coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, Family, history

A pandemic diary: Afflictions past and present

August 19, 2021

Gravestone with flower and carving: "Martha Carrier Hanged August 19, 1692."
Martha Carrier’s marker at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial

On this day 329 years ago, Martha Carrier was taken in a cart to Gallows Hill in Salem, where she and four men were hanged after being convicted in the infamous witch trials. A poor woman with an independent spirit, she’d previously drawn the hostility of her neighbors in Andover, who accused her of causing a smallpox outbreak that killed thirteen townspeople. The “afflicted girls” who started the panic screamed in court that they could see the ghosts of the dead. Denounced by the Rev. Cotton Mather as “this rampant hag,” Martha maintained her innocence to the last, refusing to confess to “a falsehood so filthy.

All of this is well-known. What I didn’t know until recently was that among the witnesses in Martha’s trial was Phebe Chandler, who was not quite twelve years old and was my cousin several times removed. Phebe stated she heard Martha’s disembodied voice saying “I should be poysoned (sp) within two or three days,” after which her hand and face became swollen and “exceeding painful.” Later, she said, she was struck deaf during a Sabbath meeting, “and could hear no prayer, nor singing, till the last two or three words of the singing.”

Not everyone joined in the frenzy. Phebe’s aunt Hannah was the wife of the Rev. Francis Dane, who fiercely opposed the trials even after he and his relatives were themselves accused. The family history book that chronicled every Chandler for two and a half centuries is silent about Phebe’s later life, though other sources indicate she married, had three children, and died around 1720.

Though it’s easy to look back on these horrors as a moment in the ancient past, the witch hunt was fueled by ignorance, intolerance, and religious extremism. Which brings us to Cardinal Raymond Burke, not a Salem inquisitor but a present-day prelate and former archbishop of St. Louis. Back in the aughts, he declared that Catholics who voted for President Obama “collaborated with evil.” In 2015, he said gay people and remarried Catholics are as bad as “the person who murders someone.”

Last year, he spread the conspiracy theory that Covid vaccine advocates believe “a kind of microchip needs to be placed under the skin of every person, so that at any moment, he or she can be controlled regarding health and regarding other matters which we can only imagine as a possible object of control by the state.” He also criticized church members for not believing Christ would protect them, calling God “the ultimate provider of health.”

Someone besides God must have provided the ventilator that’s keeping Burke alive. If he survives, he probably won’t be spat on in public like Mather was after the hysteria ended. But years from now, the anti-vaxxers and haters will be remembered the same way as the mob that cheered while Martha Carrier died.

List of victims of the Salem witch trials and the dates they were executed.

2020 election, Covid 19 pandemic, Family, Florida

A pandemic diary: Of times and lives

November 13, 2020

Genealogy is fascinating for a lot of reasons, and I don’t mean finding out that your ancestor stood with the embattled farmers at Lexington. (If all the people who claim their relatives were there on that day are telling the truth, the farmers would’ve outnumbered the redcoats by about a million to one.) With luck and a little research, you can go beyond names and dates to get a feel for the lives your people led, and the choices they made.

Faded family photo with couple and two children, taken about 1870.
Some ancestors on my mother’s side

Thanks to a diarist in the family, I know my great-grandfather was a teacher and farmer in northern Illinois, who was “excepted” from service in the Civil War and courted a few women before settling down. He and my great-grandmother had six children, two of them dying in infancy and only my grandfather Hoyt Swan living past age thirty. From an obituary my mother transcribed, I learned that her great-uncle had been “sidetracked” and “back-slidden” from his faith, but was brought back to church by his wife’s prayers. My mother told me some of her other relatives lived in a house where, it was sometimes said, “Nobody’s talking to anybody today.”

Today, the whole country seems to have a long-term lease on that place. And of course, the trouble with probing the past is discovering that Aunt Nellie was fond of laudanum and Colonel or Captain Somebody fought on the wrong side. Speaking of wrong sides, I recently found that some of my ancestors enslaved Black people in New England in the 1700s. According to family histories and a list of tombstones in a Connecticut cemetery, there were at least four of them, known only as Cato, Cuff, David, and Dinah. There could have been others. I’m pretty sure there are more enslavers whose crimes I haven’t documented yet.

These people never dreamed that future generations would reach back into their lives as easily as reading a newspaper. Because I don’t have children, nobody’s likely to be tracing me on some 23rd-century Ancestry.com. But 2020 will be a milestone for everyone.

Some of our descendants will find we wore masks, stopped hugging, stayed indoors, and generally took care of each other. Others will see their grandparents’ grandparents proudly packed like sardines into Trump rallies, bars, and college parties. Some will read “Black Lives Matter” in their forbears’ files; for others it’ll be “All Lives Matter,” which as historians will point out, means nobody matters unless they’re white. We’ll all be reviled for doing so little to stop climate change, which will leave Earth far different, far sooner than we think. But those who called it a hoax will earn a special place in our children’s vision of hell.

For anyone who’s looking me up a few centuries down the line: I hope you’ll give me credit for acknowledging some ugly truths about my heritage and keeping a sense of humor amid the pandemic. If it’s still the present, take care and be safe. (PS to the future: I loved my wife, music, and beaches. I hope the water in the Gulf of Mexico is still that color.)

Dave on Gulf beach, 2017.
coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, Family

A pandemic diary: New nightmares and old memories

July 17, 2020

So far, the flood of new cases hasn’t affected the way my wife and I live. We wash our hands religiously (not just at Christmas and Easter), stay home for days on end, and when we go out we wear masks, like we have all along. We’re sure as hell not letting our guard down anytime soon. We’re still healthy and we know we’re lucky.

Even so, the jitters and paranoia are creeping back into my brain whether I’m conscious of it or not. Restful sleep is wishful thinking; this morning I woke up feeling like a truck ran over me in my dreams. And though I’m not a parent, I used to be a kid, and I worry about the ones who may soon be back in school.


Dave and his grandmother on brick porch.
My grandmother and me,
a year after the measles

When I was growing up, long before MMR and other vaccines, the measles, mumps, chickenpox, and rubella were considered routine. But when I caught measles, I got pretty sick. It happened when I was seven, almost eight, and my parents and I were visiting my grandmother in Springfield, Illinois during my summer vacation. We’d planned to stay for two weeks but it took three before I was well enough to leave.

Instead of playing at the nearby park or fishing at the lake with my dad, I spent my time on the couch in the living room, which in the August heat was cooler than the bedrooms upstairs. I was weak, feverish, achy, and generally miserable, but between my parents and my grandmother I had the best “care team” in the world. I remember my dad sitting up with me all night when the rash was first breaking out and I couldn’t sleep. I knew I’d get better, as I had with chickenpox and mumps. I was never scared.

Now imagine being seven again. You’re coughing and running a temperature, your throat hurts, and you’re throwing up. You’ve had colds and earaches before but never, ever felt this bad and you don’t understand what’s wrong. Worst of all, you’re alone in a hospital, surrounded by machines and strange people. Your mom was with you at first but the nurse says she can’t come in any more because now she’s sick too.

Everyone in the hospital is wearing a mask, all the time. The doctor says it stops the virus from spreading. You wonder why all the people outside don’t wear them.

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coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, Family, life, music, nature

A pandemic diary: Being here

May 17, 2020

Saturday I attended an online meeting of the Atlanta Writers Club, an organization that predates the last pandemic and is rolling with the punches during this one. Sadly, another much-loved Atlanta event has gone dark: a monthly jam session for singers, including my wife. A bandstand plus a roomful of vocalists and fans is beyond social distancing, and Zoom can’t fill the void. My wife misses working with fine local musicians; I miss hearing her sing the jazz standards we both love. After all, no one else ever dedicated “My Funny Valentine” to me (though my frame is definitely “less than Greek”).

Even without the jam, we had a perfect spring day, the kind that’s becoming rare as climate change pushes winter closer to summer. The mercury topped out at around 80 degrees with no humidity and scarcely a cloud in sight. The breeze filled the living room with the sweet, lush fragrance of honeysuckles, which Fats Waller immortalized in “Honeysuckle Rose,” and are like nothing else, anywhere.

It was a day to sit back, savor what we still have, and rest our souls for tomorrow. I’m not the spiritual type but I gotta tell ya, boychik, Ram Dass was onto something when he said, “Be here now.” Where else can I go? Take care, be here, and be safe.

coronavirus, Family, life, new old age, War, Writing

A pandemic diary: Lessons from the last world war

March 25, 2020

I’ve hardly been out of the condo for three weeks. Except for my wife, my last offline human interaction was five days ago with a grocery clerk. Every time I wash my hands, which is often, I feel like Lady MacBeth: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” But I know I’m one of the lucky ones and hope everyone understands that yes, we are in this together.

The notion of a common enemy and shared sacrifice is simply foreign to most people in this country. Though the Cold War could have wiped out the world if it turned hot, and a few hard-core preppers even built their own fallout shelters, it generally didn’t affect daily life. Vietnam turned us against each other. Some compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, but except for the armed forces and their families, most people didn’t need to do much except take their shoes off at the airport. (Watching “Rescue Me” was optional.)

A collective effort of this magnitude hasn’t been asked of us since World War II. I know some of y’all are about to click away from yet another tribute to the Greatest Generation by one of its boomer children. History is made up of small stories, not big names. My dad’s story offers a few examples for today.

Don Swan in Army uniform with his mother in 1943.
My dad on leave in Elgin, Illinois with his mother

He joined the Army in the spring of 1942 and was assigned to the Air Corps, which was part of the Army then. At the age of thirty, he was considered too old to fly, so he was sent to clerical / administrative training in Colorado, then to an air base in Salt Lake City.

When he wrote to his family back in Elgin, Illinois, he always emphasized that he was fine and, “there are a lot of worse jobs in the Army.” He used his great sense of humor to ease the strain of separation, telling his sister how the Colorado post was built in 1888 and still had a regulation that said, “…it was positively against all rules and stuff to shoot buffalo from the barracks window.” He added, “Being in the Army isn’t as bad as a lot of people seem to think, though I wouldn’t be mad if I could get into my blue double-breasted pin stripe suit again.”

What he wanted most was for my mother to join him in Salt Lake City, even if it wasn’t like their old home. “It will be swell having her out here, or wherever I am, and although it won’t be like the place we had, anything will do until this thing is over,” one letter said. “Practically everything we have is in cold storage, furniture, car, boat, everything except dreams…if we can keep those out we’ll be okay, and I don’t think we’ll have any trouble doing that.”

A couple of weeks later he wrote to his parents, “There is an awful big show going on, and I’m glad to be a very very small part of it…All of this, like everything else, will come to an end some day, and if sitting here in this office pounding a typewriter all day and part of the night will help to bring that end about, this is where I belong, and I wouldn’t get out for anything, even if they’d let me.”

There’s not much I can add to that. Be safe and look out for each other even if you can’t hug each other. Don’t forget to laugh. This will pass. Take care.

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Family, life, new old age

Fords and Ferraris, forever

Dear Dad,

I hope you enjoyed the movie as much as I did. You weren’t sitting in the theater, but you were with me the way you’ve been for fifty-plus years now, and especially since I heard about the film “Ford v Ferrari” a few weeks ago.

That title could’ve been taken straight from our lives. After all, our Ford and Ferrari battled it out on the racetrack many times. We also had a Mustang, a Corvette, and a Jag, but the Cobra and the bright red Ferrari were our favorites. And racing was racing. It didn’t matter that the track was plastic, laid out on a table in the basement, and the electric “slot cars” were only a few inches long.

We sure had fun down there. I remember hitting full power at the starting line, fighting to get around the loop without spinning out, tearing down the back stretch, and blasting through the last turn to the finish. I also recall when we saw a real race at the state fair, sitting in bleachers with those monster Indy 500 cars of the ‘60s screaming past us on a dirt track, the noise deafening and the dirt flying.

I didn’t care who won. Just being there was enough. We never kept score in the basement either, because there was always time for one more heat. Until that day in February when I was fourteen and suddenly there was no more time for anything.

For a long time afterward, I felt like I was driving on an endless course at night, running blind in the darkness. But as you taught me, I kept going and came out intact in the demolition derby that was high school. My career as a journalist and wordsmith required me to race plenty of deadlines, and I’m proud to say they haven’t beaten me yet.

I hope you’d be proud too. I doubt that I could ever match your integrity, your big heart, and especially your gift for salesmanship, which I need now that I’m peddling a novel. But I can tell you that both of us married loving, intelligent, funny, wonderful women.

I’d give anything on earth if we could all be together in our old living room with you playing the piano and my wife singing something like “Moon River.” And if somehow we ever did see each other again, I’ll bet the track would be there waiting. Let’s go. You can have the Ferrari.