Facing death or facing it down?

At an age when death surrounds us and is a final reality, how long can one beat the odds?

This new year has brought too much news of deaths for us. A longtime friend who goes back to our days in the National Capital Region of Washington, DC, died from a combination of COVID-19, pneumonia, lupus, and cancer along with a close relation of a key member of our family lost a long battle with cancer.

In the United States, more than one million have died from the COVID-19 coronavirus, and 6.2 million worldwide. Virginia reports 1.7 million cases since the pandemic began with more than 20 thousand deaths.

With over 6,000 cases over the weekend and 5,000 more in the first days of this week, Virginia now has 11,000 new infections. The pandemic is not over. It is now another way to die.

Deaths are a final reality at our age but that does not lessen the sorrow and impact. The losses also make one realize just how much time has passed.

A discussion with a retired reporter for The Roanoke Times, this weekend made me realize that 57 years have passed since I joined that paper as a 17-year-old to become its youngest full-time member of the staff. Now I’m older than any reporter — employed or retired — of the paper.

Earlier this year, while taking photos of three award-winning members of the Floyd County High School, coach Carrie Chaffin asked: “How long have you been doing this?” I had to stop and think before realizing that I sold my first photo to a newspaper 63 years ago.

Nowadays, I walk with a limp because of a serious motorcycle accident nearly 10 years ago but I cannot get down on my knees because of injuries in a helicopter crash in a faraway war a half-century earlier. I’ve lived long enough to see a president fall from an assassin’s bullet, a nation expecting a nuclear war from the Cuban missile crisis.

My cameras captured Martin Luther King on the National Mall in Washington when he delivered his “I have a dream speech.” Decades later, in another century, my cameras focused on the horrors of the carnage at the Pentagon after a hijacked airliner crashed into it on the day terrorists attacked America on Sept. 11. 2001.

As an elementary school student in Farmville in the 1950s, I witnessed the vile racism that spewed out of the Prince Edward County school board and supervisors when they closed the public schools to stop a legally-ordered integration. Photographing that racism and writing about its effects on the county cemented my desire to become a newspaperman.

Journalists often have a front-row seat from which to witness history. Sometimes, like in a helicopter crash, that seat is too close for comfort. My wife says I’m on about the 22nd or 23rd of my nine lives.

But surviving close calls where others died makes one wonder “why them and not me.” Even on a motorcycle ride on a Friday night in Roanoke County, when an attempt to avoid hitting a steer on the road should have killed me, my wife Amy was told by the emergency room doctor that they could call a priest in to administer last rites.

Two months and three weeks later, the staff at Carilion hospital wheeled me out to our car for the ride home. The final report from the lead physician wrote: “This patient is a walking miracle.”

Once again, I beat the odds but I also wondered: “Why?”

Probably just luck of the draw. Time will tell.

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