Learning From The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Day 46

Camp Custer, October 1918

The future is like the sun. Stare at it and your eyes go bad.

Now well into the sixth week, Day 46, and Americans are looking forward, sizing up the shapes and objects ahead. They hope to see an edge sharpen to an end and a line drawn for a beginning. But it’s hard to really see much. The only thing visible is a blinding light. And looking longer doesn’t help. In fact, the more they stare, the more they squint. Finally, unable to look for another minute, they turn away. In the corner of the eyes, a tear forms. In the eyes themselves, closed tight, shadows crawl in a darkness, under the skin.

A future must be out there. So, we reach. Blind or not, blazing sun or not, we reach.

A newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin reports and predicts at the same time that, with fatalities down, in likely a week the strict ban on public gatherings will be lifted. Hang on for seven more days. Similar media in San Francisco, California compares today to yesterday and concludes the good future is near—by noon 840 new cases of influenza appear whereas by the prior noon 1200 new cases came forth—do the math and get your better answer. The readers of a popular Philadelphia newspapers scan articles that beam toward one direction: Camden is closing an emergency care facility because influenza is on the wane; New Jersey is set to lift a quarantine order; Delaware could soon allow amusement parks to reopen; and various stations in Philadelphia report declining fatalities. They’re all staring at a future not exactly seen but absolutely felt.

The same sight through the light is in Michigan. The officials at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan count up the daily dead, find four in number, and lay it alongside the daily totals in the past three weeks. A finding shouts from the paper—it’s the smallest, the smallest, the smallest amount yet. The officials read the finding and conclude that the need to quarantine soldiers is over. Today, everyone in camp returns to normalcy’s quarters. Crisis done.

All of them are desperate to see the future. No one blames them. Everyone wants to see it.

So desperate, however, that they may not remember the future isn’t clean and purified. It has things already in it from the present, a shard, a piece, remnant. The future is more of a mess than people today wish it to be. But the depth of desire may alter their eyesight.

Consider another of today’s developments at Camp Custer. While soldiers rejoice at their liberation from quarantine, an unusually large number of higher-ranking officers file into a meeting hall to begin a court martial. They are convening in order to review, examine, and render judgment on a stack of cases of accused misconduct by other officers “during the period of the recent epidemic.” It’s not known whether the sizable volume of accusations pertains to influenza or is coincidental to influenza. Regardless, the Camp Custer court martial will be busy trying to sort through the docket and determine if a serious problem has emerged in morale, discipline, and overall unit effectiveness. For an extended time into the future, they’ll be mopping up the mess of influenza.

Or think about another aspect of today in Philadelphia. Beyond the feel-good articles about influenza on the decline, a troubling clash breaks into the open. Dr. William/Wilmer Krusen—the municipal health director fearful of charges of disloyalty and final endorser of the influenza-death event known as the Liberty Loan parade—is now a fierce advocate of anti-influenza action. He threatens to have public spitters prosecuted and demands punishment for storeowners who don’t spray water onto city sidewalks to soak down influenza-carrying dust. Krusen is a crusader, a zealot, in the fight against an influenza. He’s convinced the scourge will return later in the fall. That’s the future as he sees it.

And then there’s the war. The American Expeditionary Force identifies today that 23,000 more patients are in the beds of the AEF than were planned for. The overflow results from influenza and the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Meanwhile, President Woodrow Wilson decides he will bow to pressure from his French and British counterparts and demand that Germany remove the current group of military and diplomatic leaders negotiating for surrender. With them gone, Wilson expects a surrender acceptable to everyone—British, French, and American—can be drafted and Germany will be compelled to sign it. Across Germany, as this demand and its acceptance becomes known, a theory and a slogan will rise as the future turns back into present—they stabbed us in the back. For every hour ticking on the clock today, Wilson and the United States inch closer to victory. For every equivalent hour in Germany, soldiers and civilians alike deepen their conviction the ruling class is betraying them.

Behind the light is the future, newish-old and oldish-new.

A thought for you on Day 46, April 27, 2020, forty-six days after President Trump declares Covid-19 a national emergency—restlessness. I can be wrong but I sense a restlessness amongst us by Day 46, 2020. People want to be done with this. They want—and truly and understandably they need—to move beyond the current phase of the thing. It’s just a sense I get. What’s more startling to me is that the same sense comes through the research of Day 46, 1918. The stories from several cities and states share the desire to turn the corner into a future without influenza. Both then and now, you can detect a vast and wide power rising to a point of change from one phase to another phase. Get it behind us. Maybe it’s inherent in American life, something rather like Lincoln’s unforgettable phrase about “the mystic chords of memory.” We tend to think of it applying to the way Lincoln used it—to memory, how we remember big events from the American past. But maybe the chords are also canyons where things from us as a people have gathered, shaped, and exerted a power of pressure. Once made across generations, the canyons are dry until the flow of life pushes through them again. It happens once in a while when the happenstance is both fundamental and a shock to nearly everyone. That’s when the gorges fill, the waters rise, and the river rushes ahead. The current—and everything in it—finds a future and material already there. You roll in. What else do you think you’ll see when you and the river arrive at the next phase? You’ll bring things with you and you’ll see things that were waiting on you. What are they?

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