My father once said that people were kinder when he was a boy.
I couldn’t let that slow pitch by without swinging.
“This era of kindness of which you speak,” I replied. “Is it the Great Depression or World War II? Because I just don’t see it.”
He had no answer. Nostalgic types never do, those who romanticize the past, being ignorant of the bulk of it. They mistake what they personally experienced, or think they experienced, for what everyone else went through. It’s not the same.
I wish I could cure them of this bad habit. Because believing the past was better makes our awful present seem even worse. Not only are there shootings on the expressways, but back in the day we’d sleep in the park in summer and fear no man. Pretty to think so.
So I take a certain satisfaction in recalling the horrors of the past. When people talk of an unprecedented fracture in our nation that is more divided than ever, I’ll mutter, “Well, there was the Civil War. That was worse.”
Or this vaccine business. One reader commented Monday: “We are unfortunately, dealing with outright morons in our society at this moment, something that didn’t happen in the 1950s, when I remember lining up for the polio vaccine, which everyone & I do mean everyone hailed as a flat out miracle.”
Not quite everyone. Reading that, the machine-gun staccato of Walter Winchell’s voice barked into mind.
“Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea,” the nation’s most popular columnist said on April 4, 1954, to his nationwide radio and TV audience of some 50 million. “Attention everyone! In a few moments, I will report on a new polio vaccine claimed to be a cure. It may be a killer.”
The vaccine hadn’t even been tested yet. Authorities, Winchell claimed, wrongly, were stockpiling “little white coffins” to handle the vaccine’s victims. That week, 150,000 children were yanked out of the vaccine trials.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, showing a bit of partisan pride — Dr. Jonas Salk developed his vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh — fired back, noting Winchell was “distinguished for a long career of washroom gossip, self-glorification and journalistic vendettas of the basest sort.”