Of crises and fireworks

Happy Fourth of July

On the cusp of Independence Day, have we ever feared fear, as Franklin Roosevelt might say, more than now?

Prior pandemics soon were forgotten – why worry about 800,000 or so lives lost to flu when we won the war in 1918 and roared into affluence, the Klan's resurgence notwithstanding?

From challenges come triumph, that's always been the American way, ask Frank Capra. The Great Depression ended with a world war, which brought in a new era of unprecedented prosperity, Jim Crow and Emmett Till notwithstanding. We got over Vietnam, more or less, if not George W. Bush, whose mistakes still reverberate beyond our borders. A dangerous man now is president, but some of his most dastardly deeds have been torpedoed by courts and other reversals seem possible, even likely, now that Biden has a double-digit lead and Mitch McConnell has come out in favor of masks.

Still, we have much to fear. A pandemic is bad enough; one with an election looming is worse and one with Trump in the White House is unimaginable, but here we are. Police shootings of African Americans are bad; that outrage didn't force change decades ago, when Rodney King made the news, is worse – maybe we never will figure out how to get along. The recession of 2008 that plundered dreams was awful, but more of us are unemployed now than back then, with the future more uncertain than ever.

It's like Spanish flu and Black Thursday and Selma hit all at once and won't leave. What's next, we wonder, and no one seems safe. A gunman killed three at Bunn-O-Matic last week and we can't mourn safely unless we're six feet apart. A battered downtown has lost Del's Popcorn, Robbie's, Augie's Front Burner and Club Station House. A town that thrives on tourists, legislators and otherwise, has no conventions and no state fair.

Public officials have disappointed. "We have lost many, many, many more people to the flu every year than we have lost lives to the coronavirus," Jennifer Ludwig, a nurse who sits on the Sangamon County Board of Health, declared at a May board meeting, when the national death toll stood at 100,000 and more than 5,000 people had succumbed to COVID-19 in Illinois, where influenza typically takes 3,500 lives each year. A month later, nearly 7,000 people have died in Illinois, including 33 in Sangamon County, and almost 130,000 people are dead nationwide as the virus spreads to places once complacent. Challenged, sharply, by fellow board member Doris Turner, Ludwig said that she's entitled to her opinion.

We've rarely been more divided, and there will be no Fourth of July parades or street fairs or baseball games or bands playing Sousa to bring us together, if only for a few hours. Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest will go on in New York, but without spectators and at an undisclosed location.

Fireworks outside the Capitol have been canceled, but there likely will be plenty of fireworks anyway, just as there have been for weeks, all over town, as people blow off steam. "It's all night, every night," Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso complained at Tuesday's council confab. "This has been going on for a month. Can we please try doing something about these fireworks?" Mayor Jim Langfelder said that he would follow up with police. After all, firecrackers and cherry bombs and Roman candles and pretty much any firework worth lighting is illegal in Illinois.

I'm not sure it was a good idea, but, fed up with nightly fireworks – even Champ The Wonder Pug, usually unflappable, was getting worked up – I got out of bed a couple weeks ago to ask whomever it was to stop. The culprit, a few houses away, was easy to find. It did not go well. Police were summoned. I had never met this neighbor before. I imagined horse heads left in my bed and dead fish thrown on my doorstep. You never know.

A couple days later the doorbell rang. It was my neighbor.

"I'm sorry about the other night," he told me.

"No troubles," I said. "I'm sorry about calling the cops."

He wasn't wearing a mask, and I don't know where that hand had been, but I shook it anyway, without thinking. Folks don't say they're sorry often enough, especially these days. The neighborhood has been quieter since, fingers crossed. Sometimes, conversations that start out difficult don't end that way, fear is only in our minds and we really can get along.

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