The Long View

Seeing the New Year through Old Eyes


By Maria Johnson

We had a running joke.

Every year, for 30-plus years, I would make a layered, Mexican dip in a ceramic dish, tote it to my friend’s Christmas party and “forget” to take home the crockery. The following December, a few days before the next party, my elderly host would rumble into my driveway — usually in a heavy-breathing Camaro — hop out and leave the empty (and clean) plate on my doorstep.

The message: Fill ’er up. Your deadline looms.

That stopped last month. My 94-year-old pal, Irwin Smallwood, and his wife, Judy, reluctantly called off their annual gathering, concluding that COVID made it too risky.

No one protested. The guest list skews older, not dumber. Most partygoers are newspaper vets who worked with Irwin during his 42-year hitch at the News & Record, a tour that routed him through the jobs of sports reporter, sports editor and managing editor.

He was a cracking good writer and editor; the media tent at The Wyndham Championship, Greensboro’s PGA tournament, is named for him.

But that’s not what pulled, and continues to pull, people to Irwin. Packaged in an elfin body and punctuated with wise eyes, a silver monk’s fringe and a soft voice, the main draw is his unfailing love, compassion and big-picture perspective, all rooted in a deep faith that he has passed on to his daughter, Bryn, a United Church of Christ minister.

“Occasionally my preacher-daughter will tell me, ‘Daddy, you’re not in charge.’ You know, the first time she said it, it sorta startled me,” he says with a twinkle in his voice.

Did I mention his sense of humor?

So party or no party, I was hungry to get Irwin’s take on one of the harshest winters of our lifetimes. After all, who’s better to ask for the long view than a man who sometimes refers to himself as “the oldest rat in the barn”?

I rang him up one chilly afternoon and asked him to compare COVID, in terms of historical heft, with other calamities that he has lived through: the Great Depression; World War II; and the polio epidemics that flared across the country in the late 1940s and the early ’50s, pinning people to their hearths before “safer at home” was a thing.

In some ways, Irwin says gently, COVID resembles each of these trials, which shaped daily life for most Americans.

It carries the invisible-enemy quality of polio.

It packs an economic devastation — hunger, joblessness, homelessness — that’s reminiscent of the Great Depression for those without financial cushions.

It claims an American death toll that might, at the rate it’s soaring, match World War II’s. At this writing, COVID has ended more than 300,000 lives in this country. The second world war reaped 475,000 American lives.

In other words, Irwin says, COVID is unique, and when all of the fallout is calculated, it could be the most shattering punch this country has taken in his lifetime.

“I’d say it’s tied for first with World War II. It has the potential to be number one,” he says rather calmly. “I think there are a lot of people who think it’s an annoyance. It’s not an annoyance. It’s a serious threat.”

I suppose that is why I’ve called him: to hear the news straight-up, from someone with experience.

I also called to hear some hope, and my favorite Love Gnome didn’t disappoint. He described responses to hardships of the past.

He saw his mother hand sandwiches to men who came to their back door begging for food during the Depression. They lived in the Eastern Kentucky town of Middlesboro at the time.

After his family followed his father’s textile job to Greensboro, and World War II broke out, Irwin watched Army-green trucks stream down U.S. 421, moving military supplies in seemingly endless lines.

“Sometimes, it would take a convoy eight hours to go by,” he says.

A month after he graduated from Greensboro Senior High, Irwin wore a Navy uniform. Across all social strata, folks suited up and sacrificed for the common good. Gas rationing, meat rationing, coastal blackouts. Everyone was on board with the tough stuff.

He likens the challenge, of course, to sports.

“It’s like going to practice,” he says. “Sometimes you have to work harder and go through a lot of punishment to get better.”

Victory takes many forms. Irwin ticks off the unforeseen fruits of World War II: Racial integration of the military; the infusion of women into the workplace; and the GI Bill, which paid for Irwin and legions of other vets, who couldn’t have afforded it otherwise, to go to college.

Already new advances, like vaccines, glimmer in the dust of COVID, he says.

“I have faith in my fellow human beings. We’ll come out of this stronger and better than ever,” he says. “But who knows how and who knows when. You don’t know what life is gonna bring.”

And with that, Irwin, who turns 95 next month, excuses himself to watch the young Tar Heel team play basketball in a holiday tournament that’s been relocated, because of COVID, from Hawaii to Asheville.

Different? Yes.

But then, as Irwin points out, so was the 1942 Rose Bowl, which was moved from Pasadena, Ca., to Durham, N.C., after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

The old sportswriter has seen this play before.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She’s still waiting on her damned dish.

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