It’s March 20, 2021, and I’m standing at the southern edge of Krutch Park in downtown Knoxville, my gaze resting on the bronze statue of William T. Sergeant feeding a dose of the polio vaccine to a small child.
One year ago today, the entire country was dealing with the first paroxysms of the COVID-19 pandemic: panic, shortages, confusion….and the first victims, still mainly on the West Coast but already showing up, it seemed, everywhere. It was the beginning of a long, cruel season of death, fear, and — above all — isolation. While millions of our fellow Americans seemed to take a perverse delight in ignoring every protocol announced by the Centers for Disease Control, the majority of us did our best to follow the instructions given to us by our doctors and stayed home week after week, month after month, holiday after holiday.
I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve come to this park or even the reasons I’ve had for doing so. I’ve never paid attention to this statue before, much less thought on its meaning. Sergeant was a notable local philanthropist and humanitarian who led Rotary International’s campaign to wipe out polio worldwide, in a time not so long ago when people recognized the value of science and taking responsibility for the well-being of others.
Before COVID, in other words.
But today in Krutch Park, on the first official day of spring, dozens of people are holding hands, chasing their kids around the creek or just chilling on one of the many benches. Sergeant and the child in his arms seem to be rising from a sea of pink and purple blossoms, symbols of life and renewal so strong they overwhelm their own metaphor.
Spring has definitely come round again to East Tennessee. The nights are still cold but the days are absurdly gorgeous, with cloudless blue skies and a hue of golden sunshine that I normally associate with aged oil paintings. Most trees are still naked and skeletal, their branches gnarled and grasping, but the grass and vines have already turned a thousands shades of green. Here and there are hints of the riotous colors that are only weeks away — the purples, oranges, yellows, blues, and reds. Already daffodils, pansies, bluebells, cherry blossoms and forsythia are in bloom; most dazzling of all are the pear trees with their great bursts of white flowers, like pale fireworks frozen in time.
Thousands of exuberant men, women and children have poured onto the streets today to enjoy what they had once taken for granted. They eat ice cream on Market Square and listen to bagpipes in front of a pub on Gay Street. They feed the ducks at Fountain City Lake and take pictures from atop Sharp’s Ridge Memorial Park. Many are using their stimulus checks to make long-deferred purchases at Wal-Mart. Others seek another type of solace at Old Gray Cemetery (which holds the remains of victims from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic) or in the courtyard at St. James Episcopal Church.
And these are just glimpses of the first day of spring from only a few points in North Knoxville, from Fountain City to downtown along Broadway. But each corner of Knox County looks like this today, from Magnolia Avenue to Turkey Creek to Chapman Highway, because on this day we opened our front doors and came outside again.
Still, there is a bitter taste in the air that’s impossible to ignore. Well over a half million Americans are no longer with us this year, killed by invaders that amount to no more than an infinitesimal smear of protein and microscopic memory.
As of today, 602 of those victims were from Knox County. That’s 602 siblings and spouses, parents and grandparents. We might not recognize their names or their faces, but we knew each and every one of them.
They graduated from Bearden or Fulton or Austin-East high schools. They shopped at West Town Mall and Kroger, and their children were born at Fort Sanders Medical Center and were later taken to Children’s Hospital when they got sick or broke a leg on their bike. They could recall a defunct celebration called Boomsday, and they wore bright orange shirts during all four seasons. They loved to watch high school football on Friday nights and spend their Saturday nights drinking beer and dancing on the Cumberland Avenue Strip. They attended their houses of worship on holy days, and they knew all their lives they would one day lie beside their parents at Lynnhurst or Mount Olive or Woodlawn.
They are no longer with us.
Only 23 percent of Americans have gotten their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Epidemiologists warn of a possible “Third Wave,” and it seems that a lot of people have decided to not get vaccinated for reasons that are, to me at least, unintelligible. There will be more sickness, more suffering, more death in the weeks to come.
But we can hope, we can pray, that in retrospect we will look back on this near-perfect first day of spring and think: That’s when it ended. That day, when we left the house together and joined the laughing crowds, that was it — the beginning of the end.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at email@example.com.
Published on March 22, 2021