My Brooklyn neighborhood was mixed ethnically and racially. There were Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews, African Americans (called colored then) and a sprinkling of Hispanics and Slavs. I'm not saying it was a big love fest, but by and large we all got along. Then came the gangs. Whites resented blacks moving into the neighborhood, and prowled the streets in roving packs to keep them out. Blacks retaliated by making raids into white neighborhoods looking for white boys foolish enough to walk the streets alone at night. Whites fled in droves to Long Island to get away from the violence. I still carry around some racial prejudice from those difficult days. It was hard to watch neighborhood real estate prices plunge, and a ghetto develop where a nice, mixed, middle-class neighborhood used to be.
During the 1950s, there wasn't a block in the neighborhood that wasn't touched by one of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the time, polio. Also called infantile paralysis, polio struck seemingly at random. By 1950 the peak age incidence of "paralytic poliomyelitis" in the United States had shifted from infants to children aged five to nine years. It was not uncommon to see previously healthy children who used to run and play with you now wearing clumsy and painful leg braces. Frantic parents were terrified that their child would be next. Then God sent us a miracle man named Dr. Jonas Salk who, on April 12, 1955 announced the Salk vaccine, based on a polio virus grown in the lab and administered by injection. An orally administered version came out in 1958. The vaccine literally wiped out the disease, and a huge sigh of relief went up around the world.
The cold war raged in the 1950s as Russia and the United States played a dangerous game of brinksmanship. The movie "Dr. Strangelove" portrayed with dark humor the fears that prevailed at the time. In school, the brothers and the nuns drilled us in what to do if we were ever attacked by the godless heathen Russians. The first thing was to swallow your religious medal if you were wearing one, after all, what other reason was there for the Russians to invade us than to steal our religious medals. Next we were to duck and cover...kneel down under our wooden desks and cover our heads...what radiation fallout could penetrate that! In the streets there were public fallout shelters set up underground at various locations for people to go to in the event of an air raid. Knowing the high anxiety we endured back then, it's easy to understand why people my age don't usually complain about being searched at the airport. We almost welcome the grope.
Yes we had problems in the Fifites, but you know, we didn't obsess about them. Back then, by the time news was reported, most of the consequences of any possible threat were already past. We now live in an age of instant, over-sensationalized communication. Television is not content with just reporting the news, they must punch it up for a jaded audience with a five-second MTV attention span. And so a "chance of showers" becomes "a dangerous Noreaster"; or "two cases of West Nile virus" turns into "a possible city-wide epidemic"...you get the picture. Sometimes I think we were better off before all the electronic wolf-crying. Hey, I had my Lash Larue western comics and a fresh package of Yankee Doodles...Russians, do your worst!
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