In June 1944, polio was sweeping across the country with devastating swiftness.
Children would leap out of bed in the morning, and by nightfall, they were unable to feed themselves. It was only a matter of time before it swept through Hickory, N.C. "like a tidal wave."
"Youngsters with painful, useless limbs," Life magazine reported at the time, "some unable to swallow or scarcely able to breathe, they came from mining villages up in the hills, mill towns in the valley, from outlying farms and urban centers."
Fear reigned, but it was no match for the citizens of Hickory.
The lives of their children were at risk. They could lock up their homes, isolate their children and hope for the best. Or they could spring into action to fight a peril with no known cause and no certain outcome.
David M. Oshinsky, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Polio: An American Story," describes what happened next in the Miracle of Hickory:
"A call went out for volunteers. Hundreds showed up, 'hiding the fear,' said one, 'that had (us) quaking in our boots.' Merchants donated building material made scarce by wartime rationing. Carpenters, plumbers and electricians brought their own tools to the site.
"Floodlights were installed to allow round-the-clock construction. The telephone company installed a switchboard. Families loaned their electric washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Carloads of toys appeared. Farmers trucked in meat and vegetables. County convicts cleared brush and dug water mains, watched by shot-gun toting guards. The governor paroled thirty-two female prisoners to help with the domestic chores.
"It was up and running in 54 hours: a 'rough pine board hospital' containing an admissions center, a kitchen, and a laundry; a laboratory and an operating room; isolation wards, dormitories and a therapy wing ..."
The hospital treated 454 patients before closing its doors at the end of summer. Two-thirds of them, Oshinsky writes, "were said to have 'recovered completely.'"
The people of Hickory were scared, but they harnessed their fears to save their children.
We are still that America. We just have to act like it.
Our country is facing a new epidemic. President Obama described it in a news conference Wednesday as an "epidemic of gun violence." We must learn many lessons from the massacre of those young children in Connecticut, but the immediate threat is clear: If this can happen in Newtown, it can happen anywhere.
Once again, we face tough choices. We can throw up our hands and surrender to a gun culture fueled by one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, or we can spring into action. By "we," I mean we the citizens, because it is up to us to embolden our legislators to stand up to the National Rifle Association and make them pay if they don't.
This is not the first time children have died of gun wounds, and too many of those names are known only to those who loved them. This is also not the first time a troubled man has unleashed a nightmare of firepower on innocent people.
Each time, the crisis swells and dissipates. That is a sad fact of our past, not a predictor of our future.
There are signs that this time, this moment, could be different. President Obama supports a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips. He also wants to close the gun show loophole that allows some weapons to be sold without buyer background checks.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin - a conservative Democrat and ardently pro-gun in the past - said he's committed to bringing "the dialogue that would bring a total change." For emphasis, he added, "And I mean a total change."
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder just vetoed legislation that would have allowed guns in schools and churches.
There are seismic shifts in corporate America, too. Private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, for example, announced it's selling the Freedom Group, maker of the .223 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle used in the Newtown shootings.
The New York Times reported that Cerberus made this decision after the California Teachers Retirement System said it was reviewing its investment in Cerberus because of its holding in Freedom Group.
"It is apparent that the Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level," Cerberus said in a statement.
Maybe you've never thought of yourself as political. The thought of writing, calling and visiting your elected officials might even make your skin crawl. If so, I ask you to recall how you felt the moment you found out 20 first-graders were gunned down in Newtown, Conn.
Let's get busy and brave.
It's not too late to be the Americans we want to be.
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