Tuesday in Minneapolis

MINNEAPOLIS—It was an average Tuesday morning at the VA hospital. Elderly Sam Nilva awoke in his bed with crusty eyelids from sleep. He blinked at the ceiling a few times. A nurse brought some good news.

“You’re going home today, Sam,” she said.

Home. After being stuck in a sterile room for God only knews how long, the Minneapolis VA hospital was discharging him.

Another nurse leaned over Sam’s bed. Her surgical mask, goggles, and face shield could not cover her award-winning smile.

“And guess what?” she said. “We have a little celebration for you, birthday boy.”

Next, the nurses had all gathered in Sam’s room, holding handwritten cards, posters, and a multi-colored banner that read: “Happy Birthday.”

The little old man didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. His face said enough. He was taking it all in. More nurses were chiming in via video phone on a monitor beside his bed. Everyone was cheering. It was a great day.

Sam recovered from a recent brain surgery, and he’s been in this hospital fighting COVID-19. It was no day at the beach. Some weren’t sure if he’d beat it, but he did. And he did it with flying colors.

Though it should come as no surprise. On Apr. 29, 1919, Samuel Nilva came into this world, and he’s seen a lot worse in his life.

It’s hard to imagine what the world was like back in such an ancient era, but it was a turbulent time to be alive. Woodrow Wilson was in office. The government had just voted to protect sections of virgin land that would become national parks, which was considered a wacky idea by many critics. Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” was just officially published.

Congress had just approved the 19th amendment so that women could vote. Einstein proved Newton’s theory of space to be dead wrong. A little football club in Green Bay, Wisconsin, decided to start calling themselves “The Packers.”

And the whole world was dying from a Spanish Flu epidemic.

To call this period Hell on Earth would be like calling the Grand Canyon a ditch. Americans were staying inside just to keep from dying.

Theaters and silent-movie houses were boarded up. Those infected were tying white scarves around their doorknobs to signal the rest of the world to keep away. Sometimes, the hanky stayed on the doorknobs until everyone inside was carried out with a sheet draped over them.

So try to imagine this scene: You’ve been stuck inside during a nationwide quarantine. One day, your neighbor knocks on your door, tears in his eyes. He is asking for your help to carry his dead wife out of his house.

So you carry her down the street to a dancehall that’s been converted into a temporary morgue. In some areas, there are so many dead bodies to deal with that communities are setting up makeshift morgues in local gymnasiums, fellowship halls, and schools.

That was the world Sam was born into.

And this was just the historical appetizer. Things got a lot crazier.

For starters: World War Had just been in full swing before Sam’s birth, killing about 40 million. And the hits kept coming. When Sam was a 10-year-old, the stock market crashed. Bank executives were leaping off ledges in crowded cities when they learned that they were ruined. America entered a Great Depression, setting off a chain reaction of financial ruin around the world.

Meanwhile, dust storms chewed at the Great American Midwest, forming black clouds that blotted out the sun and killed children with dust pneumonia. The earth was literally blowing away.

And as if this era didn’t already feature enough Biblical-style tribulation, they made beer illegal.

But even the 20s and 30s were just a dress rehearsal for the real problems ahead. The 40s brought Hitler, Stalin, another World War, 85 million deaths worldwide, and polio epidemics.

By the 1950s, the Cold War was on. Life was better, but people were still scared of what was next. American dads were building concrete bunkers in their backyards, behind the kids’ swing sets.

Schoolchildren were practicing atomic-bomb duck-and-cover drills, wherein students were trained to take shelter from nuclear threats by hiding beneath nuclear-attack-resistant school desks.

And as if this world couldn’t get any more out-of-control and unsettled, along came Perry Como.

Sam went through it all. He survived it all. When he got COVID-19, he told his daughter he wasn’t worried.

“I’ve survived polio,” Sam said. “I’ve survived World War Two, I’ve survived so many things, and I want people to know we can get through this.”

If that sounds a little too optimistic to you, that’s probably because you’re too young to know better. Just ask Sam. This world has been through hard times before, and it will see them again. But according to Sam, we can get through.

When Sam left the hospital, Minneapolis VA staff nurses made a big ordeal over him. You should have seen it. They sang, they cheered, they laughed. When EMTs wheeled him down the hallway, Sam’s bed rolled past a barrage of medical workers who whooped and hollered.

Hospital personnel lined the halls, clapping, their gloved hands, making muffled applause, wearing protective face gear. Some tossed handmade greeting cards onto Sam’s bed when it wheeled by. And the fanfare didn’t end until the ambulance disappeared on the horizon.

They weren’t just celebrating a birthday. They weren’t simply celebrating a recovery. These people were celebrating Samuel Nilva, for proving that humans are a lot stronger than we think they are.

Happy 101st birthday, Sam.

30 comments

  1. Mary - May 4, 2020 7:10 am

    Awesome story Sean. Sam is correct, we will get through this, he’s one of the greatest generation. Happy birthday Sam.

    Reply
  2. Karen Greatrix - May 4, 2020 7:10 am

    Thank you for some good news.

    Reply
  3. Dawn Bratcher - May 4, 2020 7:19 am

    Whoohoo!!! Happy Birthday, Sam! You are one tough man with a strong faith. Just reading everything that you have lived through would make the average person’s anxiety level skyrocket! Congratulations on your recovery, well done.

    Reply
  4. Patricia Harris - May 4, 2020 10:43 am

    Sean, you are so kind and have such great perspective. This is a magnificent post. Much appreciated. Born in 1943. Heard stories through my parents. Learned history in school. Was civilized when not everyone was a winner. Read 7 books a week. Readers Digest for life. What a great time in our history for the Big Reset!

    Reply
  5. Cathi Russell - May 4, 2020 10:49 am

    Love this one, Sean! Thanks.

    Reply
  6. Naomi - May 4, 2020 11:02 am

    Great story, Sean. I’m a first-generation American. My grandmother and her 4 children arrived in America in 1918. My grandfather had come 8 years before to make sure that he could earn enough to support his family. Before he could get them out of Russia, WW I broke out, then the Bolshevik Revolution. I do not know how my grandmother and her 4 children got through war-torn Europe until she could get to a safe country where they could board a ship to America. I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944. I also had polio the summer I turn 6 years old. When I started school, we also had air raid drills where we had to get under our desks. I was always looking out of the window to see if there was a plane that was about to drop an atomic bomb on our school. I didn’t need a history book to teach history; I lived it.

    Reply
  7. Beth Ann Chiles - May 4, 2020 11:26 am

    Happy Birthday, Sam! We all love your spirit and your strength! Thanks, Sean, for sharing Sam with us.

    Reply
  8. Sylvia from Florida - May 4, 2020 11:46 am

    Thank you so much for this great history lesson. One of your best writings.

    Reply
  9. Laura Hale - May 4, 2020 12:24 pm

    Thank you for sharing good news that helps us put life into perspective.

    Reply
  10. Ala Red Clay Girl - May 4, 2020 12:27 pm

    What an amazing life Sam has had. It reminds me of my grandmother and the changes she saw during her lifetime. She was born in 1905 and saw travel go from horse, train & ships to cars, jets & spacecraft. She married a soldier from WWI, her two sons were soldiers during WWII and two of her grandsons were soldiers during the Viet Nam War. She saw communication go from letters, telegraph, phones, and then to computers. She may have had only an elementary school education but she retired from NASA as a drafting supervisor in the early 70’s and then became an antique dealer in her retirement. That generation and their children’s generation were/are what makes America great. I hope that present generations can be that strong and self-sacrificing.

    Reply
  11. Karla Kuriger - May 4, 2020 12:37 pm

    Great writing, Sean. I love the way you tell a story. I know that hardship shows us of what we are made. Darwin wrote that to evolve, an organism must learn to adapt to the conditions. Sam is the embodiment of the ability to adapt to conditions. I’ve seen a trend in friends who are parents, to try and keep their kids from having to experience hardship. I’ve observed these same children unable to adapt to conditions, ergo, no evolution for them. I’ve also seen some truly thoughtful children working to make a difference in their communities. Hard times can make us, or break us! We all get to choose.

    Reply
  12. Teresa Tindle - May 4, 2020 1:20 pm

    Oh my Sean, I’m sitting here with tears running down my face. Everyone should read Sam’s story. Things that have happened in his lifetime. I was alive during those some of those hard times, protected by my mom and dad. I can still remember how poor we were. I remember my mom fixing lunch for my brother and me. She and daddy did not eat. She simply said they were not hungry. That happened a lot. I didn’t realize how hard things really were. But we are tough people. We have survived lots of hard tough times. And I do believe this too will pass. Thank you Sam and Happy Birthday.

    Reply
  13. Linda Clifton - May 4, 2020 1:21 pm

    We will survive! ❤️🙏

    Reply
  14. Pingback: Hardship - Cokes Chapel UMC

  15. Patricia A Schmaltz - May 4, 2020 1:45 pm

    WOW! Great message as usual. I should learn to read you BEFORE I put on my non-waterproof mascara. (Yes, still wearing a dab of makeup even as we shelter in place.)
    Thank you Sean! Virtual hugs!!

    Reply
  16. Glenda Hinkle - May 4, 2020 2:32 pm

    My Dad was born in 1914 and his baby sister in 1916 died at age 3 in 1919 from flu. He remembered it vividly through the eyes of a 5 year old and spoke of her often. His name was also Sam. This takes me back to hearing my Dad talking about his baby sister that was taken away at such a young age and how he had such sweet memories of a beautiful curly blonde haired baby sister whom he adored.

    Reply
  17. Andy Gartman - May 4, 2020 2:42 pm

    Made me smile big!
    Your preacher buddy.

    Reply
  18. Margaret Cade - May 4, 2020 3:28 pm

    Happy birthday Sam! We will get through this! ❤️

    Reply
  19. Evelyn Mann-Wilder - May 4, 2020 3:31 pm

    I always enjoy your posts and have to tell you that this one is exceptional! A reminder that humans are capable and resilient and hardy. Thank you Sean and Sam for nailing this at a time when folks could use a reminder that they have grit. Happy birthday Sam🎈🎉❤️

    Reply
  20. Sharon Allemang - May 4, 2020 3:31 pm

    Wonderful story of survival @ it’s best& it’s in my back yard as I live in WI only about 40 miles from the VA hospital!! We breed them strong in the Midwest!! Thanx for the good news for today!!

    Reply
  21. Tammy S. - May 4, 2020 4:05 pm

    💙Happy 101st Burthday, Sam!! What an indomitable spirit!!! May we all learn from your example. Thank you for sharing his story, Sean!

    Reply
  22. Linda Moon - May 4, 2020 4:47 pm

    My parents and their siblings grew up during the era you described. When I was a child, I LOVED hearing their stories of survival. In my era I watched a neighbor build a concrete bunker in his backyard. I was terrified…..that was real, not yet story. Sean, you often remind us that we are strong and resilient. My people were, and we’ll survive too. Sam and the VA Staff were deserving of all the fanfare! So now I’ll go find my old piano sheet music to Pachelbel’s Canon in D and enjoy playing it on another day of quarantine!

    Reply
  23. Berryman Mary M - May 4, 2020 5:24 pm

    Great story, Sean! And Happy Birthday, Sam!!1

    Reply
  24. Carolyn - May 4, 2020 6:23 pm

    Happy Birthday Sam!! Hope it’s the best ever!

    Reply
  25. Steve Kilgas - May 4, 2020 8:16 pm

    Great story that show how resilient we truly are. Not just Sam, but generation after generation.

    Reply
  26. Felix H Bean - May 4, 2020 9:41 pm

    WWI ended Nov. 11, 1918. It had been over 5 months when Sam was born

    Reply
  27. Toni - May 5, 2020 1:03 am

    Thanks for this wonderful story. I live in another country, Australia and I can remember great similarities in experiences, as I was born towards the end of WWII. My mother was born in 1912. My dad was born a year before his father was sent to France to fight in WW1. My father served in the Pacific during WWII and lost many valued friends.

    My mother and father lived through many frightening events always courageously and with great love and care for others. My father was hardworking and creative, but unfortunately his beautiful heart gave out in 1971. Thank you for sharing the events of Sam and his times to many of us some of whom have never been exposed to such experiences.

    Reply
  28. Melanie - May 5, 2020 1:50 am

    Happy Birthday Sam! An American Classic 🇺🇸👏🏻👍🏻

    Reply
  29. Tammy - May 5, 2020 4:42 am

    Sean
    I just love your writing.
    Thank you for making the day brighter

    Reply
  30. Sandi. - May 9, 2020 9:33 am

    No doubt about it, Sam is a survivor. Happy belated birthday to a remarkable man!

    Reply

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