Learning From The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Day 33

“Entire Country In Grip Of Flu and Pneumonia.”

That’s the headline in a newspaper in an American city on Day 33. Dead accurate, you might say. Everywhere you look things are upside down on October 10, 1918. Illness, suffering, decline, recovery, death, and sometimes none of these. Fears, doubts. And you’re not supposed to meet in groups, not supposed to shop, not supposed to spit, not supposed to any of a list of things that endanger folks. Not live the life you’ve always lived.

We’re a nation in the grasp of the grippe.

Or Spanish flu. Or influenza. Or H1N1 as a later date will call it. At some point the names don’t matter much. What matters is how life happens on this day and in the moment.

Overturned. Upended. Upside-down.

Terror opens the day at Fort Benjamin Harrison in central Indiana. Thirty soldiers have died overnight. Nearly the same number are appearing to Edna Fletcher and her student-nurses as verging on death today. Rumors circulate about the quality of care at the military post with accusations and counter-accusations flung far and wide. The people who know the least often yell the loudest. Fletcher and her young team soldier on.

Dr. S.B. Buckmaster in Janesville, Wisconsin—the man who scoffed at influenza as unpatriotic a few days ago—has done a total reversal and is now demanding his town obey the strictest closures imaginable. No one spends their time reminding him of his earlier declarations. No one wastes the effort to rain recriminations on him. There’s too much work to be done. The town council votes on Buckmaster’s recommendation. It’s affirmative and it’s unanimous, although one council member didn’t show up to vote. He’s sick with influenza.

Two towns in Illinois are longtime rivals. Mattoon and Charleston. Their differences appear even in influenza. The pandemic rages in both communities but media in the two towns seem to live on separate planets. In Mattoon the newspaper is urgent and expressive about the illness. In Charleston the newspaper is restrained and dismissive about the illness. Who knew that Coles County contained Jupiter and Mercury.

The truth is that these sorts of strange pairings often mark the condition of overturn, upend, and upside-down. Strangeness is sameness.

In Milton, Wisconsin, Lester Randolph hears a knock on the front door of his home. His wife Susan hears it, too. Probably one of their church members. Lester—his official title is Reverend, well-liked and well-known as leader of the local Baptist Church—opens the door, ready to say hello and offer a smile.

A demon hands him a note.

Standing together, Lester and Susan read it and learn that their son Kenneth died of influenza a day ago at Cornell University. Kenneth had enrolled there because his father, Lester, had such good memories of his graduate school education at the Ivy League school. And now Kenneth is dead. Closing the door, Lester and Susan are stricken.

Lester and Susan’s grief pours out during this 33rd day. They pray, they cry, they hold each other, they read passages from the Bible and cry and pray and embrace some more. Throughout the day and into the fading light of early evening.

Then, again, a knock at the front door. Someone outside. Lester and Susan stare at the door knob. They rise, turn the knob, and open.

A demon holds a letter.

Still reeling from Kenneth’s death, Lester and Susan take the envelope and close the door. Inside their home, trembling, they open the seal and unfold the paper. It is typed. Cold and clipped. Paul, another son, a member of the US Naval Reserve. On a ship called the Herman Frasch. In the frigid waters around Nova Scotia the low, black ship collides with another vessel. Sinks in seven minutes. No survivors. Like Kenneth, Paul is dead.

In front of their home, the street is empty.

In earlier times, when life wasn’t upside-down, upended, or overturned, Lester Randolph had written and delivered a sermon that was remarkably popular in his town. He had entitled it “That Delightful Fellow: The American Boy.” From this day forward, the day when letters ended the lives of two of his sons, the sermon disappears. He will never give it again. And silently, the body of the Baptist minister starts to weaken, a fact not yet known in Milton, Wisconsin.

Across the American universe from a tiny Wisconsin town is Los Angeles, California, a city with more than a half-million people. One of these 570,000 residents shares Lester Randolph’s life calling as a person of God. He is John Hoick, pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on the corner of Eagle Street and Euclid Avenue. He’s celebrating his third year as leader of this congregation and his twentieth as a theologian. Hoick learns that health officials in Los Angeles are closing all religious services until influenza passes. His church goes dark.

Hoick springs to action in the overturning, upending, and upside-downing. Right in front of him he sees something others don’t see. It’s so very clear to John Hoick—it’s not an end, it’s a beginning. A gleam of light streams through the clouds. He wants to help it shine on other people. A darkened church is not the end.

Hoick decides that Christianity can be strengthened, lifted up, in a community that he believes has become disenchanted with spiritual worship. So, a voice tells Hoick and Hoick tells himself, I’ll make Sunday-school lesson plans for children in the neighborhood; I’ll make copies of the passages from the Bible that would have been used for a sermon; and I’ll make a form for people to follow in praying by themselves in their homes. And I’ll contact the guy who organizes the local Boy Scout troop so they can leave the materials at the front door of neighborhood homes.

They’ll knock on the doors.

To Hoick it’s a day of rejuvenation. He remembers his faith, the story of the first Christians and their churches at home. They had nothing, Hoick recalls, and yet they still had everything. When just about everyone around him laments the decline, the decay, the demise, Hoick sees a path open up in front of him.

In northeastern France, the Meuse-Argonne offensive is in its second stage. Among the nearly two million American soldiers is the 77th Division. Most men in the 77th are from New York City. They are surrounded, fighting for their lives in the Argonne forest. The forest where they lay is nothing more than wooden stakes, the limbs shot off and the bark shorn away.

The men at the bottom of the trees are already becoming known as the Lost Battalion.

A thought for you on Day 33, April 14, 2020, thirty-three days after President Trump declares Covid-19 a national emergency—so much strangeness. We are overturned. We are upended. We are upside-down. Part of this condition is the injection of things that are bizarre, beyond explanation and understanding. They misfit, these strange attractors. Yet we can’t fall prey to the temptation to jump into them in search of clarification, just like the Janesville town council didn’t give into the temptation to blast and pound Buckmaster. It’s waste. Take your time and talent and put them to far better work in action, service, contribution, helping, and that old-fashioned word I used a while ago—duty. Some clarification will take time to unfold. Some will never unfold. Skip it for now and let it come when time shows it to be best. Do what’s in arm’s length right now. Your deeds will exist on their own only if you start to do them in the overturn, the upend, the upside-down. You be Hoick and then offer honor to the Randolphs.


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