Back to Square One

The Man in the Recliner series #4


Maybe it was the heat of a Fourth of July garden party or the hard lemonade. But it suddenly occurred to me that if our current generation manages to survive COVID-19, job reductions and livelihood losses, market shortages, governmental uncertainties, protests, riots and all the other joys of living in the summer of 2020, it may earn a reputation comparable to “The Greatest Generation.”

Such a thought may simply have been the product of too much sun and lemonade that packed an unexpected wallop. But on sober reflection, it does seem clear that the brave nurses, doctors and caregivers of the present crisis are undoubtedly heroes of our time.  

As for the rest of us, well, we are managing the current crisis as best we can. We follow the rules,  endure privations and hope for the best. We wear our masks, maintain correct social distance and try to keep our composure when we see risk takers who violate the rules. 

Violators such as the cozy group of young couples I saw the other day. They were clustered tightly around a children’s pool, making merry with drinks in hand and feet in water, their little ones frolicking before them in the shallow pool. A dandy way to spend a summer day. Except for the fact that no one wore a mask or distanced, thus placing the safety of their children and themselves at potential risk given our virus-plagued community. 

“Come on, we’re going,” my wife said suddenly, rising from our nearby table. She’d taken note of the group whose indifference to protocol made her feel uncomfortable. Earlier that day, she had sent a message to a group of lady friends she’d been hosting for weekly lunches and chats in our shady backyard. The group had crowded snugly about the snack table, ignoring distancing and masking. 

It was too risky to continue, the wife decided. Why take chances? She moved the weekly gal pal gatherings to Zoom, and was applauded by most of her group for her thoughtfulness and concern.  

Our own social occasions are now limited to close family members, paddling in a spacious pool and hiking around supermarkets where we hope to find empty aisles. Well, you can’t have everything. 

Quarantined once again by order of the governor and the guardians of public health, I’m back where I started. Home again. Sheltering in place. I’ve resumed my role as the guest of a fully-adjustable recliner in an air-conditioned living room, surrounded by my usual accoutrements–books, papers, TV pandemic updates, tweets from the caged canary of the White House and a handy glass of non-lethal lemonade. 

Here’s my question for today: is the world going to pieces—or has it already gone? 

Take the baseball season, for example. Well, actually, you can’t. It didn’t start on time. Owners and players shaved 102 games off the schedule, giving themselves abundant time to calculate how to play an abbreviated season, how to slice the money pie and how best to deal with COVID-19 in locker rooms and dugouts where it is more than capable of flourishing. 

Now a 60-game season is ready to launch. With a few minuses. Like no fans in the stands. Like no crowd buzz or Bronx cheers. Nobody shouting “Cold beer here!” or “Hot dog! Who’s hot for a dog?”  

But wait. It gets worse. There’s talk the fans in the stands will be replaced by cardboard cutouts and  pre-recorded crowd cheers will be piped into the ballpark so players won’t feel unappreciated. 

I wonder whether a pre-recorded sound track might care to include the shouts of vendors trying to entice those cardboard fans to eat, drink and be merry. If you buy the illusion, you are a fan of fantasy baseball.  

“It’s a tough, crazy situation in this country and in the world,” baseball star Mike Trout said, and who can you believe if you don’t believe a three-time MVP award winner? “Nobody has the answers.”

Nobody? Well, Mike, if you want answers you can consult Dr. Fauci, the top national expert on the subject. Or, if you prefer, consult the heavyweight political figure who insists he will “get it right eventually” and describes himself as “a stable genius” in order to assure those who have formed a  different opinion of his mindset.

The heavyweight had long declined to set a timely health example for the nation by wearing a mask. He said he might get around to wearing a mask if he could find a facial covering that made him look like The Lone Ranger. Problem: the Ranger’s mask only covered his eyes, leaving the mouth fully exposed.  Maybe that’s what the heavyweight had in mind. He loves to talk. The agenda is the problem. 

“There’s no agenda because he himself is the agenda,” as presidential historian John Mecham observed. “He has no answer to that overarching question of how we get safely back to real life.”  

Ah, yes, real life. How we get back to that doesn’t seem to preoccupy the thoughts of our leaders. But with those of us eyeing the record surge of COVID-19 cases and overcrowded hospitals, it’s a different story. Life seems increasingly unreal. We miss so many things that vanished when we lost the very things that define lifestyle—restaurants, shops, theaters, gyms, social gatherings and sporting events.    

All of which leaves us with more than our share of questions and concerns. Baseball was one of mine because the national pastime is, in its own way, a measurement of national health. Such was also the contention of a fellow fan I encountered shopping with his wife in a local supermarket. I didn’t recognize him at first, given his Fourth of July souvenir mask that bore the image of Uncle Sam with a dagger-like beard and sharp eye. But his distinctive accent—a mix of Flatbush and Bugs Bunny—gave him away.

“Here we go again!” Sam griped after we fist-bumped. “We get the all-clear to get out of the house and go back to work, like the recovery has kicked in and we have nothing to worry about, and now? Fuhgettaboutit! The first one was too soon and this one is way too fast.”

“We have to recover from the recovery,” his wife declared from behind a mask depicting the Statue of Liberty.

“All I can say is there better not be a next time!”

“Of course, there’ll be a next time,” Lady Liberty corrected him. “The same thing will happen again because they don’t know what they’re dealing with. The virus is unpredictable. The nation is three trillion in debt. The rebels in the streets can easily transition to revolutionaries and then …..”

“All is not lost!” I stopped the lady’s dismal assessment of our fate. “We’ll still have a shot at a baseball season.” 

“As if that matters now!” the wife grumbled. Her mask called attention to the mighty mother goddess—just the gal we need to preside over our disease-ridden, debt-diving, politically divisive, protest-prone and otherwise chaotic nation at this moment of unprecedented history. 

“Have you given any thought to running for president, madam?” I asked, venturing closer to the little lady. She promptly maneuvered her grocery cart to remind me of social distancing etiquette. Without a word, she’d warded off the absent-minded shopper who wandered perilously near the territorial limit. 

“Come any closer and she’ll fire her deck gun,” Uncle Sam cautioned. 

I apologized for my trespassing and wisecracking. In fact, I had something of far graver concern in mind than political candidacy. I needed help. I was suffering. I was afflicted with shopping trauma.

“Something bothering you, bud?” Sam asked. I decided to come clean and spill the beans.    

“I’ve been looking for Bubbie’s bread-and-butter pickle chips. I know they’re here, but I can’t find them anywhere. You haven’t by any chance seen a fat green jar with pickle chips and Mrs. B’s picture on it?”  

“In case you haven’t noticed, this is not the gourmet pickle section,” the goddess said, hoping I would remove myself to another aisle. Sam was less eager to be rid of me, recognizing a kindred spirit behind  my baseball-themed mask. The mask assured him I could be trusted to receive his view of the new lockdown. I received it with respect and agreed it was lamentable, however necessary.

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” I agreed, “just like Yogi Berra said.”

“Yogi Bear?” 

“Not bear—Berra. You know, baseball?”

“Know it? You better believe I know it—and miss it. For me, it’s more than a game.”

“It isn’t summer without it,” I agreed.

“It isn’t America without it. There’s a reason they call it the national pastime.”

“Have you found the extra virgin olive oil yet?” the goddess interrupted her distracted husband.

“We’ll get our game back,” I consoled the disgruntled fan. “It ain’t over until it’s over, and it ain’t over yet. I hear they’ve agreed to salvage the season and start playing—” 

“In empty ballparks! You call that playing? No fans allowed. Well, I got news for them. Playing ball in an empty ballpark isn’t playing ball. And you can quote me.”

“They might be able to do something about that.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

“I hear they plan to put cardboard cutouts in the seats and use recorded cheers, so you kind of get the effect and the feeling of being there. How does that sound to you?”

Sam made a scowl that was evident even behind a mask.

“That’s as wacko as those new rule changes. They want to speed up the game. Don’t they get it? This game isn’t about speed—except on the base paths. It needs time to plan and plot, bring the manager out for a long chat and let the pitcher bat. That’s baseball. And the game is nothing without real fans in the stands expressing real feelings—like ‘Grab some pine, meat!’ or ‘Get back to the minors where you belong!’ and other terms of endearment.”

“God bless the fans! But there’s a pandemic that isn’t going away. You have to think defensively. Empty stands protect the players from infection. Of course, they haven’t figured out how to protect the players from one another. Wait a minute, though. What do you think the players would say to playing in  helmets fitted with face barriers and uniforms layered with some sort of flexible barrier?”

Sam was not amused.

“Wise guy! You start changing everything including the rules and you’ll lose the fans. If you lose the fans, you lose the game. And if baseball is gone, the nation is in trouble. Deep trouble. Serious trouble.”

“Which is exactly what you’ll be if you don’t stop jabbering and get me the extra virgin olive oil that I told you to get ten minutes ago,” the goddess said. Lady Liberty was ready to fire lightning bolts. 

“We were just discussing the baseball situation,” her husband explained.

“Has it ever occurred to you that there are far more important things in life than baseball?”

“Name one!” 

“Don’t worry,” I told the irate wife. “I’ll take your husband to help him find the olive oil. Then he can help me find my pickle chips. Two heads are better than one.”

“In this case, they’re less than one. He’s distracted and you’re lost. Find a clerk to help you or the two of you will wander about like lost children and I’ll have to file a missing persons report.”

“My wife may sound a little—what’s the word?” Sam asked as we embarked on our mission.

“Authoritarian?” I asked. Sam said his wife was not an author.

“But she’s always right, at least some of the time anyway, and it’s best to do as she says unless you want to get thrown out of the ball game for giving her too much lip.”    

“She’d make a swell umpire,” I agreed.

We returned to report that we had found exactly what we were looking for (omitting to mention the  crucial service of a helpful clerk who led us to them), said our tender farewells with an elbow bump and a fist bump and returned to our lockdowns. 

Reposing in my recliner now, my mind wandered back to the Memorial Day period when we were encouraged to emerge from quarantine and resume the broken pattern of our lives. There were encouraging signs for us to come out and smell the roses. Lockdown was lifting. Businesses were reopening. Optimism was in the air. Baseball was talking about resuming. 

It seemed we were returning to some semblance of normalcy. Scientists expressed their doubts and said we should wait until the end of summer before easing lockdowns, but national and state leaders encouraged us stay-at-homers to get out, start spending, up our morale and revive the economy.   

Out we went. Assured that the virus was “leveling,” many naturally assumed the worst was over and used the occasion to socialize and celebrate. A relaxed attitude toward rules was inevitable. Masks came off. Crowds gathered without thought of social distancing. After all, the head of state had yet to wear a mask (“The Lone Ranger would not trust him with his,” a Washington wit remarked) or declare a national crisis. The light had turned green, hadn’t it? Why should we worry when we were returning to some semblance of normal activity? 

By the end of June, we realized we’d been living in a dream world. With confirmed cases and mortality rates escalating, optimistic assumptions about a levelling or falling of the virus collapsed faster than the statues of former heroes pulled down by anti-history mobs or state officials heeding the shifting wind of political correctness.

“What are we going to do now?” a worried friend asked as we scurried back to sheltering at home.                                                                                                                       

“I think it’s time for us to find real life,” I said.  

“Real life? Where are you going to find that?” 

“In the saddle.”

“You going cowboy?”

“I’m saddling up—in my recliner.”

“Oh, that. And what do you do there besides nap with the TV news and watch those film noir flicks?”

“Well, I also learn a lot I wouldn’t otherwise know.”

“Such as?”

“How to prepare octopus carpaccio and a banana split martini in my video cooking class. Twist-and-shout with Chubby Checker and Little Richard in a video exercise class for recliner-bound athletes. Starting to read that never-ending novel I never seem able to finish. And trying to remember….”

“Remember what?”

“The time before March 2020. Remember the way it used to be? When you could go to a barber? Dine in a restaurant? Sit in a theater? Join the crowd to catch the action on the court or playing field?”

“I guess we didn’t know how good we had it then, did we?” 

“Well, as the man behind the plate once said, you don’t appreciate a win unless you lose it.”

Thank you, Yogi, for another timely gem of wisdom.

From what I hear, many folks are expressing nostalgia for the world that ended in March. The time before lockdown orders and mask requirements. Before social distancing and self-isolation. Before the rush on grocery stories, the hoarding and panic. Before the peaceful protests and mob mentality.     

But that was then. That easier, safer, livable world we knew is gone, for how long is anyone’s guess.

And now it’s late July. Almost time for major league baseball (in one shape or another) to resume, to help us get back in touch with who we were and who we are, even if it isn’t quite the same game.   

In the words of Supermarket Sam, here we go again. 

Whether we can qualify as a great generation will be decided by history. But history also gives us numerous examples to guide and inspire us, including a little army of local heroes. A few of these I presented to you in my last story, saluting their services to sustain our liberty and security. Here’s one more.   

You may never have heard of E.R.(“Ernie”) Jones, a Stockton restaurateur with a charming gift of gab who drew devoted customers to the long-gone State Café. But there’s a reason you should. 

“Jonesie,” as friends also called him, and wife Mae made an ideal team. Mae did the cooking. Her husband did the socializing. He could talk to anyone about anything, his friends said. But there was one subject the personable Texan preferred not to talk about: his hazardous service as a waist gunner and ball turret gunner in the Eighth Air Force during World War Two. 

Jones flew 35 combat missions over Europe, battling enemy fighters and flak bursts. 

“I had the feeling he sometimes wondered how he ever got out of that alive,” said his son and Stockton resident Fred Jones. 

Given his precarious position and numerous combat missions, Jones definitely beat the odds.

He also had an encounter that makes him unique in Air Force history.

Flying as a ball turret gunner aboard the B-17 “Oh, Natural” on September 12, 1944, over Ruhland, Germany, Jones and crew were surprised by one of Hitler’s first “wonder weapons”—an ME 163 “Komet”. 

Jones and top gunner Charles Pearl were credited with shooting down this rocket-powered interceptor-fighter whose speed of 600 MPH was more than triple the speed of their B-17.

But Pearl told me the credit for “scratching” the Komet fighter actually had to go to Jones.

“I saw this thing way off at about three or four o’clock high,” Pearl recalled, speaking from his home in Nantucket, Massachusetts. “I was on the upper half of the plane (top turret gunner). I warned Jones (in the ball turret beneath the plane) that it was coming in dead level, at five o’clock.”    

Pearl said he had two 50-caliber machine guns going, but due to the speed of the strange aircraft, he didn’t think he had time to fire more than a quick burst before the Komet was under the plane, where Jones was perched. 

“I shouted to Jones that he was coming in low and he picked him up and finished him off from the ball turret,” Pearl said.

Pearl, then not quite 20, remembered Jones as “the old man” of the crew and something of a father figure for the young airmen, most of whom were in their early twenties. 

“Actually, I was his boss—a tech sergeant (five stripes) to his four, and head of the enlisted men aboard the plane. But once we got in that plane, we were all soldiers doing our job.” 

Germany had introduced jet fighters and rocket fighters into the war in August 1944 when it was apparent that the ground war was being lost on both the eastern and western front. Pearl said he and the crew were warned by the pilot that there were jet planes in the area. But they had no idea about a manned rocket plane.

After Jones finished firing, Pearl said, the Komet was seen fluttering helplessly to earth.

“I guess they were very delicate and you couldn’t punch a hole in them,” Pearl said.

It all happened so quickly that neither man quite knew what had happened. They turned in their report and went on to their next mission. 

The gunners fired at a lot of ME 109s that season, but that was their only encounter with a rocket plane. MEs and flak were problem enough, but rocket fighters introduced a new challenge. 

“We really didn’t know the difference between them. A jet was an airplane we could understand. But these damn rocket planes were kind of magic. We didn’t know what it was. They went much too fast.”

But sometimes a gunner could get lucky if he had a little warning about what was coming his way.

Gunner Jones never told the tale of his achievement, which was why Stockton military historian Doug Brodie decided to tell it for him.

“This was the only manned rocket fighter that was actually used in aerial warfare,” Brodie said.

It was shot down by a man who was 32 years old when he went into the Army Air Force and didn’t expect to survive the war.   

“He flew 35 missions in five months and not even a scratch, but he didn’t like to talk about it,” said Brodie, who noted that almost all of the people Jones knew from the beginning of his service had been shot down. It was their memory that he carried with him during and after the war.

Brodie, who was permitted to read the gunner’s diary, noted that diary entries were interspersed with little prayers and promises to his father that he’d do the best he could for as long as he could.     

“It kind of got to me,” said Brodie, author of “Scratch One Rocket Fighter: A B-17 Gunner’s Hell in German Skies.”  “That was why I thought he was sure worth mentioning.”

75 years later, Jones is one of those little-known heroes worth remembering as we find ourselves in a new war against another swift and deadly enemy: the coronavirus.  

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  • A wonderful read on the Corona virus and it affecting our great national pastime, baseball! May we all stay well, keep reading & doing what we can that we love during this time of sheltering in.

  • Howard you meandered over a lot of time and space here and I love it! Looking to the past, the present and a hint of the future. Keep them coming!

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