Richwood High School is one of the few schools left whose football field sits in the middle of town. Friday night, I set off on foot to join friends for dinner and, as I turned onto Main Street, I heard the drum cadence of the Lumberjack Express, the marching band of Richwood High School. Young boys romping on the grassy grid, ready to play as if it would be their last game. And it very well might. A rose-gold sunset illuminated the farms and houses on the hills behind them as if God himself had ordered it up as a perfect backdrop.
When I turned to be on my way, I looked up Main Street and, on every porch, people stood and watched. Cars stopped and rolled down their windows.
Sports have always had a way of making life seem normal. No matter how chaotic or senseless life can seem sometimes, the sights and sounds of a Friday night or Saturday afternoon football game have the effect of reassuring us: Everything will be OK.
Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and the National Football League have decided to pipe in fake crowd noise and even place cardboard and virtual fans in the stands. Not everyone is pleased. One baseball fan tweeted, “It’s weird. You guys are acting like this season is every other season, and it’s just not. Embrace the weirdness.”
In Richwood, the whole town used to pour into Dean Memorial Field for the home opener. Last Friday, we could only watch from afar.
We all have quarantine fatigue. We are sick of masks and long to hug our friends. We want to feel normal. This fatigue has created in many a sense of fatalism. It’s gone so far for some that they are burning masks in protest, showing up in huge crowds at parties and beaches and rallies.
This behavior is apparently typical of pandemics. Much of plague literature contains scenes where people — especially young people — are so desperate for normal life that they flaunt death to have it.
When I see all the kids on college campuses packing into bars and parties, I’m reminded of “The Masque of the Red Death.” In Edgar Allen Poe’s story, young Prince Prospero is so weary of the plague ravaging his country that he rents a huge villa and invites a bunch of his young healthy friends for a week of drinking, dancing and masquerading. They lock themselves in, even sealing the gates with molten iron.
You can guess how Poe’s story ends. The same thing happened in San Francisco during the Spanish flu in 1919. People just flung their masks on the ground when things seemed better during the sunny summer weather. Then came the second surge, which killed more than the first.
No, despite our fervent desire for normalcy, life is just weird and it’s going to be weird for at least another several months.
A new ritual has emerged: Every Saturday night at 5 p.m., parents, teachers, coaches and students are checking their phones for the latest update on Gov. Jim Justice’s “School Metrics and Protocol Map.” Nicholas County is still green, but Pocahontas County turned yellow over the weekend. It could have been something as simple as a church covered-dish gathering or a backyard wedding. Quarantine-weary people are saying, “What the heck. I’m done. If I get it, I get it. Life’s too short.”
That’s all well and good, until we read about a 28-year-old elementary school teacher who came down with COVID-19 on Friday and was dead by Monday. As of Friday, West Virginia was leading the nation in the rate of new infections. I’m like the MLB tweeter: We just need to embrace the weirdness. Think of it like a power outage. We hunker down and make the best of it, reading and playing games by lamplight, cooking on a gas grill, sharing old stories and looking out for each other. When the power comes back on, we are relieved that life is back on an even keel.
The power will come back on. It came back on after the Great Depression and World War II and 9/11. A new normal will take shape. And like a family who lives for days in the dark, we will miss some aspects of the weirdness.