John Douglas McClellan was born into the COVID-19 storm on April 4 in Austin, Texas.
So much was uncertain in those days. Would a hospital bed be open? Would a hospital even be safe? Yes and yes, it turned out, but things were still far from normal. Only the father was allowed in the hospital for the birth, and the parents, first-timers, left the hospital and isolated themselves and their baby in their apartment. The husband worked remotely. They had food delivered.
The baby’s grandmother, who is my wife, was not going to let a pandemic get between her and her newest grandson. Not for long, anyway. After five months of Zooming, Mary passed a COVID-19 test, hopped in the car and drove 13 hours to Austin for a brief visit. She stayed at the home of her sister, Patsy, and Patsy’s husband, Paul.
I did not make the trip. To the untrained eye of a man, one infant looks pretty much like another. I would catch up with my new grandson later. But Zoom meetings made it increasingly clear that John Douglas was racing past infancy and was heading pell-mell toward adolescence. He was trying to crawl. He was alert. He was engaged.
So my wife and I got COVID tests. This past Monday, we headed to Texas. We took Highway 67 through southern Missouri to Little Rock, and then headed through Arkansas to Texarkana and then down to Austin. It was the day before the election as we rolled through Trumplandia in my wife’s Prius. Interlopers, for sure.
There were billboards, and signs on barns, and banners in people’s yards, and bumper stickers on the pickups we saw on the road. It was clear an election was at hand, but an observer might well have asked, “Who is President Donald Trump running against?”
Out in what Sarah Palin has called “real America,” we saw no signs for Joe Biden. None.
It was dark by the time we got to Patsy and Paul’s home in Austin. The next morning — Election Day — I walked around a little bit in the neighborhood. There were signs on most of the lawns, but none were for Trump. Many were slightly offbeat. Two neighbors had signs quoting Bob Marley. “‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright.” Another quoted Matthew McConaughey. “Just keep on livin’.” Another sign was more obvious. “Make Lying Wrong Again.” My favorite was in Spanish, a take-off on a popular and obscene Mexican expression. “(Expletive) tu Madre” was changed to “(Expletive) tu MAGA.”
Our hosts had a small Biden sign in their yard.
“Any chance of turning Texas blue tonight?” I asked Paul.
No, he said.
Paul knows false hope when he sees it. He lived through the Beto O’Rourke phenomenon when it seemed that a Democrat and self-confessed liberal might actually beat an incumbent Republican senator in bright red Texas. I am not as grounded in reality. I am always imagining things. To be in Texas the night it turns blue. That sounded magical.
Laura and Jack, who are John Douglas’ parents, brought him over for election night. We gathered in a sitting room where the television is. I tried to watch the early returns, but John Douglas pretty much stole the show. He rolled over. He pushed himself up and balanced on one arm before crashing back down. He knocked over a plastic tower that was placed in front of him.
He’s a natural showman, I thought.
He called out, “Mama! Mama!” At least, that is what I thought he called out. Mary thought he might be saying, “Nana! Nana!”
Laura and Jack, diplomatically, were unsure.
Meanwhile, the election results came in. It looked bad for our guy, but the analysts nervously assured the audience — made up, I’m sure, of people like us — that these early results were from rural counties. Our people had voted by mail and those votes would not be counted until later. Yes, that was us. Concerned about the pandemic. How wise we are. Moral superiority covers us like a comfort.
As you know, the drama and the counting did not end on election night.
Fortunately, there was another matter to consider. What would John Douglas be called? J.D.? Jackie? Little Jack? How about L.J. instead of Little Jack?
Laura pretended to like that one.
“Hey, L.J. — Laura Jack.” We laughed.
Somewhere in the vastness of Trumplandia, there had to be another grandfather making a similar jokey remark to a daughter-in-law. We might have driven past his house on our way here. In the background of his conversation, there was certainly the sound of a television, but almost as certainly it was tuned to a different cable network.
I bet we have a lot in common. I like the old days best. Everything was better, I tell you, from baseball to music to cars. Of course, that is the perspective of an old white man. Maybe things weren’t better for everybody.
What I mean, is I understand the dream of turning back the clock. It’s not going to happen, though. Time goes only one way. And I think that’s good. I hope so. I want the best world for my grandchildren. The other grandfather does, too.
In retrospect, “(Expletive) your MAGA” seems a little strong, not the sort of thing one grandfather should say to another.
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