Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Don’t dodge COVID only to get hit by guilt

     Bill Mauldin was haunted by World War II.
     Not in the usual way, by traumatic memories of horror and battle. At 122 pounds, Mauldin was assigned to an Army motor pool. But he was a lousy driver, and by 1943 he was drawing for the Mediterranean edition for Stars & Stripes.
     Sgt. Mauldin created a pair of classic cartoon characters, Willie & Joe, whose wise-cracking, unshaven slouch toward victory was contrary to well-scrubbed military propaganda. Soldiers loved them. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945, at age 23, and his book of wartime drawings sold 3 million copies. It even worked to his advantage when he was wounded — slightly, a mortar fragment. He walked to an aide station to be treated, leading to a memorable cartoon: Joe approaches a medic, sitting at a table piled with Purple Hearts. “Just gimme th’ aspirin,” he mumbles. “I already got a Purple Heart.”
     But after the war, his good fortune gnawed at Mauldin. He had trouble dealing with the fact that he benefited from such tragedy.
     ”I never quite could shake off the guilt feeling that I had made something good out of the war,” said Mauldin. “It wasn’t a nice feeling.”
     No, it isn’t. And there has to be a lot of it going around, with this week being the first anniversary of the COVID epidemic seizing America, the mid-March 2020 pivot from ordinary, busy, crowded, life to isolation, hand sanitizer, masks and worries about toilet paper.
      While the past year has been one of deepening national crisis and loss — millions sick, 525,000 Americans dead, countless jobs lost and businesses wrecked — for my family, personally, it’s been, well, nice. The boys came back from law school and studied at home. They baked bread. My job hummed along, even better, since I never have to go into the office. My wife and I go for long walks. If I had to describe my pandemic experience in one word, the word I’d choose is “blessed.”

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  1. "I survived, but someone I loved didn't." That probably makes all the difference. Most of us are probably depressed reading about the 500,000 dead, but not clinically. As kindly old Joe Stalin but it in a slightly different context: "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic."

    The Mauldin cartoon, with it's deliciously ironic caption, brings to mind a Thomas Hardy poem from WW 1 that underlines the sameness of victor and vanquished, a cause for regret for some warriors.

    "Had he and I but met
    By some old ancient inn,
    We should have sat us down to wet
    Right many a nipperkin.

    But ranged as infantry
    And staring face to face
    I shot at him as he at me,
    And killed him in his place.

    Yes; quaint and curious war is.
    You shoot a fellow down
    You'd treat if met where any bar is,
    Or help to half a crown."


  2. I think of it more as having "silver linings" but maybe because there were enough downsides for me that I can't describe these times as "good for me." We lost a close relative to COVID. My kids were though very young adults were not in school so couldn't justify them coming home from their far away cities and "mixing households." And one couldn't anyway. She is a nurse treating COVID patients so that was scary. (Though when people asked about how I could take the worry as I am known to be a big worrier I always noted that "someone has to do this job...why not her?") But there definitely were 'silver linings'. I finally met several of my neighbors who I did not really know before despite living here for 20 years and became friendly with them. As a part-time contract employee who always worked mostly from home, my status as a "not in the office" person became normalized and I got more work as a result which meant more money. My best friend and I found creative ways to connect and took more long walks then in the 40 plus years of our friendship and watched many television shows "together apart", finding great shows and then spending hours discussing them. Even with respect to the relative who passed away they were spared what would likely have otherwise been months or even a year of living with no real quality of life.

  3. My wife and I have repeatedly used the same word--blessed--when we've discussed how lucky we are. We're seventy-plus retired homeowners. No chance of losing our house or being evicted from a rental. We're out of the rat-race, so no job losses or business to close...and lose.

    And we both stayed healthy, maybe the most blessed thing of all. At least until a month ago, when I looked and felt like hell and tested positive and my wife also got sick. Now I feel doubly blessed because we're "survivors", when either of us, or both of us, could easily have died. Do I feel any survivor's guilt...that we didn't join the half-million dead? A little. I haven't lost anyone, and I only know one person who didn't make it.

    I think Bill Mauldin had survivor's guilt. He profited a great deal from the war. He spent a lot of time with the men at the front, and could easily have been killed. He had to wonder: "Why them, and not me? Why did I luck out, and do so well?"

    Mauldin came to the Sun-Times when I was in my teens, and I treasured his cartoons for the next thirty years. I own many Mauldin-related books, both by him and about him, including the ones he wrote during the late Forties. Those were the early Cold War years, when he took a sharp left turn and lost much of his huge popularity because of his politics.

    Reprints of the "Crying Lincoln" cartoon were sold at the old Sun-Times Building, 401 N. Wabash, for many years after 1963. The irony of what stands there now has not been lost on me. I actually got Mauldin to sign a copy, during one of his occasional visits to the newsroom. It was obvious that his health was in serious decline, even by the late Seventies. I don't know what the hell happened to my signed copy. I moved around a lot in those days. Damn, how I wish I still had it.


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