Mom packed the lunch, salami and baloney sandwiches on rye, a bag of fruit, a jar of freshly made lemonade and we were off to Coney Island for a summer picnic on the beach. Dad carried the bag of towels and my brother toted the blanket and other beach accessories as we marched to the trolley and the half-hour ride.
I was ten years old and on this hot August day in 1949 our family joined countless others on the beach at Bay 8 of Coney Island. With no home air conditioning, this is where Brooklyn went to cool off in the summer. Blankets were packed so close on the sand that it was not uncommon to roll off your own territory and onto a neighbor’s. When you went to the water it was essential to remember landmarks on the beach, such as a distinctive blanket, so that you could find your spot when you returned. There were always people wandering after they drifted an unknown distance in the surf and lost their landmark. To compare the scene to the masses that crowd the Ganges was no exaggeration.
Beneath the scene of thousands noisily playing on the beach, there was a silent undercurrent, like a volcano set to erupt. Amidst the pastoral scene, the scourge of that time, polio, was in the back of every parent’s mind. It was a time when no single word instilled terror more than hearing someone cry out “polio.” It was no less cause to bolt than the shout of “fire” in a packed theater.
The results of the disease were in the newspapers showing children imprisoned in a metal chamber called the iron lung. Life — real life — and polio did not coexist. And worse yet, it was imagined to be so communicable that merely looking at an infected person plagued you.
I wandered to the water’s edge to dig in the wet sand, carefully counting the blankets that I passed taking special note of the final landmark so, on return, I could find our spot. After a short time playing at the water’s edge, with my pants full of sand, I lost track of the time. I built my sandcastle with wet sand dripping between my fingers. The air was filled with sounds that nearly drowned out the surf; people playing, laughing and yelling. The roar was so constant that it became the baseline for beach enjoyment. And then, suddenly, there was an eerie silence. It seemed to last for a long time. Swimmers rushed out of the water searching for their families. People dashed in every direction.
Suddenly, everything changed from untroubled to alarming. As if to justify the panic, the word spread quickly and loudly; “Polio!” No one knew or cared how it started or whether the terror was justified. Frightened, with faces conveying dread, they ran. Blankets were quickly rolled up and dragged off the beach. Bay 8 was being abandoned to flee the dreaded scourge. With my landmarks gone, I had little to go on and I froze. The word “polio” kept being repeated as if it were the devil’s mantra; polio, polio polio. Looking down the beach, far in the distance, I could see the wave of panic spreading as people started a mass migration towards the boardwalk and off the beach. Not knowing where to go, I stood my ground at the water’s edge to protect my sand castle from the stampede.
But watching everyone rush to the exit under the boardwalk, I eventually felt the need to join. I was torn between staying where I would find my family and rushing with the crowd that might include my parents. Meanwhile, in hushed voices, I heard “polio, polio.” In a very short time the beach became sparsely populated, a dramatic change from the tightly packed mob minutes before. I gave in to the urge and ran with the last of the crowd toward the exit of Bay 8. There, I heard my Dad’s voice, “Arthur, Arthur, here,” and I stopped short. He ran over to me and scooped me off the sand and onto his back. We trotted back towards the water where Mom was standing next to our blanket looking down the beach with her hands shielding her eyes from the sun. My brother was looking in the other direction. As we regrouped, my mother said, “Now that everyone is gone, it’s safe to stay. Baloney or Salami?”
For more honest memories of mid-century Brooklyn seen through the eyes of a 10-12 year old (that would be me), go to http://ArthurJLevy.com