Smelling the Irises
Today, James Finn, you have made me feel thankful with your informative, well-researched article:
Let’s Talk About HIV and AIDS
What’s the deal with mothers passing the virus on to newborns?
When I think of the many terrible things we have to read about everyday, it’s nice to take a moment to appreciate some of the amazing advances we have seen. The “wind-up” of my story below talks about advances technology, but the “pitch” is about the very real Terror of HIV/AIDS in the US not too long ago.
I received my first personal computer, a TRS-80 Color Computer 2, for Christmas in 1980. It had 16 Kilobytes of RAM. I remember saving up all of my birthday money when I was 12 years old to order another 16K RAM chip. I don’t remember who it was that helped me “piggyback” the new chip on top of the other one to double my little COCO2’s memory. We also had to solder an office staple onto the motherboard as a memory jumper.
I just performed a quick search on Amazon.com. I see that a person can purchase ten (count ’em 10!) thumb drives, 128 MEGAbytes each, for $21.99.
That’s $2.19 for 128 Meg of memory today . . . versus I think about $75 for 16 KILObytes of RAM when I was a kid. We don’t even bother to measure RAM in kilobytes nowadays. To most consumers of technology today, Kilobits and Baud rates (how we used to measure data-transmission speeds) are as useful as talk of cubits and candlepower.
These days, everybody has a computer in his/her pocket though few really marvel at that tiny technological wonder.
I still do.
Nobody had a mobile (cellular) phone when I was in college. Those were way too expensive for us common folks. I remember paying an electrician about $100 to fashion for me a 100-yard-long telephone extension cable so that I could communicate directly from the press-box to our members working the sidelines during my fraternity’s annual marching band festival fundraiser for which I was responsible.
My mom had her own business at the time, as a real-estate property manager. She had a “bag phone”, a heavy and expensive cell-phone that came in a leather satchel due to its heft and bulk. A lot of folks avoided the inconvenience of lugging one around opting instead for “car phones,” where the heavy electronics and antenna were mounted in the vehicle’s trunk.
The folks at Tom’s Hardware remind us of how much those early mobile calls costs back in the day. A $45/month plan included no minutes whatsoever! Calls were 45 cents per minute plus an additional 25 cents long-distance, regardless of whether the caller was making or receiving calls.
Nowadays, a lot of folks fail to see the wonder of holding a telephone conversation while traveling along in a car or being able to look-up useful information far away from a library.
I still experience that wonder.
Most young folks take full advantage of these modern tools and conveniences, fully oblivious to the history of their development. This is fine by me; there really is no consequence if they don’t know.
When it comes to HIV/AIDS advances, however, I think it is very important for everyone to recognize how far we have come and how quickly. Also, at what cost and the nature of world we have left behind.
When I first read about AIDS (likely from this July 4, 1983 issue of Time magazine) , scientists had not yet discovered the HIV virus that caused the illness. It was maybe a year or so later that the HIV virus was identified.
At that point in time, there was no definitive way to diagnose HIV. That breakthrough would not occur until 1985.
Once a method of HIV detection was developed, a lot of people were still reluctant to get tested for one very simple reason — Even if a person tested positive, there was nothing much anybody could do to help him/her.
AIDS was a death sentence, and a positive HIV test was just early notification of the judge’s verdict.
Once that sentence was handed down, it presaged a cruel and painful death, often accompanied by personal ostracism and rejection.
Many AIDS victims were doomed to be abandoned by their families, left to die alone, emaciated and blind in the hastily arranged AIDS wards of the few hospitals capable of offering any compassionate care for the dying.
We don’t see much video or many photographs of young gay men dying in AIDS wards anymore. At the time, such images were everywhere.
Indeed, I was shocked to read James’ s tale about visiting just such a place in Detroit:
I’m so glad I asked. I knew you’d have valuable input, Sam.
I’m thinking of my young friend Chase in Detroit. He’s a successful attorney and newly minted community activist and…
The hospice and palliative-care movements were just barely beginning to surface in mainstream America in those days.
No one here in the States had any clue of the coming AIDS epidemic in Africa. We were glad that we could do our part to help the starving masses in Ethiopia when we bought up 45 Singles and cassette tapes of We Are The World.
(I just re-watched the video, linked here with names for the young’uns, and it still makes me a little teary-eyed with warm fuzzies.)
We had no way to know of the African tragedy yet to come.
I once sold newspaper advertising for a brief period in the early 1990s. Through this job with our statewide gay newspaper, I learned second-hand a fact that I can relate to readers today.
Many funeral homes in the 1980s refused to receive and prepare the bodies of those who died of AIDS.
To my knowledge, only one compassionate company in Charlotte, Hankins & Whittington, cared for our people — the ones who died of AIDS during this period. Can you imagine facing homophobia and discrimination in the parlor of a funeral home?
Shame on those bigoted morticians of days past and thank you to those few, often unsung heroes of the plague.
A somewhat ghoulish but necessary industry of “viatical settlement” companies sprang up and flourished, practically overnight.
These were firms that paid cash to AIDS patients in exchange for their life insurance policies — at a hefty discount.
These exchanges provided the (fortunately) insured but sick and dying with large sums of cash and at least a few more options for how they could spend their final days. Some used this money to go out with a bang, checking-off a few bucket-list items in their last days. Others planned elaborate funerals or “going away” parties like the one featured in the film It’s My Party.
In short, AIDS and HIV was beyond scary to those of us of a certain age.
AIDS was truly horrific and terrifying.
In some parts of the world, it still is . . . and we should do our best to fix that.
This is why I cut my e-friend James Finn a lot of slack when his voice and style of writing may seem a bit more strident or less accommodating than my own.
He was on the front-lines of a very real life-and-death fight.
But for a particular confluence of time and geography, I might easily have been right there beside him, fighting in Act Up and Queer Nation.
What’s more, had I been born a decade earlier, it’s likely I would not be alive to write these words today, yet another casualty of the plague.
We are still in many ways engaged in a life-and-death fight, but are winning the battle for hearts and minds.
History is sometimes a dance like the one Paula Abdul sang about, “. . . two steps forward . . . two steps back.”
Every now and then, we get to take a few extra steps forward.
“Smell the flowers while you can.” — David Wojnarowicz
Today, I choose to celebrate a few of those great steps forward.
Though we still have a long way to go, HIV and AIDS is no longer the terrible and sure death sentence is once was.
I would never have imagined that I would be writing those words in my lifetime. Looking back, this song seems appropriate:
Please take a moment to read this un-related story about one of our own Medium.com writers in need of a little help: