HIGH POINT – So these were the soldiers we were going to take the hill with, I thought, quasi-tragically unable to shake the WWII analogy of the entire catastrophe, my sense of the crisis deepened by the obvious unpreparedness of my so-called fellow combatants.
The rage of those “open the parks now” protesters came to mind, as if state-run natural resources were their life’s blood; and yet had just a month on lockdown resulted in such an alarming, full-blown display of sedentary disrepair? These Saturday recreationists, unleashed on New Jersey’s public lands by a ban-lift issued earlier this week by Governor Phil Murphy, resembled the disgorged basement of a fat farm tatoo parlor. It didn’t look like many of them had ever been in sunshine, let alone a public park; and if anyone owned a treadmill, it undoubtedly still had the Christmas wrapping on it in the garage.
One foot grimly in front of the other, we set off on the trail toward the High Point monument, which marks the highest point in New Jersey, which looks like the Washington Monument, only on top of what in N.J. passes for a mountain (peak elevation 1,803 feet). I didn’t know how many people, propelled suddenly and, by the looks of some of them, defiantly, on a rather steep and rocky incline, were actually going to be able to make it up there. Through my own labored breathing, it got me thinking about those dedicated first responder units having to get peeled off the COVID-19 frontlines to come up here to apply the clamps to the inevitable heart attack victim.
Our grandfathers faced Nazi pillboxes and machine guns nests at Omaha Beach, and Japanese kamikazes at Guadalcanal. We had a diet of McDonald’s milkshakes and fries to do the job, and the chains lifted off the driveway at High Point for a day.
If that wasn’t fearsome enough, there was the additional social distancing challenge.
It was a narrow trail.
I saw a guy who looked like Neil Armstrong, only you couldn’t be sure because he literally wore a variation on an astronaut’s helmet, which made him look ready for a moon landing. Good man, I suppose, even as someone muttered “nerd” in his direction, or maybe mine. I vainly tried to make angry eye contact amid the trudging tide. Of course, most of the hikers scorned masks – and, horrifyingly, even other articles of clothing, as if it were already summer – and clambered haphazardly over the trail like the unloosed occupants of a primate cage.
It proved the slowest moving column in human history. People would take a few asthmatic steps and then stop, pretending to admire the view, even if the view was largely obscured by other people with respiratory ailments failing to observe social distancing. The bulging eyes of a middle aged man caught mine. Even as he wanted me to believe that he was a tough guy, he failed to communicate anything besides the fearful strains of the last stages of mortality. His heart would surely give out if he took another step.
Someone was practically crawling over the final ten yards of the hill, elbows down on his knees, fighting the pull of gravity on his skull as he struggled to stay upright. Forget about six feet. The guy was gasping and panting so hard he sounded like he could knock over a tree at 20 yards. The last time he got any exercise was clearly when he climbed the stairs at the Greek Theatre at a Neil Diamond concert. Someone else was wearing a New Jersey Generals T-shirt. He didn’t look like he’d make it either.
Amid the next generation of the socially distant, their heads down in TikTok and Instagram, my own blood included, unimpressed (what did she expect, the Grand Canyon?), I looked out over the smoldering Bladerunner ruins of New Jersey, a place that once left the late Jimmy Cagney wondering what the hell happened to it, and realized he’s been dead now for over thirty years. Unable to allow the great range of that world to obscure reality as I had come to know it, especially over the course of these past few dreadful weeks, heaped on the other miseries time had wrought on this place, I ran down the side of the mountain trying to get back to the computer in time to see Governor Murphy’s latest COVID-19 briefing, and draw a bead on the death tally. In fact, in the last stages of the hike, I started getting split screen flashes of blurred surroundings with computer generated images of the governor and company from the War Memorial.
Back in civilization, I pulled into a strip mall, which consisted of a vape shop, nail salon, liquor store, tattoo parlor, Dunkin Donuts dive, and pizza joint. Our ancestors had fought hard for this. The least we could do was grab a slice of pizza and go home, but even from the parking lot the place looked like a COVID-19 rat’s nest.
I steered the car into the next ragged strip mall, and collected myself long enough to muster a man-sized march across the pave under the wind-cocked sign of a man in a chef’s hat holding an oblong box.
I walked into the pizza parlor like General Douglas MacArthur wading ashore at Inchon.
It was a big moment, or I thought so anyway, but I was the only one, as the guy in an apron behind the counter angrily waved me out of the place.
“I’ll bring you the pizza,” he snapped.
He was wearing a mask.
But the sweaty-looking cook hanging over the ovens wasn’t.
Outside on the sidewalk, I noticed in the window a cardboard “Do not Enter” sign, which I hadn’t seen when I first went inside, and moments later received the shoved box from a just as quickly withdrawn hand.
I thought about my fellow Pointe du Hoc sloggers back at the summit on High Point, wondered if any of them had gone down yet for the count, and, gripping the pizza box with the sudden, sick feeling of one who pulls the pin on a grenade and doesn’t have time to throw it away, wondering if I had, in fact, picked the wrong pizza foxhole to crawl into after all, I remembered – with a streak of horror running down my back – to check for deer ticks, having otherwise given up on New Jersey’s development-strangled parks years ago, thanks to a virulent, deadly and unending strain of Lyme’s Disease.
Then I went back to the sunken darkness of the apartment and the computer, to check on, and file, the latest New Jersey count of COVID-19 dead.