Life in the Time of COVID

I shall not die of a cold. I shall die of having lived.

Willa Cather

I write down quotes I like, mostly from things I read: books, articles, daily calendars. Even from movies. I have a page in one of my notebooks of quotes from Casablanca and The Quiet Man. When I feel like getting some wisdom or humor, I look at my quotes.

The Willa Cather quote above stuck me as having significance in the COVID-19 outbreak.

While I have my criticisms of one-size-fits-all approaches and the continuous political gamesmanship over the response, no leaders knew with certainty how to manage the risks nor could they see clearly into the future. Individuals, however, have their own ways of dealing with trials. The resulting distress has been both great and minor, but I’ve found a ray of hope at my local “malt shop.”

Enter Don H. He is a local veteran and regular at the local Kewpee Hamburger Shop. He visits the restaurant every other Friday for lunch, proudly wearing his WWII veteran hat.

When you strike up a conversation with Don, or more likely him with you, you learn a few things. He was married for 64 years to his lovely wife and they had five children, and when he turns 100 he’s going to marry a 35-year-old blonde who happens to be a millionaire. (Go big or go home, right?) He’s pushing 95.

He will ask if you want to see a picture of his pride and joy and he’ll show you a wallet-sized version of this. Yeah, he’s got a dime-in ring and other pocket-sized amusements that make you roll your eyes and emit a chuckle.

While waiting for your double cheeseburger and fries, Don will tell you he served in Europe and was on a ship bound for the Pacific fighting when the Japanese heard he was coming and surrendered. You’ll discover that he was more than willing to hug the pretty girls lined up on the streets in Belgium when his truck drove by but the truck driver sped up instead. You’ll learn that he and his eight brothers served in either WWII or Korea. Only one was injured. He also has three sisters, making his a family of 14. Born in 1925, he grew up during the Depression and fought for his country. Don didn’t have the easiest of circumstances to start his life.

I hadn’t seen him since prior to the pandemic and the shut down of many restaurant dining rooms. But when I walked in to Kewpee’s last week to meet my sisters, I took a seat across the counter from Don. While he didn’t remember me, I knew I was in for some delightful if not repetitive stories from a delightful person. And I was correct thinking that my sisters would get a kick out of him too.

We didn’t talk about the pandemic. I didn’t ask if he was afraid to be mingling (though the restaurant was adhering to all mask and distancing requirements), being that he is in a high-risk category. Apparently he has lived enough in his life to determine that the world is not a particularly safe place.

Don was a contrast to the many stories of the older generation who have passed sadly without the ability to be surrounded by loved ones because of the precautions needed to protect people. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just a regrettable sorrow to have a life well lived reduced to a death filled with loneliness and confusion.

Don is a bright spot. Instead of gadget in his billfold, Don should have the quote, “I shall not die of a cold; I shall die of having lived life.” I hope that is after his second wedding. I told him that since he has such good taste in food, he’ll have no problem finding that blonde millionaire.

Kewpee Hamburger chains started in 1923 in Flint, Michigan. At its peak prior to WWII there were more than 400 restaurants. Only five remain, all in the upper Midwest. Legend has it that the shortage of beef during the war was the demise of many Kewpee shops.

My local shop has between 300-400 Kewpie dolls displayed. A regular will overlook them. A newcomer may be startled or even creeped out but will be sold by the food or the homemade shake or malt. Unfortunately the malted powder is made by Carnation (I saw the can) and not by Horlick’s, the company who put malted milk on the map and whose name is prominently bestowed upon the city, from schools to roads.

Maybe the shock of those dolls is helping keep Don going. Or maybe the restaurant’s motto really works: “Hamburg, pickle on top! Makes your heart go flippity flop.”

Willa Cather was an American novelist whose books were popular in the early 20th century. In her real life her family moved from Virginia to the plains of Nebraska. Her books O, Pioneer and My Antonia are about the pioneer lifestyle. The quote above is from Death Comes for the Archbishop, a book on my to-read list.

1 comment

  1. You captured the essence of Don H perfectly. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting him and he reminds me a bit of Papa D. who also loved to quip and tell stories. I’m going to make a point of stopping in again for the double cheeseburger and fries, with a side of Don’s repartee. Greatest generation, baby!


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: