Learning From The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Day 19

Artillery fire, Meuse-Argonne Offensive

At 5:30 in the morning, September 26, it begins. And this is what it’s supposed to be all about. This is what we’re focused on. The work, the effort, the strain, the sacrifice. Day 1 in that world, while it’s Day 19 everywhere else.

Boom. Orange fire and a dark object screams across the sky. Seconds later, almost four miles away, an explosion.

“Captain Harry”—the nickname that the Missouri and Kansas National Guardsmen have given to their commander of Artillery Battery D of the 27,000-strong 35th Division—Harry Truman signals the order and so begins their small part of a massive Allied military offense against the Germans at the Meuse-Argonne region in northeastern France. More than a million American soldiers will be involved.

As formal commander of these men, Truman is tough but fair. One of them reports, “He was stern but you could see that he genuinely cared, so most of the men liked him.”

Stern. Cared. Liked mostly.

Like a leader.

A short while earlier Truman had spoken some interesting words. “I’d rather be right here than be the President of the United States,” he offers.

The words are long gone during the next four hours. Truman and his men fire their 75mm French guns, hurling 3000 rounds in a little under 250 minutes. The great guns get so hot from the firing that Truman’s men wrap them in blankets for ten minutes each hour. It cools them off.

At the same time, westward across the Atlantic Ocean, in the United States, hundreds of thousands of people wrap themselves in blankets, too. They’re trying to fight off influenza. Like the guns, they’re burning hot. Usually, about three days will tell if death comes to this bed or that bed. The fever will end one way or another.

Day 19, the Navy in Washington DC issues a directive to American sailors. Get plenty of fresh air, drink fluids, and be sure to sleep enough.

5000 new cases are counted in military camps in the past day. 26 states in the US now suffer from severe outbreaks of influenza.

Interesting language pops up in the new edition of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. Just available today, the opening article refers to the “spreading” of influenza and that the illness “has reached the civilian population and has invaded the schools.”

Spreading. Has reached. Invaded.

Like an enemy.

Across the continent westward, in Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, Dr. William Sharpley is the former mayor of Denver and the city’s current Manager of Health and Charities. Today, Sharpley calls to order a new group meeting for the first time—an influenza advisory board. Among other recommendations and advice, Sharpley intones words that could have been barked by Captain Harry when an eery silence settled over the Meuse-Argonne near noon a half-world away:

“Stand guard,” Sharpley says to the board.

A thought for you on Day 19, March 31, 2020, nineteen days after President Trump declares Covid-19 a national emergency—stand guard. This seems such a natural extension of yesterday’s thought which you and I shared. Duty then. Stand guard now. I don’t want to overdo the war or military aspect of the word and phrase. I’m not advocating militarism and I’m not glorifying battle. My point is simply this: there are times in your life when, no matter what, you have to do what has to be done. When you look at the previous sentence you’ll see two parts to it but which appear in inverse order. The second half of the sentence actually occurs first in real life (knowing what has to be done). The first half follows-up (doing it). Mark that—both parts are distinct and they have a flipped lived-out sequencing in real life. All of this may strike you as simple and obvious. I suppose it is. Maybe that’s the problem. Something as simple and obvious as standing guard falls prey to dismissiveness. Well, the paid-price of dismissiveness is one thing in normal times. It’s quite another thing in times like ours, moments like these. I commented in my recent video, April Trials, seen elsewhere on my website, that often before April has brought us challenges of shocking proportion. When they come, duty and standing guard rise in value and worth. Sharply knows it. Truman knows it. You and I know it. It’s our turn.

Changing of the Guard in a storm

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