My son, Porter, said his teacher put on a bit of a tinfoil hat when he claimed that an underpaid worker in a Wuhan, China research lab secretly sold infected bats to the Wuhan Live Animal Market, considered ground zero for the Covid-19 pandemic. “Tinfoil Hat” has become our name for a conspiracy theory, and even seventeen-year-old Porter asserts that we all put them on from time to time. Given that we’ve debated the official accounts of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination for over half a century, we should probably own it’s true. We feel entitled to a certain allotment of information, and when we feel deprived, it seems to be human nature to fill the void by sending forth a hydra of words with its million licking tongues to coat us all in spittle and goo. I have to admit, I have a couple of tinfoil hats myself, buried in the shameful corner of my closet, behind some ugly shoes and an old sweater that has fallen off the hanger.
My grandfather, Fred V. Porter, wasn’t much for tinfoil hats. He was a highly educated man with a thrift for words as though they must be spent lightly and with careful accounting. One day as a young teen I was sitting on the floor next to his chair, and he turned to me with a smile and a twinkle in his green eyes. “I like you,” he said. It was the grandest display of affection I would ever have from my grandfather, yet never at any moment did I question whether he loved me. The information had simply bonded to the oxygen, and that was good enough for both of us.
He was born in 1908, and in his autobiography wrote this account of the Spanish flu:
By the time I was rated as a sixth grader . . . the war was over, Jack Dempsey was the greatest man in the world, and the first radios for home use were coming out. The radios worked very poorly and were quite a mess of batteries, speakers, etc. An epidemic called “Spanish influenza” swept the country and many people died therefrom. We got it and all survived but I was down with a high fever for two weeks. I don’t think I’d ever been sick enough previous to that time, to go to bed.
Did you see that? The end of World War I, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, the advent of home radios, and the Spanish flu in ninety-three words. At least I have those ninety-three words, and the last forty-six tell me something about my own situation. Grandpa Porter lived in the back of beyond in rural Idaho, no electricity, and most people plowed and traveled by horse. Orla, Idaho was so far in the sticks that he, himself, would later be responsible for bringing electricity to his community during World War II. Yet the Spanish flu reached its curling fingernails through exotic locales in Asia, Europe, and Africa, and infiltrated a sleepy little Idaho farming town to infect my grandfather’s family, and make him the sickest he probably ever was until he contracted cancer in his seventies. There was nowhere to run, and he dealt with it the way he dealt with everything in his life, by looking it straight in the eye and getting on with things.
I looked up the tinfoil lab theory. The Wuhan Institute of Virology does actually exist, and has for decades under various names. It’s a world class level 4 biosafety research center that had indeed been playing around with novel coronaviruses from bats, and studying their effect on HeLa, or the human cells of Henrietta Lacks which, unlike most human cells, have proven immortal and a tremendous boon to medical science since 1951. We’ve got a nice long sheet of tinfoil here, let’s see if we can fold it.
Add to that we’ve all read about China’s underpaid workforce, and corner cutting by Chinese production is legendary. As someone who has dealt with Chinese manufacturing for many years, I’ve been personally stung to the tune of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. That right there is enough to start folding my hat, but I’d better pause just a little longer. I also know that in 1952 scientists were convinced that polio was caused by ice cream. During the polio outbreak of 1952, 58,000 American children contracted the disease, 3,000 died, and 20,000 were paralyzed. Something or someone must be blamed!
Here’s where it gets tricky. Most polio infections occurred in the summer + most ice cream was consumed in the summer = ice cream causes polio, because who doesn’t like a refreshing dish of ice cream after taking a dip in the lake on a hot day. I figured I better keep looking.
So far scientists think the latest coronavirus came from Mother Nature, well documented as the most stunning and creative biochemist in all of earth’s history.
It’s human instinct to try to lock out evil, and protect ourselves from all the dangers of mortality. In fact, archeologists have unearthed locks from every age as far back as 4000 B.C., excavated in modern-day Iraq from the Palace of Khorsabad in ancient Mesopotamia. But then as now, locks fail and evil breaks through, so we want someone to blame, a nice Hitler we can photograph and pin to our dartboards, a focus for our anger. But once we have that focus, what can we do with it? Let’s say the Wuhan lab had been the cause of the pandemic, that a coverup will eventually be exposed concerning an accidental infection that walked unknowingly into the public. Naturally they would face serious consequences, but am I personally going to break out my pitchfork and storm the building? No! It wouldn’t help save anyone because I am not fighting a person, I am struggling with the laws of nature, so what do I do with my fear and my anger?
In the Louvre there is a magnificent painting by Géricault called The Raft of the Medusa depicting the national scandal of the French ship Méduse after it ran aground on a sandbar off the coast of Senegal in 1816. The incompetent captain solemnly promised everyone would survive, and the two hundred and fifty most important people were assigned to the longboats, leaving the remaining 147 to build a raft intended to be towed behind the small flotilla. For reasons still unclear, the officers cut the raft’s tether on the first day, and off the boats went, never bothering to send out a search party once they got to safety. One hundred and forty-seven people trapped on a rickety raft about the size of a tennis court without navigation equipment and almost no supplies, they were angry and afraid. By the second day their anger at the officers had nowhere to go, so it erupted against each other, plenty of killing, and all the water knocked overboard. Two days later about sixty people remained. On the thirteenth day a ship chanced to spot them, some accounts recording ten survivors, some fifteen. Either way, we have something to learn.
Fear and anger are often conjoined twins, and neither is a sin, any more than it is a sin to bleed from an open wound. Fear, anger, and bleeding must be openly acknowledged and given appropriate attention, ranging from home remedies to professional help, depending on the severity of the injury. What we don’t want to do is rub our injury in a pile of dung, creating greater infection, possibly developing a septic toxicity that could poison ourselves and others. What if the Wuhan lab did turn out to be the cause, and all the employees were duly drawn and quartered as their building was razed to the ground? It wouldn’t take my loved ones out of harm’s way. We’ll never find salvation in the suffering of the perpetrator.
When my father was a boy in South Carolina his family was very close to a dear neighbor named Flimmer, which was, in fact, her first name. For years Miss Flimmer had had a dentist there in Gaffney that she had liked very much, until the day he cut up his wife and stashed the pieces in his trunk. “He was a good man,” Flimmer said, “but he had a black heart.”
There was solid debate as to whether Flimmer owned a comb, yet she hit the very core of so much human fear. The smiling face and the black heart were two sides of the same body; wherever there is one, there is some degree of the other.
At this moment Corvid-19 and it’s little crown slides through our streets in a stealthy coronation parade, silent and invisible, without reasoning or conscience. Each microscopic sack of RNA simply exists for its own sake, looking for a human cell to extend and multiply its existence, much as we would look for a restaurant when we are famished. It is only the latest offering from the same Mother who gifted us mountains, rivers, and puppies. We love our Mother very much when we’re on vacation at the beach, but today we seem to be a little cross.
Good and evil, strength and weakness, joy and sorrow, all things hold hands with their opposites, and even the magic prowess of the tinfoil hat cannot manage to pry them apart. Though of course we’ve been trying since ancient times. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, and builder of the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors did his very best. In life he’d had such fabulous success he couldn’t bear to have it end in something so absurd and prosaic as death. Tragically, his quest for immortality put him in the hands of mere mortals who gave him all kinds of elixirs, including special pills containing mercury. He was dead by 210 B.C. at the age of 49. Good thing he cracked in and got so much done when he was young.
It’s a shame Emperor Qin never met my grandfather who could have given him a little perspective in ninety-three words or less, once he’d finished rolling his eyes. I don’t know which ninety-three words my grandfather would have chosen, but from the way he lived his life, I will venture to answer for him: Look life straight in the eye and be sure to stack your blessings close to your sorrows so you can always see which pile is higher. None of us would be scared if we didn’t have so many splendid gifts to lose.
I guess I neglected to mention that after my grandfather bequeathed us forty-six words on the Spanish flu, he went on for a page and a half describing the great fun of various holidays and celebrations that brought his family and community together every year. He always did take on trouble with a bat in his hand, but at no time did he forget the larger picture. There’s power in that, power for all of us.