“It’s just a little needle,” Mom would say as my lips started to tremble and my chin started to quiver. “And you’re such a big, strong boy.”
Big? Yes, I was certainly that. Even when I was little I was big – up and down as well as side to side. And strong? Well, that was debatable as long as my skinny sister Kathy could beat me in leg and arm wrestling. But even if I was the biggest, strongest little guy in the world, it didn’t change one simple, indisputable fact: I was scared to death of those needles.
“But my salk is fine,” I whined. “I have a great salk. It doesn’t need a shot.”
“You don’t have a salk,” Mom explained as she gathered up her purse and the car keys to take me to the school for my shot. “Salk is the name of the man who developed the vaccine: Dr. Jonas Salk. It will keep you from getting polio.”
“I’d rather have polio than get a shot,” I insisted.
Hey, I had been sick before. When I had the chicken pox Grandma and Grandpa Arrowsmith brought me a new toy fire truck – which I promptly threw up on. And when I had the mumps, my big brother Bud fixed me up with a raw weenie and a bottle of Coke and then took me for a ride in his car – which I promptly threw up in. I survived those illnesses just fine (although I can’t say as much for my new fire truck and the interior of Bud’s car). Surely I could handle polio – whatever that was.
Mom gave me a look that I now recognize as the look of a parent who is momentarily torn between mercy (“My poor baby!”) and justice (“I hope you get polio so you can know what a stupid thing you just said!”). She took a deep breath and tried to explain.
“Polio is a horrible disease,” she said. “It cripples you. If you get polio you won’t be able to play baseball or ride your bike or go swimming. Eventually it will kill you, just like it killed President Roosevelt.”
Even though President Roosevelt was a little before my time, I had seen pictures of him. And he was smiling in every picture I had ever seen of him – a great big clenched teeth smile. If that’s what polio did to you, I reasoned, bring it on – especially if it meant skipping the Salk shot.
“Maybe if I get polio,” I said, carefully choosing my words, “I can be president, too.”
It was at that point that Mom unilaterally decided that the discussion was over.
“Get in the car,” she said in a tone that made it clear that any further argument from me would result in a response that would make the shot feel like a gentle tickle by comparison. So I wearily trudged the green mile to the car, which transported me to the school. After standing in line for what seemed like hours with other condemned children, I tearfully rolled up my sleeve while a nurse with a wart on her nose rubbed some smelly stuff on my chubby arm. Then she pulled out the needle – it was a foot and a half long, I swear – and injected me with some potion concocted by the evil, diabolical Dr. Salk, tormentor of children everywhere.
I don’t mind telling you, the shot hurt. And yes, I cried.
But I never got polio. Neither did any of my friends, whose mothers also made them get the shot despite weeping, wailing and protestation. The fact is, Dr. Salk’s vaccine – painfully administered though it may have been – led to the eventual eradication of the disease in the United States and most of the Western world. And now, 55 years after the Salk shot was officially announced, I’m forced to admit that Mom was right about this just as she was right about most things: the pain was worth it.
Not to mention the crying time.