When one of my granddaughters asked if the Covid-19 experience was like anything I could remember, I said no. But when I thought more about it, I realized that the answer should have been—well, yes, sort of. I recall from my childhood the polio outbreaks of the 1940s, along with bits and pieces of civilian life during World War II. From the early 60s, when I was the mother of young children, I remember very clearly the feeling of helpless panic that followed the discovery that Strontium-90, released into the atmosphere by hydrogen bomb tests, was showing up in milk. Later came the horrors of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s; later still, 9/ll, when something terrible and unexpected slammed not only into the World Trade Center, but into our collective and individual psyches. Flashes and fragments of all these events and situations appear in nighttime dreams and daytime reflections during the present emergency.
I’ve been wondering lately about what it’s like for a child in pandemic and lockdown, so in this post I’ll attend to a child’s memories of distant catastrophes. And because in this disaster we are hostages not only to a virus, but to the psychopathic criminal in the White House and his GOP enablers, such memories inevitably are accompanied by painful reflection.
Childhood summers were dotted with days and weeks when we had to avoid crowds. We didn’t have to stay home, but we couldn’t use public pools, drink from water fountains in the park, or go to movies or drugstores (for those who need to be told, we went to drugstores for ice cream, not drugs!). Childhood illnesses, even colds, produced a degree of anxiety in the grownups that kids absorbed, as kids do. I came down with some kind of flu while visiting friends away from home the summer I was eleven. Being an accomplished little eavesdropper, I got thoroughly scared by the hushed tone of my friend’s mother as she spoke to mine on the phone. Whether or not we had friends or family with polio, we caught some of our parents’ fear, filled our March of Dimes cards, and didn’t complain too much about the restrictions.
Even children knew about President Roosevelt’s polio, and as we grew older we learned about his private and public struggle against the disease that deprived him of the use of his legs. In those days the press was discouraged from showing any presidential weakness, so he was always photographed seated or standing, usually on the arm of his eldest son. Despite this “protection” by the media, everyone knew that the president could not walk. We also heard about his efforts to help polio victims, including himself, regain some use of paralyzed limbs with hydrotherapy. Whenever he could, FDR spent time at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he sponsored and developed a therapeutic center. The president loved exercising in the warm water; he swam with the children and built a “Little White House” at Warm Springs, where he died in 1945. (In her lovely and disturbing memoir, Life Prints: A Memoir of Healing and Discovery, Mary Grimley Mason—the nation’s first “poster child”—recollects, with mixed emotions, a visit to Warm Springs in 1934, when she sat next to the president at Thanksgiving dinner.)
In the context of Covid-19, these faded snapshots of FDR provoke a bitter comparison to our current situation. Even my fiercely Republican mother believed—and in those days could safely assume—that no matter how much she disagreed with his policies, the president put the interests of the country first. Anything else was inconceivable. There was party loyalty, but then there was patriotism; our Commander in Chief, whatever else he might be, was a patriot. Roosevelt’s four sons served in the armed forces during World War II. Unlike Trumps and Kushners, the president and his family were not busy making money off a global tragedy.
With the shocking exception of Japanese Americans, civilians in the U.S. during World War II were not threatened with bombs or detention camps. We had air raid drills at school, but they were neither as memorable nor as futile as the “duck and cover” drills that came later, during the Cold War. We filed out of our classrooms in an orderly line and sat in the corridors, away from windows, until the All Clear. Unlike the active shooter drills that 21st-century children have to endure, these exercises were not frightening or traumatic—at least, not for me. It may have been very different for the classmate who had been evacuated from London to keep her safe from The Blitz.
There were ration books and ration coupons, but the only restrictions I remember are the ones that had an effect on my young life: gas, meat, and sugar. What is now called “nonessential” driving was impossible, so we couldn’t drive to visit friends or take trips on the weekends and during vacations. In the wilds of northwestern Connecticut, going to town was a treat. Groceries were delivered once a week by truck from the village, and the Post Office (then a valued, not a threatened institution) was a dependable source of communication with the outside world. Steak and roast beef appeared only on special occasions, “meatless meals” were encouraged, and cake and candy were doled out sparingly. None of this was a big deal for a child in a comfortable family; like everything else, rationing was much harder on the poor.
Alert to the danger to those who could not pay inflated prices, the government made serious and effective efforts to prevent the gap between rich and poor from expanding in wartime. The Office of Price Administration (OPA) was set up in 1941 to control inflation of rents and all other prices, not only for rationed goods, but for anything made scarce by the war, such as cigarettes and alcohol. There were, of course, black markets, where tires and gasoline and meat and almost anything else could be purchased off the ration or at inflated prices, and certainly there were persons known as “profiteers.” But those who cheated, who took advantage of the war to make money, were shamed and despised. 1940s Republicans generally disliked the bureaucracies of the New Deal, but they did not necessarily assume that the bureaucrats were lining their pockets at public expense. Behavior like that of Trump and his family and cronies may have occurred, but for the vast majority of Americans, it was disgraceful.
During my 1940s childhood, the United States was no more just and genuinely democratic than it has ever been. The same president who comforted the nation with fireside chats and swam with the children at Warm Springs allowed Jewish refugees on the Saint Louis to be sent back to Nazi death camps. In the interests of passing legislation and keeping the Democratic coalition together, he made devil’s deals with the southern senators. I have written about these matters before, and I will again. But for now—maybe “for the duration,” maybe not—there’s no harm in recalling some better aspects of an earlier time. It’s helpful to remember that those who profited from human misery were once shamed and disgraced, and must be again. We should remind ourselves, too, that the president and Congress once worked together to make sure that the resources of the entire country were put to the service of a common struggle, and that the costs and dangers of that struggle were shared as equally as possible among all Americans.