I write this on the afternoon of Sunday, March 22. Friday was the first full day of spring; the vernal equinox officially arrived at 10:49 CT the night before. April is only ten days away, and especially for those of us living in the upper Midwest, April means rebirth–sunshine, warm temperatures, gardens and lawns springing back to life, and the start of the baseball season. All great things, especially for us up here who have had to endure months of bitter cold, heavy snow and no baseball except spring training camps, usually too far away for us to visit except via television.
But this month of March is certainly turning out to be different than any we’ve experienced before. Suddenly, the arrival of spring doesn’t seem to herald the promise it always used to.
It’s still cold here, with high temps this week projected to be in the low to mid forties. We had a few dustings of new snow this week and it’s still cold, limiting our ability to do the yard and garden work that needs doing before April. Baseball’s spring training has been canceled and even optimists are saying the regular season won’t start for several more weeks.
The coronavirus has changed everything.
A race to the end–which came too early.
It had been a very busy winter for your faithful correspondent. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had been asked to get back behind the radio microphone for the fall high school football season, with a volleyball match thrown in. The broadcasts were well-received and I had a good time doing them (and I won’t deny that the extra income was nice), so I offered my services for the winter basketball and hockey seasons. So it was that in December, I debuted as the new “Voice” of the Rice Lake Warriors, the high school that serves the town of Rice Lake and is our kids’ alma mater. Over the course of the next three and a half months, I called some 40 games of the school’s boys and girls basketball teams and the hockey team, plus some games of area schools. Although the Warrior basketball teams had losing seasons, the hockey team surprised a lot of people with a run to the state semifinals. Thus it was that on the morning of March 5, I was at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, calling the Warrior skaters in their battle with top-ranked St. Mary’s Springs Academy, a private school from Fond du Lac.
The hockey team’s run to Madison, while exciting, was close to exhausting as well. Along with the basketball games, I had a stretch of 12 broadcasts in 17 days, many of which included long road trips. It was a stressful time, made worse by my wife Sue’s departure for a trip to South Asia on March 4th. As a prelude to her annual International Summit in Jaipur, India, she and some of her travel-industry colleagues would be visiting the neighboring nations of Nepal and Bhutan before coming to India. On the day of her scheduled return, March 17th, I would be flying to Arizona to visit my parents, a trip highlighted by my brother and me taking our father to a Brewers’ spring training game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
We had all been aware of the coronavirus outbreak, of course, from its start in China a few months ago to its spread to other parts of Asia and into Europe and the Western Hemisphere early in 2020. Pundits are now debating as to whether our own government underestimated the virus before it started acting to limit its scope here, but I think that’s a job better left to the historians. (That won’t stop the pundits, though, whose job it is to be Monday-morning quarterbacks.) What is important is that things started getting locked down over here, and when they started locking down, it came with a rapid, cascading effect that has left the entire country reeling.
On the morning of March 12, Sue emailed from Nepal that her Jaipur conference had been canceled and the group was arranging for flights home. (The Bhutan portion of their tour had been called off a couple days earlier when that nation closed its borders.) It would be an exhausting itinerary: Kathmandu to New Delhi to Paris to Minneapolis, a total of 23 hours in the air and another seven hours or so in airport layovers. Plus she would have her usual two-hour drive home after the final flight landed at MSP. My own plans for the day involved travel as well, although not nearly as extensive. My radio station had assigned me to cover the girls basketball team from a nearby town, Clear Lake, in the semifinals of the state playoffs. Wisconsin high school hoops for both boys and girls are divided into five divisions, based on enrollment, and the first five rounds of playoff games produce “Final Fours” in each division. The girls converge on Green Bay for their semifinals and finals over a three-day span on the second weekend of March; the boys have theirs in Madison the following weekend.
At least, that’s what was supposed to happen.
Clear Lake was scheduled to play Game 2 on the second day of the tournament, so I drove to Green Bay after dropping our dog off at the kennel, backtracking to home so some last household chores could be done in anticipation of Sue’s return the next day, and then off to Titletown I went. It’s a four-hour drive to Green Bay from our home, and I arrived around 4:30pm. My hotel near Austin Straubel Airport was nearly empty of guests; in the lobby was a forlorn sign welcoming fans from Arcadia, one of the towns with a participating team. But just the day before, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs high school sports here, had decreed the tournament, plus the remaining rounds of the boys playoffs, would be played with tight limits on attendance. Each competing school would be able to have about 100 fans, generally relatives of the players, attend the games. Most of Arcadia’s fans, like those from Platteville, the team they were playing that afternoon in the Division 3 semifinals, had to turn around and go home on Wednesday when the WIAA’s decision was announced.
The TV in the hotel lobby was airing the second game of the Division 3 doubleheader. In the first game, Platteville’s undefeated Hillwomen had ousted Arcadia, moving into Saturday’s divisional championship game–if it was going to be played. Three more games, the remaining Division 3 semi and then the Division 4 games in the evening, would be played, but late that night the WIAA announced that the rest of the tournament would be canceled. Platteville, which was undefeated, would not be able to try for the school’s first-ever championship on Saturday against Wrightstown. The Division 4 winners from the evening, La Crosse Aquinas and Melrose-Mindoro, were similarly denied a chance to compete for their division’s gold trophy. All four of those school communities were deeply disappointed, of course, but I felt especially bad for Platteville, my parents’ alma mater, and for the Melrose-Mindoro girls, who had lost to Aquinas twice in a row in the title game and were undoubtedly thinking that their third time would be the charm.
The Clear Lake team and its size-limited fan contingent were already ensconced at another hotel in Green Bay, and now they’d have to go home on Friday instead of squaring off against Bangor in their semifinal, the game I was to broadcast. Clear Lake’s volleyball team had completed an unbeaten season with a state title in November, winning it in the same building where the basketball team, with many of the same girls on the roster, was planning to go for a perfect season of its own. It would’ve been an impressive achievement, perhaps unprecedented in state history. But now they’ll never know if they could’ve done it.
I had spent the previous evening at the movie theater, enjoying The Call of the Wild. When I hit the hay around 10pm, there were no messages on my phone about the tournament. When I awoke just before 5am on Friday, there they were: the game’s off, come on home.
Stocking up, just in case.
On the drive to Green Bay the day before, I’d stopped at a Walmart in Wausau, thinking it might be a good idea to get some supplies. The stories of toilet-paper runs had started to circulate. The shelves containing toilet paper and some other paper products were almost bare. There seemed to be an air of urgency among the shoppers; they were not as relaxed as normal, it seemed to me. There had been reports from around the country in the previous few days about toilet-paper hoarding, although there didn’t seem to be any particular reason for it.
But, I figured it was better to be safe than sorry, so after getting back to Rice Lake from Green Bay and dropping off the station vehicle and my equipment, I hit the stores in town. First was our supermarket, Marketplace Foods. Rice Lake has three grocery stores, and we’ve always done the majority of our shopping at this one. Toilet paper was running low, so I got a six-pack and nearly $100 of groceries and other supplies in total. Then it was off to a couple more stops for essentials, capped with a visit to 4everFit, the local gym where I would be teaching the final session of a four-week self-defense class the next morning. Tony Bergmann had a disinfecting crew at work, but he said that was a regular Friday occurrence. The class was still on, and so I returned home to unload and get ready for Sue’s arrival that evening. When she rolled in, I was never so glad to see her in my life. She had emailed that they were on the way but were concerned about their stops in India and France. What if the borders closed, stranding them at the airport? What about the US-imposed ban on travel from Europe, announced the previous day by President Trump? It was not going into effect until later Friday night, but you never know what might happen in a foreign country, especially one where seeds of urgency are starting to spread.
Sue showed no symptoms of the virus, but decided to self-isolate for at least a week. Since I was at home when she arrived, I had to do it, too; I was scheduled to fly to Arizona four days later, but it was likely that trip wouldn’t happen anyway, and I didn’t want to bunk anywhere else for four nights until departure. We canceled my trip and dug in.
Fortunately, we live in a rural area with no neighbors within a half-mile, so we could get outside and take walks with the dog without encountering anybody. It wasn’t until Wednesday the 18th that I ventured out onto the roads. By then, the Governor of Wisconsin had started rolling out edicts about closing schools (first till at least April 6, later making it indefinite) and some businesses. I had an appointment in nearby Spooner, about thirty miles north of us, that didn’t have to be canceled. I took care of that business and stopped by one of the few bookstores left in northwest Wisconsin, Northwind Book & Fiber, to see how they were doing; Carol, who stocks my books at her store, told me that in fact, they were doing all right, books and knitting supplies were selling briskly, and they’d had a run on jigsaw puzzles. At the Kwik-Trip convenience store, I got an iced cappuccino that was prepared and served to me by a gloved employee; self-service on drinks was no longer allowed. Also, I couldn’t sit at their bench by the window and drink it while browsing through my phone’s email files, as I normally do. By Wednesday morning, Wisconsin bars and restaurants could only serve food by take-out.
I was back home about two hours after setting out. I’d also made a stop at Spooner’s lone supermarket for a few supplies, and it was somewhat eerie. A few people wore masks. Some shelves were empty, many others very low. That’s not something American grocery store shoppers are used to seeing. I’d seen it in foreign countries, but never here. In many ways, it was a shock, certainly unsettling.
With the restrictions on gatherings and travel, how are supermarkets going to get re-stocked? Will we start running out of things? Probably not, according to this article: How will supermarkets stay stocked?
Sue and I drove to Rice Lake on Friday, as our self-isolation period came to an end with no signs of any symptoms. She remarked that with all the gloom and doom on the news the past week, she was surprised there weren’t any abandoned cars or dead bodies along the road. And indeed, we were able to visit our gym and get chai tea at our favorite coffee shop–drinking it in the car, parked down by the lake–and things seemed, well, somewhat normal, if a little less busy than usual. The zombie apocalypse had not arrived, after all.
It was a terrible week on Wall Street, of course. Our financial adviser called and his advice for now was to avoid looking at our retirement accounts. They were very healthy going into this thing and he had every confidence that they would be healthy again, and I agree with him. The markets will rebound, everyone’s accounts will fill up again, food will be plentiful and people will be out at bars and restaurants like they always were. The ballparks will open, although nobody can say when. Major League Baseball will almost certainly not play a full 162-game season, and it’s looking more and more like the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League won’t get to play the final twenty percent of their schedules, maybe not even the playoffs. That’s especially disappointing for fans of teams like the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, who were having a terrific season, aiming to give us their first title in 49 years. Churches will put people in the pews again, but for now almost all churches, like ours, have suspended in-house services. Many, like ours, are now offering virtual, on-line services. This morning, our own service at Long Lake Lutheran Church was a hit, according to the website analytics I see (I’m the church webmaster).
Yes, it will all get back to normal. But when? That’s the question everyone wants answered, but which nobody can.
It’s happened before, remember.
Very little that ever happens is truly unprecedented. Pandemics have roared through countries and continents before, and they will again, since there is no way to inoculate everybody for every possible contagion. Mother Nature, often abetted by human stupidity–this COVID-19 outbreak is said to have originated in a wild-animal market in central China, where their practices are truly dangerous, as should now be very obvious to all–continues to bedevil us with these things. We’re a lot less susceptible than we used to be; there are no longer any serious outbreaks of smallpox or tuberculosis, for example. But every now and then, something big hits, and that’s what has happened.
The last real pandemic that struck America happened in 1918, when we were in the midst of fighting World War I. It originated in Europe, and spread to North America when troops began returning to the U.S. and Canada aboard ship. It was the Spanish flu pandemic, and it was truly awful. Adjusted for population growth, the Spanish flu took what would be the equivalent of over 2 million American lives, in a span of time of only about a year and a half.
My grandparents were all living up in southern Wisconsin at the time, ranging in age from two to sixteen, and they all made it. Many people alive today, including President Trump, lost grandparents in the epidemic. It overwhelmed hospitals, fed panic, and no doubt generated a great deal of anguish and despair, even among families who didn’t lose loved ones. But the nation survived. How did those Americans of a century ago make it? Perhaps they can teach us some lessons.
Their medical technology was far more primitive than ours, of course, and they struggled mightily with what they had. It was hard to get the word out, to tell people what was happening and what they could do. Communications were a lot different than today; with no television and not even radio, people relied on newspapers for their information, and often that was days or weeks out of date by the time the paper got to readers. Two-thirds of American homes didn’t even have telephones. One advantage they did have over us was that transportation was much slower. The virus could only come over here by ship, and not only were the ships slow, transatlantic ship traffic didn’t carry nearly the number of passengers that today’s airliners do, when you put all the flights together. Once the flu arrived here, it could only spread slowly, too. It took days to go from the East Coast to the Midwest or Far West by train. It might take hours for a horse-drawn wagon, or the rare automobile, to get from town to town. And so, the virus didn’t spread very quickly, giving doctors and hospitals valuable time to figure out what was going on and deal with it as best they could.
The answer to how they survived, I think, is that they hung tough. They stuck together, made do with what they had, and had a strong faith that they would pull through. My grandparents’ parents were people who had grown up in the 19th century, whose own parents had lived through the Civil War. My grandparents would survive the Spanish flu and go on to survive the Great Depression and then World War II. Within two generations of the arrival of Spanish flu on our shores, America had not only fully recovered, it had overcome a great economic upheaval and won the greatest war in human history. Then they built the most prosperous society the world had ever seen. By 1948, a mere thirty years after the Spanish flu hit, America was astride the world. Nobody could match us economically or militarily, and, we thought, we were at the top morally, too. Without us, the world would have fallen to tyranny and nightmarish brutality.
We sure as hell need their attitude now.
Making the best of it.
Sue and I have been spending a lot of time together lately. We have gotten a lot done around the house, and even though part of our yard is still covered with crusty snow, we have still managed to get most of it prepared for spring. Sue is beginning to work on her gardens. The last of our firewood is providing us with warmth. We are judicious with our news viewing, as it’s been obvious–and, sadly, not unexpected–that much of the media is interested primarily in sensationalizing and politicizing the pandemic. We have had some long talks, reconnecting on some things that might have fallen by the wayside in the busy months and even years that preceded this sudden break in routine. We have spent a lot of time with our wonderful dog, Sophie, who today is very tired from spending most of yesterday outside playing ball, and then getting a bath.
This is something that our grandparents knew about, too. They worked hard, but they didn’t have a lot to distract them, especially before the advent of television following World War II. A phone, if they had one, was something that hung on the wall and was used rarely, and just to talk. They didn’t travel much, tended to get all their shopping done in one trip a week to the stores, and generally, it seems to me, had a more fulfilling home life than many of us seem to have today. There were exceptions, of course, but I think that in many ways, our grandparents had things figured out a lot better than we do.
We are barely two weeks into the real crackdown on the virus here in America, and already I am seeing news articles–opinion pieces, really, as that’s what passes most of the time for journalism today–calling into question our ability to survive, to come out on the other side stronger and better than before. These skeptics, who have even surfaced at presidential news conferences, trying to bait our leaders into making sensational statements, seem to believe that we will lose this battle. It’s almost as if they’re rooting for the virus to win, as if they believe that the collapse of America would make for thrilling news coverage, with themselves front and center sounding the alarm. How would they fare in the post-apocalyptic world they seem to long for? Maybe they haven’t thought of that; I rather doubt that NBC or CNN or the Washington Post have secret compounds somewhere in Appalachia where their people will ride it out and later embark from to rebuild civilization in their image.
But I think we will win. I think America is made of sterner stuff than these skeptics seem to think. There were certainly doomsayers back in 1918, too, when Spanish flu started its insidious invasion of our shores. Many intellectuals of the 1930s smugly predicted that the Great Depression would result in a communist overthrow of our democracy, and a few years later there were a lot of people who thought the Japanese were only a few days away from invading California, who predicted German bombers and missiles would appear over New York any moment.
But we proved them all wrong. We had great leadership back then from people like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, who surely had doubts from time to time, especially in the darkest days of the depression and the war, but who were always confident and determined in public. That’s what we are starting to see from our elected leaders, from the president down to the various state governors. It’s going to be tough, and it may get worse before it gets better, but we will get through this. It will be very hard, but Americans are very good at doing the hard things, often things no other country seems able or willing to do. And we’re going to do it again.
Someday in the not-too-distant future, they’ll be saying this about us: