Lest We Forget

When the Covid pandemic began in early 2020, I read a series of books, fiction and non, about various past “plagues”. The Spanish Flu of 1918 was the first draw, fueled by my grandparents’ stories of it. I read Katherine Ann Porter’s compelling 1939 novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”, about a young nurse who has a brief romantic fling with an ailing soldier from whom she contracts influenza and dies. The story is told as a delirious remembering of her frightful last days as she lies dying in a Texas hospital. Susan Meissner’s 2018 novel “As Bright as Heaven” was a timely selection for my family book group just after Covid emerged. It was about a family which moves to Philadelphia to take over a relative’s funeral home just as the Spanish Flu mercilessly infected the city in September 1918. I also reread Albert Camus’ classic 1947 novel, “The Plague”. Finally, I read a detailed non-fiction account of the worldwide impact of the Spanish Flu in Laura Spinney’s “Pale Rider — the Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World”. Lawrence Wright’s 2021 account of the Covid pandemic caught my eye while browsing for new books in my local public library recently. Once engaged with it, I couldn’t put it down.

The Spanish Flu was most devastating in the fall of 1918, just before the November 11 armistice ending World War 1. In the ecstatic relief at the end of the war’s frightful carnage, the equally traumatizing experience of the flu pandemic was largely swept aside. Laura Spinney’s book documents the millions of death worldwide from the flu, far surpassing the number of casualties from the war.

Perhaps there is a survival mechanism in human existence that makes us want to skip over horrendous trauma so that we can go on living. I’ve certainly noticed such a tendency within myself. But reading “The Plague Year” has reminded me of what is lost when we fail to remember our recent history, directed by an impatience that simply wants to be done with an inconvenient interruption to our sense of normalcy.

Wright is a talented journalist and author of a number of compelling nonfiction books, the most noted of which is his 2006 Pullitzer Prize winner, “The Looming Tower — Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”. He does a masterful job of telling the story of the Covid pandemic from its origins in Wuhan to its tragic spread worldwide, fed by stonewalling from the Chinese government and an inept response in the U.S. led by a president with his sites more on re-election than on overcoming the greatest threat facing his people.

Rather than attempt my own comprehensive review, I’m citing a superb one by the talented author and New York Times reviewer, Sonali Deraniyagala. Ms. Deraniyagala is a professional economist who nearly lost her life in the 2004 tsunami in her native Sri Lanka.

Book Review: ‘The Plague Year,’ by Lawrence Wright – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Just before their inauguration in January, 2021, Joe Biden and Kamal Harris led a public memorial service at the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool in which they memorialized the over 400,000 Americans who’d died from Covid at that point in time. They also gave tribute to all the health professionals, first responders, and families of those who had died. It was the first national remembrance since the pandemic’s onset, and set a new tone for the federal government’s response to the ongoing crisis. The pandemic is far from over, yet that marked a turning point in our nation’s approach to it. The historic Democratic successes in the recent 2022 midterm elections may be partly due to a sense that we now have intelligent, compassionate adults at the helm for whatever we are facing.

John Bayerl, 11/14/22

A Bridge to Nowhere

I was at sixes and sevens late yesterday morning when a number of plans for the day failed to materialize. I idly brought up Google Earth on my laptop, using it to better acquaint myself with our relatively new environs. It awakened my curiosity about a long pedestrian bridge that ran across the 10-lane highway two miles away. With that focus in mind, I prepared for a bike ride, packing a sandwich, apple, and a water bottle. The temperature was still balmy for November. I had a purposeful feeling as I retrieved my bike from the locked storage room in the parking garage and set off.

I took a familiar route through the quiet streets of our suburban neighborhood, cutting through the grounds of the local middle and high school complex to reach a large local park. Wooton Mill Park abuts the bridge I was looking for. The park itself is a real delight of woods, playgrounds, a large community garden, and paved trails culminating at a fast-running creek. From there, the bridge was visible. I’d been intrigued by this bridge because I couldn’t determine its entry and exit points. I rode down Watts Branch road from the creek to near the intersection of Hurley Avenue and the busy Rt. 28. There it was, a quarter-mile long white bridge, about 20 feet high, unmarked, but open and well maintained.

I was the only one on the bridge as I pedaled up to the constant sound of whirring traffic below. Halfway across, I did pass a young woman pushing a child in a stroller and wondered where she could be going. As I passed over the multi-laned highway, the traffic noise became deafening. This part of the bridge was completely enclosed by a mesh metal fence, obviously designed to prevent suicides. The bridge terminates alongside an exit from the highway, which left me perplexed, until I saw two other bikers crossing Rt. 28 to get to the bridge entry where I was. After clarifying my whereabouts on GPS, I was ready to ride the bridge back.

It was satisfying to do this little act of exploration on my bicycle. I felt completely relaxed and present throughout the ride. I was in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and I took an alternate route back, exploring another large forested park further east on Rt.28 and then meandering through quiet neighborhoods in the Fallsgrove area until I reached the Fallsgrove shopping center, where I parked my bike at a table outside a Starbucks. I got a coffee and enjoyed my lunch outside there, reading a chapter in Lawrence Wright’s excellent book, “The Plague Year — America in the Age of Covid”.

As I was pedaling home later, waiting on a long traffic light, I noticed how calm and relaxed I felt. I’m usually at least somewhat impatient with long traffic lights. But as I stood there waiting on my bike yesterday, I noticed my complete surrender to the moment. It occurred to me that “waiting is not wasting time”.

The rest of the ride home through an unfamiliar neighborhood was a complete delight. That two-hour bicycle excursion was the highlight of my day.

John Bayerl, 11/11/22