Why Childhood Memories Matter

Sunnydale housing project World War II housing, 1941; San Francisco Public Library Photo archive

A child went running from the playground at Sunnydale Projects in the early summer of 1955, beating on doors, breathlessly telling grownups I’d fallen from the monkey bars and couldn’t get up. When she finally found my mother behind one of the uniformly plain front doors, she explained and my mother came running. Trying to learn how to circle the bar and come upright like the older kids, I misplaced my hands and crashed to the ground, dislocating my kneecap.

I spent most of that summer hobbling from my bedroom to the couch. The doctor said my leg had to be immobilized and my mother made sure his orders were followed. There was no TV in most San Francisco homes in those days. Commercial TV broadcasts didn’t extend to the West Coast until 1951. Instead I colored, played with paper dolls, listened to the radio with my mother, and meditated on the swirls and flourishes in our burgundy oriental carpet. I went from cast to elastic bandages, my mother wrapping my knee tightly several times a day. Eventually I was allowed to walk, then permitted to go outside.

That’s how I met her. After walking dutifully for days around the projects, I went to a building beyond the view of our unit’s windows, and ran as fast as I could up and down the narrow sidewalks, testing my knee. A woman came out and asked my name and where I lived. I was only about six and answered truthfully. I went on running. When I got home, my mother said a nice lady had stopped by. My knee stiffened and I sat down, waiting for the wrath because I’d been running. The lady asked, my mother said, if I could come and play with her daughter, who couldn’t go outside because she had polio and couldn’t walk. I knew very well how that felt and agreed to visit.

This fuzzy, black and white, memory comes back now because of a recent conversation with my niece. She lives in Orange County, where a major measles outbreak is under way, and just had a baby. She’s leaning toward not vaccinating her infant daughter. She asked me what I thought about that decision. Trying to remain supportive of her parental prerogatives and not freak out, I said it was her decision, but the memory of the day I met my playmate keeps coming up.

My mother dressed me in nice school clothes the first time I visited and walked me down the hill. We were welcomed, I went inside. In the living room was a large metal cylinder, horizontal sunlight cut through Venetian blinds and striped the gray tube. Only my new friend’s head extended beyond the coffin-like enclosure, a mirror was positioned above her so she could watch the room. The girl’s mother sat me down at a children’s table. She brought me crayons and a stack of coloring books, children’s playing cards, board games. I listened in shocked silence as she explained her daughter, Eunice, couldn’t walk or sit up, that she had to stay in her iron lung, but she could watch and she wanted to see me play. I caught Eunice’s eye in the mirror, sensed her wariness as it slipped into indifference.

Eunice’s mother fluttered about, brought me red Kool-Aid as I colored. She adjusted me in the child’s chair so I could be seen more easily through the mirror. I don’t recall Eunice speaking. She just made animal sounds that signaled her mother when she needed attention. The polio vaccine had not yet been invented.

Child in an iron lung in the 1950s; Rotary International Photo Archive

The vaccine became available when I was about 10. We all got it, everyone, including my parents and grandmother. About 1962, people lined up around the block to receive the vaccine on sugar cubes in the Alvarado Elementary School auditorium in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. There were long tables of nurses passing out doses to grateful families, every member chewing the sweet protection.

Measles documentation photo, U.S. Centers for Disease Control

“I respect your decisions about what’s best for your daughter and support you in whatever you decide,” I told my niece, but told her I had my sons immunized because I’m old enough to remember when immunizations were not available, perhaps with the exception of small pox vaccine, which my mother received in the 1930s as a girl. It left a distinctive scar I often saw on people’s arms when I was a child.

Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says about 30 percent of measles cases develop one or more complications, including pneumonia, which is the complication that is most often the cause of death in young children. Ear infections occur in about 1 in 10 measles cases and permanent loss of hearing can result.

These complications are more common among children under five years of age and adults over 20 years old. As a child, I knew children who were deaf from the effects of measles, the twisted beige wires of their hearing aids draped across their chests as they worked at their desks in school. There was no licensed measles vaccine in the U.S. until 1963.

“Your father had the most horrendous case of mumps I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” I told my niece, hauling up another memory. “His head was literally the size of a basketball. He was very, very sick for weeks, literally. Joyce, Steve (my other siblings) and I also got mumps. There was no vaccine at the time for that virus either. Joyce and Steve were very sick. My case was mild and only put me in bed for a few of days.”

Chicken Pox: Because there was no vaccine, we all had it, I said. My own sons had it, in the 1980s, too.

Whooping Cough: There was no vaccine available and fortunately none of us kids got it.

“If you’ve ever heard the sound of whooping cough, you’ll know it. It’s a horrifying sound,” I told my niece the other day.

In the fall of 1955, I attended first grade at Sunnydale School. My mother was president of the PTA. Eunice and I would have been classmates. She died that winter and her family moved away. My parents bought a house thanks to money they saved living in the projects and we moved away too. But the memory of Eunice, her translucent face and wispy hair spread out on a pillow, her inquiring eyes reflected from the mirror above her head, stay with me and flood back whenever someone talks about the dangers of vaccinating children.

I tell you about this conversation with my niece because I survived a time when common vaccines were not available and hundreds of thousands of children were damaged or died. I got my children immunized because in my view the risk to their health and very lives was too great to ignore. I tell you this in memory of Eunice and because it matters.

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