This fall, the search for a safe and effective vaccine to combat COVID-19 is intensifying and possible start dates for the inoculations are being floated and debated. It’s easy for many of us “Golden Agers” to ruminate about earlier times when we’ve had to offer up our arms to science or country.

My earliest recollection of getting a shot was when our family car had to travel on an old brick road about a mile out from the doctor’s office. Already suffering butterflies in the stomach, because I knew a shot was in the offing, the shaking car rattled my nerves and diminished my courage. Years later, whenever we’d have to drive on pavers in the old sections of Charleston or Savannah and the car began to shake, it was flash back time, and I’d have to fight off the urge to open the door and run for the hills.

During 1954, the March of Dimes sponsored Dr. Jonas Salk’s experimental polio vaccine going out to America’s largest-ever field trial — almost 2,000,000 school children. There was risk, because an earlier Salk field trial of 10,000 youngsters caused nine deaths and gave no immunity.

Despite that risk, I don’t remember any permission slips or hearing about any parents’ informational meetings. It didn’t matter. Our parents had witnessed up close in our neighborhoods the deaths and crippling of the major 1949 and 1952 polio epidemics. “Dr Salk has a vaccine for polio? Here’s my kids!”

The nuns at our school were pretty crafty in preparing for our field trial shots. Fridays, all eight grades went to morning Mass. Afterward, the mothers served us still warm glazed donuts and hot chocolate in the church basement. The Plan — Mass, give the shots, and they can eat all the glazed donuts their little stomachs can hold. If FDR had put nuns in charge of the invasion of Europe, Berlin would have been captured a year earlier.

I do remember the sugar-coated breakfast and a group of us 10- and 11-years-olds, clowning around in the shot line, trying too hard to be macho. The nuns and the girls must have thought we were all competing for the Doofuss of the Year award.

Leaving his New York City tenement roots behind, Jonas Salk spent his early research years investigating influenza, but moved on to polio research. He experimented with killed polio virus vaccines, testing them on patients in mental hospitals and institutions for the disabled. Dr. Salk won the support of FDR and The March of Dimes, which financed his successful 1954 field trial. He called the school children who took part in the 1954 trial, his “Polio Pioneers.”

He published the 90-percent effective results and in 1955 the Salk Vaccine was approved. A nationwide distribution of the vaccine was launched. In Stanton, Nebraska, the Goetsch children who had lost their father in the 1952 epidemic were some of the first in their county to receive the Salk Vaccine.

Dr. Salk was later asked by the press, “Who owns the patent for the vaccine?” He responded, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” A national hero,

Dr. Salk devoted the rest of his life, searching for possible vaccines and treatments for MS, cancer, and AIDs.

I didn’t realize how many diseases were out there, until, as a 17-year-old, I arrived at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. We learned that after your M-1 rifle, the corps held your Shot Card almost as sacred. We were in for some serious injecting.

Marines have a history of being shipped out to every germ and virus-infected hellhole in the world. During a deployment, no unit can lose time getting their shots. Even if there’s been no known case of a particular disease, you’re going to get a shot for it.

The solution? Our DI would march the platoon to the US Navy Infirmary. We’d line up in single file, shortest to tallest, roll up our T-shirt sleeves, and the Navy hospital techs would dab iodine on each of our upper arms. Old Henry Ford would have been proud of this time-saver, highly efficient assembly-line approach.


A volunteer is injected with either an experimental COVID-19 vaccine or a comparison shot as part of the first human trials in the U.K. to test a potential vaccine, led by Oxford University. University of Oxford via AP

Hospital techs on both sides of our line would give you at least two shots in each arm. Once outside, you did pushups, showing our DI blood dribbling out of each shot puncture hole. After two such trips and eight to 10 shots out of the way, we went for what we hoped was the final shoot-us-up. It had become so old hat, only our head DI was with us.

We lined up and were dabbed with our iodine targets. The shorter guys, having gotten their two-arm shots, went outside, followed by our DI, to do their required dribbling-blood pushups. The hospital techs seeing the coast was clear, instead of jab, push the plunger, and pull the needle out, began tossing the syringes like pub darts at our iodine arms. The needle went in, the syringe then hung from the arm, the techs would grab it, tilt it back to horizontal level, push the tab, and then pull the needle out.

For a couple of minutes, as the syringes flew, all went well until you could hear loud cracks as flying needles began hitting upper arm bones. Needles broke and syringes dropped to the deck. Many could see or felt the broken needles in their arms. The syringes on the deck were soon joined by some passed out recruits.

Word of the syringe target practice reached our DI who came charging back inside in a rage to discover the hospital techs had fled out the rear exit. He discovered he had a problem much bigger that trying to make regular shot puncture holes trickle a little blood. We never learned what disciplinary steps had been taken against the hospital techs. We were ordered to our racks with a rare afternoon off.

The absolutely worst boot camp shot I’ve had was for smallpox. Though the last American case was in 1949, the corps made sure you’d get yours. This is what it looked like to a 17-year-old. A lancet was used, which can be best described as a thick needle which had been broken and had jagged edges. The smallpox vaccine was smeared on a coin-sized area of the upper arm.

The jagged edges of the lancet were used, rat-a-tat, piercing the skin and letting the vaccine in through the tiny wounds. After it healed, you had a nickel-sized scar, looking like the pockmarked face of the moon. Girls in the ’50s and early ’60s had a choice if they wanted to keep their upper arms scar free. They could have their smallpox vaccination done on their upper leg. None of them could have foreseen the coming of short shorts, mini-skirts, and the almost non-existent bikini.

Through all of these years, have I enjoyed offering up my right arm for these shots? No, I hate all shots, but I know their purpose, the dreaded diseases they keep out of my life, and I trust science. I regularly follow my doctor’s orders, keeping my civilian Shot Card up to date. That includes tetanus, Shingress, five-year Pneumonia, and the super-duper, four times more effective, over-65, annual flu shot. The flu shots are now here at our local pharmacies, so go get yours.

Will I get the COVID-19 vaccine shot if and when it becomes available? Yes, and I won’t need the sugarcoated glazed donuts of my youth to convince me, because we’re now reaching the 200,000 level of Americans who we’ve been lost to the Beast. Night after night on the evening news, we’ve watched the graphic film of people throughout the world on ventilators, just like the 1950s polio victims, gasping for air.

During the past few weeks, three major advisory groups have released their recommendations for what groups will follow behind the health-care workers and first-responders when it’s time to line up for the vaccine shots.

If you’re still undecided if you’ll get this shot, remember that if you don’t have symptoms and think you’re safe, you can unknowingly still be passing this deadly, fast spreading virus on to your loved ones.

I believe that there’s no other choice, but “Yes, I’m going to get the shot when my turn in line comes.”

Tom Murphy is a former history teacher and state representative. He is a Kennebunk Landing resident and can be reached at [email protected]

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