The writer, of Omaha, has worked for the Omaha World-Herald and the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.
By the time he was 30, my dad had lived through a worldwide depression and fought in combat in a world war.
When he was 40, though, his son was born into a lottery winner’s share of privilege.
We weren’t rich. But I was born to two loving parents in the peak of the postwar liberal economy. White, male, healthy, in a small town where people looked out for one another, health care was affordable and good schools were a priority. We never gave a second thought — hell, never gave a first thought — to our clean water and plentiful food. It was just there and always would be. In the remote western Nebraska town where I lived, even the Cold War seemed highly unlikely to affect us personally. We’d giggle as we hid under the desks in our grade-school class drills.
But there were subtle warnings at home not to get too comfortable. My parents feared debt. Our family of five lived in a tiny house, and my dad never bought a new car, even though plenty of the other railroad engineers in town did. He paid cash for every car he ever owned. We’d drive around town; he’d see a new house, and wonder out loud: “How the hell can (fill in the blank) afford that?” A $10 mistake in a checkbook would set off a tirade.
As the years pass, the good fortune — not the least of which was having careful parents — becomes more obvious. I had read and watched news of Vietnam, where a few people from my town had been killed and many more had served. But I was born at exactly the right time to avoid having to go to war. I was able to go to a good college despite a mediocre academic record thanks largely to my parents’ help and a start at the local community college. I had a good career at a stable employer up until my 50s. Thousands of people born into similar luck worked hard and acquired generational wealth.
The 9/11 attack showed the folly of the American belief that you could take out a field of angry bees with a giant sledgehammer. But like the Cold War, it seemed the numbers were in our favor as far as any personal threat, sitting there in Omaha. And the federal government answered 9/11 with two wars, the Patriot Act and billions of dollars spent. Memories faded as the years passed without an encore. We never forgot, as many had promised, but we didn’t live in fear.
Even after 9/11, my thinking was, “Thank God I never had to live through the crap my parents did. And if we’re lucky our kids won’t have to, either.”
But now it feels like the luck has run out. Our generation’s challenge is finally here, in the fourth quarter of our lives. And the numbers aren’t on our side.
It is going to be interesting to see how people react over the long haul. Early returns are encouraging. There have been a lot of stories of people stepping up and helping others, of being smart and improvising when needed, like the doctors making their own masks and people voluntarily keeping a six-foot distance when they have to line up.
Some kids, aware that they aren’t in the most vulnerable group and wanting to live their lives, went on spring break. This is obviously the wrong time to be running around acting like you’re bulletproof. And it could endanger Lord knows how many people. But who doesn’t remember feeling that way at that age? And they’ve grown up, like many of their parents did, in an age of constant media noise but very few actual threats to their way of life. Even war is no longer a shared sacrifice. A sliver of the population carries the load. And with the economy, politicians and the Fed have kicked the can down the road for years.
So how many of us in the masses can stay vigilant — and tolerant — as the days of this crisis drag into weeks and months? I don’t know if I can. None of us do, really.
Because we’ve never faced this kind of threat before.