Hats off to the Town of Barnstable, in particular the Harbormaster and Department of Natural Resources for embracing online renewals and payments for things like dinghy permits and clamming licenses.
While I used to consider my mooring renewals to be one of those annual chores that had to be performed in person lest I lose one of my precious moorings, there’s something to be said about finally being able to tick off the nagging little things like clam licenses without driving down Capt. Phinney’s Lane to the Harbormaster’s office to hand over a check and get a laminated permit and a red license holder. Now I can just hand over a credit card online, get a PDF of the permit and store it on my phone with Evernote. If I need a physical copy — which I do — I’ll just print it out at home, laminate it myself, and keep a hard copy in my boat bag along with my Mass Audubon card for access to Sampson’s Island, my boat registration, and the other ephemera I need when I’m on the water.
Governments have been a bit slow to embrace online payments, but now with everyone looking for a way to transact essential business without infecting themselves or others, it appears the coronavirus pandemic has forced the issue and motivated various public services from tax collectors to the state’s registry of motor vehicles to move as many transactions online as possible. My driver’s license expires in two weeks, and alas, when I went to renew that online I got rejected and will have to make an appointment to show up in person to get a new picture taken. But other than that, the Harbormaster in particular has really made a difference for me this spring by moving more of its permits and payments online.
Here is the foreword to my book about Bethuel Gifford’s and Thomas Chatfield’s adventures. A download link for a PDF version of the first chapter — the wreck of the whaling ship Phoenix is at the bottom of this post. Enjoy. Comments and criticism most appreciated.
I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Herman Melville, Moby Dick
They were the sort of men who clubbed baby seals, tattooed their faces during drunken benders, spread syphilis throughout Polynesia, and carved pornography into the teeth of dead sperm whales. They were fugitive alcoholics shaking in their bunks with delirium tremens, greenhorn farm boys keen for an adventure, negroes and Wampanoags and descendants of Hessian mercenaries stranded by the defeated British Army. They were controlled by acerbic mates from bleak Cape Cod villages who kept to themselves, mostly brothers and cousins, nephews and uncles, and were fast with their fists to keep the scum from rising up from the mephitic stench of the forecastle to mutiny on the high seas.
The first thing that happened to them when the pilot was sent ashore and the ship cleared Gay Head was the collection of their knives so the captain could snap off their points in a seam of the deck, blunting them to reduce the number of stabbings. They were divided into watches and picked by the mates in a quick draft to sit in one of the five whaleboats. The Captain had one, the chief or first mate another, and so on down to the fourth mate. Each whaleboat carried six men. The mates and captain steered. The other five pulled an oar. The harpooner pulled the bow oar because he did his work from the prow of the light boat, bracing his knee in a semicircle cut into the thwart, reaching behind to his right to lift a harpoon from its split oak crutch.
Once a whale was struck, the harpooner and the mate swapped ends, rushing to pass the other and take their place while the whale ran, sounding deep and taking fathoms of line with it. Then the harpooner took the tiller and became the boatsteerer and the mate lifted a long lance and prepared to kill the leviathan by stabbing it in the heart and lungs until it expelled a geyser of dark red blood through its spout.
They were butchers who could cut up a whale and convert it into oil. They worked in gore, slipped on decks marinated in fat and blood, and lost their sense of smell as the fishy stench of whale shit and blood festered out of the woodgrain in the tropical heat. If they fell from the rigging, dislocated a shoulder, or sliced themselves open flensing blubber from a whale they had to heal on their own. If their muscles ached and their teeth became loose then they were scorbutic and began to die in the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables, barely subsisting on a diet of salted meat and dry crackers.
They were men who voyaged into the void of the ocean for three years at a time, self-contained in their 100-foot ships, self-sufficient with enough rations and water to keep them alive for months without going ashore. They sailed into the blank spaces on the charts, to places no hydrographer had surveyed, coming upon indigenous people who gawked at the tall ships cruising into idyllic atolls and Arctic straits, corrupting them with bottles of rum and firearms, then inevitably fighting them and leaving them to die with some new pestilence.
They sailed to the antipodes where they could be beastly men far from the judgment of those they left behind.
They were whalers and they were fortune seekers a hot for a dollar as any prospector or ambitious American. They were the operators of the most complicated and highly engineered machines in existence: tall ships built to survive the caprices of the sea. In those ships they prospered, and many died. In those ships they explored lands as alien as the planets they navigated by.
They were equivalent to astronauts as they explored the blank spaces around the edges of the known world. Their space capsule was made of oak and pine; tar, hemp and canvas; 100-foot, three-masted abattoirs that announced themselves by their stench wafting on the wind long before the emerged over the horizon.
They guessed where they were all the time, sailing with only a rough idea of where they were and where they were going, but never exactly sure until they sighted a known landmark. They existed as lost men lost in the void of the true blue sea.
They lived with doubt whenever they sailed. They rarely stopped, only going ashore and anchoring in ports where water and food could be found or bought, and oil and bone could be sold. If they stopped then some would run away, undone by the constant anxiety of the endless blue water passages through doldrums and cyclones. They fled and hid until the ship sailed away, emerging from their hiding places to stand on the beach, new men becoming shuffling, sun-burned beachcombers and Crusoe’s beneaped and stranded far from home.
The ones who stayed aboard placed their trust and lives in the abilities of the aloof figure who stood alone and unapproachable at the windward shrouds by the wheel. He was the only man aboard other than the mate, who had the knowledge and the tools to find and measure the angles of the sun and the moon and the stars. He was the only man who could calculate and note in the ship’s log, with the shaky confidence of a scientist who doubts his tools — his hand wound chronometer gimballed in a box, the fogged, cracked glass of the eyepiece of his spray warped wood and ivory quadrant – the daily position of the ship. That made him the Master of the ship, the diviner of the celestial mysteries, the holder of the knowledge that made him king of the floating kingdom and kept his three dozen illiterate subjects obedient and at bay in their miserable lair under the deck of the ship’s bluff bow.
They were fugitives from justice, raging alcoholics, Wampanoag Indians in debt to English merchants, runaway slaves, green farm boys, and romantic dandies flunked out of college. They lived like scorbutic troglodytes in narrow bunks, the walls of the ship oozing green mold in the tropics, stinking up the fug filled stagnant air with their coughs and their flatulence. They never bathed. Knowing how to swim only prolonged their agony should they fall overboard because the ship never stopped, and even if they were lucky enough to grab a line trailing astern, there was no way they could pull themselves back aboard. They deserted the first chance they could; preferring to take their chances ashore with cannibals than remain aboard another day. They fled the ships if their captain was foolish enough to come into a port and give them an option to run away but most captains were too short-handed to offer them that temptation. So they stayed at sea for months at a time, never sure of where they were, depending on the captain’s incantations and formulas to There were no drugs to soothe the constant anxiety of life aboard a wooden sailing ship with no EPIRB beacons, no radios, no GPS plotters, not even charts of the oceans because in some cases they were the first men to visit the strange islands of the South Pacific or the desolate barren coasts of the arctic.
They drank out of desperation to numb themselves long enough to endure. They persevered if they didn’t desert and rode out the will of the sea and the temper of the captain until their ordeal was finally over and they were lucky to walk away with a sliver sized share of the profits, barely enough to pay off their debts to the ship and to pay for a bender in a New Bedford brothel. They found themselves aboard again the following fall for lack of any other place to go in the society of the land.
These were the sort of men that Bethuel Gifford Handy, Jr. — 29 years-old and the eldest son of the Handy-Nickerson clans of Cotuit Port — was in command of in the spring of 1858, on the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix, as she tacked back and forth off the shores of Honolulu, her first captain going ashore all worn out and ill and incapable of command. Handy had shipped out two years before as the first mate of the Phoenix. Now, on only his second whaling voyage, he was in command of 36 men desperate to follow their former captain ashore and be free from the fear of the summer ahead in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk, the worst waters on the planet, a sea covered by ice three-quarters of the year and fog the rest. A bitterly cold stark place with rough shores with no ports, no charts, no brothels, nothing but sullen natives, deranged Russians on the edge of civilization, and vast herds of right whales congregating in the kitchen of the Pacific to feast on tons of microscopic plankton. They wouldn’t be alone. There would be hundreds of other ships, identical to their own, all of them three-masted, tall ships painted black with sheer sides and blunt bows, floating factory ships designed to hunt, chase, kill and butcher the largest animals on the planet.
After the usual crisis obsession with the news wore off for me after President PineSol speculated about disinfectant injections and ultraviolet enemas, I turned to my favorite information delivery device — the good old book. Here’s what I’ve been reading and not reading the past six weeks.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. Apparently this is a bestselling post-apocalyptic flu book. I thought it sucked but I finished it. Cormac McCarthy she ain’t.
TheStand: Stephen King. I’ve read it twice before and it’s still one of his best, but this time I didn’t make it very far.
Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier: this as part of my research into my own book about Bethuel Handy’s shipwreck on the Siberian coast in 1858. A masterpiece of travel writing and one man’s obsession with an amazing place. That led me to ….
Great Plains, also Ian Frazier: a nexploration of America’s great middle ground. I’m half-way in.
The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson. On the recommendation of my brother in law I started this uncompleted trilogy again. I’m in the first volume, Quicksilver, set in Boston and London during the plagues of 1666 and 1721. Loving it.
Barry Lyndon, William Makepeace Thackeray. Stanley Kubrick pulled this obscure gem off the shelf and made my favorite film from it. The book is brilliant.
One man’s adventures from the Gold Rush through a Siberian shipwreck to the Battle of New Orleans
Bethuel Handy was my great-great-grandmother Florentine’s big brother. He was born in Cotuit on Cape Cod in 1829 and was 74 years old when he died in 1904. I knew very little about him when I was growing up save for two detailed mentions in my great-great grandfather’s reminscences.
The first event occurred in October 1858 in the Sea of Okhotsk amongst the Shantar Islands, a wild archipelago that teems with bowhead whales, pilot whales,* beluga whales, killer whales, sea lions, Siberian tigers and Kamchatka brown bears. Bethuel was 29 years old and had been the captain of the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix for all of six months after the ship’s original master, Joseph Hinckley of Centerville, fell ill just before she sailed from Hawaii to the frozen Russian sea in April of that year. It was his first command. He had been on only one other whaling voyage and now was captain of his second. The first was on his Uncle Horace Nickerson’s ship, the Massachusetts, and that is the second mention of Bethuel made by his brother-in-law, Thomas Chatfield.
Chatfield wrote an account of his life’s adventures for his four daughters in 1905. Bethuel’s death may have caused the women to press their father to write down his sea stories before he too slipped his hawser. So he wrote his autobiography and Bethuel did not, which meant all the family legend and lore of the Gold Rush, about whaling in the Pacific, capturing Confederate blockade runners off the Florida Keys were but one man’s version of events which only hinted at what Bethuel experienced in those same tumultous times.
For some reason no one in the family thought it worth disclosing that Bethuel married Thomas’s sister Mary. I didn’t fully grasp the strangeness of that double-brother-in-law relationship until I subscribed to Ancestry.com and started building the family tree. Thomas married Florentine Handy first, and then a few years later, Bethuel Handy married Mary Chatfield, the only girl in a family of ten btothers. So I started musing about that kind of family dynamic and how uncommon it is, and how perhaps the isolation of Cotuit Port in the mid-19th century and biological urges to mate with a new member of the gene pool from outside of the community, as well as the expediency of available eligible spouses at a time when a whaling voyage lasted three or more years, and well……it just seemed really weird to me for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on.
So I decided to learn more about Bethuel Handy. For the past five years I’ve been digging through the archives of the Nantucket Historical Association, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the California Daily Alta, and talking to Handy’s descendants to find out what documents he may have left behind. The result was startling. Among the things I learned after a lifetime of hearing one version of events, were some startling truths that my family didn’t know. To wit:
Chatfield ran away from his home in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson in 1847 when he was sixteen years old. He had been working at a textile mill on Moodna Creek since the age of 12, forced into child labor by his father Nicholas, a destitute tanner with 11 children who had been expelled from England for refusing to pay a tax to the Church of England. When he met two brothers on a schooner from Cotuit at the quay of Albany he lied and told them his name was “John Thomas” and that he was recently arrived from England in search of his family, whom he had been told were somewhere along the Hudson, but now were apparently in Boston.
Chatfield maintained that alias and fictional story for years in Cotuit after he was taken in the Nickerson clan — Bethuel’s mother’s side of the family. Bethuel learned the truth about his future brother-in-law in San Francisco during the Gold Rush when he happened to meet some sailors from the Massachusetts who knew Chatfield’s true identity. He confronted Chatfield about this fact back in Cotuit in the spring of 1853, and forbid the young man from marrying his sister Florentine until he returned to Cornwall to prove that he wasn’t a fugitive from justice.
Bethuel told the full story of his wreck in the Sea of Okhotsk to a reporter at the San Francisco newspaper, the Daily Alta, in 1859
Bethuel’s experiences at a Russian fort over the winter of 1858-59 were shared by a young deserter from another ship, Daniel Weston Hall, who published an account of that winter in Siberia in a book Arctic Rovings
Bethuel’s experience as a volunteer office in the Union Navy during the Civil War was very different from Chatfield’s. Bethuel was assigned to a gunboat that was part of Admiral David Farragut’s assault and capture of New Orleans and siege of Vicksburg.
Bethuel was so unsettled by his wartime experience on the Mississippi River that he had a religious experience involving a promise to God to get baptized at the earliest opportunity should he survive the carnage aboard the gunship USS Wissahickon. When the ship was pulled out of the battleline by Farragut and sent to Philadelphia for repairs, Bethuel missed orders assigning him to a new ship. His excuse? He was getting baptized. He was demoted as a result, and in a fit of anger resigned, leaving the service in 1862.
The revelations of this research convinced me it was worthy of a book. For the longest time I struggled to find the best way to tell Bethuel’s story. Was it fodder for a novel? How could I fully explore the fascinating relationship between him and Chatfield on the basis of a few scanty newspaper clippings and ship logs? In the end I decided to first write the story as a diligently researched and attributed work of history, inserting my novelistic projections of the emotional lives of the two brothers-in-law where appropriate, but hewing closely to the factual footnoting and sourcing on the first draft.
I began writing in November of 2019 and finished the first draft in 100 days. Now, during the social distancing phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m revising the manuscript, taking a machete to the text and removing the redundancies, re-ordering the chapter structure, and inserting — where it feels honestly appropriate — my own speculations into the untold story of these two men and their wives during a period of incredible change in society. These men were born at a time when they weren’t expected to live past 50 years. They were the last master mariners in the age of sail and experienced warfare aboard steam powered ships in a brutal war that introduced machines to warfare for the first time. They were true 49’ers — experiencing the phenomenon of the California Gold Rush first hand as young men. They were whalers at the peak of the golden age of that messy, profitable industry, capable of sailing tens of thousands of miles to the antipodes to hunt and massacre the biggest animals on the planet. They lived dangerous lives, lives of uncertainty and fear with none of the conveniences we know today. No charts. No GPS. No engines. No communications. They lived most of their marriages apart from their wives, coming home long enough to impregnate those poor women with another baby, a child that would be born while they were at sea. They were the generation that had to adapt to huge change — born in a world of candle light and wooden ships, dying in a world of telephones, electric light, automobiles and flight. They had no safety net. No social security. No medicine. Nothing but themselves and their knowledge of the sea and the stars.
And as I, along with the rest of the world, found myself contemplating my mortality as the killer virus threatened my ability to have a dinner out with my wife, I began to project myself into the minds of two very different men who lived parallel lives bound together by more than friendship and I wondered why one, the native son of Cotuit, Bethuel Handy, vanished from the village after the Civil War; and why the other, Chatfield, a fugitive who arrived in Cotuit a stranger under an alias, transformed himself from a brawling runaway into the cliche of the old salt, celebrated for his civic commitments, his Masonry, and his life simply because he wrote it down.
Anyway, as usual I digress. I thought I’d publish some of the first draft here in installments over the coming weeks. I don’t know what will happen to this work, eventually I’ll ask an agent to give it a look and seek out a publisher. But I know it is far from done, and won’t be done in my mind until I get myself to the Shantar Islands to see, with my own eyes, the place where two young men made their fortune and misfortune so far from home. I feel it’s time that Bethuel Handy get credit for an act of heroism on a level with Ernest Shackleton’s.
I wondered yesterday (while tending a pile of burning brush) when the CCBL would make the tough call to cancel this summer’s baseball season. It seemed inevitable, and now it’s official: no Kettleers this summer.
For a lot of players at the top of their game, this has been a year of lost opportunities, the kind of year for an athlete with pro ambitions that can’t be shrugged off as a bye. For some, this summer was going to be their best chance to show the pro scouts what they could do. Now they will continue to workout on their own, trying to stay in shape without a team like every athlete in the world who has been benched by COVID. Wondering like the rest of us when the bleachers will reopen and the ump will yell “play ball!”
The Olympic athletes who have spent four years preparing for Tokyo, the marathoners who planned to run Boston, my niece Allison’s volleyball team and my nephew Ted’s soccer season are all on hold, paused, all held up by the big viral rain delay.
These are the days that history will remember with asterixes and footnotes. The year of suspensions and cancellations. The year nothing was played. The kind of disclaimer that Ted Williams was tagged with because of his service as a Marine pilot in WW II and Korea, the “what-if” speculation of what he might have achieved if war hadn’t cancelled the game.
My condolences to the volunteers that make the Cape Cod Baseball League such a gem, to the Cotuit Athletic Association (who just broke ground on new visitor stands), Coach Mike Roberts, his staff and all the college players we won’t get to meet and welcome to the village in the summer of 2020.
I assiduously avoid politics. It’s an old statehouse reporter’s habit of trying to walk the straight and narrow between two parties in a state once known as the People’s Republic of Masssachusetts where politics is our fifth professional sport. It also is a topic I learned to dodge while tending bar in Cambridge and Boston’s Back Bay along with religion and other matters of opinion that could impact the tip jar. I’ve never been a registered member of any political party and have voted a mixed ticket from 1976 when I turned eighteen and could vote for the first time. But I do vote and I am a citizen and I think if anything good comes from the present calamity of viruses, fake news, and strident lunacy, it is a rethinking of the Presidency.
Yesterday I quoted one of my favorite historians — Barbara W. Tuchman — in a post about about the current crisis, trying to make the point with her words that plagues are different from wars because they range far and wide from any one battlefield to threaten us, one and all. And that any difference of opinion and lack of unity during a crisis — or at any other time — is perfectly normal and in fact better than numb consensus.
Her book, Practicing History, is a collection of articles and lectures she gave over the years on topics ranging from the joys of discovery through historical research (she famously kept her notes on 3×5 index cards and wrote at the kitchen table when her children were in bed) to a very interesting question:
Should we abolish the presidency?
Written for the New York Times in 1973 during the Watergate years, Tuchman tendered a proposal which I have never heard before. She began by asserting the job was broken and had too much power in relation to the judicial and legislative branches.
“Expansion of the Presidency in the twentieth century has dangerously altered the careful tripartite balance of governing powers established by the Constitution. The office has become too complex and its reach too extended to be trusted to the fallible judgment of any one individual. In today’s world no one man is adequate for the reliable disposal of power that can affect the lives of millions—which may be one reason lately for the notable non-emergence of great men.”
Evidently Tuchman had proposed doing away with the single-person office of the President and replacing it with a “5-man Cabinet” in 1968. She revived the idea five years later when Nixon was hunkered down in the Oval Office facing impeachment. It’s a bold redefinition of the entire concept that every organization needs a single leader. Tuchman’s vision of the Executive Branch is one that spreads the job description over six experts aligned around six broad cabinet specialties:
“OWING TO THE STEADY ACCRETION of power in the executive over the last forty years, the institution of the Presidency is not now functioning as the Constitution intended, and this malfunction has become perilous to the state. What needs to be abolished, or fundamentally modified, I believe, is not the executive power as such but the executive power as exercised by a single individual.
“We could substitute true Cabinet government by a directorate of six, to be nominated as a slate by each party and elected as a slate for a single six-year term with a rotating chairman, each to serve for a year as in the Swiss system. The Chairman’s vote would carry the weight of two to avoid a tie.”
Foreign (including military and CIA)
Financial (including treasury, taxes, budget and tariffs)
Business/Trade (including commerce, transportation and agriculture)
Further on, in diagnosing the factors that have over-weighted the Executive Branch, she presciently predicts the behavior of the current occupant of the office and his obsession with his ratings:
“The … reason, stemming perhaps from the age of television, is the growing tendency of the Chief Executive to form policy as a reflection of his personality and ego needs. Because his image can be projected before fifty or sixty or a hundred million people, the image takes over; it becomes an obsession. He must appear firm, he must appear dominant, he must never on any account appear “soft,” and by some magic transformation which he has come to believe in, he must make history’s list of “great” Presidents.”
She concludes by correctly pointing out the American people’s fondness for a supreme leader. The founding fathers were well aware of this and in some sense designed the job of President to fulfill a very real need in the new nation to continue having a King-figure at the helm. Sadly, her point that there is an “…American craving for a father-image or hero or superstar” is what (along with the sclerotic rate of change to the Constitution) has reduced us to politics by star-appeal and ratings.
Her solution to our need to have the buck stop somewhere? Or the cultural appetite for the pomp and trappings of the White House?
“The only solution I can see to that problem would be to install a dynastic family in the White House for ceremonial purposes, or focus the craving entirely upon the entertainment world, or else to grow up.”
Grow up. Damn right. I’m all for leadership by committee (except on a ship where a competent tyrant is needed).
How many rowers laughed when photos emerged a couple weeks ago of the bogus student “oarswomen” involved in the Operation Varsity Blues/college admissions scandal?
Critiques of the young ladies’ form aside (wrists aren’t flat, back is opening up too early on the drive), the one thing that would have doomed this would-be student athlete in the eyes of any college coach is the choice of rowing machine, or ergometer as they are known.
This young woman is on the ever-chic piece of rowing furniture known as a WaterRower, the stylish choice of rowing dilettantes everywhere. There is only one rowing machine in ubiquitous use by college programs, national/Olympic teams, and participants in the annual World Indoor Rowing Championship and that machine is the Concept II Ergometer.
Posing a person on a WaterRower in the hope that establishes their credibility as an experienced puller of oars is like a catching a counterfeiter trying to pass Monopoly money off on a bank teller. When a coach wants to know about the potential of a rowing recruit the one number they want is their 5,000 meter time. WaterRowers, while perfectly good rowing machines, don’t use the same monitor or the same mechanism as a Concept II, and are only used in trendy group rowing studios or by Frank Underwood, the ultimate political weasel in House of Cards (who winds up on his ass after the strap attaching the handle to the flywheel mechanism snaps).
There are many rowing machines, but only one Concept II. And there are only so many slots a college rowing coach has to fill with hardworking athletes who actually worked their asses off trying to get a seat on a college boat — giving one to an entitled, unqualified spawn of celebrities with more money than ethics is a crime against that poor rower who actually deserved to be admitted.
My percipient friend Ben emerged from his Upper West Side COVID cave in beleaguered New York City yesterday morning, alarmed by the crash of oil prices enough to share a Financial Times story that in effect (if I read it correctly) said oil was selling for negative $37 a barrel. Today the New York Times quoted some oil trader as saying that if you had an empty oil tank that you could make $37,000 simply by accepting a 1,000 barrel delivery.
My favorite part of the NYT story was the comparison of all those supertankers now steaming from the Persian Gulf to America full of worthless oil with the Cold War bombers that missed the recall signal and were still approaching the coast in Fail Safe.
I get it, but I don’t get it. If the energy industry can’t make a buck because the world took a mulligan this spring and stopped driving and flying and cruising, then pretty soon there won’t be anyone left who can keep pumping and digging the stuff out of the ground until we drain the tanks and need more to refill them. And so on and so forth.
But what if …..(after this all sinks in and becomes the new normal), that along with handshakes, a third of the world decides that going forward it doesn’t need to drive to the office, take the girl’s travel soccer team to the tournament, or book a 10-night cruise on the Princess Corona? What if we decide it’s cheaper and healthier to keep eating rice and beans and working through the cans of Hormel chili in the pantry than going to Fudruckers for a Blooming Onion and the Fire-Breathing Wings? What if we stop driving the minivan every day to the hardware and drug and liquor and grocery and convenience stores and just have everything delivered to our doors? Does the great divide in society become one between those who can be “virtual” and those that have to show up and punch a clock? Do cities decline and suburbs get bolstered? The unforeseen is breathtaking, but for the life of me I can’t say with any convinction what will change as I’ve been avoiding people for decades and feel no regret that I won’t be able to attend my 40th college reunion, because I didn’t go to one before.
If I were going to search for the opportunities to emerge from this collective global trauma, I’d say the safe bets would be on developing the measures to anticipate the next pandemic. Sure, it took 102 years for a pandemic to remind us a microscopic virus can make more of an impact on more people than terrorists flying jets into buildings, but it’s a sure bet that some things are going to change now that we’ve experienced one in our lifetimes.
One of history’s great lessons is that most historical events or crises have little to no direct impact on most people. The Battle of Waterloo was a great battle, but in terms of direct impact on people it meant nothing more than wounds or death or medals for those who participated that day in Belgium. When a crisis is completely pervasive, when the threat is — to use the current phrase of the zeitgeist — “existential,” then history is pretty clear on how human nature reacts, responds and adapts to the invisible enemy of a virus. First is the pressure on science to explain and detect the threat and then defeat it. Second, once science fails to save the day by figuring out a vaccine or successfully launching Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck into space to drill a hole into the approaching asteroid and blow it up, mankind tends to declare everyman for themselves and turns to magical thinking and prejudice to explain the inexplicable. The 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic also saw a failure of Federalism as President Woodrow Wilson refused to acknowledge the problem and Governors and Mayors tried an uncoordinated hodge-podge of public health measures ranging from locked down borders to imposing curfews and bans on public gatherings.
But the Spanish Flu didn’t render twenty-five percent of the population unemployed. In fact, it wasn’t really that much of a crisis for the simple fact that it occurred in a disconnected, un-networked world where there was very little news, and very little data. My grandfather may have felt differently after coming home from school in Portland Maine one day to learn his mother had died from the influenza. But he hadn’t been pulled from school and sequestered at home for weeks prior to her death because the apparatus to do that, the entire field of public health and pandemic response simply did not exist.
This crisis is unique in the history of plagues for one reason — the pervasiveness of instant communications and the ability to quarantine vast segments of the population while remaining in operation thanks to the instant communications enabled by the Internet. If there was no 24-hour news cycle to fill with pointless, divisive debates about whether calling the virus “Chinese” is racist or not; if every skeptic and crank like myself lacked a Twitter account or a blog to vent their spleens or comment on the news, then a great deal of the anxiety behind the COVID crisis wouldn’t be able to spread. But spread it has, and ironically as the virus goes viral, the data scientists are turning to such Internet hits as the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and the 2005 World of Warcraft “Corrupted Blood” plague to better understand how people spread the coronavirus.
I think the remaining months of 2020 will go down as one of the most important periods on history’s timeline, months that will mark the start of some substantial and long-lasting changes to civilization. In the short term, as oil falls to a negative price, as Neiman Marcus and the New York Sports Club files for bankruptcy, as unemployment overwhelms the old software that pays its claims, there will be more fear and more divisiveness to keep us awake at night or howling at the television set. In the medium time frame — the six months remaining until the election here in the US — the crisis will continue to be politicized and the conversation will grow ever more partisan and bumptious the closer we get to an election likely to wind up in the courts.
But in the long term I turn to Barbara Tuchman, one of my favorite historians, who wrote in her collection of essays about the craft of writing history to remind “…people in a despondent era that the good in mankind operates even if the bad secures more attention.”
So yes, we can celebrate clean air and views of the Himalayas for the first time in decades. We can celebrate the immense collective discipline we exhibited when we stayed home to flatten the pandemic’s curve. But to look at the current climate of messy histrionics and political theatrics and be afraid, to wonder if we’ll ever go out to dinner again or take that cruise to Guadalupe, we should once more turn to Tuchman and her prescient words, written in 1973 as the House voted to impeach Richard Nixon:
“Nor should we be paralyzed by fear of exacerbating divisions within this country. We are divided anyway and always have been, as any independently minded people should be. Talk of unity is a pious fraud and a politician’s clicne. No people worth its salt is politically united. A nation in consensus is a nation ready for the grave.”