Commentary

I was anti-vaxx before anti-vaxx was cool.

July 31, 2022 4:57 am

A vial of penicillin at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden (Photo by Rajitha Ranasinghe via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0).

In April, 1955, I  sat in the back row of fifth-grade homeroom in Flint, Michigan and watched my classmates march to the front, roll up their sleeves and get ready for their shot. The Salk vaccine had been a long time coming. The year before, polio reached epidemic proportions in the US when case counts achieved nearly sixty thousand. And while some kids may have been needle shy, I don’t think many harbored doubts. Everyone knew polio was bad news. In the papers, on TV, images of kids with shriveled legs or in iron lungs were everywhere. At the time, it seemed  the worst thing you could get. Yet, I was the only kid in the room not rolling up his sleeve. When my classmates returned to their seats, fresh Band-Aids on their arms, they asked, What’s up with you? Why don’t you get a shot? Do you want to get polio?

“No,” I told them. “It’s not like that. It’s just my family doesn’t believe in doctors, so we don’t think vaccines work. In fact,” I added, with a note of pride, “I’ve never had any kind of shot at all.” 

I felt giddy but strangely empowered, making this revelation. Most of my classmates seemed awed by it, but one of them, a scruffy kid named  George Killeen, thought it was a flat out lie.

Everyone gets shots,” he stated. “You have to have them.” He sniffed, then looked me in the eye. “If you never had a shot, you’d only be two feet tall.”

My vaccination exemption came from the fact my family were adherents of Christian Science, a home-grown American religion, originating in the late nineteenth century. Inspired by transcendentalism, Christian Science proposed, whimsically, to combine the best of faith-based religion with hard core empirical science, an elusive undertaking at best. Growing up, we were taught that vaccines, often as not, could kill you, and that doctors regularly used boogey-man scare tactics to keep a frightened public buying their drugs.

Consequently, with the launch of the March of Dimes mass immunization campaign, my mom applied for an exemption card from the state of Michigan, explaining that since Jesus already had my back, we thought any Salk vaccine unnecessary. But while my classmates were up front, getting their shots, I recall glancing at the sweaty piece of cardboard in my hand and having a moment’s pause. I couldn’t imagine a worse fate than paralysis, yet I perceived this public moment of truth as a test of my mettle. While mothers across the country were frantic to protect their kids, my mom bet the farm Jesus would see me through. I was only 10, but I  recall wondering what made her so sure. What about all those times we prayed for healing that didn’t come? And why didn’t Jesus have my classmates’ backs, too? Were they somehow unworthy? Along these lines, while I thought of myself as basically, an okay kid, to be singled out not to get polio must require a worthiness well beyond my own.

Even today, I’m struck by the sublime confidence my folks maintained during this frightful epidemic but they were convinced, of course, their prayers were utterly bombproof. One technique by which Christian Scientists prayed was a process they called, “knowing the truth,” which was a method of facing unpleasant facts by fiercely and resolutely denying them reality. Christian Scientists believed this was how Jesus performed his miracles; by simply “knowing the truth,” which is best summed up by the keystone Christian Science axiom called, “The Scientific Statement of Being: There is no life truth, intelligence or substance in matter. In this way, it seemed, the act of denial became the very essence of our prayer. Was it wrong to put every ounce of your trust into a focused denial of the facts? I don’t know. If you also happen to be lucky, maybe  not. In  ’55, did my folks have moments of uncertainty? It seems that they did not. But I sure did.

Meanwhile, if I wasn’t especially worthy, I managed to be lucky. I didn’t get my first shot until I turned 16, when I stood six-foot-three – four feet taller than that punk George Killeen projected.

The way it happened was roundabout but fateful: I was hanging out at my friend Chip’s house. We’d been water skiing in a notoriously filthy river and a scratch on my foot became vividly infected. I didn’t pay it much attention but Chip’s mom, an ER night nurse, did. Marian took one look at the red streaks crawling up my leg and gave me a penicillin shot, right there. Before I went home, she applied a professional looking dressing and when mom saw this, she was curious. When I told her about the penicillin, she came unglued, called Chip’s mom and asked by what rights she’d meddled in her son’s well-being without permission. Marian was baffled, said she had only done what any responsible mother would to save a child’s leg. Why was that a problem? 

Afterwards, mom told me I needed to spend less time at Chip’s, more time with my studies, but by this point I had my driver’s license and as long as I didn’t mind lying, I mostly went where I pleased. Still, I was nagged by my act of disloyalty, especially since mom must have been aware of it.  She must have known I was impressed by penicillin, since years before, she nearly lost her hand to an untreated infection she called, “blood poisoning.” It took her months to recover and her hand and her health were never the same. Her last years, she was badly crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, but she remained an unmedicated prayer warrior to the end. 

Ever since, I’ve often wished that someone had meddled with her well-being, like Marian did with mine. But I knew she deeply resented the way penicillin  was called, “the miracle drug.” Yes, it could have spared her years of suffering. Yes, it may have saved my leg. But in the end, as far as mom was concerned, it was entirely the wrong kind of miracle. 

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Fred Haefele
Fred Haefele

Fred Haefele lives in Missoula and his work has appeared in Salon, Outside and Wired magazines as well as the New York Times magazine.

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