It appears that the novel coronavirus, given a few irresistible openings, now has our country over a barrel. Whether from ignorance, lack of imagination, hubris or defiance, many of our careless fellow citizens — as well as thousands of their unsuspecting contacts — have tested positive, and are in quarantine, in hospital, in intensive care, in morgues, or in a state of prolonged or permanent disability from its lingering effects.
If there is anything plainer to be said about how to lower the risk of infection, it’s impossible to conceive what that might be. Yet perhaps because the virus is invisible, apparently capricious and in most cases, survivable, many patriots wearing silly caps with their leader’s slogan on their foreheads have chosen to defy informed advice and even executive orders. One small group of disgruntled defenders of freedom are currently charged with plotting to kidnap, “try” and possibly execute, their female governor for trampling on their rights.
Even Associate Justice Alito of the Supreme Court, who ought to know better, has asserted, in a recent speech to the Federalist Society, that many governors’ responses to the pandemic have threatened our constitutional freedoms. The freedom he appears to be addressing is that of doing whatever you please in the midst of a national emergency. That’s a very large part of the feeling behind the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Both are more than a little silly.
I can understand, and even forgive, Justice Alito and the red-capped multitude because neither he (born in 1950) nor many of them were alive and aware during the Second World War. America really was great then, and we all had to sacrifice, each in his own way and to the extent he could, to support the fight against fascism in Europe and imperialism in the Far East. I listen to the whining and bellowing and feel like Dustin Hoffman’s character in the film “Wag the Dog,” saying, “Dis is nuttin’!” Though this crisis is severe, it can’t hold a candle to our situation then.
Think of it: We were fighting two highly motivated, well-prepared and powerfully armed enemies at the same time on opposite sides of the globe. The prodigies performed by our heavy industries were almost unbelievable. In the six years of war, the United States lost more than 400,000 men and women (a figure that it may again reach before the end of the pandemic). The service flags in all our neighborhoods bore witness to sacrifice; some bore multiple stars, and others gold stars denoting a serviceman’s death. As kids, we never played noisily near those houses.
What we did do was collect newspapers in our wagons, bundle them with twine and take them to a warehouse. We picked milkweed pods whose silk replaced impossible-to-get kapok in life vests. Everything was for “the War Effort” and would be sustained “for the duration.” We saved lard for ammunition, and flattened tin cans for recycling. Surrounded by signs caricaturing and dehumanizing our enemies, and posters showing a sailor washed up on a beach beneath the warning, “Somebody Talked,” we kept our ears open, learned the silhouettes of Junkers Ju and Stuka aircraft, and hid under our desks at school when the sirens went off. Each neighborhood had a warden who went about with a baton during night air raid drills looking for light leaks at windows.
Those of us who were so upset, early in this pandemic, about the hoarding of toilet paper have no inkling of the shortages during the war — meat, sugar, butter (oleo was born of this shortage), cigarettes, batteries, chewing gum. The OPA (Office of Price Administration) brooked no arguments. Fuel was allotted depending upon the car-owner’s profession; and he had to certify that he owned no more than five tires. After 1943, we weren’t able to get enough coal for our furnace. We had no car; so my sister and I slid my Flexible Flyer down Geddes Street Hill to People’s Coal Co., and then back up that long haul with a precious 50-pound sack.
It was a terrible time, punctuated by unfamiliar names like El Alamein, Stalingrad, Normandy, Okinawa, Midway — hundreds of them. The loss of so many of our kids and brothers and fathers was bearable only because we were united. So don’t grouse to me of the personal sacrifices demanded by this virus. Most of you have no idea.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.