Yes, we know that technically summer lasts until Sept. 22, but that’s just science — the autumnal equinox and other orbital mechanics. We all know that summer really ends on Labor Day weekend.
That’s when school begins (never mind that most have begun already). That’s when football begins (never mind that most high school and college football won’t be happening this fall). That’s when political campaigns begin (oh, just never mind altogether).
The point is, we think of Labor Day weekend as a seasonal dividing line. Summer is behind us. Ahead lies fall and the long descent into winter. (Some people actually like winter. We call such people Canadians).
The summer we are leaving behind is a summer like none we’ve known. In many ways, we never knew this summer. Oh, we had heat waves like we always do. We had cook-outs on the grill. Some had their vacations to Myrtle Beach. (You can find evidence of this in the way the virus counts in Roanoke spiked about two weeks later. Thanks for the souvenirs.) But all the big events of the summer? They never happened. The big Fourth of July fireworks displays? Oh, people shot off fireworks — every single night, it seemed — but the big community events were cancelled. Festival after festival — remember those? Rooster Walk. Red Wing. FloydFest. The Old Fiddlers Convention. The Salem Fair. They are but memories from other years now because this years’ events never happened. Summer blockbuster movies? Remember when we went to actual movie theatres and jammed in tight to watch some big release?
Baseball. “The Summer Game.” “The Boys of Summer.” Not this summer.
We didn’t see a single Salem Red Sox or Pulaski Yankees game this summer because there weren’t any. At the beginning of the year, we were worried that this would be the last summer for minor league baseball in Bristol, Danville and lots of other places because Major League Baseball — in the name of efficiency (some might say greed) — wanted to eliminate 40 to 42 minor league teams. Summer has now past, which means we may not have even had a chance to say goodbye to those teams. The final Appalachian League season may have been last year, and we didn’t even know it at the time.
Practically speaking, culturally speaking, the whole summer was cancelled — just like spring before it. No proms, no spring sports, drive-through graduations. Fall’s not looking too good, either. Big chunks of it have already been rescheduled to spring 2021, with the hope that something will change by then.
We have not seen an event this culturally disruptive since — well, maybe ever. The Appalachian League played through World War II. So did the Piedmont League, the forerunner of the Carolina League. Hollywood kept churning out new releases then and movie houses kept playing them. The Old Fiddlers Convention kept fiddling through World War II, with the exception of one or two years (accounts vary) out of a four-year war when rationing on gas and tires made it hard for musicians and fans to travel.
Nazis couldn’t shut down American culture but an invisible virus did. More accurately, our inability to contain the virus did. Then again, Americans weren’t collaborating with the Nazis, but lots of Americans are effectively collaborating with the virus — refusing to wear masks or practice social distancing, insisting that life goes on as normal, virus or no virus. You can argue, as some do, that by shutting down vast swaths of American society we are all hysterically overreacting — that the world has seen worse pandemics, which is true. On the other hand, the families of more than 183,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 might beg to differ with those who say this is no big deal. This has been said before, but it bears repeating: The virus has killed more Americans in eight months than all the wars since World War II combined. Here’s another measure: The bloodiest U.S. conflict was the Civil War, in which 449 Americans died each day. Right now, the U.S. is averaging 874 deaths per day due to the virus.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. There was a time when we thought the virus would be gone by summer. Scientific models predicted it. Back in March, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projected that the virus would peak in Virginia on May 20, with our last death coming on July 15. The institute nailed the peak almost exactly — Virginia’s rolling seven-day average peaked on May 21 — but not the duration. The virus hasn’t been quite as deadly as the institute predicted — it estimated there would be 3,152 deaths in Virginia. Right now, we’re at 2,652 deaths. However, the virus has lasted a lot longer than we thought, so we might yet hit that death figure. There was a time when we thought that all those proms cancelled in the spring could be rescheduled in the summer. How naïve we were. We also didn’t count on people who want to party through a pandemic.
We’ve pointed this out before, but it bears repeating: We are unique among nations and not in a good way. The United States and South Korea reported their first cases of the virus on the same day. South Korea responded aggressively, and got the virus under control. We did not and have not. We have one of the worst virus rates in the world. We have rates that are five times higher than the rates in neighboring Canada. We have rates that put us on a par with such public health exemplars as French Guiana. There are plenty of politicians we can blame for this — and should — but they are not the only ones who deserve blame. Ultimately, we should blame ourselves. We, as a people, could have taken things seriously even if our politicians didn’t. But we didn’t, and this is what we get: A summer that never happened. Culturally speaking, all we have to show for the summer of 2020 are empty plinths on Monument Avenue and the earworm of “Watermelon Sugar” by Harry Styles, as perfect a summer song that could ever be — except we didn’t really have a summer.
Now the calendar has turned into September. In a normal year, a Labor Day falling this late in September would be a cause for even more celebration — it would be as if we cheated time itself and squeezed another week out of summer. Instead, we’ve only cheated ourselves.
Goodbye, summer. We hardly knew ye.
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