There's a long, illuminating article about our country's response to the COVID-19 virus by Lawrence Wright that takes up much of the January 4 & 11, 2021 issue of The New Yorker, much as John Hershey's story, "Hiroshima," filled the entire August 31, 1946 issue of the same magazine--and maybe just as impactful.
Wright's article not only answers many questions about what went wrong with our response, but also what went right. How, for instance, did we develop a vaccine to combat the virus so rapidly. The answer is that a two-man team of Jason McLellan and Barney S. Graham (pictured above) at N.I.H. had developed a design as far back as 2013 that established "clinical proof of concept for structure-based vaccine design," portending "an era of precision vaccinology." The very same design now being shot into the arms of people around the world.
Back then, with recently-developed, high-powered microscopes, Graham and McLellan modified the MERS coronavirus spike protein, creating an entirely new vaccine. It worked well in mice, but then the MERS virus died out naturally and so did the funding for further research and human testing. So there it sat...until COVID-19 hit.
Graham called McLellan and asked if he and his team would like to get "back in the saddle" and help him create a vaccine?
As Wright tells it, "'Of course,' McLellan said.
"'We got the sequences Friday night, the tenth of January,' Graham told me. They had been posted online by the Chinese. 'We woke up on the eleventh and started designing proteins.' Nine days later, the coronavirus officially arrived in America."
Now, what brought this all home to me was the fact that Dr. Barney S. Graham grew up in Paola, Kansas, about 20 miles down the road from where I grew up in Olathe, and he had earned his medical degree at the University of Kansas, where I was born (some years earlier), and where he had met his wife, Cynthia Turner-Graham, now a well-respected psychiatrist.
An important, personal aside here, again as told by author Lawrence Wright:
"First, he and Cynthia had to complete residencies. They wanted to be in the same town, a problem many couples face, but additionally complicated in their case because Cynthia is Black. She suggested Nashville: he could apply to Vanderbilt School of Medicine and she to Meharry Medical College, a historically Black institution. Tennessee had only recently repealed a ban on interracial marriage.
"Driving back to Kansas from Maryland on Christmas Eve, Graham stopped in at Vanderbilt. To his surprise, the director of the residency program, Thomas Brittingham, was in his office and willing to meet with him immediately. When the interview was over, Graham told Brittingham, 'I know this is the South. I'm going to marry a Black woman, and if that makes a difference I can't come here.' Brittingham said, 'Close the door.' He welcomed Graham on the spot. Cynthia was accepted at Meharry, and so they moved to Nashville."
I'll leave the rest of the story for you to read yourself. You won't be sorry.
I've always been a big fan of jazz giant Sonny Rollins, now 90, so I was glad to find out that some long-lost recordings of his brief tour of the Netherlands in May, 1967, when Rollins was just 36, had been discovered, packaged, and recently released as "Rollins in Holland" by the Resonance label. It's a wild, live recording with Rollins playing straight-ahead, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners improvisation, ably accompanied by two of Holland's greatest jazz musicians: bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink. The package presents more than two hours of playful, energetic, freewheeling Rollins at the height of his prodigious talent.
Listening to the album took me back to the one Rollins concert that I attended, not in Holland, but in Boston, some years later, in the 80s, I believe. I was there on business and checking in one afternoon at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. Registering at the same time was a very cool-looking, urbane couple who looked vaguely familiar. Then I spotted the horn case the gentleman was carrying and realized who it was.
"Excuse me," I said, "but are you, by any chance, Sonny Rollins?'
"Yes," the man answered, "and who might you be?"
"Uh...well, uh...I'm Charles Farley."
"Good to meet you," he said, extending his hand, "and this is my wife and business manager Lucille. What brings you to Boston?"
"I'm here on business," I said. "I sell computer systems to libraries. How about you?"
"We're here for a concert," Rollins informed me. "Upstairs someplace in the ballroom, tonight."
"No kidding! What luck!" I exclaimed. "I'm definitely going."
"No you're not," the desk clerk said, rather rudely, I thought. "It's sold out."
"Oh no," was all I could muster. "I guess I'm not." I must have looked like I felt: disappointed and forlorn.
"Well, wait a minute," Rollins said. "Lucille, you got any tickets?"
"Just a few I've held back for the press," Mrs. Rollins answered.
"How about we give one up for Mr. Farley here?" Rollins said.
"What about the press?" his wife asked.
"Fuck the press," Sonny Rollins pronounced. "I play for the people, not the press."
And that's how I ended up in an aisle seat, center, row 4. Great concert!
I'll be signing all my books at historic Harrison Brothers Hardware, 124 Southside Square, in beautiful Downtown Huntsville, this Saturday, December 5, 2020, noon--3:00pm. Come by and see me!
The University Press of Mississippi is having a big Cyber Monday sale on every book on its website, including mine:
Buy it in hardcover or paperback for just $20.21 (a better price than on Amazon) beginning Monday, November 30 until December 15. Free shipping on orders of $50.00 or more. So start your Christmas shopping here: www.upress.state.ms.us/Books/S/Soul-of-the-Man2
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Last weekend when we were camping in southern Mississippi, one of the campers was complaining about his grown kids and now their kids descending on his house and devouring his food like a plague of hungry locusts. Which put me in mind of a 2002 story in the New Yorker by Jay McInerney about Fat Possum Records and its star blues singer R. L. Burnside, who, when faced with a similar dilemma--compounded by R. L.'s dozen children and their ever-expanding broods--forced Big Daddy, as the paternal Burnside was affectionately called, to take the rather extreme measure of chaining and padlocking his refrigerator's door.
Charles Farley is an author who lives and writes in Huntsville, Alabama.