Zoomed with a few wise friends the other day and in the midst of our exclamations that we are in this historic moment, we each made a commitment to keep a journal. Someday our grandchildren, or their children, might want to read about the price of eggs during the Great Pandemic of 2020. (At our house, of course, the eggs are free, thanks to the lovely ladies of the coop:-)
I still haven’t set pen to paper for the journal but I’ve thought a bit about it, enough that I think I shall apply quotation marks when I record the “historic moment”. Yes, it is unlike anything that has ever happened in my adult life, but even being the laziest reader of history, I’m dimly aware that there is nothing new under the blighted human sun.
It wasn’t that long ago that I plowed through Barbara Tuchman’s celebrated A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and commented on the portentous title. Here’s looking at us, kid! The book details the path of the Black Death, which swept through Europe over and over again (by the way, it originated in – wait for it – China!) through the 14th century, and then the 15th, and the 16th. As startling as it is to turn the calendar to the month of May and still be “sheltering in place”, the plague makes this look like a cake walk. Every time I read about it and the ways in which humans endeavored to cope – moving whole households from one place to another (if, that is, you were Henry VIII and could just go castle-hopping) and even killing all the cats, which were wrongly thought to be the source of the pestilence – I want to yell at them “It’s the fleas! It’s the fleas! Get rid of the fleas!”
One day, maybe not all that long from now, people will look back upon our 2020 spring of discontent and want to shake us by the shoulders and say “Hey, you fools, it was the —–!” I can’t wait to be able to fill in that blank. By the way, another good read about the plague, should A Distant Mirror appeal to you, is Year of Wonders: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks.
COVID-19 is the newest germ to grace our shores, but is certainly not the first one. The variola virus raged through the continent during the 1775-1782 North American smallpox epidemic and is mentioned in nearly any history of the Revolutionary War and its devastating effect on Native American tribes is also well documented. Whew – glad that one is in our past? Not so fast – if you feel the urge to not be able to sleep at night, get a copy of The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story by Richard Preston. Of course, no one gets vaccinated for smallpox anymore because it’s been eradicated. Well, yessss, except for a few errant vials of the stuff that have gone missing. Never say never about containment of a deadly disease – there’s a great deal of chatter out there right now to the effect that it wasn’t the bat soup we ate but a big oops from a Wuhan bioweapons lab that brought us this new, improved coronavirus.
Whomever didn’t perish from smallpox in the 1700’s got to look forward to yellow fever. Spread by mosquitos, there was a notable epidemic of it in Philadelphia in 1793 and another outbreak of it in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1862, which added to a panic of residents trying to escape from Union General Ambrose Burnside’s North Carolina Expedition.
In fact, two-thirds of the approximately 660,000 soldier deaths during the Civil War were actually caused not by battle casualties but by infectious disease. Cold Mountain: A Novel by Charles Frazier comes to mind as a memorable novel set in Civil War era North Carolina, although I don’t remember if yellow fever is mentioned.
Frazier’s more recent book, Varina: A Novel is a fictionalized biography of the wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. I don’t remember if Frazier details her difficulties in finding housing when she fled Richmond for Raleigh because of the combined horrors of yellow fever and the Union campaign, but it is well documented elsewhere.
No sooner did we turn the page on the 19th century than the we were greeted by the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which grimly echoed the influence of pathogens from Civil War deaths. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe, half of them fell to the influenza virus and not to the enemy. Fifty million people in all are estimated to have perished in the pandemic. I don’t know if I have it in me to tackle John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, but it’s certainly selling briskly these days.
Somehow, humanity survived the influenza pandemic and the U.S. caught its collective breath just in time to roll into the Great Depression. Next time we breathed in, we were choked with the “black blizzards” that streamed across the country from the 1935-1938 Dust Bowl. Everything most of us know about that, of course, was written by John Steinbeck in his 1939 The Grapes of Wrath, which captured both a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a National Book Award.
A lesser-known novel of the time, which focuses more specifically on Oklahoma is Sanora Babb’s Whose Names are Unknown: A Novel.
I’m not sorry to have missed the foregoing epidemics and catastrophes. My memory reaches back only far enough to remember my grandfather, made desperately frugal by living through The Great Depression, stuffing dinner rolls and sugar packets from restaurant tables into his pants pockets every time we dined out with him.
I also remember passing a house each day on my walk to school where a girl named Judy lived. I never met her, but I often saw her sitting in her wheelchair and watching passersby through her window. She never waved, she just watched. I arrived on the planet just in time to receive the polio vaccination. Judy was a few years older than me and, tragically, like so many others of that era, was struck by the epidemic that killed many and paralyzed more. It may be worth mentioning that the polio virus was identified in 1908. Jonas Salk’s vaccine went into trials in 1952. There’s not always a “quick fix”. I’d sure like to see Jonas Salk ride up on a white horse about now. Next best thing might be the well-regarded biography of him by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, Jonas Salk: A Life.
So what happens next?
Will we turn the calendar to June and still be hunkered down? Will there even be any restaurants left by the time this is over from which to steal dinner rolls and sugar packets? Will we be so figuratively paralyzed from this that we navigate the world behind masks for the near or long term future? This may just be a run of the mill pandemic, but it’s our pandemic and the one that will shape what is to come for a good long while. Ladies and gentlemen, start those journals so our grandchildren’s grandchildren can look back someday and read all about it.