Philip Roth is so egregiously sexist that I haven’t read him in years. Thus it was dicey when I saw that his new book, one in a series of small novels, is about polio. The word brought me up short. I am old enough to remember polio before Salk, although I don’t particularly remember it. What I remember is a story. So I read Roth’s book, entitled Nemesis.
The year is 1944, it’s summer and unbearably hot in Newark, New Jersey, Roth’s home town. Bucky Cantor, 4F for impaired vision, is a playground director in a Jewish neighborhood where one by one the boys succumb to the dread disease. Bucky flees to work at an idyllic camp in the Poconos with his girlfriend, but it’s “The Masque of the Red Death” all over again, although reviewers consistently compare the book to Camus’ The Plague. I guess Camus sounds more impressive than Poe.
In any event, Bucky’s life is shattered, not so much by polio as by a retro-macho nice-guyness Roth captures in one sentence – “But there’s nobody less salvageable than a ruined good boy”. The viral epidemic that ambushed an entire generation is only a framework for Bucky’s story, a sort of minor American tragedy. But after closing the book I couldn’t stop thinking about polio, and the story I remember.
Nobody talks about polio any more; it’s been nearly eliminated by the Salk and then Sabin vaccines. But I was
thirteen when I got that first Salk inoculation. The specter of paralysis and death hung over every summer of a long childhood in which I was not really aware of any specters. The perceptions of children are nothing like the perceptions of adults. I knew about infantile paralysis, as it was called then, heard about it on the radio, saw pictures of kids in iron lungs in The Saturday Evening Post. But I was not an adult and couldn’t internalize or project the horror of it.
Instead, I resented not being allowed to go to the Saturday morning movies. Kids could get in for three or four metal milk bottle caps from Nugent’s Dairy, and we wrapped these bottle caps around the spokes of bicycle wheels until Saturday. They made a satisfactory noise, sliding up and down. After weeks went by when terrified parents forbade the dangerous massing of children inside a dark, dirty, pre-air-conditioning movie theater, the rattle of accumulated bottle caps on countless bicycles all over town assumed the nature of a peevish choir. I sulked bitterly over missing my favorite serial, “Kharis the Mummy,” and did not worry about paralysis and death.
We were forbidden to wade barefoot in the flooded streets after storms, and waded anyway. Flooded streets were irresistible despite inevitable cuts and scrapes from the teeming debris of backed-up storm sewers. The specter haunted only adults, the parents whose terrible job is to keep children alive. Oblivious, we sailed plastic bathtub boats in filthy water, falling deliberately, pretending to swim.
So summers went by, each with identical warnings despite which I didn’t get polio and none among my seven cousins got polio. Nobody in my Sunday school class got polio, and nobody in my grade school. None of the neighbor kids with whom I played cowboys and war all day, every day, got polio. And then one did.
I’ll call her Judy Underwood, and she lived a block from me but went to a different school. We were the same age, six or seven, and still forbidden to cross streets alone. We played on our respective blocks, but I knew who she was – a blonde girl who wore dresses all the time, an anomaly when everybody else ran around in bibbed blue jeans. The news that she was in an iron lung in the hospital I could see from my house, and not expected to live through the night, prompted a quiet, primitive response in what I would later understand is a gemeinschaft context. A community rather than a society. A small town. I’ve lived in cities all my adult life, but I revere the gemeinschaft for what I learned that night.
Judy Underwood was Catholic and her family attended an historic church down on the river five blocks away, founded by a Jesuit missionary in 1749. Its proper name is the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, but then and now everybody calls it “The Old Cathedral.” It’s gorgeous in that old Catholic way, rococo, statue-laden and possessed of encrypted bishops and a reliquary containing the teeth of a saint. A vigil for the life of Judy Underwood was somehow immediately organized at the Old Cathedral. There would be people there in shifts, all night, praying for her survival. One of these would be my thoroughly agnostic father.
He took me there in the afternoon and we sat quietly amid flickering candles for a while, then went home. He didn’t say anything; he didn’t have to. I knew why I was there. A kid just like me, a kid I sort of knew, was in a big metal cylinder because she couldn’t breathe. Before morning even the iron lung might not be able to make her breathe, and she would die. I was expected to be present in this magical concentration of intent that it not happen.
In the middle of that night, in the very bowels of the night when children are never awake, I heard my parents get up. There were quiet footsteps, then the door opening and closing. I heard my mother go back to bed, and knew my father had gone to take his turn at the vigil amid the flickering candles.
I saw Judy Underwood a few years ago. She came to a booksigning event a friend and I did together in our home town. She’s a grandmother now, still fashionably dressed, her hair colored and frosted in a way reminiscent of flickering candles, although I didn’t say that to her. I couldn’t say that. Her story is something else entirely that I can never know. Mine is the candles.
And what I learned from polio that night is that you don’t have to believe anything. What you have to do is show up.