Heroes and Hope

I’ve seen and heard the word “hero” more in the last week than I have in the last year. Newscasters use it regularly to describe doctors, nurses, hospital workers, police and fire workers—and grocery clerks. Hero signs show up across from hospitals, and people in cities across the country hang out windows and front doors at 7 each night to bang pots and pans in praise of these workers.

That’s as refreshing as the “play dates” with parents driving and kids hanging out windows and singing and chanting at friends from a distance. Or the retired clown in Portland who set up in a cul-de-sac as kids from several houses stood in their front yards and cheered him on; or the Italian opera singer singing from his balcony.

The financial analysts still make their ways on the news programs, but they get little more time than the weathermen, even as the stock market gyrates crazily and they grope for this day’s answers to explain yesterday. (I’ve always thought their talk largely hooey; they can always explain yesterday’s dips and climbs—after the fact.)

But now: tired doctors and nurses take the mikes—one New York ER doc said she was at the end of five 13-hour days, and hadn’t really slept since it all started; another high-fived his young child through a glass because he is spending his days with the afflicted; and yet another said that she could not wait to get back to work when she was at home, that the meaning of the work and the camaraderie of coworkers are exhilarating. When asked whether anyone had come off a ventilator successfully, she cracked a huge smile and described a 21 year-old patient, “one of our successes.”

Even Dr. Fauci gets more applause than the President, and Dr. Birx is listened to more closely in the press conferences Trump seems to see as campaign rallies. Fauci and Birx struggle and try to use them honestly.

This pandemic reminds us that we are all human together. It strikes rich and poor, black and white, Christian and Hindu, the famous and the humble. Tom Hanks caught it; John Prine is seriously ill; Congressmen and Senators and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are in quarantine.

It appears to have no preference for one kind of government over another—it might have originated in Communist China, but it is expanding rapidly in our democracy and killing mightily in European Union countries Spain and Italy. And while a country’s wealth and power are tools in the fight, their interdependencies ease the virus’s path.

Our parents and grandparents looked back on the Great Depression as a time of want—but also as a time of camaraderie, sharing, and cooperation. The Depression too hit the wealthy and the poor, and reached every corner of the country and the world. Photographer Dorothea Lange and writer John Steinbeck made heroes of everyday people who coped with it with courage and dignity. And President Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for courageous actions and coming into everyone’s radio living room regularly with words of encouragement.

This is our time, our Depression, our Spanish Flu. The pandemic has now touched most continents and countries. It has leveled the rich and famous and elevated the humble. And although some will always duck hard times with their wealth—the New Yorkers who fled to the Hamptons on first onset; and others who will try to profit—the entrepreneur selling $30,000 “drop in the ground” iron bunkers, we’ll not remember them with praise. Our hope and our future is in the quiet heroes.

I see Lange-like photos of them every day, and I wait for this Pandemic’s Steinbeck and its Grapes of Wrath.

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  1. Recently re-reading Grapes of Wrath, I was struck by the beauty of Steinbeck's language as well as the depth of his compassion. Timeless and timely both.

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