a few drops of a clear liquid.
I was given one, drank it, (it was cool and very slightly bitter) and left, and poliomyelitis, the great crippling scourge worse than an infant's death, was conquered in America. In all, over the next two years, 100,000 people, largely at risk children, were so publicly vaccinated.
This is the most prominent memory that comes to me when I think of the America I was born in and which is now irretrievably lost. Parents, children, doctors, nurses, teachers, principals, school boards, civic leaders, and government officials all cooperating to put away forever the childhood leg braces, cuff crutches, and the huge, sinister iron lungs which did the breathing for the worst of the victims.
It was the most natural thing in the world--that great sense of public cooperation, in the public interest, and with public pride to rid everyone's children of suffering. It impetus came from the President who had been crippled for life by that very disease, Franklin Roosevelt, and it was never opposed--even by his political adversaries (who were many and bitter).
And his adversaries never, ever--even when they owned newspapers like William Randolph Hearst or magazines like Henry Luce--published a single picture of Roosevelt in braces, or in his wheelchair, because polio was so clearly America's enemy.
That America of my childhood was mortally sick by 1968. That was the year of the greatest equality in the distribution of the country's wealth among its citizens that there had been since before the Civil War. But bad management of the economy in war, public intolerance of any criticism of that management, and the consequent runaway inflation, destroyed the vision of a land freed from poverty by public trust.
The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, combined with that badly managed war, split the sense of a common ground of public interest, public trust, and public spirit into two ideologies eternally at war for whom politics became a take-no-prisoners enterprise--ultimately alienating the ordinary American from the notion of responsible politics itself. And by 1980--the date of the first major victory, and the first political killing ground, of one of those ideologies--the America of my childhood was dead.
I sometimes wonder what would happen if the scourge of AIDS were suddenly tamable, like polio, by an easy, cheap and clean vaccine which has left only a handful of cases of polio worldwide. Would we take the time, make the effort, and put aside our ideologies, to make it happen?