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A weather system speeding diagonally across Texas last Friday caught me off guard as I headed home to Arkansas. Leaving my daughter's Austin apartment, it was 70 degrees with moderate rain, and I was appropriately dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. Barely fifty miles north, near Temple, the temperature dropped to 45.

Luckily, I had tossed a jacket in the back of the vehicle on my last trip and I put in on at my hamburger stop at Waco's Health Camp malt stand -- yes, a burger place named "Health," a Central Texas institution unchanged since my college days. Shivering at the take-out window, I was the typical Southerner caught at season's change: shorts, tennis shoes, no socks and a hooded jacket.

My journey continued through a glum downtown Dallas. Looming office towers along an unusually desolate Woodall Rodgers Freeway were shrouded in low clouds. Reunion Tower's animated light ball was dark.

It seemed the roadways foretold the end of days: a big city nearly silenced and nothing quite right. Oddly, I was reminded of the rural interstate scene opening Walker Percy's 1971 novel "Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World." Percy's protagonist pondered his strife-filled environs.

•••

"Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?

"Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won't and I'm crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.

"Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap ...

"Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

"Or is it that something has stopped happening?"

•••

Clearly something has stopped happening in Dallas, I thought. And well beyond.

Author Percy had projected that if the U.S. political and civil unrest continued its late 20th Century trajectory, society would disintegrate. Yet we survive still, 50 years later. The whole of the American peoples is far greater than the sum of its partisan political leaders.

Hours later I climbed up Interstate 49 towards home. I spilled into dense fog at the northern mouth of the Bobby Hopper Tunnel, proceeded with caution and arrived in Bentonville just before midnight as Siri had promised.

Next morning I waved to cheery, watchful neighbors doing spring yard-work in the chill while keeping safe, prescribed distances. Further strangeness: Overnight temperatures had dipped near freezing this Palm Sunday weekend. Had the covid-19 pandemic infected the climate as well?

With Texas trips to and fro, scant or spoiled provisions at the Ozark homestead prompted a trip to Walmart. I put on my mask and headed to Store No. 100. Only one entrance was open with a cordoned queue as if for a Disneyland E-ticket ride; an associate with a mini-pad metered ingress and egress.

Inside, shoppers kept their distances, like video game characters in defensive bubbles. I imagined myself a faithful Methodist shopping at a time near the end of the world. I found milk, a dozen eggs and pallet stacks of toilet paper, so I stocked up on Charmin for a future Texas trip.

Departing self-checkout, I asked the young man monitoring the entrance how things progressed this first day of controlled access. No problem. The maximum occupancy here is 857 (or at least that's what I understood through my mask ear-bands). Not half that had been reached any time yet.

Limiting crowds at Walmart! Could Sam Walton be spinning in his grave? I decided to see for myself. In view across Walton Boulevard from the store is Bentonville's City Cemetery where Waltons and Talleys alike lay at rest.

Moments later I entered the cemetery lane shared by Sam and Helen Walton and my wife and daughter. Sam was still at peace as breeze-caressed pansies adorned his family headstone. I continued, stopped the car and prayed graveside by my departed loved ones.

At home I pondered the pandemic over milk and cereal. Though thousands are gravely ill and dying, we survivors are not yet anarchists among shortages and confusion. Thank God. We have "love," but no "ruins."

Commentary on 04/09/2020

Print Headline: Dread latter days?

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