Beyond Peshtigo

The Great Chicago Fire began October 8, 1871. More than 100,000 residents were left homeless and 300 lost their lives. Help flowed in nationally and internationally to rebuild the city.

North of Chicago, the largest and deadliest forest fire in United States history took place the same day in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Over 1,200,000 acres (1,875 square miles) burned. The number of people killed can only be estimated because church and government records burned in the fire. Some of the 1,500 to 2,500 men, women and children would never be identified. The fires were so intense that some victims were totally incinerated. 

Many of the Peshtigo fire victims were immigrant farmers and small-town dwellers. Belgian and German settlers bought acres of cheap land to farm only to discover thick forests covered the area. Along with the railroads and timber industry, farmers slashed through the trees and left much wood on the ground. It was not unusual to see several small fires burning. Even ships in Green Bay and Lake Michigan experienced visibility problems from smoke. In 1871 drought dried fields and wood waste. October 8 a cold front moved in and whipped flames from many small fires into a giant firestorm with temperatures of about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

People who hid in their wells or storm cellars died. People who tried to outrun the flames in their wagons or buggies died. Some burned, some suffocated. Others drowned while seeking refuge in rivers or ponds. The flames formed a tornado of fire that tossed buildings into the air. Peshtigo was burned to the ground with only two buildings remaining. Fires burned on both side of Green Bay touching Marinette and stopping short of Sturgeon Bay.

The Belgian Heritage Center remembers the fire each October and the dramatic impact it had on its community. Thick wooded lands were transformed into barren acres. Wooden farmhouses were replaced by red brick buildings. Roadside chapels stood near many homes. 

My Belgian ancestors lived in the Peshtigo fire area. This year I find a strange comfort in the reality that awful fires are not a modern experience but have devastated parts of our country before. Instead of seeing our current wildfires as one more sign that we are heading toward doom, history is reminding me that there can be more living on the other side of disaster. Learning from the disaster to make the rebuilding smarter is the challenge.

Broken Dreams

Aniya Allen’s funeral was June 2, 2021.  Six years old, the newspapers said she wore a sparkling tiara in her small pink coffin. The second to die of three young children caught in gun violence in Minneapolis this May. One is still in hospital. On a local television news show, young Minneapolis school children talked about being afraid to play outside or go to the park or to see friends. They asked, begged, demanded that older kids and adults put down guns and give peace a chance and kids a chance to grow and dream. 

Unfortunately these two families are not the only ones who have lost their very young children to the senseless and unexpected gun fighting of young men with disagreements that should have been resolved with discussions, even strong words, maybe fists. Not guns shot in an alley. Not a shootout on a street corner where parents drove home from grocery stores or taking a child to McDonalds. These babies cannot be replaced, these families’ broken dreams cannot be rebuilt.

According to Brady every year 7,957 children and teens are shot in the United States. More than 1,600 will die from gun violence. Gun sales in the United States grew over 65% increase in 2019 and continue strong in 2020. Like icebergs, there is no true tally of general U.S. gun possession that accounts for arms purchased illegally or stolen. 

A child’s funeral is about the saddest gathering on earth. Eulogies for a child describe their smiles, their bright eyes, their wonderful laugh, their love of sports or dancing or swimming, their helpfulness, of pride in being a big sister or brother. All the ways a young child’s life should be talked about when families gather for birthdays or holidays, but not in a solemn church or temple service while mourning the one resting in a small pink coffin.

We have all lost Aniya Allen and Trinity Ottoson-Smith and the other 1,600 children and teens dead because of gun violence.  So many broken dreams.

Healing Thoughts

What do you say when acquaintances mention on social media that they or someone in their family has a major health issue? Often, I see some version of this phrase, “Sending you healing thoughts.” I’m curious about this trend.

In recent years prayer seems to have morphed. People used to say, “I’ll pray for you,” meaning I’ll ask God/Yahweh/Allah to intervene on your behalf. Now when trouble strikes, the default phrases often are, “Thinking of you. Sending you healing energy.” 

I wonder if the change comes from a wish to be respectful of another’s spiritual beliefs, however informal or nontraditional those might be?

Or maybe people say those things when they aren’t sure of the recipient’s religious beliefs or if old-fashioned prayer will be appreciated.

Perhaps our language of concern has changed because fewer people practice the faith they were raised in. Judging from statistics, that’s a lot of Americans. Church membership is declining.

For formerly religious people, “Sending healing thoughts” may be more accurate than saying, “You’re in my prayers.”

Or perhaps social media just doesn’t feel like the place to mention something as personal as religious beliefs.

As a no-longer-practicing Catholic, I’m likely to say, “Sending you strength.” As if I can (I have no idea how or why this would work, but I want it to). At very least, I hope my friend will hear my sympathy and concern. 

Have you noticed this shift? How do you respond when you learn an acquaintance is dealing with a health issue?

Holiday Wishes

This year’s Thanksgiving turkey is in the freezer. Ten pounds will be too much for two of us, but that’s no big deal. The big deal is that the United States is approaching a quarter of a million COVID deaths. Three friends move into the holiday season without their fathers who died of COVID. The world keeps spinning and for every family in mourning, there are others marking other happy events. Both those grieving and those celebrating share this very different international holiday season. 

Letting go of every tradition helped our family clearly think about Thanksgiving. Tentatively we’ll celebrate by putting up outdoor Christmas decorations together. Masked and socially distant, the hour we spend hanging lights and garland will make the day special. And we’ll prepare Thanksgiving favorite foods to send home for our meals shared later on Zoom. Notice the word tentatively– the weather could make being outside horrible or the pandemic could become more dangerous. This is 2020. Many surprises are not happy. We’re not talking about Christmas yet. One week at a time feels like the safest planning cycle.

Our parents and grandparents spent holiday seasons physically separated by war. Somewhere family members passed the holiday in danger. Military families today may face the same emotions plus deal with COVID’s impact. Working on 40 Thieves on Saipan made that separation more real to me than stories I heard as a child. For the majority of us, accepting the pandemic as an international public health war equals distance holidays for 2020..

One in three Americans say they will pass on this year’s holidays. But for those who do plan to do something special, now is the time to start thinking about how. Turkeys should be in grocery stores soon although small birds could be scarce. Good news is that butter is less expensive. There’s time to bake, send treats, and to remember those who may be struggling.

Here’s hoping the 2020 holiday wishes you hold come true. But mostly, here’s hoping you and yours stay healthy and safe. Whether your special people are around a common table or visible on a screen, those of us fortunate to be within the sound of their voices are thankful. 

July 4th Weekend 2020

Some things feel normal this holiday weekend. Humidity and heat blanket parts of the nation. Corn is knee high in many fields. Red, white and blue bunting decorates front porches, small shops, and grocery cases where the traditional hamburgers and hot dogs are on special for cookouts. Someone in the neighborhood is shooting off illegal fireworks. The little kids are decorating their trikes and bikes for an exciting ride down the block with families standing at the curb wearing patriotic t-shirts and waving small flags.

That’s where holiday normal stops. No big parades, no gigantic firework displays, no large gatherings in a park with multiple grills and coolers full of shared drinks or food. Kids don’t wander from their front stoop as siblings ride down the street. Social distancing keeps everyone from huddling in groups to catch up on life. Adults, with masks in a  pocket, are trying to put aside their worries for a few hours.

We’re a country with deep problems. Some days the news is so discombobulating that sleep is evasive. More of our citizens have died of COVID-19 than we lost in WWI, twice as many as lost in Vietnam. Inequality is a hard truth digging into long held assumptions about US as a land of equal opportunity. Money and power are in the hands of too few with too many lacking access to food, healthcare, jobs, housing.

Halfway through 2020, many of us are tired and seriously challenged to find uplifting themes. With global economies and a global pandemic, there are virtually no nations sailing in smooth waters. There are many friends and family to grieve, much to repair, more to build afresh, and not enough resources to address all the needs.

On this July 4th 2020 weekend, I wish you all health, safety, and the strength to invest in citizen engagement through what will be long, tough months. Please be kind to each other, seek common ground, and vote when the opportunity arises.

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