The Days Gone, the Lives Lost
When I was a teenager, I had a poster of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on their Harleys from the movie, Easy Rider, taped to my bedroom wall. It was the early 1970s, and I lived in a town of one thousand people in rural southeastern Illinois where conservative values held sway. Those values left little room for the counterculture. Older boys went away to Vietnam, and some of them never came back, but still, for the most part, the people of our town supported the war, supported Richard Nixon, and as for the civil rights movement, well that was something that went on in the big cities, something that didn’t concern most of the people who lived in tiny Sumner, Illinois.
A similar lack of concern existed in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began to make news. To many of the folks in my native land, the pandemic was something that was going on in cities like New York and surely would never become something to concern the folks who lived in the rural Midwest. Time has shown us how wrong that way of thinking was. COVID-19 is now running rampant in these small towns. I know more and more people who have tested positive for the virus. My best friend from high school days and his wife have it. My wife’s older daughter and her husband have it. A high school classmate has thankfully survived her time on a ventilator. The virus is no longer something on the periphery. Now it’s personal. I haven’t lived in this town for more than forty years, but my heart will always be there.
When the State of Illinois started closing restaurants and bars, canceling high school sporting events, limiting gatherings, and requiring masks, many people in my home area were upset. Many saw such actions as unnecessary. Government overreach, they said. A violation of constitutional rights. The refusal to wear masks, to social distance, to avoid large gatherings, has led now to the surge of the virus. It’s no longer possible to take a “never-will-it-happen-here” attitude. People are learning that COVID-19 knows no boundaries.
I wish it weren’t so. I wish more people had taken this pandemic more seriously. I wish government leadership had invited them to do so rather than leading them, through misinformation and downright lies, to the magical thinking that told them everything would be fine; COVID-19 was meant for other people but not for them. I’m not saying that everyone ignored the risk or refused to take precautions. The virus doesn’t care who’s guilty and who’s innocent. The virus is merely looking for a host, and if that happens to be a Midwestern farmer or an oil field roughneck or a factory worker or a schoolteacher or a retail clerk, so be it, no matter if someone followed safety protocol or refused it.
Another poster on my teenage bedroom wall said, “Keep on Truckin’.” Maybe you remember these posters of characters strutting confidently across various landscapes. I believe mine may have featured a wolf in a zoot suit, his long leg and big foot pressing forward, his teeth bared in a wide grin. The people I grew up with value their independence. Many of them, no doubt, would curse the worthless hippies, Wyatt and Billy, in Easy Rider. The longhairs, the druggies, the shiftless and the radical. In fact, some of the men I grew up with could have easily been the ones firing shots at Wyatt and Billy at the end of the film, never realizing that they had more in common with them than they could ever see, all of them, whether liberal or conservative, fighting for the right to live the way they choose. That desire for individual rights is the American way, yes? But what about when the desire for independence bumps up against the collective’s right to live? Can’t we sacrifice individuality for the sake of the community?
As we head toward 2021, I want us all to be like that zoot-suited wolf, strutting on into a better future filled with optimism but also with eyes wide open to the challenges still ahead as we do our best to “Keep on Truckin’.” To look forward, we have to keep looking back. The days gone, the lives lost, are speaking to us. It’s our responsibility to listen.
Copyright © 2020 Lee Martin
Lee Martin is the author of six novels, including The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and the recently released, Yours, Jean. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University.