By Joe Rector

I saw the obituary for a high school friend in the paper. It made me sad and just a bit shocked. The reminder that people my age and I are reaching the last few years of our lives also delivered a jolt. Younger folks are tired of hearing about “Baby Boomers,” and I somewhat understand that. We’ve been center stage for a long time. What those “young’uns” might not know is that we old folks have witnessed plenty of rotten things during our years.

I remember polio, not because the disease afflicted me but because I knew young people who had been struck with it. One boy lived in our neighborhood and wore braces on his legs. Children got vaccines before they entered school, or they lined up during the first day for them. A few years later, entire families lined up to receive polio boosters that were placed on sugar cubes.

Children also had to be tested for tuberculosis. Again, at school, we lined up and waited for an injection under the skin on the backs of our forearms. A few days later, we showed our arms to a nurse who pulled some students out to further examine suspicious-looking places.

Before vaccines were developed, we suffered from chicken pox, measles, and mumps. They were part of growing up. Kids would miss several days until the rashes or swelling abated. Then, feeling weak and exhausted, they’d be back at school and ready to make up the work missed.

My generation lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Younger children didn’t grasp the fact that diving under a desk during a practice drill was of little use if a nuclear weapon were exploded over Oak Ridge. I suppose none of us realized that walking home drills after a pretend attack was improbable since everyone and everything around here would have been vaporized.

Older and younger children did understand the tragedy of President Kennedy’s assassination. The country shut down, and a heavy pall fell across the land. Things weren’t much better a few years later when Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were also gunned down. We worried about the direction of the country and its future.

Our teenage years brought the chances of being drafted to fight in Vietnam. That war was fought on the backs of young folks, but most of the generation never did understand exactly what soldiers were fighting or why they were doing so. We just knew that young men were shipped to a country far away and too many of them never came back. Even the soldiers who came home weren’t welcomed with parades and cheers; they were instead met with jeers and taunts.

The attack on 9/11 shook us to our foundation, and the citizens of this country joined in one voice to announce that we would not be defeated by such cowardly acts. More wars ensued, and young people were killed and maimed. This time, those soldiers were our children instead of ourselves, and we would have gladly traded places with them.

Now, we face this damn virus. It respects neither age, sex, nor status. It only wants to spread. Our country first met the challenge with strength and determination to defeat the problem. We stayed home, socially distanced, and followed the rules set by health officials.

When cases began to ease, we too quickly returned to life. It was a tragic mistake. Now the virus is attacking again, and as many as 75,000 cases are reported each day. The death toll rises and now includes small children, as well as Baby Boomers.

Virus fatigue keeps too many people from fighting again. The answer to the problem is still adequate and accurate testing, social distancing, and mask-wearing. However, too many people refuse to wear masks. It’s such a small thing to do, but folks scream and holler and complain that doing so violates their rights. What I say to them is that their rights end where mine begin.

Yes, we old people have faced many difficult times in our lives. This pandemic, however, is the scariest thing I have seen. The American will has been dulled, and citizens lack the determination or sacrifice necessary to stop the virus. For the first time in our history, America might lack the courage and leadership to save itself. I hope God has mercy on us.