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Friday, September 25 News

Woog’s World: Defining historical moments — the Depression, 9/11, COVID

Every generation has a defining historical moment. And every generation that follows knows that moment as ancient history.

Men and women who grew up during the Depression could only tell stories about their deprivation; they could not pass along the innate sense that they would never have enough of anything. Children of the ’60s can talk about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but they can’t really convey the firm belief that they and their friends would change the world.

Anyone with a memory of Sept. 11, 2001 knows there was a “before” and “after”; the world changed irrevocably that beautiful, cloudless morning. Anyone who was not alive, or too young to remember, knows 9/11 only as an infamous date in America’s past.

Less than a month after that devastating attack on New York and Washington, I reflected on what had happened. My “Woog’s World” column began, “It seems incredible, even obscene, that something good could rise out of last month’s terrorist attacks. But this much seems true: Americans have come together in ways impossible imagine in the days before September 11.”

I described flags flying from Porsches and pickups alike; Halloween costumes honoring “our nation’s new heroes, firefighters, police and EMTs,” and that President George W. Bush’s approval ratings were “higher than any politician’s except Rudy Giuliani.”

I noted subtler shifts too: the change in tone in New York City, where subway passengers and store clerks spontaneously asked strangers how they’re doing, and Westporters’ grateful embraces of the ordinary things in life: a backyard barbecue, a high school football game, the FedEx delivery man.

A few days after Sept. 11, Westport’s Fire Department held its annual open house. Usually a low-key affair, this one was SRO. Parents engaged firefighters in intense conversations, asking about their jobs, their lives, the loss of their New York colleagues. Children looked on in awe.

“It would be incredible, even obscene, to pretend that the changes we have seen over the past 3 ½ weeks are worth the losses our nation has suffered,” I wrote. “No one would wish last month’s terrorist attack on our worst enemy. But at the same time, it would be silly to ignore those changes, or pretend they are not welcome and good.”

I concluded that as our nation turned to the next phase of a post-terror attack world, turning Westport’s temporary changes into permanent ones might seem a tangential goal. But, I wrote, “if in the difficult days ahead, we are to be a true community — and not just a town — it is certainly worth a try.”

I did not foresee many of the permanent changes the terror attack wrought: Wars we continue to wage in two countries, nearly two decades later. The impact of a new government agency — ICE — on so many aspects of American life. Security protocols that changed air travel forever.

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The temporary changes I noted in Westport turned out to be just that. It did not take long for us to go back to our old ways. Our solicitousness toward neighbors ebbed. We stopped honoring first responders. We no longer thanked the FedEx guy for connecting us to the outside world.

No teenager today understands the pre-9/11 world. But every one of them knows what life was like before COVID-19.

Every teenager’s life has been turned upside down. School, sports, extracurriculars, summer activities, friends, family vacations, restaurants — you name it, for six months it has been different. Now that they are back in school, they realize that those differences will last far longer than they originally thought.

They’ve watched Westport change. They’ve seen families bike and walk together. They’ve noticed the newfound respect with which frontline and “essential” workers — doctors, nurses, Stop & Shop and CVS employees — are treated. They realize it’s the FedEx (and Amazon) delivery folks who keep them supplied when no one else can.

No one knows what changes will linger, long after the long-hoped for coronavirus vaccine is developed. Will kids continue to ride bikes all over town? Will we keep checking on neighbors, or return to our own busy, self-contained lives?

Will education go back to “normal,” or will certain changes — the daily schedule, distance learning, sports and extracurriculars — be forever altered?

Will favorite restaurants and stores bounce back? If they are gone for good, what will take their place? Will parents go back to “the office,” or work remotely always? And what does that mean when today’s teenagers enter the workforce?

The pandemic’s impact on our lives is both clear and murky. As with every crisis, we know it is momentous, without knowing exactly how. But one thing is certain: Not too many years from now, today’s young people will have to educate those who follow about the world before, and after, their own defining historical moment.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.

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