RITUALS AND EPIDEMICS

 

When it was time to begin the meeting of the Saranac Lake Board of Trustees, the mayor nodded to Trustee Tom, who has a deep voice. Tom knew what to do. He stood up, turned to face the flag in the corner and led Trustees and audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, hands on hearts. I can’t remember the last time I did that, but it’s been years. I recited it fairly often as a child; seldom as an adult. I didn’t have any trouble remembering the words though, including even the latter-day addition of “under God.” I’d been declaring my allegiance the godless way for sixteen years before Ike got his idea for improving the pledge, but I didn’t stumble.

Pledging my allegiance after so long a break was an interesting experience, rather like returning to a photo or an essay that I hadn’t seen in a while. Or for that matter, like saying an everyday prayer. There’s almost always something new that catches my attention.

To begin with, I was surprised by the sudden, almost startling onset of the ceremony. I flashed back on a time when I was sitting in a small auditorium at the American Embassy in Baghdad waiting for a meeting to begin. Suddenly, everyone stopped talking and got to their feet. The ambassador had entered. I’d never been around any American ambassadors, so I didn’t know that custom, and I was probably the last citizen to stand. I’m pretty sure no one noticed, though. If they had, I might have been in a lot of trouble. At the time—during the Vietnam war—American officials were quick to notice disloyal behavior.

Back to Saranac Lake—”…indivisible with…” Well, we were about to find out about that. The meeting had been called for the purpose of considering a matter that was quite divisive. No one had yet taken up arms (so far as I knew), but feelings ran high on the matter at hand. Perhaps saying the pledge together would calm things down enough so that a civil discussion would follow.

A few years back when my friend Walle was visiting on the Fourth of July, we took my canoe over to Moose Pond for some early-morning fishing. We were about forty yards off shore, when several boats full of Boy Scouts passed us on their way back to the launch. They looked as tired as boys always look when they’ve been camping for a few days. When they reached shore, they lined up and enthusiastically sang the National Anthem. The sound of it spread all across the lake. Walle and I didn’t attempt to stand up in our canoe, but we were moved.

The Pledge and the Anthem led me to think about the way people learn such set pieces. Persons who make a living pointing out what’s wrong with current educational practices, seem pretty much agreed that “rote” learning is something the devil invented. Not long ago, I heard one of these seers deliver a pronouncement on NPR in which she sneered at “regimentation” and “learning by heart,” which, oh dear, “takes the fun out of learning.” Had the argument been against excessive rote learning, I wouldn’t have paid it any mind. But the idea was put forth without qualification; rote learning is bad per se. That struck me as foolish.

Then, on the BBC, I heard a noted Brazilian thinker whose name I’ve forgotten inform us tradition-bound ignoramuses that the world will be saved from terminal disorder only if education is made “dialectical and analytical not informational; communal not individual and authoritative.” I suppose he was unaware that his bloviation was itself supremely informational and authoritative.

You probably see where this is going, so instead of belaboring the point, I’ll just make a list. You can fill in your own stories where appropriate.

Rote learning makes it possible to know and use:

The Pledge of Allegiance

The National Anthem  (all national anthems, for that matter)

The alphabet

Multiplication tables

The Masonic burial my father received

Nursery rhymes (“James, James Morrison, Morrison…”)

Poems for campfire use (“Listen my children and you shall hear…”)

Poems for romantic purposes (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?…”)

Poems for any purpose under the sun

The Boy Scout oath (“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country…”

Recitation of great speeches (“We shall fight them on the beaches…)

Religious creeds “Credo in unum Deum…”

Musical notation (The name of the note on the bottom line of the treble clef is e.)

The number of days in each month

 * * *

One time I was three hours into what the British call a Christmas “lunch.” It didn’t seem all that lunch-like to me.  We had begun at around 11:30 with tumblers of single-malt whisky and hors d’oeuvres. (Featured among the latter were dried apricots. How festive can you get?) Then we went to the table, ate and ate, enjoyed upscale Christmas crackers from Harrods (I got a real nice screwdriver, which I still have somewhere), a procession and presentation of flaming Christmas pudding (what we call fruit cake here in the colonies), and finally liqueur and coffee.

At one point, the man on my right excused himself. He returned after the better part of an hour, and had some more turkey and gravy with a few parsnips for good measure.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Went to take a nap.”

I wished I had known that was on offer.

While he had snoozed and gathered his strength for another round, I tried to make conversation with the stranger on my left. After a brief exchange, the day’s designated theme of peace on earth went right up the chimney. I offhandedly said something about rituals being part of everyday life. Her response was opaque and, to the extent I understood it, exceedingly stupid.

“There are no rituals.”

That pissed me off, and naturally, I responded with something that pissed her off.

It was clear she had been thinking about the matter for some time, and she had strong views on it—strong enough to disrupt a Christmas lunch in which she was a participant and which itself comprised three hours that were as carefully choreographed as a Tridentine Mass. (She probably also believed that rote learning never happens. I didn’t inquire.)

So far as I know, she’d never been to a meeting of the Saranac Lake Board of Trustees, so she’d never observed a group of Americans reciting as one the Pledge of Allegiance. But I’m pretty sure she’d been to the theatre in England and stood up afterward to sing God Save the Queen.

 * * *

The recent news about Ebola, especially as it has befallen Americans, has reminded me of my own experiences with quarantine and a third-world epidemic.

My quarantine occurred when my brother and I fell victim to a scarlet fever epidemic. I was four or five years old, my brother nine or ten. I have some vague memory of this, but to make a story that is at all interesting, I’ve got to make up some details, creating thereby what is called “creative nonfiction.” (Many practitioners and critics of this form deny that anything in it is invented; it’s simply a true story that makes use of fiction techniques, such as dialog. I disagree. Like memoirs and autobiographies, creative nonfiction is frequently full of whoppers, easily discerned.)

I suppose Bob and I had been diagnosed by the usual symptoms—rash, sore throat, “strawberry tongue,” and fever—indicators learned, probably by rote, in medical school.

An aside here. When I was a skinny, twenty-nine-year-old male living in Baghdad, an American surgeon who was trained at Massachusetts General Hospital stood over the gurney on which I was twisted up in abdominal pain, and ticked off on his fingers the symptoms of gall bladder trouble—”fat, female, forty, fertile, and flatulent.” Since I displayed only one symptom on the list, he concluded that I did not have a gall bladder problem. Three ineffective hits of Demerol later, an Iraqi doctor arrived bearing one more arrow in his diagnostic quiver. Patients in extreme pain from gall stones, writhe around in the characteristic way that I was displaying, and that trumps the five f’s. As I lay in a Beirut hospital recovering from having the gall bladder removed, I thought about rote memorization of disease symptoms: it should not omit any, and it should not take the place of judgment.

Back to 1943. A man from the health department showed up and nailed a notice on the front door, making us officially a house of plague for the next twenty-one days. On its face, the incident seems somewhat like what Governor Christie did to that nurse. But I’m sure my mother was quite cooperative despite the unwelcome prospect of having two boys inside in the four-room house for the next three weeks. Scarlet fever then and now can be a serious disease. It is said to have been the cause of Helen Keller’s loss of vision and hearing. My mother would likely have thought about that while the notice was being tacked up. But truth to tell, she probably also enjoyed the attention she got as the mother of two seriously ill sons. At the time, her life was pretty humdrum.

It may have disappointed her a little that, to the best of my memory, we didn’t feel at all bad. I suppose at first we must have run a fever and had sore throats, but I don’t recall that. All I recall is that she made us stay in the double bed we shared, no matter how good we felt, for the whole twenty-one days. She allowed us to operate an electric train under the bed, but there was no getting up. I would hang over one side as far as I could. Bob would do the same on the other side. Without putting our feet on the floor, we’d stretch like Plastic Man to reach derailed cars.

That nurse in New Jersey had it good compared to us. Not only was she not confined to bed, if we believe Gov. Christie (no small undertaking), she had access to takeout food from the “finest restaurants in Newark.” Bob and I got milk toast, which is disgusting.

Later in life, I found myself in the midst of another epidemic—cholera—an unpleasant and life-threatening disease. I don’t know if treatment ever requires quarantine, but I was subjected only to preventive measures.

This epidemic that would threaten me with death-by-pooping was going strong in Iraq when I got on a plane in Austin with my wife and son and flew to Baghdad. Our employment at the University of Baghdad was late developing, so we departed Austin in a hurry. I boarded the plane with a fever that was caused by various immunizations. (If there had been TSA and medical people taking temperatures at the time, I might’ve had difficulty explaining it.) I don’t think we were given a cholera shot in Austin. Not to worry though. We could ward it off onsite by taking proper precautions.

At a refueling stop in Beirut, all passengers were required to remain on board. After a while, a cabin door opened, and a man with a large tank strapped to his back came aboard. He walked the aisle spraying a fine anti-cholera mist all around the cabin. I held my breath, but I didn’t worry much; I’d grown up running in the DDT cloud behind the mosquito fogger truck. So far as I could tell, that hadn’t affected me one way or the other; the mosquitoes still swarmed, and the DDT didn’t make me sick. I anticipated the same lack of outcome from the stuff being sprayed inside the plane. It didn’t seem likely to prevent us from catching cholera. And if it was  meant to keep us from bringing it into the country, that wouldn’t make much sense. But, as we have seen recently, when trying to confine epidemics within geopolitical boundaries, all sorts of tactics are tried.

Next day at an orientation meeting in the Embassy (the one where I learned to stand up when the ambassador enters), we were instructed never to eat lettuce, to wash all vegetables in Clorox, and always to peel them. Then and now, I wondered how much food value is left after soaking, say, a beet in Clorox. After a short time, we left off the practice.

The epidemic continued, and the university cancelled classes for a time. Soon after they resumed, I was ambushed as I entered the English Department common room. A man behind the door shot me in the arm with an odd-looking pistol. Before I could begin to understand what was happening, I noticed that my colleagues all had blood on their shirt sleeves. In retrospect, it reminds me of those photos during recent Iraqi elections where those who had voted held up their dyed fingers.

What had looked like a pistol was a pistol-grip, multi-shot syringe, and it dispensed a cholera immunization. Memory is fallible, but what I recall is that the injection did not require actually inserting a needle into the skin. It didn’t even require baring your skin. The guy just fired his gun like a kid with a cap pistol, and somehow the active ingredient passed through clothing and skin. I’m not sure this was actually possible. I am sure that it caused bleeding and there was no cleaning of the site before or after the assault and it hurt.

I guess it worked. Something did. I didn’t catch cholera.

So I have survived two epidemics. I’m thinking I’ll look up that nurse Governor Christie went after and see if she wants to form a support group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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