John Whelan: Bridge Over Troubled Water

“When you’re down and out

When you’re on the street

When evening falls so hard

I will comfort you

I’ll take your part

Oh when darkness comes

And pain is all around”


Paul Simon wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in 1969 and he and his partner, Art Garfunkel, released the song in January 1970. The song was a huge hit and stayed at number one on the pop charts for six weeks. It was also a smash hit all over the world and it became one of the most performed songs of the 20th century. Reflecting on the song a number of years later, Simon wondered out loud, “Where did that come from? It doesn’t sound like me.” He then said he had been inspired by a line from the old slave song “O Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Simon had been a big fan of the Swan Silvertones, a prominent black gospel group. Claude Jeter was the group’s lead singer and arranger of “O Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Throughout his career, Paul Simon has always been willing to share credit and, in this instance he sent Jeter a check to recognize his contribution to the song’s success.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” has been sung at graduations and funerals ever since. I picked the song to lead off this article because we are clearly in a time of troubled water. Chatham and the whole world is trying to come to grips with the coronavirus. As advanced as we believe our society is, we were not well prepared for a highly contagious virus which is passed from person to person. Because the person passing the virus may not show any symptoms, it continues to be very difficult to control. We all recognize that the unknown is always more frightening than the known. The degree of panic is great right now, but it could become much greater as the weeks and months pass. Unfortunately, mixed messages have not helped.

We do know that the potential loss of life is likely to be significant and that the damage to our economy might take years to overcome. The stock market may have been overheated prior to news of the virus, but the virtual shut down of our economy has caused daily selling and a massive loss of wealth. We have been told to isolate in place and most people have done what they were told. The images of the college students celebrating spring break in Florida were hard to stomach. When cities and towns on the east coast of Florida closed their beaches, some of the students drove across Florida to party in Clearwater. At the risk of being called an old fuddy-duddy, I was pleased when the mayor of Clearwater shut down the party. We as a people had been asked to respect each other and maintain “social distancing,” and it is upsetting that some college students decided they could ignore the prescribed regimen.

As a sports fan, I miss March Madness very much. I know from reading about the tournament’s TV ratings that I am not alone. The NCAA tournament is my favorite sporting event each year. Ahead of the Super Bowl and the World Series, March Madness provides nearly three weeks of peak entertainment. The NBA and the NHL have been shut down. The Masters has been postponed as has the Boston Marathon. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed until 2021. No one knows if and when major league baseball will be resumed. As a footnote, I believe that, in time, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will be credited with getting this country to recognize COVID-19 as a serious threat. He suspended NBA play on March 12 and it sent a shiver through the sports world. It was a real wake-up call.

Restaurants are closed. Businesses are closed. People have been laid off. It is likely that the impact on some small and large businesses will be devastating. Several respected brokerage firms now believe the national economy will actually shrink this year. Nationally and locally, unemployment will be an issue and the amount invested in future growth will certainly diminish. So today, Chatham is not the same as before, and it will not be the same this coming summer. We don’t know what is coming. Maybe like Italy, the cases will multiply and our hospital system will be unable to cope with the onslaught of cases. Or maybe like China, the cases will plateau and then recede rapidly. A high percentage of people will recover and the panic will fade. We just don’t know.

But what we do know is that life, as we knew it, has changed. The pause button has been switched on and no one knows when life will resume. I think of Chatham and the reliance on tourism. The town and its people will be challenged by COVID-19. It is very likely we will each know someone who gets the virus. I sincerely hope we will not know anyone who dies from the virus.

Chatham has a strong economy. The package, that is Chatham, is made up of so many different things. Right now, small local businesses need our support. The children of Chatham need our support. Our leaders need our support. We need each other’s support.

I have spent a good deal of time researching what Chatham was like in times of crises in the past. I can remember asking Josh Nickerson about life in town during World War I. Josh was born in 1901 and he remembered vividly that Chatham had a period of deprivation during 1917 and 1918. But, he said, “We were all in it together.” I also remember asking former Chatham Selectman Dave Ryder about the town during the Depression and World War II. Dave was a fisherman and he and other fishermen were considered vital to the food supply and were counted on to continue fishing and providing food for the country. From 1941 to 1945, everyone had a part in the war effort. There were blackouts and food coupons, but again, they were all in it together.

So once again, we are challenged. The degree of challenge is still to be determined, but we are all in it together. I think Chatham is up to the challenge. With a unified effort, we will come out on the other side and recover, like a “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”