Guest Columnist

Instead of counting the dead, tell their stories

Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.
Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.

I was never a very interesting person but now I’m a dullard. I must be. I’ve been watching episodes of “Gunsmoke” from 1955, and that pretty much says it all. It’s been an interesting few weeks around here. I’m one of the fortunate ones, retired, with a pension, so I can watch old television shows without worrying about lost income or deficient health benefits.

Watching old shows on the secondary channels (no cable or dish here, just an old antenna in the attic) is interesting for about an hour and then all too often you start to see a guy with a bad mustache selling pillows, the “Jeopardy” guy selling life insurance, or ambulance-chasing law firms.

For the past week a lone turkey buzzard has been haunting the field in front of my house, circling and circling before dropping to the ground to chew away on a raccoon carcass. She rises in to a stiff breeze and floats beautifully, an expert on a sailboat, tacking back, reading the wind, like it’s no big deal. I’m glad for the existence of these big black birds but I do check my pulse when I see them, hoping they don’t know something I don’t.

And speaking of birds, about seven miles east of my place is a marsh and one day last week I had to slow down when approaching it. There was a luminescence coming from the water I couldn’t identify. Dozens of large white pelicans had stopped by to do a little fishing before winging north and their presence made my heart full. But these moments retreat quickly. We live in odd times.

Governors rattle off numbers on a daily basis, this many sick: this many dead, but don’t worry because most of the dead are old people in care facilities, and don’t you think I’m doing a nice job during my daily update? Put a smiley face here. For most of us the current coronavirus still is rather abstract, much like the war in Vietnam until the nightly news people began showing us the horror of young men bleeding out in some godforsaken jungle.

I don’t want to see dead people, but I want to know their stories. I want to fully understand what this all means, to know that we’re talking about flesh and blood, that the recent dead are people who lived and breathed, loved, enjoyed friends and family, laughed, cried, and enjoyed many of the things the rest of us naively think will last forever. But you only know these things if you personally know one of the dead. I want the media to tell me more.

As musician/poet Gil Scott Heron emoted decades ago during the civil rights movement and war in Vietnam, “The revolution will not be televised.” So here we are, stuck in small spaces, avoiding each other, watching deodorant and drug commercials on television, hucksterism at its’ finest, led by he-who-must-not-be-named, perhaps the greatest huckster in American history, with apologies to P.T. Barnum.

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Outside, billowy clouds drift over my place and a barred owl hoots in the background. Peepers are already performing choral music down at the pond and, contrary to what others may tell you, we won’t all get through this together. Some will, and I hope you are one of them.

Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.

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