According to his official birth certificate, my Father was born in 1905 in a place called “Indian Territory.” Four years later, that Territory would become “Oklahoma,” the 46th American state, another chapter in the closing story of the Old West. Even at his earliest age, my father was cast into a lifetime of historical change that he could not have possibly predicted.
World War I (“The Great War”) broke out when he was 13. Too young to serve, he could only read about what was to date this most consuming war in world history. The death toll of a generation of young men the world over, occurring concurrently with the Spanish Flu pandemic, would combine to take millions of lives. Eleven years later at 24, the Great Depression hit America, an economic disaster the scope of which was unknown before and thereafter. Around 25% (13 million) of the workforce were unemployed with no or limited income. Despite broad-ranging plans of response on various fronts, the Depression lasted over ten long years (versus our current 3-month shutdown from the Covid-19 pandemic). As a young professional CPA, my Father survived economic disaster, even as he personally lost his father to divorce and his youngest brother in a fatal automobile accident. Yet he could only watch as family and friends packed up and headed west to California, hoping for a better chance in life.
The Great Depression did ultimately end, but only due to, and replaced by, an even more deadly and altering World War II. Millions of military and civilian deaths ensued, with Europe and Asia left in devastated shambles. Too old for this war, my father fell in line with the new order of the day: rationing of food, gas, supplies, and services; wage and price controls; government mandated and directed manufacturing and economic controls. With the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945 to end the war, world civilization and American life were forever changed. At that point, my father was 40 years old, the normal midpoint of life.
I have often wondered how those great international events shaped the perceptions of my Father and his contemporaries. Age and events precluded our conversation about such. Change, loss, uncertainty all combined to mark the first half of his life. How did he react? How did his thinking change? What conclusions did he draw about life’s challenges and how to respond to them?
“How will we respond?” was the challenge given to my Father’s contemporaries, and respond they did quite decisively and successfully. But it was a series of long-term demands that required patience, commitment, and cooperation. Today, America and the world are going through a shared pandemic called Covid-19. An invisible threat to our physical life, causing great upheaval in our comfortable daily routines. With Covid-19, our contemporary world did not see this threat arising, and we have found ourselves ill-prepared to respond to it.
In my Father’s time, political, military and health leaders defined their respective threat clearly, created a well-thought out plan of reaction, and marshalled the resources needed to achieve the plan. Within that focused framework, the American people were able to unify their individual efforts, find his/her slot in which to contribute, and share the burden of making the plan work.
In today’s America, however, there is no overarching top-down plan of response, no organized division of labor integrated into an effective whole, and therefore no unity of action. State-by-state, we are fighting fifty desperate and different wars against this public health attack. Meanwhile, our national government lurches from one scattershot hot idea to the next on daily basis, while the “leader” continues to disavow the plans of his own advisors. Amid all of the structural confusion, our citizenry is fractured, emulating the fractured response of our government to its own oft-changing directives.
We see the images of empty streets as people cooperatively stay at home to avoid infecting themselves or others. Or we see protestors armed with military assault weapons threatening local officials, state legislators and governors over their right to get a haircut or drink a beer. Somehow, the right to sit on a crowded beach, or attend a dining establishment, is deemed some kind of “constitutional right,” a demonstration of hallowed American freedom. Somehow our 1st Amendment right of religious freedom is distorted by some arrogant religious leaders’ belief that this includes a right to congregate inside a church building and risk infecting parishioners, as well as those with whom they later come into contact. (I suspect that such dubious claims of hardship and sacrifice would be quite a shock to George Washington, who had to watch his troops suffer a bitterly cold and ill-equipped winter at Valley Forge to secure those freedoms.)
Over many years, my Father and his contemporaries made commitments, endured genuine sacrifices, and worked together to survive – indeed triumph over – true threats to the American way of life. Millions of Americans today are trying to do the same, and their success stories are exemplary. Nevertheless, all of their efforts are threatened by bands of renegades that believe their individual desires trump a far greater community need. Yet it is sustained commitment to sacrifice for others that is the only path to defeating this virus and preventing its recurrence.
Our local Mountain Express weekly newspaper has been running a series of articles about life in Asheville NC a hundred years ago, gleaned from newspaper articles of that time. An article entitled “The Selfish and Selfless” quoted Dr. Carl V. Reynolds, the city health officer in 1919, saying regarding the Spanish Flu pandemic: “I have no desire to frighten Asheville or to create any unnecessary alarm. But I do feel the public should get a warning of the danger of failing to take steps to prevent a return of influenza here. The man who ‘takes a chance’ now by permitting himself and the other members of his family to disregard the opportunity to secure immunization against pneumonia will be, in my opinion, directly responsible for any deaths that may occur among his family group from influenza’s complications … Reynolds also stressed that fighting influenza required every citizen to be selfless. Too often, he proclaimed, ‘individual forgetfulness of … fellowman [drove people to fulfill their wants] at any cost, even risking self [health] and endangering others [so] that a selfish desire may be obtained.”
100 years later, we seem to be revisiting a similar experience with Covid-19, having apparently learned little about serious versus trivial sacrifice, and the need for shared responsibility for each other as the key to our mutual survival. We need to feel great compassion for those small business owners, entertainment / hospitality workers, and manufacturing employees working without proper safeguards. They are trying to survive through this heath and economic crisis, and need our full assistance consistent with public health needs. We need feel no such compassion for people complaining about not getting a haircut, or being able to dine out, or play beach volleyball. Complaints such as these are purely the arrogance of self over respect and consideration for the health and wellbeing of family and neighbors. There are times when Life is properly about “me”; these are the times when Life is properly about “us.”
A recent Facebook posting observed, “The ‘Greatest Generation’ of World War II sacrificed their lives [storming the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima] to defend America. We are being asked to sit on the couch at home. We can do this.” On this Memorial Day of 2020, we remember and honor those many who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect this country. Surely we can make our own commitment to respond – with far less sacrifice – to what is now being asked of us. Yes we can.
© 2020 Randy Bell https//:ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com