Journal 1 : And So, It Began
March 18 - May 14, 2020
It struck me that this was the first time in my entire life when I could look out into the world around me, my immediate plain and far off vistas, and not with complete confidence count out the darker scenarios from materializing. I did not grow up in a war-torn country or a remote poor country. I knew nothing of places where anything can happen. I could hardly conjure up what a coup attempt must be like, of what guerrilla-style battles in the streets or ethnic cleansing directed by those in charge, of what that must be like. What was it like to live through a complete salt-in-water dissolve of political institutions, an outbreak of disease catalyzing a spiral-down societal collapse? I never had any reason to war game such doom-and-gloom scenarios in my corner of the world, in these United States. Nuclear armageddon? Sure. I was of a vintage to have known that as a foreground possibility. But even that had rendered itself remote to my still-gelling brain, something Americans had (it seemed) just learned to live with—like commuter smog, gender roles, old racist relatives. But I knew nothing of societal dislocation that could pull apart the fabric of nation-states. And to be sure, all of that was highly improbable now. We would more than likely muddle through. But that it was possible. That it could not be ruled out, completely.
This was all unspooling across my brain waves in the wake of days having rained down like a flurry of blows. Ah yes, that purple flash disorientation before coming-to, the hazy ring-light as you drift back into consciousness. I knew that product line of disorientation well, had suffered more concussions than I (or my poor brain) care to remember: knocked clean out by way of collisions in sports with opposing players and at least two thrown baseballs, head-first bike accidents (as in many), having once been kicked in the head (for real). Any long-term worry about CTE seemed remote. But I was no stranger to having your “bell rung,” that warrior wave-away descriptor football announcers very quietly dropped from their on-air lexicon a few years back . . . How many fingers am I holding up? You’re fine, Buckhout. Get back out there!
And yet a familiarity with head trauma, if minor, provided me nothing to go on this go-round. This was all new: a purple flash of circumstances. The roaring rapid turning of events: the dealer of blows. I went a good deal of that March 25, 2020, unsure of the day of the week. The head-smacking wash-over of pang-pained days, one on another on another on . . . serving up a disorientation foreign as to origin, but all too recognizable for its “bell ringing.”
Wednesday. It was a Wednesday. I had to look it up. So fluid the moment, rushing in with dam-break speed. The circumstances, the events fantastical but for their exceptional reality, their blowing away of the boundaries of predictable existence. Wednesday was usually a day that would find me swimming at the local YMCA. Closed for two weeks now, that had been the first realization that Wuhan and Italy were coming, that they were here, in my world too. A fellow Y member tested positive for C19 on March 11. I had been at the Y on March 11: a Wednesday. The branch was shut down once the positive test became known. March 11, the day it was declared worldwide: a fucking pandemic.
The bleary-eyed stumble-through days since (staying up too late, poor sleep, too many bourbons), it had me wandering about that Wednesday, which might as well have been Monday, or Friday, or a day without a label but only the grey dawn to gloaming dusk progression of forces larger than we vulnerable little life forms—backstopped as it all was by the choral improvisation of songbirds moving on with their Spring. They went about their way as if just another Spring day demanding that full-throated songs be sung. This, as all of humanity settled in for a siege.
I was not able to shake the blur that day, the mental and physical haze like a floater but in both eyes. Stepping through the progression of a concussion: the purple flash instant (let’s call it March 11), stunned in the immediate aftershock, the actual physical shock, the concussed soup of thoughts, groggy; that damned unshakeable blur and low brain ache originating from somewhere deep-lobed. Grey matter settles slowly after being smashed about: that most sensitive of organs, the cloak-over shroud slowly dissipating and angling down before coming to rest within a low background hum. Yes, I knew what a concussion felt like. This felt like that. And that, at least in part because of this: that anything could happen, that for the very first time in my entire life nothing was off the table.
The resulting measures will attempt to sustain workers and businesses in place as a vast swath of the American economy shuts down under shelter-in-place and quarantine orders, the hope that the economy can rebound quickly once the pandemic ends . . .
This national concussion, puzzling over its long-term effects. Some piece of damage must be sustained, a lump of dead damaged brain tissue forever dormant. This, the out-of-the-blue eye-searing hum, the momentary vertigo and confusion, that telltale dazed look: “where . . . am I?” This would be all the scar we would need by which to remember all the fun we’d had during our pandemic year. That deep-lobed ache suddenly beginning to swell. Another nameless day picking up where the last had imperceptibly left off. . . .
Likely, no. But that it was possible.
New York City
My entire family tree comes out of, or somehow loops through the greater New York City area. The original Buckhout—Jan Boeckhout—arrived from Holland in the 1660s. After five years an indentured servant, his debt for passage to this new world settled, he was free—a state of living enjoyed by all of his descendants since: free to live and roam as they would, though most stayed close. Buckhout is a common name on the New York militia rolls during the French and Indian War, North America’s theatre of the Seven Year’s War between France and England. We took up in Westchester County and up in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow when both were still rural. Great-great uncles were lauded far and wide for their championship ice boat designs (think long sleek sailboats on truck-length skates) back when that was a thing in the late 1800s. My grandfather and my many great aunts and uncles grew up in the Hackensack area, just across the Hudson. The Dutch, English, French, Welsh, all white ethnic tribes that took up in the greater New York City area, their strands are stitched tight into my DNA.
Two generations ago, my maternal grandfather arrived in Brooklyn from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to try his hand at music (trombone, specifically) and to get a degree. He stayed, “met a gal” (as he liked to say), and raised a family of Reeds. My Mom, my Dad, both natives; my ancestral roots, recursive and deep, wrapping ever tighter around many an ancestor in the ground. I have attended many a funeral on the Island, there being no more visceral connection to land than death. Knowing those who lived in a place, died in a place, and were buried in that place, creates a steel-cable bond to that place. To those free and lucky enough to have and value family, free and lucky enough in their ancestral history to know something of that history, comes the larger gift of lineage. There are more Buckhouts buried in and around greater New York City than anywhere else, by orders of magnitude. I am of the first full generation of Buckhouts to consider an entire life lived beyond America’s original national capital as not a rare thing. It was a big deal that my father and uncle moved away, though a part of them was, and will always be there, still. Over three centuries of Buckhouts lie in the ground in and around New York City. I have never lived in New York City. But I am from there if I am from anywhere at all.
The death toll in the city that day was 779, all having succumbed to a microscopic killer bent on mortal violence. An eyewitness said the streets were empty and completely silent but for the non-ending wail of ambulance sirens. I rarely pray. But I prayed for New York City that day as if it were my own, knowing that it most certainly was.
Who do we as a society feel is deserving of an economic bailout? Small businesses are left to wonder as they struggle to hold on . . . Wearing a mask is mainly a tactic for protecting your community, not just yourself . . . Now that experts posit the virus having arrived earlier than anyone originally thought, many Americans are asking: “Did I have it?”
The head-smack realization that you could be an asymptomatic carrier, an unknowing spreader of a voracious lung-smothering virus. That you could be a walking weapon, C19 on you—in you—for a month or more, and had no idea, no symptoms, feeling just fine. A sick twisted killer, if an indifferent novel germ. So cunning, using our sociable nature against us, script-flipping a key strength into a weakness in using our desire for proximity, instinctual gathering, and our fluent A-1 talent for inaccurately gauging risk—using all of that against us. We, against ourselves . . . which did not sound far-fetched, at all. Humans work against other humans in the competition for resources, wealth, stature, authority, power, each and every bloody day. But this was different. The simple acts of talking, touching, hugging, breathing, being turned on us, turning us on each other, biologically. Maybe it was just as well. We had been turning on each other tribally for millennia now. How could we be surprised that a cold efficient killer had simply jumped on the bandwagon? This was just an increment or two more cold, a touch more efficient way to thin the human herd; but for individuals stepping up to mitigate for the sake of others not yourself.
Asymptomatic. That morning, I had wandered through other ways in which I could have been an anonymous killer. I mean, a virus turning us into unsuspecting unknowing reapers is some cold shit, a gold standard (if of a rusted out shot-through gilding). But just knowing that I could have been spreading the disease, could have been killing others I do not know and will never properly meet; going about my way, feeling fine. Likely, no. Possible, yes. . . . But, how else had I flat-lined instants of human interaction across this life? How had I murdered moments, floated in-and-out of scenes as a simmering indifferent killer of moods, “good days,” or positive vibes? How often had my impatience, my short-fuse remarks thrown out as off-handed alkaline barbs—shitty little word grenades—gone on to ruin a person’s mood, their day, a general outlook for one or many? I could not classify myself as a super-spreader of such things, but on occasion I had torn off the mask of decency, let lapse the extension of general dignity to my fellow human, and indulged in the sugar-fat high of selfish venting. I had spread that disease, the viral vector of negativity. How often had a middle-finger fury tossed out in a traffic altercation dragged down an already crappy moment to an even more retrograde one, an even shittier “worse”?
It is a trait I had worked hard to wrangle across my years: a public temper so ultimately useless. Unrestrained, it is the sign of a petty ego; and if only because it is so easy. It requires no work to be an asshole, only that momentary lapse into the unrestrained shitty-ness of id. . . . I am almost never pushed to that point in a public space anymore, age having snapped such stark and irrelevant spleen-vents into the sharp relief that I am not adding, but detracting—injecting a harmful negativity into the world that only maims. (Those traffic “furies”? Perhaps some work to do there, still.) And yet, there is no doubt in my head: having committed such killer acts across my years, having perpetuated occasional situational murder on those I do not know and would never properly meet. Yes, I have pushed negativity out into the world because I was momentarily inconvenienced, inadvertently and most often unintentionally interrupted, denied but a few seconds of unswerving self-absorbed id-fulfillment.
How often had I infected someone’s good mood with bad, killed a breathe-easy day? How often had I spread a minor malice, rained all over someone’s parade? How often had I been a killer?
The People: How long should we stay inside?
Answer: I’m thinking two months. No, three. Six? No, 12. Yes, 12!
The People: Then it will be gone?
Answer: The virus? Lord no. It could be 18 months till we get a vaccine. But by then you’ll have already gotten it, so the date doesn’t really matter . . .
The People: No one’s giving us this information.
Answer: Well, you know how we’re stretching out the cases over a longer period of time? Flattening the curve? We’re also flattening the truth. So just stay inside, and you’ll be fine. Order stuff online. Support your local restaurant.
The People: Whew. OK. We can do that.
Answer: But do so knowing that you are putting the lives of everyone at risk.
— Dave Eggers, “Flattening The Truth”
It was an odd sense to wake up that Sunday morning, early May, and feel that something had turned. The whiplash snap-back hurricane of data deluging and counter-factualizing and fogging over every waking second (re: mask + exhale + glasses) that had run over the previous months, suddenly and strangely felt different. It was the low hum of a lull, a brief pause. It fell into the primal bracket that informs you it is no longer Winter, no longer Summer or Fall. It is a sense that stirs. The cues filter through you, imperceptible to the eye; but pricking synapses all the same. Mysterious, but there: We had come through a phase. Had we come through a phase?
“At the start of this, wise people had been preparing us,” I thought . . . This will get bad. Good luck. . . . I had been preparing all of this time: preparing to meet gale winds head on, daily; absorbing, settling in, keeping my head. Of course, the wise voices were being drowned out in the unreliable bullshit info-storm part panicked run-on, part wave away partisans and pundits who really had no idea what the fuck they were talking about but talked louder, louder, and louder, nonetheless. I was absorbing that too . . . the only way is through.
We had only been in deep for a few months now . . . though it seemed longer, longer, and longer . . . having watched it bowl through other places from New Year’s Day on through January and February, knowing it was coming but unable to conceptualize “that” here. Wuhan, Northern Italy, Iran. “Those were places not here,” as if that somehow draped an immunity over “here,” a place—an exceptional place—somehow elevated beyond such things. But then it had arrived and that sense of superiority or programmed hometown prejudice / bias against “not here” had disappeared with the onset of warmer air. (At least something had disappeared with the warmer air.) Subject to the infrared of a reality unknown—unknown to “here,” that is—other bandwidths of real were making themselves available to my previously untrained senses. I had been in training since March: Spring training for this time of disease.
It might just have been familiarity settling in, that blending moment when a previous unknown loses its new car smell, its ability to shock and surprise or even hold close attention, and from that point simply exists; another “usual” among normalcies. But then, how normal could a pandemic ever be? History would say quite so. I would hope not so much. Once would do . . . 3 months? 6? 12? . . . I held no experience-stark reserve by which to consider how fucked up this was going be. Forgetting for a moment the spewing mis- dis- non-information, this thing was confounding even those who did have the credentials to translate such things with authority. It was all new. Novel. Unknown. It would take time to know, as it always does when a thing is new, unknown. It had arrived, and we finally did know. Others “not here” had been through it. And they were now doing this better in those places not here. And we—here—were beginning to understand who we could trust and who we should not trust. At least that part was clear through the face-shield fog . . . Are you a doctor? No? Good. Then pay attention. . . . For all the confused wind shear of bullshit we were subjected to day on day on day, I was coming to understand and was adjusting. Above all I understood that despite this new normal, this new knowledge, the days on days on days of training, just how dumb-lucky I had so far been: still virus-free.
I had watched New York City in deep pain, buckling under the strain. I had watched on in desperation, very much like I did all of that horrific jawdrop September Tuesday in 2001. Except that this was a whole month of September Elevenths minus the epic shock of a single event; just a slow wrenching churn. Watching that symbolic American metropolis shuttered, put to siege, and suffering—a place I know well, a place with which I carry so deep a familial tie (re: April 8). I—we all—were forced to watch from a distance (via tablet video-link, no visitation for fear of viral transmission) as a relative slowly passed. . . . New Orleans and Miami-Dade, Seattle and San Francisco. The states of Texas and Georgia now reopening and at a clip, as if winning a race for lack of conscientious contestants, dumb-stumbling towards victory . . . we’ll have a bed waiting for you. . . . And all the while, a novel coronavirus was doing its highly-evolved thing, we all unable to do a damned thing about it; nothing but ride the high-low emotional swing, train, mourn, push through.
But in the whole, the face of things, I say, was much altered; sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger. Were it possible to represent those times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the reader due ideas of the horror that everywhere presented itself, it must make just impressions upon their minds and fill them with surprise. — Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (During the last Great Visitation in 1665)
It had arrived. It was bad. It was worse than I could have imagined. I had no practical knowledge of a viral pathogen. I had no previous training for such things. Certain Pacific Rim countries did. Certain Middle Eastern countries did. The city of Toronto did. SARS: 2004, H1N1: 2009, MERS: 2012, Ebola in West Africa: 2014, outbreaks not of my world, so isolated, of other places / worlds not here. Sure, I now knew a great deal about the Great Influenza of 1918-20, that long ago pandemic. But that was way back then. That was a more primitive time. That was not something of now—not of my world—nothing that we would see again . . . right? (SARS, H1N1, MERS . . . ) To think that I ever carried such a false sense of security, had in my bubble-wrap world held a belief so naive: that modern medical advances and all the public health departments placed us beyond the reach of nature and history?
Since the face-slap realization on March 11 . . . a fucking pandemic . . . I passed through to something else and someone else, another plane of understanding, despite the non- mis- dis-information. I did not feel the better for knowing it. But I was better prepared for knowing it. I had considered the angles as they made themselves available . . . How does one walk through fog-dense darkness? . . . I had trained hard throughout March and April. I was now prepared for what was next, knowing that I could not know what the hell was next. If anything, I now knew what that parting phrase (re: a cool clear evening in early March) meant, full-frame: “It will be bad, but just keep your head and move through.” A wise voice inside the furious dis-info-storm, a mental buttress. Buck Up! Wise people had told me to get ready, to hunker down, and to do so quickly. I had, hoping that concussed moment would be over quickly so that I could get back to things as they were—a thing that I had come to realize was no longer going to be a thing.
For there would not be an “as it was.” I learned this too. And I was only just beginning to train up, adjust. There was only what was to be. Here was an end-point moment, a reset by which only training and improvisation, and a keen use of that training and improvisation, would keep me in the race, my head above water. That only two months ago I was out and about, stepping through a normal routine and not thinking twice about it or any of the naive “beyond history” assumptions that coursed through my brain’s veins. All of what had come down since, having been schooled by a real magnitudes more real than I had the ability to previously imagine.
Once you fold into the taut tough spikes of life, take that experience in deep, you gain a kind of power. You are not emboldened. It is more like a notch on the walking staff, having lived through. That was my mood on that Sunday: having passing through to a new chapter of me. Still a ways to go, still settling in to that point on the timeline where I then found myself—amazed. Having passed through a phase. How many more? Anyone’s guess. Still, for all the uncertainty, the sleepless nights, the muscular remake of my bullshit filters to detect and deflect said shit pouring down from podiums and those with opinions and microphones—all the high-low emotional swings, the roaring storm all about us—we had come through . . . Part 1?
That Sunday felt like the sun-pour moment when the eye of a hurricane passes over. For anyone who has experienced this, it is a surreality that is hard to explain to those who have not. It is of a miracle, a brief moment of calm, of being able to fully—finally—conceptualize newfound knowledge. The spin-blown fury halts, if briefly. You are left to make what you will of newfound knowledge, if briefly. For it is also a charged eggshell instant. All the while you know what is coming . . . Part 2.
It had begun. It had done its thing and would continue to do its thing: terrible, indifferent, random. “What now?” How many more parts to go? 3, 6, 12? No wise person could yet say. And so, I settled in and waited for the eye to pass over.
Returning the favor: The country of Ireland has sent along a seven-figure donation to Navajo and Hopi families to help them get through the COVID-19 pandemic . . . (this) came in gratitude for a donation by the Choctaw Nation to the Irish more than 170 years ago, when Ireland was starving in the 1845-1849 Great Potato Famine. — National Geographic
Here was humankind at its best. Gracious unsolicited aid for others in their time of need. This, while . . . Top infectious disease specialist, Anthony Fauci, warned a congressional panel that the nation did not in any measurable way have the spread of the virus under control and that reopening regular close-quarter activity too quickly and without a phased plan would risk an outbreak that, in his words: “you may not be able to control.” Many Americans were already ignoring this advice.
It had been a forgettable time. The only thing I was pulling from all of this was just how much work we had to do, just how rickety and careless and insular were the foundational aspects of a country supposedly “great.” And this, on top of how far we had to go as a species, generally, in leveraging the innate goodness of human potential to offset the instinctual flaws of human nature. At least that much was now crystal clear. Still, despite all the work to be done, and with not a moment to lose, I just wanted to forget all of what had come down too, looking around for a century-sized broom and carpet under which to sweep it all. And so, it struck me that the fleet sprinting scrawl spilling out that morning across the final pages of the first (of two) journals I set aside to document this most abnormal time, ran over, under, and through thoughts leaping out from a piece titled: “Why Are There Almost No Memorials to the Flu of 1918?”
Reading the piece prompted the recollection of a day trip taken decades ago, back when Kerri & I were still dating. It was October of 1997, and we were traipsing away an Autumn afternoon in the sprawling Westview Cemetery, what had in the early twentieth-century hung along the western outskirts of the city of Atlanta. No longer the outskirts (the city and suburbs having enveloped it long ago and now rippling far beyond the plot in all directions), nor as renowned or visited as the famous in-city destination, Oakland Cemetery, Westview was in its way more impressive; and if only for its grand sweep. And on that warm Fall day in ’97, we found ourselves lost for hours wandering through—minds and thoughts wandering too.
But it was only in exiting that the visual from that day was fixed in my head. We passed by the “Receiving Tomb (or Vault),” a low sloping structure that seems designed to blend into the surrounding landscape. Here in an era prior to refrigeration, unpaved roads often washing out in bad weather, and the building of the cemetery’s solemn beautiful mausoleum (still in use) many years off, the bodies of the dead were temporarily interred awaiting burial. That was fascinating enough, to be transported a century back to how those “way back when” had to deal with, in so practical a way, the most common human fact aside from life itself. To traipse unwittingly across something so telling about where we were and where we have come and gone since, that would have been enough. But what stuck, framed and hung in a back room of my mind’s archives for some unforeseen future recollection (or, as chance would have it: pandemic), was a stone-etched history fixed near the tomb’s long ago closed entrance. It stated in “in memoriam” terms of the Receiving Tomb’s role during the Great Influenza, of how an overwhelmed city was forced to deal with the heartsickness and the grim logistical calculus of mass graves resulting from the lack of resources to handle mass death on such a scale. Here was a sidebar walk-right-past-it memorial to the thousands on thousands of Atlantans who had perished in the Great Influenza during its 1918-19 peak in the States. It was the only memorial I knew of in the city and the only one of any kind that I remember having seen anywhere; and even this seemed more a mention than really memorializing anything. It was right out in the open, as undeniable as the history of “that” pandemic itself. But still, it felt like a discovery. In plain sight, yet unknown—as if nothing that really needed to be noticed or remembered.
David Segal’s article on the dearth of Great Influenza memorials had itself appeared in an out of the way section, a read-right-past-it part of an e-news edition of The New York Times. But it caught my eye, if only because it was such an obvious question that no one seemed to be asking—let alone have an answer for. Segal wrote: “The flu ravaged civilization for nearly three agonizing years . . . But soon after . . . And for decades after, the pandemic somehow vanished from the public imagination.” There was a lot in that, and there were a lot of reasons why this was the case, not the least of which being this: Allied victory over the Central Powers in the First World War was the much more admirable and sought after kind of transcendent history we in the west, and America specifically, prefer. That plus the mentioned cytokine storm of mass death, the mass dying of the youth of America—especially those jammed together in military camps (that virus having selected to hit those with healthy overreacting immune systems to deadly effect)—struck down in droves by a damned flu bug. That just did not sidle up to the masculine tale male egos could accept as the narrative for a strong nation getting stronger. If not the soldiery and youth of the era itself, the patriarchy was not about to abide in such a down-look historical headline. Best to keep it out of view. Best to keep it out of the papers; this the very reason it was called “The Spanish Flu” in the first place, WWI neutral Spain having been the only country not openly censoring the worldwide firestorm of influenza in its newspapers. (The widely accepted 1918 origin source for the Great Influenza now pegs it to farm pigs in west Kansas, and not of avian origin in Spain; i.e. U.S. soldiers likely brought it with them to Europe, where it rapidly swept out across the world.)
Yet, as a newly-minted pandemic veteran I now held a certain qualification to claim what was likely the most significant reason: Why would anyone have wanted to remember the Great Influenza? Death by global plague is forgettable. Why would anyone need to remember such a thing? . . . The ink had not even dried on the page before I regretted the line, realizing the fallacy and, really, the lack of respect in such a statement. For that momentary lapse transported me to another graveyard visit a few years before our day out at Westview, and a plot of Earth that has become something of a sacred site to me. It drops all the reason I would ever need to know on why we should remember such things, such stricken times and the humans—individuals living their lives—that were struck down within it . . .
In my hometown of Tolland, Connecticut, there is a cemetery still in use whose original “ye olde burying ground” dates to colonial times. That old section is one of the hundreds of such plots scattered across the northeast—from York, Maine, to Copp’s Hill in Boston’s North End, to Tarrytown (Sleepy Hallow), New York—and up and down the Atlantic coast. It goes to a time when life and death were much more visceral, the expectation of security (be it financial or basic food stores) not known. It was a time of unpredictable hardness weathered by people heartier than we are today. It was also a time of constant rolling epidemic, if not outright plague.
And so, there I found myself: September 1994, having come home for the wedding of high school friends, and finding myself with a morning to kill before catching a flight back to Atlanta. With not much thought to it, I decided to head down to the cemetery off Cider Mill Road. When I got there, I aimed arrow-straight not just for the old burying ground, but a particular headstone in the back. To this day I cannot say what it was that drew me to it; but it did, and I did not ignore the mental cue. A cocked heavily-weathered silver stone design typical of the era, the lettering was barely legible. I sat down in front of it and slowly worked out the death tale carved into its face (the description of a soul’s final days etched into their tombstone “fashionable” in the day). Here was Sergeant—the 1770s abbreviated spelling: “Serj.”—Elisha Benton who having joined the nascent Continental forces had been captured at the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn. Fought on August 27, 1776, George Washington had come close to losing the war right then and there, his Continentals outnumbered, outgeneraled, and nearly captured en masse by a huge British flanking force. Like many others, Elisha was sentenced (“captivated” as read the headstone) to a British prison ship anchored in New York City harbor. A barbaric state of filth and pestilence was standard for these ships, even the young and strong no match for the diseases that floated about and poisoned their hulls. Appalling as these hellholes were, even worse: once a prisoner contracted what we now know to be a bacterial or viral infection, they were dumped on land and left to their own devices to find their way home, or die—or both. Serj. Elisha Benton fell into the later column. Having contracted smallpox aboard the prison ship, the rolling epidemic of all colonial and early America, he was “exchanged” and somehow made it all the way back home, 150 miles give or take—and during winter no less—to Tolland. He died on January 21, 1777, at the age of 29.
That moment was such a bright electric instant that it has imprinted itself along with the more revelatory experiences of my life. In that moment, the first hints of Fall ringing the canopy, I recall a momentary state of shock from the weight of the tale—the random circumstances that had ferried me to that moment and to that headstone. Though I would soon after learn that Elisha was actually buried elsewhere (likely due to “the pox”), and that this was only a memorial within the family plot, that stone has nonetheless become a regular pilgrimage for me whenever I find myself in my hometown. It reminds me each and every time to not forget, to remember, to memorialize; that though situations around living and dying can run hard, tragic, unbearable, they are in the end about individuals, humans who once lived just like me—and you.
Serj. Elisha Benton lived and died tragically like thousands in those times. Millions of indigenous people contracted smallpox and flus and all manner of bugs to which the close-packed Europeans had developed an immunity, a mass die-off (estimates approach 80-90%) that from 1492-onward almost wiped them clean from both American continents. Malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, TB, epidemics all; killers of humans and upsetters of human “normalcy,” millions having lived through their various spikes, millions dying tragically. Millions lived through 1918 and 1919 and the larger worldwide wave in 1920. Millions of others died tragically. Thousands on thousands were being infected and were dying right now. Who were we, the living—still—to forget about them? Who were we to forget such a thing if we cared about anything at all?