Trouble took my money, Cadillac’s gone
Best suit of clothes, all raised up in the closet, oh lord
But I’m so glad
Trouble don’t last, always
“Trouble You Can’t Fool Me” as performed by Ry Cooder
I was born on a rare snowy December afternoon in Summerville, South Carolina, during the waning weeks of the Truman Administration. It was the very same year that J. Fred Muggs, the chimp on NBC’s Today show, was born and the year the first issue of Mad Magazine appeared. Six months later, on June 19th, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg received 1700 volts of electricity in New York State’s Sing Sing Correctional Institute.
Hello, World; hello, Cold War.
Mama, look an H-Bomb (sung to the tune of “Shortening Bread”)
“Mama, look an H-bomb,” they all shout.
Mama say, “Watch out for the fallout.
See your daddy, he know.
Fallout make him ugly so.”
Hit the dirt, join the crowd.
“Mama, look a mushroom cloud!”
Thanks, Mad Magazine.
I remember standing in the weeds of the front yard of our two-bedroom rented house watching Sputnik travel across the night sky and recall squatting underneath a desk in the third grade during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Also, there was a sign hanging in the stairwell of Condon’s Department Store designating it as an official fallout shelter. I’ll admit the sign creeped me out whenever I saw it, but to say I grew up under the specter of nuclear annihilation would be inaccurate. The skies of my childhood were mostly sunny. I had escaped polio, my parents and pets lived long lives, though I did, come to think of it, suffer from an unrelenting series of unrequited crushes.
John F Kennedy had the top of his head blown off when I was a fifth grader. I remember my teacher Miss McCue dabbing her eyes, but no tears were shed at my house. The following year our Ford Falcon station wagon sported a “Goldwater for President” bumper sticker, and I lamented when I woke up on 5 November 1964 to learn that ol’ AuH2O had been buried in a landslide. My first year of high school, James Earl Ray picked off Martin Luther King, and the following year Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy at point blank range after he had won the California Primary. Of course, all the while men and boys in body bags were flying in from Southeast Asia, and African Americans were being battered with billy clubs across the South.
Geopolitically speaking, it was a lousy time to grow up. You sort of winced when you picked up the paper each morning.
Well, I don’t know, but I’ve been told
The streets in heaven are lined with gold
I ask you how things could get much worse
If the Russians happen to get up there first
Wowee! pretty scary!
Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree
I want ev’rybody to be free
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.
Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Free No. 10”
The Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties seemed less traumatic. September 11th, of course, was horrible, but you have to be extraordinarily unlucky to be killed by an international terrorist. You’re more likely to be gunned down in a theater, school, night club, church or synagogue by a red-blooded American.
Whatever the case, Apocalypse was in the air. Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy wrote about it. Across both large and small screens zombies marched and pandemics raged.
Here’s a snippet from a post from 2014:
Horror is all the rage in Late Empire America. Walking your rescue dog past young Bentley’s house, you can hear heavy gunfire and explosions emanating from his manipulations of a video console. Hmm, sounds like he’s playing Mortal Kombat Armageddon, or is it World of Welfare: Let’s Kill the Bloodsuckers?
All of this got me to wondering when the West quit writing utopias a la Thomas More and started portraying the future world as a nightmare. Of course, my go-to unscholarly source is Wikipedia, and it anoints Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel’s as the first dystopian “literature” – though Oedipus Rex might lay some claim to being the first, with its plague-ridden Thebes ruled by a tainted king whose sexual misdeeds make the Clinton/Lewinski dalliance seem downright wholesome in comparison. But Oedipus Rex predates empire, and I suppose you must have an empire, a nation state, or a polluted planet to qualify as a dystopian society. My colleague Aaron Lipka tells me the civilization must be a fallen one in a dystopian society.
So what we have been dreading has arrived, a crippling pandemic; we have become actors ourselves in a historical drama. Nothing in my past can compare to what’s going on right now, and, of course, economically no one really knows what’s going to happen, but with all due respect to the President, we have seen something like this before.
In fact, Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker provides a succinct history of pandemics in the 30 March issue. Here’s a brief catalogue:
541-50 CE – the Bubonic plague known as the Justinianic plague spreads from Egypt to Britain, playing a significant role in the fall of the Roman Empire.
1400s through 1720: smallpox. “Parents would commonly wait to name their children until after they had survived smallpox.” Exported to the Americas, smallpox essentially wiped out indigenous populations.
1817 – now – Cholera, a resurgent pandemic whose latest outbreak has killed approximately 10,000 Haitians in 2010.
20th century – influenza, polio, measles, typhus . . .
21st century – influenza, Ebola, Covid-19 [to be continued].
Forgive the cliché, but what goes around comes around. Here are Kolbert’s final three paragraphs:
Whenever disaster strikes, like right about now, it’s tempting to look to the past for guidance on what to do or, alternatively, what not to do. It has been almost fifteen hundred years since the Justinianic plague, and, what with plague, smallpox, cholera, influenza, polio, measles, malaria, and typhus, there are an epidemic number of epidemics to reflect on.
The trouble is that, for all the common patterns that emerge, there are at least as many confounding variations. During the cholera riots, people blamed not outsiders but insiders; it was doctors and government officials who were targeted. Smallpox helped the Spanish conquer the Aztec and Incan Empires, but other diseases helped defeat colonial powers. During the Haitian Revolution, for example, Napoleon tried to retake the French colony, in 1802, with some fifty thousand men. So many of his soldiers died from yellow fever that, after a year, he gave up on the attempt, and also decided to sell the Louisiana Territory to the Americans.
Even the mathematics of outbreaks varies dramatically from case to case. As Adam Kucharski, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the author of “The Rules of Contagion” (forthcoming in the U.S. from Basic Books), points out, the differences depend on such factors as the mode of transmission, the length of time an individual is contagious, and the social networks that each disease exploits. “There’s a saying in my field: ‘if you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen . . . one pandemic,’ ” he writes. Among the few predictions about covid-19 that it seems safe to make at this point is that it will become the subject of many histories of its own.
The good news, however, is that at least as far as contagion goes, we non-medical personnel are the masters of our fate. We can distance ourselves, wash our hands if we go out, and train ourselves not to touch our faces. In the catalogue of pandemics, Covid-19, to quote a physician I saw online, “is a wimpy virus,” done in by a simple soap. Perhaps, if you allow me to wax all Panglossian, some good will come out of all of this, greater respect for science maybe, a reconfiguring of our medical insurance situation, a change of political leadership, a more equitable distribution of wealth.
Hang in there, y’all. Who knows?
Thinking of Noah, childheart, try to forget
How for so many bedlam hours his saw
Soured the song of birds with its wheezy gnaw,
And the slam of his hammer all the day beset
The people’s ears. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where
He rocked his only world, and everyone’s.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah’s sons.
Richard Wilbur, “Still, Citizen Sparrow”
 I’ve scoured the Internet in vain seeking the issue in which this ditty appeared. However, I’m confident the lyrics are accurate because it’s one of the myriad of selections recorded in the juke box of my brain.