07/18/2014 09:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Memories Of A 1940s Childhood


Yesterday's local paper, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, had a front-page photo of children and their moms lined up, waiting to get inside a public swimming pool. (The limit is 25 children per one lifeguard, so they had to wait until someone left before they could come in.)

When I see crowded pools, I always think that such a photo could never have been taken when I was a child in the 1940s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, because all our mothers forbade us to gather in groups for fear of catching polio -- especially in a pool.

When the polio epidemics, which always came in summer, were particularly bad we couldn't even play with other children in our neighborhood. One summer, when several children on the next block died, we were forbidden even to leave our yard to play with the kid next door. That summer a social worker came to each house, I remember, and gave me a coloring book and crayons.

Later, in the 1950s, at a small carnival in a Minnesota village, I remember paying a quarter to go inside a trailer to see a girl somewhat older than myself who lived in an iron lung, because illness (I assumed it was polio) had made her unable to breathe on her own.

A decade later, when I was a junior or senior at U Cal Berkeley, (so it must have been 1962 or '63), we all gathered near Sather Gate and were each handed a sugar cube soaked in the Sabin vaccine in a tiny paper cup, and the fear of polio became only a memory.

A few Christmases ago, my adult daughters gave me the Molly doll from the American Girls collection. She represents the era of the 1940s. They gave her to me because I had pointed out that Molly looked exactly like I did in the 1940s. We had the same long braids, the same wire-rimmed granny glasses, even the same wardrobe, including hand-smocked pinafores. (My mother always told me to take my glasses off whenever a camera was nearby, so I can't find a photo with them, but I still have the glasses -- now worn by a vintage teddy bear.)

The Molly doll, like all the American Girl dolls, each representing a different historical era, came with books describing her adventures. There was also a non-fiction book with a lot of vintage photographs explaining the historical period she lived in: "Welcome to Molly's World -- 1944 -- Growing up in World War Two America".

The author had done a good job of researching life in the 1940s and telling, in simple terms appropriate for children, about the wartime shortages, Hitler, Jewish Ghettos, Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt's fireside chats and much more. The book dealt with concentration camps and the Holocaust and the diary of Anne Frank, as well as telling about a little Jewish girl from Austria whose mother sewed money for their escape into her rag doll. The book told about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the little Japanese girl, Sadako, who tried to fold a thousand paper cranes, thinking that would counter the leukemia she got from the radiation of the A-bomb. (She finished 664 paper cranes before she died and the children at her school folded the rest and brought them to her funeral.)

World War II clearly affected children in Europe and the South Pacific far more grievously than it did American children, especially those of us in the Midwest, although nearly everyone had a relative fighting "over there." But reading about Molly's fictitious life brought back many small details of childhood in the Forties-- such as ration books with stamps for our meat, sugar and butter.

We saved and re-used all grease from the frying pan and butter was replaced with a tasteless margarine that had to have yellow color mixed into it. We saved tin foil and flattened tin cans for the war effort and of course had a victory garden in the back yard. Small as we were, we were given cardboard sheets showing the silhouettes of different kinds of airplanes so we could identify an enemy plane if it flew overhead. (We never saw one, but we always looked.) Our games included frequent shouts of "Bombs over Tokyo!" We had blackout curtains in all the windows and had to practice air raid drills, when we'd pull the curtains and turn out all the lights in an attempt to make Milwaukee invisible to enemy bombers. Of course by the 1950's, air raid drills were replaced with bomb shelters and practicing what to do (hide under our desks) when Russia dropped H-bombs on us.

In Shorewood, where we lived, most of the neighbors were of German background and, according to my parents, the FBI came around asking if the neighbors were holding meetings or singing war-like songs or doing anything suspicious. The answer was "No".

Listening to the big mahogany console radio that still had bite marks from my teething days on its corner...trying to get a clear connection with Edward R. Murrow reporting on the war news from London, hearing President Roosevelt saying, "A date which will live in infamy" (well, I can't remember that--I was an infant in 1941).... Molly and I have a lot of similar memories of a 1940s childhood--some of them poignant or scary, but most of them pleasant. We didn't have television or video games or cell phones, and we didn't need them.

But now, every time I see children escaping the heat, gathered around a sprinkler or swimming pool or an opened fire hydrant, I say a silent prayer of thanks that mothers no longer have to wake up on a hot summer day with the threat of polio hovering over their children.