As the map of coronavirus’s march fills in Europe and North America, creeps towards South America, and picks up island nations, the mind looks for ways to relate it to something we already know—or know about. How is it like and unlike what happened with 9-11, with the stock market crash of 1987 and the recession of 2008? What about the 1960s, when travel to and in many America’s cities seemed unreal and impossible with riots and burnings? Or1968, when political assassinations and the Tet Offensive had the country on edge?
If we’re of an age, we have parents’ or grandparents’ stories of the Great Depression. My father graduated high school in 1930, my mother in 1931. College was not an option as families scrambled to make ends meet. In days before Social Security and Workmen’s Compensation, my grandfather’s injury meant grandma taking in washing and children, baking and whatever she could. Mom, her oldest child, found and latched onto a job.
Dad’s family scrambled around Minnesota with a US mail contract here, a restaurant and cream route there. He too was the oldest, and grabbed work where he could to supplement his dad’s wrestling with hard times.
They made it through that Depression and for the rest of their lives remembered the good of it more than the things they had missed. They remembered struggles and friendships, neighbors pitching in, and forever had extra canned goods stored against the next hard time. Their missed college opportunities were lived in the lives of me and my three siblings.
The next chapter in their lives was World War II. Mom’s youngest brother was the only one who didn’t come back alive. The families picked up from that one too, and our nuclear pod and mom’s remaining siblings all moved west. The War introduced us to the West, and the cold chased us there in 1952. We returned to Minnesota frequently to check in with the farms, grocery stores, and government jobs that got and still get dad’s siblings’ families through Minnesota winters, but we were Westerners.
I guess what all of this says is that life in this country over my 76 years has had its gyrations, and that we naturally look to the past to try to make sense of what is going on today. But it’s never really the same, and we only make sense of it when we’re on to the next chapter in our lives. My parents and their cohort looked back on the 30s with some fondness; it was a hard time for most families, and people pitched in to help where and how they could. They buoyed up their own and helped the neighbors. They acknowledged the War’s role in sending them West, and although they’d lost important family connections, they passed on what they’d gained to us, the next generation.
I didn’t go to Vietnam, but the Vietnam War, my time in the Peace Corps, and that whole family legacy are what’s kept me in Wallowa County for almost 50 years. Too long a story to tell here, but let’s have a beer or a long cup of coffee when the restaurants open up again and I’ll tell you about it.
Which brings us to today, when we’re all trying to figure out how to live in our own hard times. Two things come to my mind. First, remember the lessons of those other hard times and be neighborly.
Second, wealth doesn’t matter. Like the Depression—or the polio outbreak of the 40s, or all the wars since WW II—disease, death, and hard times fall on all. Wealth can and does make it easier for some to escape the cold and the military, get better health care; allows some to live easier in hard times. But Franklin Roosevelt suffered with polio, John Kennedy’s brother was killed in WW II, and Kenneth Lay and Enron were laid low by their own greed in the dot com scramble for wealth of 2001.
Coronavirus too will hit the wealthy as well as the poor. Sure, they’ll have more avenues of escape, but age and ill health hits them too, and makes them more vulnerable than the young paupers scrambling to make their livings. My hope is that we work our way through this time and come out knowing that we are all in this world together. We all need health care; we all love our children; we all breathe the same air. And a race to wealth doesn’t get us health, educate our young, or clean the water and air.