The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it quarantine, face masks and fear, among other things, to the entire world. But for Vernon, 86, and Thelma Sikes, 84, this is not the first pandemic they have lived through.
The couple may not have known each other during the polio outbreak, but they have been married 64 years. Before they met, they were connected by their experiences and a river.
According to the Center for Disease Control, polio outbreaks increased in the late 1940s causing imposed quarantines, and parents were frightened for their children, especially during the summer months.
Vernon said he remembered it was the summer between eighth grade and freshman year of high school when he was quarantined at home with his parents and four siblings. Thelma was between the seventh and eighth grade and was at home with her parents and three siblings.
"The main thing I remember is we couldn't go up to the river (Little St. Francis) and go swimming," Vernon said. "You had to stay out of the river."
Vernon said, back in those days, they did not have electricity, and the river was also their bath tub. He said they were able to swim in the creek because the water was spring water coming down off the hills.
"They were afraid the virus was in the river, you see, so they would not let us go in," Vernon said.
Thelma said, the funny thing was even though her and Vernon had not met until after high school, they were connected by the Little St. Francis River. She said the same river Vernon loved to swim in, twisted around and just down the road from her childhood home.
The two said they kept busy passing the time with chores and playing with their siblings.
"It was during the summer, and in the summer time we had corn fields," Vernon said. "We had hay, and so when I came in at night, I'd take my bath and I was about ready for bed. Mom and dad, on their house had a screened in porch on the back and I put my bed out there. I was hot."
Thelma said, when she was not doing chores, you could find her with a book in her hand.
"I always read a lot," Thelma said. "I still do. One of the things was we lived on the road, and it was close to the church, so the book mobile would stop at our house. We got to pick all the books, and I read everything we took off of there. I think it kept coming during quarantine or maybe it started then."
Thelma said the biggest difference during the polio quarantine, which Vernon believes was the summer of 1948, was the cancellation of big things such of the Fourth of July and Labor Day picnics.
"They would have concession stands and a lot of times you would even get a new dress to wear," Thelma said. "Just things like that. Everything like that was cancelled."
Both Vernon and Thelma said neither of them felt any fear during their childhood quarantine. They said their parents never instilled fear in them.
"You just couldn't go to town because you might get something," Thelma said. "They still went to the store. Mother didn't drive during those days. She did learn to drive later, but I was 12 or 13, so we stayed home. We didn't go and they thought that we were responsible enough to stay."
Thelma said, without electricity, the only news they got was from the radio, but she never remembered sitting around for reports on the polio outbreak.
"We just quarantined in. You just stayed at home," Vernon said. "Then by the fall, it seemed like they had come out with the shot, the vaccine. I know that dad really didn't want us to have the shot, and he was afraid of it. Then later on I remember before we went back to school, we got the shot."
Thelma said her family also got the shots at the health department.
"It was just a prevention," Thelma said. "They wanted the kids to be healthy. Nobody had to pay for them. My folks just took us in."
Thelma said there are more people now and with the news they hear it and see it. She said during the polio outbreak, she does not remember listening to reports of how many people died that day.
"They may have, but it wouldn't have been this, look at our population," Thelma said. "That's why it is so big. It's because we are so close together. "
Thelma said she is grateful to live in a small community.
"I don't want to go to a big community," Vernon said. "I wouldn't know how to live in St. Louis."
Vernon said today he and Thelma are being cautious when it comes to coronavirus. They wear their masks when they are in close contact like stores and use a lot of hand sanitizer.
Thelma said they are grateful to have all four of their children living within a mile of them. She said they are far enough apart, but if you need someone, they are there.
"We had a family at that time (polio outbreak) you know, now it is just us," Thelma said.
Vernon and Thelma can usually be found together. If he is in the shop, she is right there to sweep up the sawdust. If one is working on something, the other is there to help. It is obvious the two of them enjoy each other's company.
"Life goes on regardless,"Vernon said. "Be cautious, but fear, don't let fear control you."
"Enjoy life, appreciate your family," Thelma said. "I appreciate the way that our grandchildren are handling their children. They are just happy as can be."
Vernon said, once a vaccine is created and proved to be effective against coronavirus, just like polio, everything will go back to the way it was.
Victoria Kemper is a reporter for the Democrat News. She can be reached at 573-783-3366 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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