As the days and weeks go on, I can’t help but glance around at my surroundings and the unfolding effects of the global pandemic and come to the conclusion that we are all living in a 21st-century episode of the Twilight Zone.
For all of you Millennials out there, this was a spooky, scary television series broadcast in glorious black and white in the early 1960s. It featured the narrator, Rod Serling, lit cigarette in hand, as he prepared our journey for a trip back in time to the past, the present, or to the future, but most certainly into another dimension.
As a cloud of cigarette smoke curled around him, Serling’s odd staccato voice and intonations gave a person a feeling of apprehension, not unlike the social and political climate of our present times.
In one episode, in particular, the storyline evolved around a normal-looking, small American town with manicured lawns, soaring church steeples, tranquil but empty sidewalks — but a place nonetheless completely devoid of people.
In the early days of the pandemic, this scenario played out in our own cities and towns. Ballfields were vacant. Stores were closed. Restaurant chairs turned upside down on dining tables inside darkened eateries.
There were no people on the streets. Tennis and basketball courts were empty. Park swings swung childless in the gentle breeze.
Patrol cars crept slowly past to ensure that people were social distancing at a modicum of what professional health experts had suggested.
People were avoiding one another like the plague.
It was as if history was repeating itself.
The award-winning DeSoto County Museum has in its possession a tattered, yellow letter from August of 1879, a full year after the disastrous yellow fever epidemic claimed more than 20,000 lives in the Mid-South.
It seems that the dreaded yellow fever still lingered a year after its first ominous appearance, much like the way in which the Spanish Flu of 1918 lingered until almost two years later.
The fact is that despite our fervent hopes and deepest desires that this virus will just vanish and go away, we will be living with its carnage and aftermath until a vaccine is widely available to the public. I pray this day will come very soon.
So, if we are going to live with this virus — and the operative word is “living” — then we must simply go on with our lives, albeit wisely and prayerfully.
We cannot deceive ourselves. For the foreseeable future, our daily lives will not likely be the same for a while.
So, we must find a way, strike a balance, between observing common-sense practices such as wearing masks in public and while out shopping and getting on with our lives or simply retreating into a cave.
If history is our guide, it will take effort and patience for things to return to normal.
In that tattered, yellowed letter from 1879, a full year after the raging epidemic subsided, people were still wary and suspicious. They frequently griped and snapped at neighbors and in some cases remained testy and apprehensive until the fever waned.
“Dear Johnnie,” the letter, penned by an individual simply identified as “H.W.” and postmarked from Horn Lake, begins in flowing cursive hand, its blue ink now brown with age. An edited excerpt appears here as follows:
“I received your ‘letter’ and was glad to see that you were well. I wrote you a long letter on your birthday, but it was during the panic, and I suppose it was miscarried. We are strictly quarantined, having pickets out in camp, on all roads leading into Memphis. At the time of the panic, all communications were cut, but on sober second thought, it was considered politic to open all mail communication twice a week.
“Whitehaven is the transfer station. Mail matter and closed barrels and medicine and some other articles (nothing in the way of dry goods) remain in quarantine several days, undergoing fumigation and can be sent to any point south, as far as Garner Station. We are pretty quiet now. But when I wrote the letter, the excitement here was excessive. It was refreshing.”
The letter writer, H.W., goes on to say that a person in town, Jasper Stuart, was caught smuggling contraband items into town and one of his children had died and others were sick.
The local doctor who was trying to document cases during the epidemic was denounced. Some people decried the resurgent fever as a “tempest in a teapot.”
The thing is we have been here before. I hear the word “unprecedented” bandied about now and often. Indeed, in the 21st century, it is “unprecedented.”
But let history be our guide. Let us learn from the past. Life went on in 1878-79 and it must go on now.
Let’s chart our future together.
Robert Lee Long is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum