Coronavirus déjà vu
In 1946, a year after VE day, my parents lived in Jamaica, N.Y, my father managing a hotel in Long Beach, on the south shore of Long Island, a short drive from Jamaica. Dad liked to stop at "Roadside Rest" a hot dog stand on the road near what was then called Idlewild (now JFK) airport; Dad loved taking us there. It was cheap and delicious; I loved the juicy, plump frankfurters, the best New York had to offer. I was four years old and they had some monkey bars outside to play on.
That summer we spent July and August in Long Beach; Dad ran a hotel called the Adelon, a beige brick building of about 100 rooms with a front porch overlooking the beach. Seagulls flittered about; their white feathers a contrast against the crisply blue sky. Old people congregated the porch, rocking slowly in the metal chairs. I ran around, freely and childishly. One evening, though, a huge lighting storm appeared and a blinding flash followed by the loudest thunderclap sounded just outside my window, the sky then returning inky black. Mom was working; I ran screaming to my nanny. One of my most frightful childhood memories--for years I suffered nightmares and shook myself to sleep, humming a repetitive moan-like sound.
We stayed at aunt Gussie’s nearby house some evenings in those summer days. Aunt Gussie was dark haired woman with streaks of grey and a cigarette dangling perpetually out of her mouth. Gussie and Mom played a continuous game of gin rummy, turning the room hazy with smoke. One evening I spiked a fever of 103 and Mom panicked. She called the doctor who, after examining me, assured her it was not polio and gave me a huge shot of a white liquid--penicillin. In my eyes, the needle looked like a pitchfork. Mom's fear pierced me. Mom, just as was everyone, terrified of polio, the genesis of which was a virus. FDR's courageous journey through paralysis ennobled his persona as a compassionate, great president, and more importantly an empathetic human being, one who understood, despite his patrician roots, the trials of the ordinary American stricken with polio. His institute in Warm Springs, Georgia still provides hope for the afflicted.
Horrifying visions of Iron Lungs, children's heads peering out and with no prospect of emerging from the fearsome prison that kept their paralyzed lungs breathing still haunt me. The fear was palpable, terrifying. I had dreams of being inside one an never getting out, struggling to scratch my nose and not able to run free.
In 1948 we moved to Miami Beach, polio fears still abiding. In second grade, we were stewarded to the school library at North Beach Elementary and given little paper cups of pink vaccine to drink. In 1952, we did not understand the benefits of the vaccine, but soon our parents learned that it was a medical miracle. The poliovirus had been banished.
In 1954 came the Soviet nuclear menace, the prospect of instant vaporization by a Russian hydrogen bomb. Terror gripped us; hiding under a wooden school desk would protect us though, our schoolteachers informed us during numerous air raid drills. It was another virus to fear.
When I got to Junior High around that time, Some of the kids in school joined the Ground Observer corps where, stationed on the 73d street beach, diagrams of Russian bombers had been distributed so we could identify Russian aircraft before they soared over Miami Beach to destroy Flagler Street, which then had only two old office buildings and a segregated Walgreens with a soda fountain.
In those days, they let us to listen to smuggled into school transistor radios for the daytime broadcast World Series. Those early autumn games were a respite from thinking the world was ending in either nuclear holocaust or Communist enslavement.
Later, in the1980s, my generation thought we would all die of AIDS, prematurely forcing us to ponder our mortality. There was no cure, and when heterosexuals became threatened, many ran for tests under assumed names. Some friends died and I saw one of mine die a horrible, painful death, tubes coming out of every orifice of his body, his grey countenance laying comatose in his hospital bed, bags of dark fluid oozing from his body. He had shuffled into my office before that to do his will and put his affairs in order for his wife and two children. I still visualize how he looked, grey and fragile. I became nauseated with fright. It all now seems so remotely past. People say things are never as bad or as good as they seem at the time.
Now, a new crisis, the coronavirus. My wife and I had planned for a cruise to Italy this May and we would rather have root canal then get on a floating Petri dish. Even flying in a plane risks exposure to coughs, sneezes and wheezing passengers. Mortal threats, all. Not to mention the inability be treated by overwhelmed hospitals and physicians, if the spread is too rapid. CNN now chooses to cover more of virus than of Trump. Do not ask me which is the more frightening. So now we are under household arrest, like white collar criminals waiting for trial. The only difference is that we do not have ankle bracelets.
Doctors may be making battlefield triage decisions as to whom to treat, old or young, frail or otherwise healthy. If the choice were between us and someone young, we would not get the ventilator.
America has not seen this since the influenza of 1918 that killed 50-100 million people throughout the world.
The other night dining with close friends, we avoided customary hugs, handshakes and kisses--expressions of humanity and love. My generation, it seems, must overcome another fear since the elderly are the ones most vulnerable. I wondered about the waiters and cooks sneezing in the food, contaminating flatware and dishes.
Even worse, we face times without human contact.
This week I watched a documentary of World War II flyers negotiating a bombing run over Germany, the navigator saying that he thought he was a duck in a shooting gallery as flack burst near his airplane. "You just lower your head and fly through." A large percentage of his friends in the B-17s went down in flames.