Sunday, September 20, 2020

200,000 - and counting

It's difficult to wrap my head around this one: as of Saturday, more than 200,000 American citizens have died from the Covid-19 virus.

It's a godawful milestone. That number exceeds any other nation's death total on the planet. It's the only number that should matter to us.

To give you some perspective, that's nearly the entire population of Rochester, NY (pop: 206,284 in 2018). Gone. No more. Just take a pencil and erase Rochester from all the maps of upstate New York.

There are other numbers to think about: there were 407,300 American military deaths (from all causes) in World War II. It took nearly four years to reach that total. The 200,000 Covid-dead Americans is almost half the total of our World War II dead, but it's taken us only seven months to get there.

The thing about World War II is that we had strategy and tactics to subdue the enemy. I see no indication of strategy or tactics employed against the virus. It's seemingly spreading mindlessly like a west coast wild fire, because we are letting it do so.

I suspect there will be 250,000 deaths by election day. Because we have no national plan to stop this thing.

I also keep hearing the virus is no worse than the flu (a lingering red herring), but that's hardly true. Last year, there were 34,200 flu-related deaths in the United States. The year before that, there were 61,000, according the to Center for Disease Control.

Our best defense against the virus remains wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing. This is basically all we can do until a vaccine is developed, and depending on who you believe, that vaccine is anywhere from just a few weeks away to a few years.

But there remains resistance, even for something as simple as wearing a mask. The mask has become a politicized symbol and, well, it's killing us. The virus spreads from droplets flying out of our mouths and nose to possibly infect others, and wearing a mask protects others from our droplets landing on them.

The numbers are appalling, and I hate that we seem to be keeping a death count score like we're in some kind of championship game.

But this is no game.

Wear a damn mask.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Mailing it in

For a minute there, I was getting a little worried.

Kim and I had filled out our request forms for our absentee ballots for the upcoming general election about a month ago, and put them in the mail. The actual ballots, if we met all the requirements, were supposed to be mailed to us anytime after Sept. 4.

Our absentee ballots have arrived.
 This was just before the upheaval in the United States Postal System which, nationwide, seems to be experiencing delays in delivery, no thanks to arrogant President Trump sycophant Louis DeJoy, the newly-appointed Postmaster General, under whose leadership removed hundreds of sorting machines across the country, cut back workers' overtime and otherwise instituted other "cost cutting measures" just two months before the election.

The timing of this overhaul is egregious and smells of an attempt at voter suppression, especially coming as it does after Trump's unbased and endless railing about fraud related to mail-in (absentee) voting. Especially in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even if everything was corrected and put back the way it was, the damage has already been done if the original aim was to sow distrust in the voting system. You have to have faith in the system, despite all the QAnons, the foreign interventionists, the social media interruptus and other conspiracy theory advocates. If you don't have faith in the voting system – perhaps the most sacred of our institutions and which seems to be under continuous assault – then the republic is probably lost.

Just ask Ben Franklin.

Anyway, Sept. 4 arrived and left without the ballots in our mail box. So did the next few days. I was getting worried. The reason we're considering voting by mail – a reliable system of voting dating back 156 years ago to the Civil War, when Union soldiers voted by mail overwhelming from combat zones to re-elect Abraham Lincoln – is the pandemic. But also to avoid long lines at the polls in what is shaping up to be one of the most crucial elections in American history.

Despite our reservations to physically vote at the poll, Kim and I also made plans to vote early, long lines and pandemic be damned, just in case our mail-in ballots never arrived.

But on Thursday, Sept. 10, our ballots were waiting for us in the mail box. They were postmarked Sept. 9, which indicates to me, at least, that our local post office is handling the crunch. Or is prepared to.

I'm still getting my bills, after all, so there's that.

The ballot itself looks something like an Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) exam, where you fill in little circles next to the name of the candidate you want to vote for with a black pen. When the ballot is filled out, you put it in the enclosed envelope that came with the package, and sign the envelope in the space provided.

There are bar codes on the ballot and bar codes on the return envelope, which gives me a sense of security.

Then you either mail the envelope, or you can return it directly by hand, in person, to the Board of Elections. Given that the post office is less than a mile from our house, and the BOE is less than two miles, I'll probably just hand deliver it to the BOE once early voting begins.

My first time to vote in a general election was 1972, and I was excited. I've voted in every election since. I had faith in the system then. I have faith in it now.

So keep the faith, my brothers and sisters, and vote.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Hysterical research

The other day I was asked by a friend to find what I could about some early Lexington Senior High School football teams: specifically, the championship teams of 1933, 1934 and 1939. Apparently, this is for a project to honor those teams.

He was asking for a friend, a friend who works at the high school and who is actually a friend of mine in his own right. Yeah, I know. We're entering into the realm of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon here, which ultimately might find me biologically related to Abraham Lincoln (my birthday is February 12, after all) if I look too far.

But I digress.

My first friend in this story, the one who asked me if I could find anything on those teams, said his research was fruitless. Google, for once, turned up nothing and he wondered how he could go about researching this project.

Thinking out loud, I suggested he go to the library and check the microfilm machine, until I remembered we live in Covid World and the library is out of bounds right now. "Hmm. Let me look into it," I told him, more than wary of what I was getting into.

I worked as a sports writer for The Dispatch for 30 years, and I often turned to the paper's microfilm machine to research stories. Never mind that I've been retired almost 14 years and haven't touched a microfilm machine since 2006. But I'd give it a try.

So I went to the paper and I loaded the machine with the roll of film from 1933. Back in those days, The Dispatch was published only on Mondays and Thursdays, and in very small typeface. You can speed the advance of the microfilm in the machine to quickly find issues of the paper deep into the roll, but doing so can cause eye strain and headaches, so you have to be careful.

Anyway, I found the first football story of the season. There was no byline. In fact, there was no sports section. The story was on the front page of the paper, hidden among stories depicting school enrollment, the Volstead Act (I think Davidson County was dry in 1933), a scarlet fever outbreak and two men who were found dead by the railroad tracks.

The first problem I had was that the paper didn't publish first names of the players, even on first reference. A typical sentence might read, "Eanes then advanced the pigskin for 30 yards, evading a host of Spencer Railroaders."

Oh, my. Eanes who?

Stories never included season records. Or individual stats. It was horrible.

After about an hour, after checking each Monday publication for that Friday's game story, Lexington went 9-1 to win the South Piedmont Conference championship. Some of the players for coach Tom Young included quarterback Ralph Eanes (I eventually found his first name), twin brothers Hal and Frank Green, who were running backs, Lexington superstar fullback Bill Bailey, and players with last names like Johnson, Hill, Dry, Clodfelter, Myers, Bowers, Hinkle, Hedrick and Rogers.

I guess my friend, or my friend's friend (who also happens to be my friend) can check old Lexicon yearbooks for first names.

I also learned that Lexington wasn't the Yellow Jackets back then. They were the Indians. It makes sense, given Davidson County is the home of the indigenous Saponi Indian tribe. So there's that. I don't know when they became Yellow Jackets. It could be that Lexington was way ahead of the social curve toward racial sensitivity than ... nah. Never mind.

I went home, a little dizzy from the whizzing microfilm.

I remembered shortly after I arrived at The Dispatch in 1976, we published a special section heralding the big regular season-ending game between rivals Lexington and Thomasville. Both teams were undefeated. I remember doing the research for that issue. I used a microfilm machine, a clear example that my life is on an endless loop.

Anyway, I found the Lexington team records and results of every year from 1934 to 1975 and we put it in the special section. That made my current research a little easier.

The 1934 team finished 8-0-1. Bailey was a star. I wrote a story about him for the special section, and he gave me names of some teammates, including quarterback George Corn, with Ed Cross and John Myers at halfback. Leonard Craver was center, Whimpey Rogers was team captain and an end, with Allen Johnson and Oliver Briggs at the tackle slots.

The 1939 team went 11-0, and the microfilm gave me names like running back Ken Rhodes, halfback Everett "Shoe" Carlton, punter Spud Michael, center Ray Von Link, and a guy named Fat Price at guard. Fat Price was actually the venerable V.G. Price. I can't imagine any newspaper calling anybody Fat these days. It's like naming a team "Indians."

Lexington had a remarkable run, going 55-8-6 from 1933 to 1939.

There was one more thing I found. In 1939, there was something of a sports section then. The sports mast had a block in the right-hand corner stating that E.E. Witherspoon was the sports editor. A block on the left-hand side of the mast announced "The sports news, gathered here and there."

Oh, my.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Under pressure (washer)

About 30 minutes into pressure washing the dirt and mold off my white picket fence, I had a Tom Sawyer moment.

The next time my neighbor came out of his house, I thought, I was going to tell him how much fun I was having, and did he want to give it a shot?

Getting ready to pressure wash my picket fence. Oh, boy...
 Let me back up for a moment. I don't own a pressure washer. The one I was using actually came from my other neighbor (I live in a great neighbor-hood, where we not only borrow each other's garden tools, but also their talents). The white picket fence enclosing my backyard needed immediate attention, since it was time to be painted.

So TJ (or Teej, as he prefers) let me borrow his pressure washer with the only stipulation being that I return it with a full tank of gas.

The thing is, I actually enjoyed pressure washing my fence – for about 10 minutes. Sure, there is a sense of exhilaration and satisfaction when the dirt is washed away under 2700 pounds of pressure per square inch right before your eyes.

The fence after its cleaning. Maybe I'll just keep the distressed look...
It's almost like magic.

But it's also like work. Teej warned me that this would happen.

It wasn't long before my lower back started aching. And the initial exhilaration was replaced by tedium.

Plus, I was getting soaked.

I also found myself getting distracted. After washing 10 or 12 pickets, I'd see a garden paver, or a section of my driveway, that called out to me. So I'd pressure wash it until I yelled at myself for wasting gas washing something that wasn't important. Then I'd go back to doing 10 or 12 more pickets before I got distracted again.

Is that what adult-deficit hyperactivity disorder is? I don't know. Great. Something else for me to worry about.

Anyway, I did this for about two hours on Thursday and almost three hours on Friday, and I'm less than halfway done. I figure there's about another five or six hours of work ahead, and then, as long as I can keep gas in it, maybe I can clean off my patio or sidewalks before I return Teej's pressure washer.

The next step is sanding off the pickets to clear off any loose hanging chads of stubborn paint (my first neighbor, Billy, has offered me his electric sander, with the only stipulation that I have a loooooong extension cord. What a neighborhood.) and then the actual painting can begin.

I can't tell you enough how much fun I'm having. Anyone want to give it a try?

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Don't mess with my mail

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

                 – Dr. Charles W. Eliot, "The Letter"

Back in 2006, a lame duck Republican Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), a law that required the U.S. Postal Service to provide $72 billion pre-funding for post-retirement health care costs 75 years into the future. It had to meet that funding within the span of 10 years.

Think about that: potential postal employees not even born yet are guaranteed health benefits. No other government agency, and most private corporations, are required to provide such a benefit. Most benefit programs are pay-as-you-go.

That law basically took a self-sufficient and self-sustaining operation to the brink of bankruptcy with 13 consecutive years of million-dollar (perhaps more) losses.

In 2019, the USPS was required to pay $4.6 billion into the fund. But already crippled by the law, the USPS has defaulted on its payments since 2010.

There is some conjecture that the PAEA was designed to bankrupt the USPS in order to institute privatization of mail delivery.

Not only that, funds intended for that program have been diverted to help pay off the national debt.

In February of this year, the House of Representatives passed the USPS Fairness Act to repeal the PAEA. The bill currently sits idle in the Senate.

Fast forward to now. Under newly installed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a megadonor to President Trump (thus raising a conflict of interest in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan appointment) and who has no USPS experience, claims a mandate to make the service more efficient and to operate more like a business (It's not a business; it's a service). In doing so, he has removed almost 500 sorting machines throughout the country, limited (or perhaps eliminated) overtime, and even attempted to remove some of those familiar blue-box mailboxes.

One argument we hear for reorganizing the Post Office is that overall first-class mail volume is down overall. And that may be true. But coming less than 80 days before an election, it's also abominable. And guess what? Christmas is coming. I don't see how this makes America great again.

The obvious consequence of all this is that mail delivery is inevitably slowing down. This is critical, coming as it does in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of an election year in which mail-in balloting seems to be more popular than ever as people hope/try to avoid possible Covid-19 infection while waiting in long, slow-moving voting lines. The moves to deconstruct the Post Office appear to be insidiously intentional and obstructionist.

It's bad enough that mail-in balloting could be hindered by DeJoy's actions, but delays in mail delivery for prescriptions is appalling, putting peoples' health at risk. And what happens when monthly bills not only arrive weeks late, but also past due? Are grace periods to be extended?

The seeds of our current postal system were planted by founding father Benjamin Franklin, when he was appointed Postmaster General by the Second Continental Congress on July 26, 1775 (before there was an United States). More than 245 years later, I can't imagine this current state of affairs is what Franklin had in mind.

It's almost un-American.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Did the earth move for you?

Tom Tussey and Jeff Miller, two former residents of Lexington's Park Place historic district and co-owners of the popular Main Street boutique Backyard Retreat, were calmly enjoying their second cup of coffee on the porch of their tiny getaway mountain house in spaciously sparse Sparta (pop. 1,770) this morning. The view from their chairs, as always, was splendid on this beautiful summer day.

Then, suddenly, the earth moved. Nobody ever expects the earth to move.

"The coffee just jumped out of our cups," said Tussey. "I didn't realize what was happening at first. But the thing I really didn't expect was the rumbling noise. It started off low, then built up louder, then went back down again, like a Doppler Effect.

An aisle in a Sparta Food Lion this morning.*
 "It was mind numbing and it took a short time to realize what was happening," added Tussey. "I never heard or experienced anything like it before."

It turns out that Tussey and Miller were just a few miles away from the epicenter of a significant 5.1 earthquake. Later reports rolling in this morning said the quake could be felt as far away as Alabama to the south and Virginia to the north, and was perhaps 5 miles deep in the earth.

In Lexington, less than 80 curvy back-road car miles away from Sparta, Kim and I were wondering what was going on, too. Kim was in the dining room on the laptop, and she said she could feel the house vibrate. I was in the next room, watching TV, and the 100-year-old windows of our bungalow just kept rattling for about 15-20 seconds. I went on the porch to investigate, thinking somebody was messing around. A neighbor or two came out of their homes and did the same, thus confirming each other's suspicions and affirming to ourselves that we were not going nuts after all.

"I've never been in an earthquake before," said Tussey. "We were looking out at the view, and when it came, everything went blurry, either because of the earthquake, or I guess it could be because I'm getting older.

"We didn't have any damage to our house, other then some bottles falling off of shelves and a few other things that fell over," said Tussey. "But nothing broke."

Some earthquake damage to a house in Sparta.**
There is some damage to downtown Sparta, said Tussey. Some streets are blocked off, with some broken glass here and fallen bricks there.

So far – and we're only in August – 2020 has been, well, a different year. In fact, it's been a different week, what with a hurricane hitting the North Carolina coast on Monday, and now an earthquake today. All of this in the midst of a pandemic in the middle of a contentious election year.

Tussey said he wouldn't mind experiencing another tremor or two. "I'm the kind of guy who runs toward a hurricane," said Tussey. Miller, on the other hand, has a different perspective. "My nerves are already shot," he said.

I have a brother, Scott, who lives near Tulsa, OK, where there is considerable earthquake activity of various magnitudes. "It's kind of a weird feeling when it happens," said Scott.

I have another brother, Dave, who lives in Alaska and where earthquakes can be part of the lifestyle. "Earthquake?" asked Dave. "Wow. What do those feel like?"

I don't know if we ("we" meaning Atlantic Seaboard) live near a fault line, but there was a major earthquake in Charleston, SC, in 1886. It measured somewhere between 6.9 and 7.3 on the Richter Scale before there was a Richter Scale (developed in 1935 by seismologist Charles Richter), and it knocked over more than 2,000 buildings and could be felt as far away as Boston, Milwaukee and New Orleans.

The theory behind that one was the quake was a millenium-long consequence of continental drift. OK, I'll buy it. What do I know? I'm just a retired sports writer.

My concern right now is aftershocks. Hey, this is 2020. Is an 8.2 just 80 miles away?

*Photo courtesy of Food Lion.
** Photo courtesy of Tom Tussey.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Virus warfare

Do you know what's amazing to me?

(Well, lots of things are amazing to me. I can't believe I'll be 70 years old in a few more months – how did that happen?; how do helicopters fly?; how do weeds grow in concrete or asphalt?)

But my flavor of amazement of the day are the 30,000 volunteers who have lined up across 89 different sites in the country to test the National Institute of Health/Moderna trial vaccine (with two doses) in hopes of battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wow. That's like volunteering to go to war. And in a way, I guess it really is.

I know human trials are necessary for a vaccine that will be used on humans, but who makes that decision? The volunteers have to be multigenerational (Who volunteers their kid for this? Does grandpa raise his hand to test the serum?) and of various races. Some volunteers, I suspect, might have pre-existing conditions – for example, can you take the vaccine if you have heart disease?

If I am already healthy, do I want to get the virus? Do I want to be the one who gets the test vaccine, or do I want to be the one who gets the placebo?

And get this: right now, about 100 potential vaccines are in various stages of development. I guess that means more volunteers. The vaccine study in Oxford (in conjunction with Johnson & Johnson, I believe) will also need about 30,000 volunteers.

Apparently, there is a registry listing 150,000 people who are interested in volunteering for the trials. God bless them all.

Like all vaccines, there is a certain percentage of the population where an approved serum will have no affect. There's also a percentage of the population – about 20 percent – who say they will never take a vaccine.

There are doubters who say, hey, where's the vaccine for the common cold (which is also a coronavirus), or where's the cure for influenza, and hold it as an indictment either against science or a Big Pharma conspiracy to keep people sick in order to keep the money rolling in. You can find conspiracies in everything, if you are so inclined.

I myself believe in vaccines. Kim and I have gotten flu shots almost every year in our 40-year marriage, and have not gotten the flu, which I hold as empirical evidence that the flu shot works, even against a virus that mutates every year.

I thank my parents for having me vaccinated against smallpox when I was a child (the scar on my upper left arm has long since disappeared) and I remember taking the pink sugar cubes filled with the polio vaccine, which may have been a requirement to attend school back in the 1950s.

But even if a vaccine is approved, I wonder how effective it will be in a world filled with anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers? The doubters/resisters probably are the reason why the pandemic will linger until we reach herd immunity, which means at least 70 percent of the population will have to be exposed to the virus. We are currently in single digits of national exposure, which means it will take several more years before we attain herd immunity. In the meantime, the death toll will continue to increase.

(In the 1918 influenza pandemic, 675,000 Americans lost their lives (out of a population of 110 million) in a 24-month span. That translates to more than 1,300,000 million deaths in today's terms.)

You can reach herd immunity with a vaccine, too. So thank you, volunteers. Maybe we can reach herd immunity with a dose of herd mentality.