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  • Writer's pictureJH

COVID Diaries 2: Early Distant Warning

For us it started in Texas.

By “us” I mean Sarah Smith, Ken The Zen, and myself – collectively known as the Sarah Smith Trio for the purposes of a tour we were doing playing trailer parks in the Rio Grande Valley.

I know what you’re thinking.

You read “trailer parks” and immediately you think of Cletus and Brandine, but I’m talking about something much different. RV resorts is more like it. There are literally hundreds of them in the valley – safe havens for retirees and snowbirds who come in their thousands to escape awful winters in Saskatchewan and Minnesota and Missouri. These temporary homes for the so-called “Winter Texans” are civilized and loads of fun (come for the sunshine, stay for the pickleball). They also provide regular entertainment, including a lot of live music. Our little trio represents the new breed in a changing market, playing ‘60s and ‘70s covers for the next generation of parkers.

Of course, there are critics everywhere. One night a lady told me that our music selection was too modern for her tastes.

We were playing The Beatles.

I digress.

Our home for a month in the valley was a Super 8 motel 20 minutes from the Mexican border (“Life is great at the Super 8!”). We all piled into one room together and, as one does on every tour, established a kind of routine. It was a different tour experience than we’re used to. Normally we rumble from town to town in Sarah Smith’s Flying Circus, but this time it was kind of like the towns revolved around us. We stayed every night in the same place, which was easy to do because you can’t throw a bean burrito without hitting an RV resort in that part of the world. Our longest drive was 45 minutes and since the shows were all early, we were back in our room most nights before 11:00. How are you going to beat that?

Anyway, it was at the Super 8 that I think we first heard about this mysterious virus that was ringing alarm bells in other countries. Every morning we would get up just in time to make last call at the hotel breakfast room. Breakfast ended at 8:00 a.m., so we would get there at about 7:45 to snarf some weak coffee or orange juice. The hotel actually offered reasonably good scrambled eggs and sausages, but if you know me you know that hotel waffles are my culinary jam. Our Super 8 had a waffle iron in the shape of the state of Texas and I ate way, way more Texas waffles than a person should in one month. That’s the road, man. The vices come out.

There were several couples staying at the hotel when we were there. More retirees from the north who weren’t renting in parks. They were waiting for us every morning in the breakfast room, laughing and talking and telling stories. Kind people. Big hearts. We became friends with them and they came to see us play a bunch of times, which was very sweet.

The good people of The Breakfast Club, as we called them, were worried about the news reports as they began to appear on the breakfast room television set. This was late January/early February. People were talking Super Bowl and Bernie Sanders. Trump’s wall. After the morning news, Live With Kelly And Ryan would come on and I’d have to shield my eyes against Kelly Ripa’s glowing skin and Ryan Seacrest’s chemical teeth. Those seem like such innocent times now. Football and petty politics and vapid morning talk shows where people cheer on command and get way too excited about some celebrity’s lame new movie.

Who knew that 100,000 Americans (and counting) were going to die from this? Who knew about the impending unemployment? The financial ruin? Who knew about closed borders? Who knew about lining up six feet apart to get into the grocery store? Who knew that we were on the cusp of a “before and after” moment in history? A moment that would mark a separation between the world before it and the world after it.

Not the president, I suppose, but let’s not bring politics into this.

The Breakfast Club knew that this virus, like all viruses, would threaten seniors. One couple had a Hawaiian cruise booked and debate began very quickly about whether they should cancel. There were voices in the room that thought they were being too cautious. How naïve those voices seem now. Cruise ships – even freaking military vessels – have been hotbeds for the COVID from day one. Eventually the cruise was cancelled and that was probably a smart decision.

But life went on for the trio. We watched XFL games on television. We ate at Chinese buffets and Chili’s and Subway, never once giving thought to the person standing in line beside us. We went to Wal-Mart for supplies. We were probably annoyed by check-out wait times and how quaint does that seem now? Who would have guessed that we would look at those as the good old days while we hunker down now in fear of contact with anyone? Who would have thought that free association at Wal-Mart would soon feel like a luxury?

Who would have thought that those odd little shows in those cute little parks, covering Sonny & Cher and The Righteous Brothers, would perhaps be the last shows we play all year?


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