You are reading an archived issue of Sleet Magazine. To return to the current issue, click here.


home  • archives  • submissions  • us

Nancy Levinson

What Did They Know

those scientists and medical doctors in the 1940s?
Infantile paralysis was spread by mouth, they held,
and water, fetid or clean, was suspect, too.
In the epidemic summers they warned against
throat surgery, and mingling in crowds. They forbid
swimming and running through lawn sprinklers.
They vilified an Australian self-described nurse
who’d found success with early diagnosed patients
by using hot packs and muscle massage. How dare she, lacking
official status, intrude in the world of the professionally trained!

What did they know,
our families, alarmed by this plague,
with no choice but to comply with the advice?
My mother added extra protection squeezing double drops
of cod liver oil in my sisters’ and my orange juice.
With no lakes or park pool splashing, no gum chewing,
no Disney movies, no roller skating around the neighborhood,
like other Twin City families began enforcing,
my mother and father confined us to the house and backyard.

What did we know, isolated innocents?
We sensed tension; a specter of the polio menace
hovered over us, along with the oppressive humid heat—
as we colored, played Go Fish, and read Little Lulu comics—
whined, nagged (can’t we go to the Dairy Queen?) and fought.
I tired of hearing that they were protecting us from a crippling—
maybe fatal disease, for which there was no medicine to cure.
When after a rainfall I ran out barefooted and stomped in a puddle,
my mother hurled a wild, desperate threat of almost certain death.
Then she showed me a magazine photo of a girl,
flat on her back in something called an iron lung; It breathed for her
because her own lungs were paralyzed. And she would lie
trapped like that, unable to move, for the rest of her life!
Is this how you want to end up? Breathing deeply
with my own lungs, I shook my head slowly No.
Then and for years to come, that unnamed girl is what I knew.

Nancy was born and grew up in Minneapolis and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a major in journalism. She reported and wrote features for the campus daily newspaper (before Garrison Keillor). She is author of 28 books for young readers, including fiction, historical fiction and biographies, as well as numerous stories and articles for magazines and newspapers. Recently, her prose poetry has appeared in Poetica, Touch, Blood and Thunder, and Third Wednesday. Nancy lives in Los Angeles and often visits Minnesota family and friends.

top of page  • home  • archives  • submissions  • us