winning the war

I went to Cub Foods on Friday, eleven days after I had last been there.  It was like I was in a different universe.

In both cases, I went early in the morning.  The first time, I was the only shopper in the very large store.  I had to ring a bell at the cashier’s station to get checked out.

On my next trip, I arrived just as the store opened, to find a bunch of old people like me showing up all at once.  Before we even started shopping, there was an odd ballet as we tried to figure out what the new social norm was regarding how close you could get to the person in front of you as you waited to grab your shopping cart.

The flow of the store takes you past the specials and right into the produce section.  Everyone appeared uncertain as to what to do; they were mindful that their regular routine might need some adjustment.

I realized I had forgotten my list, so I left my cart where it was (I didn’t have a tarp with me to cover it up) to retrieve the list.  When I returned and approached the cart, a man about twelve feet off to the side of me had one little dry cough.  I got my vegetables in record time and proceeded on.

As we spread throughout the store, there were fewer close interactions, but passing each other or waiting for someone to leave a section involved uncertainty, as natural behaviors were questioned.  No one really said anything, so when a couple of friends ran into each other, their conversation sounded out of place.

A few days before, it had been the thirtieth anniversary of our move into our home.  Shortly after settling in, we found out that our neighbors two doors down owned the Cub store where I shopped.

He grew up in a little town in South Dakota and, if I remember correctly, started working in a grocery store when he was twelve.  Late in life, you’d still see him at Cub, stocking shelves and greeting customers.  At a time when he could have been anywhere or done anything, he was where he wanted to be.

I wondered what he would think now.  There’s no doubt that he would be trying to help his customers and worrying about the strain on his employees and the risk to them.  He and his wife were generous, wonderful people.

“I’ll Be Seeing You” was one of the songs at his funeral.  It probably didn’t mean much to the younger people in attendance, but to his widow — and the others of their generation — it meant everything.  They had been forced apart from people they knew and loved by World War II.  The outcome then was uncertain; they didn’t know if they would see each other again.  The song captured the longing for each other, back then and at the funeral.

We, too, face similar feelings, although the enemy is not in some far-off land.  It’s everywhere.

Eighty years ago, the gathering storm in Europe was worrisome, but it wasn’t until Pearl Harbor was attacked that the United States got into the war.  People lined up to join the service and the industrial capacity of the nation was mobilized.  There was rationing and hardship and shared suffering.

This year, we watched as a distant disease ravaged other lands and went about our business.  Despite assurances to the contrary, the risks to us were growing each day.  The federal government has been behind the curve the whole way, not acknowledging the dangers and, with the exception of stopping travel from China, not taking the steps necessary to minimize the consequences.

Instead, state and local governments have taken the lead, and businesses, nonprofits, churches, universities, sports leagues, and many other entities have made difficult and costly decisions that will make a difference.  And, other than a small minority of deniers, individuals are changing their habits in ways that will help.

We should be most concerned about the soldiers on the front lines.  Health care workers and emergency services personnel deserve protection and the tests, equipment, and facilities that they need to fight the virus.  Our shocking unpreparedness is something to be discussed later; now is the time to quit promising and start delivering.  We have met challenges before.

Ken Burns’ series, The War, told the story of World War II through the lives of the people in four communities, including my hometown of Luverne.  In the documentary, Tom Hanks (one of the first high-profile victims of the coronavirus) narrated the words of Al McIntosh, the editor of the Rock County Star-Herald.  Burns said, “We read his columns and thought, ‘Oh my God, here’s our Greek chorus.’  His writing is the single greatest archival discovery we’ve made in thirty years of doing this kind of work.”

Opening a book of columns by McIntosh, I see names that I recognize.  I knew many of them, or their children.  Some of the writing concerned the boys overseas and their families at home.  In one case, a soldier was missing in action in Europe.  Before his family heard from the War Department, a letter showed up from a German prison camp.  He was alive.  The letter included a capitalized instruction:  “JUST KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING.”

But McIntosh’s writing also captured the day-to-day life in a farming community on the prairie.  The war was never far from their thoughts, if distant geographically — but life went on in the schools, on the farms, and at the grocery stores, and those stories needed to be told too.

Our situation is different.  The war is here and the costs will be staggering, disrupting life as we know it in far greater ways than in the 1940s, although it should not last as long.  Each day, we will see new stories of loss — of life and of livelihood.

At a time of peril, we have a choice of coming together in union or falling apart because of division and selfishness.  I am hopeful.  In the few days since the reality of this has set in, we’ve already seen many examples of the creativity in solving problems and the kindness toward each other that will see us through.  It will get harder.  Wars always do before they are won.

One of these days, we won’t think anything of going to the grocery store.  The shelves will be stocked and people will mingle easily.  And, as in a time gone by, we will look back with pride on what we have done.



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