In junior high in the 1950s we read secreted copies of Battle Cry on the bus—there were four-letter words—and watched movies of war heroics. I remember real war hero Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back,” actors William Holden and Alec Guinness in “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” I watched my first war movie, “God is My Co-Pilot,” with my dad. It was in black and white, and flying “the hump” from India over the Himalaya to China and the Flying Tigers was what my Uncle Sid did during the war.
The stories were of young men—some only in their teens—in war, under fire on the ground, in ships, or in the air.
In the early 50s—after a hiccup and grizzly, cold, still black and white, pictures from Korea, attention shifted from shooting wars to the Cold War, and we watched and listened to nuclear explosions in the Utah dessert on TV—and strained to see if we could see the real mushroom cloud from Southern California.
In the 60s, Civil Rights protests in the South were met with clubs, fire hoses, and dogs, and, even as legislation moved forward, expectations and backlash intensified. There were riots and fires in New York, Watts, and Chicago, and then another shooting war, this one in faraway Vietnam. And assassinations: John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, and dozens of cities across the country erupted in riot and flames.
As the 60s wore on, the riots and the war in Vietnam became staples of television—now in living color. There was shooting from noisy helicopters, daring pick-ups of the wounded at Khe Sanh, wailing children fleeing napalm, and nightly body counts of the American wounded and killed. People we knew, people like us, were going to Freedom Summer in Mississippi, working in Watts, dying in Vietnam. The dying in Vietnam and Mississippi—Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner made it into song—were like us, young.
President Kennedy was young too, only 46 when he was killed; Martin Luther King was 39, and Bobbie Kennedy was 42.
COVID-19 hits the weak, the people without clean water and air, the old. It takes them not with gun-bursts, but with the slow squeezing of organs. Nursing homes and the elderly are hardest hit. There are no gaping wounds for the medics to close and the cameras to catch, just ambulances and emergency rooms, people wrapped in protective gear, a weary doctor saying he had pronounced six dead on his last shift.
Like war, COVID has secondary effects: there is a scramble for food because the old supply chains aren’t geared for this. Farmers dump milk that isn’t wanted in closed schools and can’t get to supermarkets; meat processing plants close because the disease is coursing through the ranks of workers, most immigrants, many undocumented.
The president shouts, blames immigrants, but in addition to those food processors, half the workers bringing in the food crops are undocumented immigrants, and hospitals are staffed by doctors and nurses from India, China, and Africa, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, other immigrants cluster at our borders, hungry and sick. The president’s shouts ring hollow for most of the country, his noise somehow unnatural, his noisy, protesting followers a small and squeaky minority.
There is some noise in otherwise quiet cities. Songs are sung from Italian balconies, and New Yorkers clang pots and pans in appreciation for health care workers at 7:00 each night—the good noises. And then ambulance sirens. Otherwise eerie silences and TV panoramas of empty Times Square, empty Rome, and an empty Vatican.
The rural and the young—as long as they don’t work in meat plants—seem to have the best of it. Small communities like ours in Eastern Oregon can come together to help those in need—we know each other. Our schools deliver meals to students’ doors. Our hospitals wait for a shoe to drop. And we fear out of state license plates and even those we know coming home from Arizona winter or from another home in Portland to escape the COVID—we’re afraid they will bring it to us.
It’s a topsy-turvy world. Those of us who are older don’t fear for our children’s deaths in war, but our own silent demise, shut away from friends and family, wrapped in quarantine, attended by heroes in space suits. It’s not the way the world was taught to us.
We remember the crowds and the noise. We fought in a war or we fought against a war; we rioted or put down riots or tried to calm them; we marched and shouted, found heroes in song and sang along; we cried together and loud over the assassinations; we were young and maybe our parents didn’t understand us, but they mourned when we died.
Ours was a noisy world.
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