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The Ever-Changing Nature of What We Value and What We Fight

Jack Riordan April 01, 2020

I’m old enough to remember how united we were in World War II when we fought countries not only with our Armed Services but with civilian sacrifices, shortages, long lines, rationing and recycling.  One of my jobs was to wait in line for my Mom on Saturdays.  Once she did not make it before the A&P store opened.  I got the last bar of soap.  A great big lady grabbed my arm and growled “You know what happened to the last boy that did that.”  I said I bet he got a big hug.

I’m also dumb enough to have volunteered to be a civilian Refugee Relief Officer for USAID in Vietnam. I worked closely with our military fighting a civil war in Vietnam we did not know who our enemy was hiding among the very friendly and helpful Vietnamese people. The guy who had my job across the River was captured and spent six years in bamboo cages. My first boss was killed in an ambush; the guy who came to replace me was killed before I left. Coronavirus is worse.  A person can be your friendly ally and your adversary at the same time without knowing.  

Between my two wars was the Polio virus outbreak with iron lungs and a lot of crippled kids. Polio was gradually suppressed by a vaccine developed in 1950 by Jonas Salk but not used soon enough to save the best scholar athlete and my best buddy in my grammar school graduation class.  We were planning to attend the same Jesuit High School, but Bill banged his head retrieving a ball under a parked semitrailer. The doctors found Bill had polio, so he went to a special school for the handicapped.  (We stayed connected; he was the boyfriend of my girl’s best friend.)  At our 25th high school reunion he had recovered enough to beat me at golf.  One of our foursome and an old friend died a few years later of cancer.

Information distribution in Chicago was limited to a few radio stations, and four or five newspapers in English and a dozen in European languages.  I don’t remember Polio being as scary as Coronavirus, of course, I was a young teen and in my own world not knowing or caring what was going on outside my bubble.

Today’s ultra-tiny Coronavirus is doing what all life forms do, survive and propagate wherever they find a hospitable environment.  We humans because of our slovenly, friendly ways provide a perfect environment for it.  Scientists who found ways to clear up our air and water will develop cures and a vaccine.  In a few years, we’ll treat it like the flu.  Until then illogically, toilet paper will be in high demand. 

The old lady with cats and I had a telephone chat about the current sad condition of the world.  She reminded me that humanity had survived other deadly crisis; she said you should know that tiny unseen beings are the greatest threats and what we value is flighty and fleeting.  As I plan to downsize, an ever repeating question is, “Why the hell did I buy that?  

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