Warned that the plane would be cold, I wore three layers of clothes. I sweated so much in the crowded bus that I feared failing the next temperature check and being sent back … somewhere. After three hours on buses, we stepped onto a windowless plane. Rows of seats had been bolted to the floor in random patterns. The worst were anchored a few feet from the row of Porta Potties. A man wearing a “Ghostbusters”-like hood connected to an air supply approached the woman next to me and said her test results had just been received: She was positive for covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. Before she could resist, he steered her into a tented isolation area.
We’d been sequestered for 12 days and now, on the plane home, I’d been directly exposed to the virus!
After 23 hours crammed on buses and then the plane’s chilly hull, we landed in San Antonio, where workers in hooded white hazmat suits processed us like we were radioactive aliens. Accommodations for visiting enlisted personnel had been repurposed for the 144 of us. A damp, moldy smell assaulted my throat when we opened our door. Walking into the bathroom, I slipped on the slick floor, then realized the carpet was soggy. I rushed outside for air, trying not to think that we had escaped the ship only to wind up at the Bates Motel.
Someone in a yellow biohazard suit ordered, “Put on your face mask and get inside!”
My hand flew toward my mouth. “We’re not allowed out?”
I ran into the room, where Phil was lifting my suitcase. “We’re not staying here,” I shouted. “I can’t breathe!”
Phil fiddled with the air conditioner. “Not working, sorry.”
“Not staying!” I flailed my arms, stamped my feet. “Get me out of here!”
Somehow, I had adjusted to not being able to leave our cabin for two weeks. On the ship, after the chefs figured out preparing massive numbers of meals for simultaneous delivery, food was plentiful, creative, tasty. The first dinner in military quarantine was chicken-fried hamburger in a gelatinous cream sauce, lettuce with a packet of ranch dressing and a stale brownie. Phil tried to summon help, but nothing changed. “We have to wait for a plumber who can come in protective clothing,” he told me while positioning a fan. I showered, sloshed across the floor and collapsed on the lumpy bed.
Once again, we have adjusted. The idea that we are a potential threat, and everything outside is “clean,” is hard. Human capacity to adapt must be Darwinian. We have learned how to dispose of our toxic garbage, how to properly don and doff masks. Clumsy me must pay special attention to bobby pins, glasses and hearing aids. There are different rules for linens, laundry and ordering groceries. We can get Amazon deliveries, which take an extra day for canine screening. We now have decent-size towels from home.
Federal marshals guard a perimeter marked by a chain-link fence and portable lighting. We aren’t supposed to leave our room, but everyone does for a few minutes each day. Guards in uniform and protective gear frown, at least from what I can see above their face masks. Poorly fueled by biscuits and gravy and mystery meat, a rebellious spark flared this week as we strolled along the fence. Phil noted its zip-tie fastenings and the sandbags holding it upright.
“Why don’t we stage a coup?,” I said, imagining marshaling our fellow boomer cruisers. “We could use our walking sticks as swords, walkers as battering rams, the wheelchairs as cavalry. In the film, the soundtrack could be ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ from ‘Les Mis’!”
For us, at least, the end is in sight. Rear Adm. Nancy Knight, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention division leading the medical side of our quarantine, has drilled us so much about “social distancing” and “proper hand washing” that her dictums about infection, prevention and control measures are lodged in my mind. The admiral has kept us safe. On the ship, cases escalated into the hundreds in a few days. Here, only single digits have shown symptoms or tested positive. Phil and I have remained negative the whole time. The admiral said they’re working on “de-mobing” our quarantine cohort next week — military-speak for what we want most: to go home.