For a diversion, lately, I’ve been rummaging through closets. Ever notice how their contents multiply over time and fill with surprises?
During a foray into one closet, I rediscovered an old file box labeled 1946. It contains random papers that my mother kept. I found vintage World War II memorabilia. My father was at war in Europe, my mother on the home front on Staten Island raising three children. She volunteered as a nurse’s aide at Halloran Hospital where wounded soldiers returning from the war were treated. There’s a snapshot of her in uniform. How young she looks, I think. In the box, I found some V-mails, censored and copied by the military for national security –– letters my father sent from the front. I found pictures of relatives, all of whom are long gone, uniformed Navy and Army officers. I found a few ration stamps issued during that period, a copy of the military journal, Stars and Stripes, announcing the Bulge offensive and a copy of Up Front, Bill Mauldin’s classic documentary depicting soldiers’ lives during WWII.
Of the national crises during my lifetime, I recollect two vividly: WWII and 9/1.
WWII thrilled me. I was nine. Traveling the Staten Island Ferry regularly I saw the energy of America at war –– uniformed military personnel arriving and leaving, troop ships in the harbor, the region pulsing with vitality. America’s relative safety –– bordered by two oceans –– and my boyish sense of omnipotence combined to leave me with many fond memories of what to me was a glorious adventure, not the tragic conflict it was. As an adult, I was horrified at the carnage of 9/11 but also shaken by what had never occurred to me before: that America wasn’t invincible as I’d always believed and it had become as vulnerable as the rest of the world. I went from years of feeling omnipotent and safe to being frightened and vulnerable, just as my country had.
It’s odd how our minds’ recall some of life’s signature moments by peripheral, even absurd details associated with them.
The morning of 9/11, I’d gone to the supermarket for eggs and milk. On the news rack, I saw one of the tabloids that print sensational rubbish. There was picture on the front page of a large frog lying next to a woman in a hospital bed with the headline: “Woman Gives Birth to Frog.” Too good to pass up. So, I bought a copy thinking I’d write some kind of goofy article about it. I arrived home and, with tongue in cheek, started writing a piece about this poor woman’s discovery. My wife came to my studio, looking frightened, and told me a plane had just flown into one of the twin towers. I’ve never forgotten either the silly frog or my wife’s terrifying disclosure.
One day in August of 1945, my father returned from the war. I sat on the curb, my back leaning on a sycamore tree. I couldn’t wait to see him. It was hot and the macadam on the street had risen in small bubbles, as if boiling. I stepped on them, making them snap like gunfire. The war was over. My father finally arrived in the car and he hugged me. I remember how the stubble of his beard felt like sandpaper against my cheek, the mottled bark of the sycamore at my back and the macadam bubbles under my feet that rose in the summer heat.
Thomas Aquinas once considered our perceptions of reality in this way: there was an ‘essence’ of things and then their ‘accidents,’ incidental characteristics that are peripheral to their essence. I think when we’re not sure of the essence of something, just what the very heart of the matter is, we often get to it by following the path of its ‘accidents,’ like playing Charades or like the free association that leads us to the essence of a dream. Strange how a sycamore’s mottled bark and heat bubbles in a macadam street could become the icons of one of my life’s most exhilarating moments; and how a mindless frog became symbolic to me of the first foreign invasion of America’s homeland since the war of 1812.
My father would periodically send packages from Europe. Receiving them was exciting. I remember one containing a German officer’s tunic, a helmet, bayonet, cartridge belt and a host of medals Nazi soldiers earned. The package also contained several K-Rations small wax covered boxes, containing basics (then) like canned chopped ham, malted milk tablets, fruit bars, sugar, instant coffee, chewing gum, cigarettes, water purifier, and packets of toilet tissue.
Toilet tissue, then, was more available on the roiling battlefields of WWII, than in today’s supermarkets.
Of the many civilian privations resulting from WWII, the consolation of touch was not one of them. Touching, recently, has been a volatile social issue. Because of sexual abuse, touching earned a bad rap. Now that abuses are being exposed, and perpetrators prosecuted, touch is returning to its venerable place in the connective tissue of human relationships. And no sooner has touching been given social clearance, and it’s been assigned sinister connotations again at a time when we desperately long to touch each other. A friend of ours who lives alone reports that, during this time of social distancing, the high point of her day is not any calls she gets, but the warmth she feels as her dog jumps on the sofa and snuggles next to her. And now we do what we can; make calls instead; it’s our ‘wartime” way of remaining in ‘touch.’
The coronavirus pandemic has been characterized as a war, indeed, a world war. Our enemy is invisible. This is a war like no other. Our enemy has no army, no tanks, no planes and not even a gun. Our enemy claims no national identity or moral purpose and is tiny like an atom; infinitesimal in size but terrifying in potency. The problem is not that our enemy hates us; the problem is that it needs us. It needs us to get a life. We see the virus as an adversary, while it sees us as rescuers. Without us, the coronavirus is lost, depending only on animals for its survival. In a strange way, it seeks the life force that vivifies you and me. It’s that life force that offers the virus a more prolific, if not necessarily, better existence.
Join me in praying that the coronavirus finds more benign ways to get a life and that we’ll all be touching soon.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.