Because of social-distancing changes in the television industry, a particularly grand opportunity has come to a show-biz friend of mine. My friend, an ethical and profoundly good man, is feeling a bit guilty that his good fortune is coming on the heels of a disease. And although I am a shallow man and therefore envious of him, he is also somebody that I hold dear, so our friendship has forced me into a position of saying something to assuage his guilt. I told him, “This virus for you right now is like how kudzu was for me when I was a kid.”
I will explain that. But first…
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This year will ever be marked for generations forward. A great many decades from now, when my college-aged son admonishes his grandchildren to wash their hands, those kids will flee from him, scurrying to the bathroom sink, yelling, “Run! Grandpop is about to tell us stories from back in the COVID days again!”
Some in my country have blamed China for the germ and have – with racist vitriol – so named the germ.
It is the nature of humans to sew blame, most often irrationally. And it’s the nature of our contemporary age for such blame to go viral.
Viral. Think about that word and its social media use for a minute. Now, please, recall the word’s root: virus.
On Jan. 31, The Virus was not expected to catch any flights to the United States from China. We were, after all, only allowing only 40,000 of “the right people” to return here. But the Virus did not heed the travel ban.
On Aug. 9, although high school students in Paulding County, Georgia, were seated six feet apart from one another in their classrooms, the virus was not expected to spread during the hallway crush as classes changed. Indeed, as the principal pointed out, that narrowly contained snaking mass of mostly mask-less teenaged humanity only lasted for 10 minutes at a time. Alas, those vira are too small to wear watches.
And on Sept. 26, at the ceremony for the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett… well, if this had been pre-COVID days, the very photographs of that event at The White House Rose Garden would make this tall essayist squirm, because, clearly, there was not enough leg room between the folding chairs. Not to mention breathing room. On that day there was an indoor reception in the Oval Office and the Diplomatic Room. One of the guests, The Rev. Paul Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, wrote an apologetic letter to his parishioners stating that he was instructed to remove his mask after a – not always accurate – rapid test for the virus. As of this writing, nine of the people who attended that ceremony have tested positive for the coronavirus, including the President of the United States. Now, some 23 people in the President’s circle have tested positive.
Yet, on Oct. 3, Georgia’s Sen. Kelly Loeffler laid exclusive blame for the President’s illness on China. She tweeted, “Remember: China gave this virus to our President… WE MUST HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE.”
This is silly.
As far as name-calling goes, we should no more call COVID-19 the “China Virus” than we should call it the “Stupid Brazen White People Virus.”
Decelerations such as Sen. Loeffler’s remove personal responsibility from folks who do not take minimal recommended precautions. As all our grandmothers used to tell us, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In these times, the ounce of prevention has been clearly laid out by a whole lot of epidemiologists.
Before you bring it up, yes, yes, I know, dadgummit; in late February, Dr. Anthony Fauci was not recommending masks for the general public. But if you’ll recall in this short history, there was a shortage of PPE for hospital workers in the early part of the year. And masks had yet to become the ever-plentiful colorful fashion accessory available at your grocery store checkout line.
But most importantly, boys and girls, science reserves the right to learn as it goes as more research brings more light to the situation.
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Once upon a time, my mom, Tootsie, was the nurse at Newton County Comprehensive High School. (Without qualifications – that is another story.) Whenever an illness was going through the school, she used to say, “The croup is spreading like the kudzu.”
Kudzu, like a virus, does that; it spreads. Kudzu, like a virus, does not care. Kudzu covers old trees, old houses, old cars, and old people.
In my tender tween-aged years, goodly chunks of my summers were spent with my neighborhood friends, hacking with our machetes through the thick and established kudzu on a hill near my house. (Yes, our mamas let us buy Army surplus machetes. We loved sharpening them. We were gleeful to have an excuse to say, “bastard file.”) We cut long tunnels through the stuff. There was a white oak tree with two-inch-thick vines dangling from the highest branches. We cut those vines at the ground level. We nailed foot-long 2-by-4 boards onto the trunk of the tree so we could climb to a dangerously high branch. We swung on those vines, Tarzan-style, over the creek. It was insanely fun.
One morning during the summer when I was 11, I was at the grocery store with my mom. We ran into old Mr. Hanksaw.
We all greeted each other. Mr. Hanksaw looked at me and asked, “And how are you spending this summer, young man?”
I told him of our kudzu adventures in the enthusiastic tones as I have just shared with you.
His entire head reddened. His finger appeared in my face. And his conspiracy theory came at me in rage and bigotry and spittle. He told me how kudzu is the scourge of the South. How the yellow menace J-ps convinced us to take the kudzu to destroy our farms and our homes before they sent their planes to Pearl Harbor in 1941.
My mom put her arm around my shoulder, shoved our shopping buggy ahead, and in her best Agnes Morehead voice declared, “Good day, Mr. Hanksaw.”
On our way home I was feeling pretty shaky — confused, scared, and guilt-ridden. But my mom said, “Now, there’s a bona fide mean old man. He sits around all day thinking about the people he hates and new ways to hate ‘em.” She thought for a moment. “Your granddaddy planted kudzu on his farm to cut down on erosion. Kudzu is an exotic plant. We didn’t know how it would get away from us.” When we got home, she said, “Now, go play in your contemptible kudzu, and be careful.”
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Alright, y’all, keep showing kindness and care for one another by wearing your masks. Keep washing your hands. Be steadfast, And be careful.
Andy Offutt Irwin is an American storyteller, singer-songwriter, and humorist. He was born and raised in Covington. He may be reached at [email protected]