First hand observations from times I thought the world would stop turning.
My mother and I took Wardair to the UK in late 1973 to visit my still hail and hearty grandparents. The same could not be said for the UK itself which was suffering high inflation, pervasive labour unrest and a growing malignant malaise which would beset the nation for years. None of that had any effect whatsoever on a 12 year old living it up in the Pythonesque, quirky home of his ancestors while having the unalloyed attention of his doting grandparents and mother.
I spent my days ‘working’ at my grandparents clothing factory on London Road in Manchester. Getting on the factory workers’ nerves more likely, but my grandfather would brook no complaining about my bad behaviour. I received a few pounds sterling in an official pay packet at the end of each week, which seemed like all the money in the world back then. I believe it was the first pay I ever received. In my spare time I blew that money at the paper shop across the street from my grandparents house on Kingsway. My shopping list consisted of exactly two things: the latest edition of the Beano comic, still printed on newsprint at the time, and Cadbury’s chocolate. It tasted different, and much better, than back home in Canada. I gorged myself on both the chocolate and Roger the Dodger’s skiving antics.
I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Manchester United first team play at Old Trafford in the declining but still magical Georgie Best era. My experience of British football, to that point, had been with reserves fixtures where the play still sparkled but left the stands strangely empty, devoid of the legendary and sometimes lethal United fans. Their absence made the games safe to attend, at least, but it really wasn’t the same. On this trip to the UK, though, my grandfather felt I had finally reached the age where I could at least keep up with him should we have to run for our lives. Those were the days when fans stood on concrete terraces in the fabled Stretford End, prevented from crushing each other to death only by common cause and spindly surge barriers. Many drank themselves into a stupor before the game, and smoked so much at the game that the collective incineration rose in a foggy column into the early evening air. But when those red-and-white scarves were all held aloft at once and the fanatics all sang U-N-I-T-E-D in unison? It truly was the spinetingling, hair-stands-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff of which boyhood dreams are made. It’s a vision as vivid today as it was in the chilly fall of 1973.
It all certainly made the disconcerting events unfolding just outside the gates of the legendary stadium seem very far away.
Towards the end of that unfogettable trip came muted news — no doubt delivered in beautiful BBC English on my grandparents’ breakfast room ‘wireless’ — that Egyptian forces had crossed the Suez Canal into the Sinai while Syria had simultaneously sent their forces into the Golan Heights. The attack was on Yom Kippur, which fell on October 6th in 1973. For at least a couple of days, Israel appeared to have been caught off guard and in disarray in the face of a savage assault on two fronts. Other regional players such as Iraq and Jordan were eventually drawn into the conflict in an effort to tilt the outcome of the war in favour of a cobbled together pan-Arab coalition. Material support over the course of the war was to arrive variously from Algeria, Cuba, East Germany, North Korea, Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and Sudan. It gave the conflict an appearance of spiralling escalation on a global scale.
‘How many nations have to participate in order for it to officially qualify as a world war?’, I can remember thinking.
As Israel’s predicament grew progressively more grim, their never-confirmed-or-denied nuclear capability was repeatedly mentioned by the nightly newsreaders. If sufficiently backed into a corner, there was never any doubt that if Israel did indeed have nuclear weapons, they would not hesitate to use them. Not many doubted that at the time.
However, what made the unfolding events in the Middle East even more disturbing to even 12 year old ears was the polarized alignment of Cold War powers in the conflict: Egypt was still very much in the orbit of the Soviet Union at the time whereas Israel was and continues to be an inseparable ally of the United States. Military support poured in on both sides. For a short time, it seemed like events may genuinely spin out of control and that the prophesied Armageddon would play out. Appropriately, more-or-less exactly where scripture said it would. At least that’s what the BBC announcers seemed to be saying, even if it was delivered in an unflappable monotone that was eerily calming. In the same way HAL told Dave he couldn’t open the pod bay doors in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Within a few days the Israelis gathered themselves and by the 9th of October the Egpytian and Syrian advances had been stopped in their tracks, and a front line had been established and stabilized. Within a few more days the Israeli Defense Forces had pushed their way back into Syria and were lobbing shells into the outskirts of Damascus. The Israelis also counterattacked in the Sinai and crossed the Suez and continued heading toward Cairo a scant 60 kilometres away. Hit and miss ceasefires came and went until one finally stuck on October 25th. When the shooting part of the war came to an end, Egypt and Syria were worse off than before the war started. Not only had Israel seized even more Egyptian and Syrian territory, but the effectiveness with which their attack was repelled established Israel’s unrivalled military superiority in the volatile region. It has not been seriously challenged since.
While all this was going on, my mother and I nervously marked our last few days in the UK before returning home to Vancouver. Something had changed. There was a background hum of far away conflict which was disconcerting for everybody. Conversation in the breakfast room spontaneously stopped when the news came on.
The OPEC nations, led by Saudi Arabia, obviously not liking the progress of the war and its most likely outcome suddenly and unexpectedly deployed the ‘oil weapon’. The opening gambit was a five percent cut in production on October 17th. President Richard Nixon responded not with any sort of capitulation but rather with another $2.2 billion of military aid for Israel. This was going to get worse, not better. Other members of OPEC, led by Libya, had been agitating for a full-on oil embargo for some time. Nixon going all in with the Israelis was the last straw for the Saudis who had been reluctant, to that point, to cut off the flow of oil. They finally agreed to an embargo on all nations supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur conflict. This included not just the United States, but Canada, Japan, Netherlands, the United Kingdom and in time Portugal, Rhodesia and South Africa.
What was so shocking was almost before our wheels touched the ground at Vancouver International Airport, the world was rapidly descending into what would eventually be known as the Energy Crisis, the first of a number of oil shocks. This was precipitated by a sudden and unexpected curtailment of a commodity which to that point was almost invisible in everyday life. The gasoline pumps always had gasoline — it was just a question of whether the price was up or down a few pennies in any given month. We didn’t realize that a fragile web of global connections existed to support that cheap and easily obtained life necessity we bought just down the street.
For a short time in the late fall of 1973, the speed limit on the I-5 in Washington State was 50 miles per hour. My father was never one to pass up a road trip no matter what the circumstances. The end of the world as we knew it didn’t slow him down one bit. We planned an out-and-return to Seattle to visit my aunt, uncle and cousins. Dad had carefully worked out the predicted fuel consumption of our ’69 Dodge Dart at 50 miles per hour. He determined we could make it all the way to Seattle and all the way back without refuelling. Which was a good thing because by that time, gasoline was in critical shortage. There were long lines at gas stations in many areas of the United States including the Pacific Northwest just across the border from us. Supply problems precipitated all sorts of conservation measures including closing all gas stations on Sunday. Stations unpredictably posted hastily hand-written ‘Out of Gas’ signs. Certain plate numbers could only buy gas on certain days. It seemed like just a matter of time before those line ups would find their way north of the border.
At the time it seemed the Energy Crisis was a permanent fixture in our lives — as if it would never end. Permanent changes to our way of life, likely long overdue anyway, were finally going to happen. This time was different. But by March of 1974, just six months after it had started, the oil embargo had crumbled and was coming to an end. Not selling their one really valuable asset had turned out to be really bad business for OPEC. After the embargo and as production gradually rose to meet world demand, oil resumed its rightful place as an invisible commodity we really didn’t have to think about too much just so long as it was there. Within a year or two we had forgotten most of the lessons we had just learned.
The world, however, really had been irrevocably transformed. Oil had quadrupled in price and its proceeds began to rapidly line the pockets of the petroleum exporting states. Not necessarily for the benefit of the impoverished populations of those nations but rather the despots and dictators who used at least some of that money to retain power and even export their nihilistic politics abroad. The search for alternative sources of oil — anywhere other than the Middle East — was kickstarted in earnest and continues to present. In that sense, OPEC’s exercise of their ability to embargo oil ensured viable alternative suppliers would be around just in case oil was ever embargoed again. Japanese and European car manufacturers, who had already made the adjustment to more fuel efficient vehicles long before the embargo, were suddenly elbowing stupefied domestic vehicle manufacturers out of the way. The oil price shock of 1973 destabilized world economies and contributed to stock market crashes around the globe. The hapless President Gerald Ford was laughed at when he predicted the Dow would eventually go back over 1000. These markets would take the better part of a decade to recover. However, the notion of ‘energy efficient’ was now in the public lexicon as was ‘gas guzzler’ and ‘fuel rationing’ and ‘permanent daylight savings’, which turned out to be not that permanent.
For the first time in my short life there was something going on in the world which had a material, significant impact on how we all lived our lives and yet over which we had absolutely no control. It was a new kind of scary. Even though the threat of that was really more my parents problem than it was mine, I was permanently left with a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability in the face of complex, difficult-to-understand events happening half a world away.
Although the real impact of the Energy Crisis of the early 1970s actually had remarkable little material difference to me and my family living in Vancouver, I was still left with the ebb and flow of free floating anxiety from a world which was never really quite the same.
At the end of the season Manchester United was relegated to the Second Division — the football equivalent of being asked to play in AAA because you were no longer good enough for the Majors. Three day work weeks and being asked to heat only one room in their homes was one thing. But for United fans, relegation was truly End of Days.
In a poetic irony, Georgie Best played his last game for Manchester United on January 1st, 1974.
My late uncle Gene came into our bedroom at some ridiculously early hour and flipped on the radio. He just said “you are not going to believe what you’re hearing.” The tuned station never varied from NPR and the ultra low key announcer said something like “oh, and we have just learned that the second tower has fallen.” Thankfully NPR announcers never breathlessly shout any headline for any reason but the voice that morning sounded uncharacteristically tight and strained. Michelle and I lay in bed and listened. What we were listening to, of course, were the horrors unfolding in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
It was September the 11th, 2001.
Leading up to that apocalyptic morning, we had driven our 4Runner from our home in Calgary, Alberta to Astoria, Oregon. Over the following five or six days, we ambled down the Oregon and California Coasts as far as San Jose, in Silicon Valley. We backtracked from there and spent the night in Santa Rosa. We then turned eastward, almost in the direction of home, enroute to my aunt and uncle’s home in Sacramento. After staying there for a few days we planned on driving with them up to their second home on Lake Almanor. We also planned on attending the National Air Races in Reno for a day or two and then slowly make our way back to Calgary over the course of a week or so.
We lay in bed and listened for a while longer, and when our ears could no longer make sense of what we were hearing we rose and went downstairs to finally put a visual to all those terrifying words. We watched, aghast, at the endless replays of that jet hitting the second tower. It fell what seemed like a short time later. New York without a World Trade Center in its skyline? There was nothing anyone could say other than “this is unbelievable.” It was like the worst distaster movie we had ever seen but all too real. And utterly incomprehensible.
We eventually sat down for breakfast but it was more from force of habit than out of any desire to actually eat. The TV continued to roll out new disasters. A plane hitting the Pentagon. Another one going down in Pennsylvania. Fighter jets in the air ready to shoot down any airliner which didn’t behave exactly the way it was told by pilots likely still wondering if they heard their orders correctly. Eventually came word that all air traffic was to be grounded for the indefinite future. Uncle Gene quietly said “well, I have lived a good, long life” which made it seemed like he was resolved to the fact it was rapidly coming to an end.
And then, well, we all ate breakfast. In the face of such horror you still have to eat, right?
My aunt and uncle lived in Curtis Park which is about an eight minute drive from the California State Capitol. Based on the emerging target list being reported by CNN it seemed likely that any hostile jets remaining in the air could conceivably be headed our way. It was about that time when a dumpster lid, perhaps a block away, slammed shut. The four of us levitated simultaneously from our chairs, like cats who had just had their tail stepped on. For a moment it seemed like we were waiting for the flash and then the eventual sound of sirens or screaming or both. We were that much on edge.
Looking back on the events of that morning in the context of the 19 years which have passed, it’s hard to figure out exactly what you were thinking when you made the choices you did at the time. For instance, our original plan for that day was to visit the Jelly Belly candy factory in nearby Fairfield. We went. It was the strangest visit you could possibly imagine. The factory tour staff really didn’t know what to do, and appeared surprised that people continued to show up at all. They closed the production line but we were nevertheless invited to ‘exit through the gift shop’ which was still open. We bought the legal limit, cracked it open in car and chased a tomato truck down I-80 on the way back to Sacramento.
There were sporadic reports of gasoline prices spiking and Michelle and I contemplated — for a time during a sleepless night that followed — just getting in the 4Runner and driving non-stop until we were back in Canada. We dissuaded each other when we though about the prospect of getting stuck in one of the more remote stretches of the highway that would take us home.
We went to Lake Almanor as planned but there was no escaping the feeling it was like a scene out of a bad movie where we were running away to the mountains to avoid impending disaster in the big city. We went and stared into an empty, cloudless sky at Reno-Stead airport waiting for the air races to start. The announcer kept up an optimistic chatter. The only thing in the sky was a military transport heading west. We filled the tank in the 4Runner — gasoline never did go into shortage — and made our way east heading for Elko. The desert on either side of the arrow straight road looked empty and beautiful and completely unaffected by the events at hand. We found that surprisingly comforting.
In the morning we turned north to the ironically-named Jackpot, Nevada and eventually wound up in Sun Valley, Idaho. We were sitting just outside the airport fence in Hayley eating a lunch we had picked up along the way. We had been sitting there for no more than a couple of minutes when we heard the roaring of one of those big, blocky, aircraft tug vehicles pulling up behind us. It hemmed us in as if to block a hasty exit should we try to bolt and make a run for it. We heard the driver radio back to his dispatcher and say “yep, it’s a foreign plate all right.”
Foreign? But it’s an Alberta plate.
I had always thought of Americans as cousins — both literally and figuratively — but we had suddenly been transformed instantaneously into foreigners. The tug driver got out and while I can’t remember precisely what he said the message was unforgettable. A car with a ‘foreign’ plate was not welcome company at this airport and he would appreciate it if we would just move right along. Now. When we finally got to Sun Valley, it was awash in American flags. By this time, a few days on from that crystal clear blue Thursday, the full measure of the disaster was becoming clear. We felt a genuine sense of empathy for the United States and all Americans at that moment. We looked for the stars and stripes to fly on the car as a sign of our solidarity with who we still thought of as our cousins. Flags were sold out all over town. Once we were identified as Canadians, shopkeepers were outwardly polite but somehow seemed anxious to have us out of their stores particularly if we were ‘just browsing’. Sun Valley is a lovely town but we couldn’t wait to leave.
On our last night in the United States we stayed in Whitefish, Montana. As we ate breakfast at the Best Western the next day we listened to our fellow guests, who were forest fire crews, talk about the hot dry season ahead of them. We were comforted by idle chatter which had nothing to do with ‘the new normal’ in which we were told we were now living. We drove north and for the one and only time ever we were searched by US Customs when leaving the United States. The unsmiling, bulletproof-vested border guards asked us to step outside the car and went through it in what seemed like obsessive detail. I don’t know who was more relieved — us or them — when all they found was road trip detritus and innocuous occupants who were just anxious to get back home.
One of the best sights we have ever seen were the Canadian flags at Canada Customs receding in the rear view mirror as we continued to head north.
We were all convinced, for a while at least, that nothing was ever going to be the same again. Everybody was a bit more accommodating. Road rage seemed to subside for a while. There seemed to be things which were far more important. We were just glad it wasn’t getting any worse. George W. Bush rose to the occasion as did leaders around the globe who stood in solidarity with the United States as the War on Terror began. Less than a month later, ghostly night vision green images of US troops’ clandestine operations in Afghanistan made it to the evening news. By 2003, the goodwill felt for the US on 9/11 and thereafter had mostly evaporated in the face of an invasion of Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction. They were never found. If they were ever there in the first place.
We all encounter the residual legacy of 9/11 every time we get on a plane. We take off our shoes, if asked, and proudly show of our 100 millilitre bottles of shampoo and shaving cream through our clear Zip-Loc bag. We cheerily give up our nail clippers which we could have sworn we took out of the shaving kit before we left home. Just so long as we get to keep moving forward to the metal detector. We’re still spooked a little when we’re pulled out of the lineup for a random check. We feign matter-of-factness when asked to step through the full body scanner. I always wonder if there is anything even vaguely titillating about seeing my doughy outline under all those Eddie Bauer layers. I’m pretty sure there isn’t. Quite sure, in fact.
While in no way minimizing the catastrophic loss to so many on that infamous day, for us and for many, life eventually picked up pretty much where it left off on September 10th.
Wuhan? Wet market? Butchering bats?
That really doesn’t sound good, I remember thinking. Then I continued to idly flip the channels late at night after Michelle had gone to bed. I had been listening to just about the only person I can remember who was really alarmed about what she was hearing and seeing in the news feeds. That was Callie Crossley on WGBH’s Beat the Press. She singled it out as the big story which was going underreported. Nah, I thought, I think we know enough about that story. Mostly that it was nearly 10,000 kilometres away and therefore about as proximate and as scary as the possibility of our sun spontaneously going red giant on us or an asteroid striking the Earth or even all those tailpipes steadily pumping carbon into the atmosphere and taking cold and dry Alberta back to its hot and wet dinosaur past.
Obviously Ms. Crossley was right and I was wrong. Lots of us were. Let’s be honest with ourselves — almost everybody was.
I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt that something had gone horribly wrong when the NBA season was effectively cancelled on March 12th. It’s a funny thing to mark the passage from one epoch to another but that was it for me. Of course, what had not occurred to me during my late night channel flipping was that Wuhan wasn’t 10,000 kilometres away so much as it was one comparatively short flight from any point on the face of the earth. Even when the first presumptive case of what would come to be known as COVID-19 was reported in Alberta, on March the 5th, it still seemed like an abstract and remote threat. Calling it a pandemic, on March the 11th, also sounded like an overreach by those whose knowledge of the problem was maybe a bit too good, I arrogantly thought. But when NBA stars, used to being in command of their destiny for the most part, were nearly frog-marched off the court without explanation on the night of March the 12th? Maybe the world really is coming to an end. What on earth is going on?
In my third crisis, and as strange as it may sound this was the second-tower-falling and what-do-you-mean-there’s-no-gas moment. The identical sickening feelings I had at those moments came flooding back in a tidal wave. The grim reality of those other days were suddenly as present and as vivid as they had been back then.
That was Thursday. Michelle worked her last day in her downtown office the following Monday. By the end of that day she was told to go home indefinitely and work from there with vague instructions to ‘just figure it out’. When we went down one evening later in the week to collect the rest of her gear it felt like we were grabbing an armful of treasured possessions and heading for the already-departed lifeboats on the Titanic. We ran into the staff from the Starbucks in her building who had just been given the equivalent marching orders: button it up tight and don’t come back until April the 1st. At least. As far as I know that Starbucks is still closed. Michelle has been working at home ever since. Since then, she has rarely left the house. If anybody is going to get sick in our household, I would rather it be me so I do all of the shopping.
This has been going on a little over three months and it seems like a lifetime already. We watched and re-watched the re-runs of the Raptors playoff run from last year. While it was great to see Lowry, Siakam, Vanvleet, Leonard and the rest of them all in their natural element surrounded by thousands of adoring fans, my experience was deeply tinged with a longing for the way things were and a desire to have those times back. This was coupled with an unmoored, pervasive but hopefully irrational anxiety that those wonderful times will never come back.
Recently, word came from Michelle’s office that ‘everybody needs to be back in the office by Monday next week’. Any thought that the current state of affairs would last forever instantly evaporated. Instead of feeling some sense of relief that things were finally returning to a form of normal, I was filled with a kind of empty, sickening dread. As strangely as it had started out, I have grown accustomed to our new, stay-mostly-at-home routine. Our little bubble — infrequently pierced and only then for life’s necessities—has become our self-sustaining spaceship receiving reports from the rest of Planet Earth through the umbilical cord of cable TV and Twitter.
In the past three months our household has inevitably become knowledgeable of pandemic dynamics, positivity rates, virology, vaccinology, and the all-important daily updates on case counts. We look hopefully for signs the curve is staying flattened as the stores, offices and hair salons slowly begin to open up. I have grown accustomed to Michelle’s long hair and began to rather enjoy mine and my pandemic beard. We ordered masks and dutifully don them even if it feels a bit like health-and-safety theatrics. Mostly we want others to know we are doing our part to look out for them. We take others wearing them as a sign they are looking out for us. That binds us together in this miserable endeavour. This is one part of this which is good.
I have to say, if we could just have dinner out, go to the movies and take our annual trip to the Oregon Coast, I wouldn’t be in any hurry for the current state of affairs to come to an end. Other than that, we have begun to measure our happiness by how many days of food we have in the house. We realize how truly fortunate we are and we know there are many others for whom this is a much more dire predicament. The sadness for all those who have lost loved ones is impossible to express in words.
We are eternally in the debt of doctors, nurses, delivery drivers, hospital orderlies, grocery store workers and the no-longer-invisible cast of thousands who make this remarkable life of ours possible. That, at least, I hope I never forget. None of us should.
However, the nagging thought I choose not to think about is where this is all going to be in a year and five years and for the rest of my life and our collective lives. In 1973 and 2001, they were potentially earth-shattering conflicts between fairly easily identified combatants who would eventually burn themselves out slugging away at each other. Wars end inevitably when the warriors are exhausted. Whether any specific objective has been achieved usually takes a back seat to just finally getting the troops home.
This is different. The opponent in the ring with us we cannot see yet seems inexhaustible.
In the two previous crises it did not take much imagination to visualize a beginning, middle and merciful end to hostilities, the results of which can then be relegated to academic studies and memoires of those who actually showed up and did the fighting. Our Hollywood recollection of the events will begin the process of sanitizing history and making it palatable and understandable at some level. The good guys supposedly won which entitles them to write the historical account.
It’s much harder to imagine how this crisis ends. I still think no one really knows if and when a vaccine will be available and even then, whether it will be effective enough to allow us to return to that ‘old normal’ which I really, really miss. Those who naively and pathetically try to wish the problem away are now paying a terrible price. At least that part is clearly understood so that’s one thing we absolutely cannot do. An essential weapon going forward is a cleared-eyed grip on reality and never taking our collective eye off the very basic arithmetic of how contagions actually work. The best weapon we have is the simple and completely unadultered truth.
I take consolation only from the fact that in the midst of these previous crises I have experienced first hand, it was just as hard to understand where things would eventually wind up. It seemed like the world had stopped turning and would never start again which, of course, it eventually and inevitably did. We knew that, for sure, as soon as filling up the car was no longer a big relief and the first time we were flipped off by a driver obviously no longer swept up in the good will of a united fight against a common enemy.
I simply hope this is eventually as true for this third crisis as it was for the first two.
©2020 Terence C. Gannon