Learning From The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Day 38

On Day 38, October 15, 1918, the heat turns up.

Inside the pot, steam rises, water boils, and something turns over and over.

At the town of Verdun on the banks of the Meuse River, a group of boys-boiled-men follows Captain Harry Truman back into combat. They’ve been away from the fighting Germans for a bit. Their enemy for some days was the sickness, influenza, that is killing as many as the uniformed enemy. Now, though, they’re readying the 75-mm guns to fire again. Truman pauses for a moment and thinks back to Missouri, his home among the sycamores, so distant from the dead beech trees of northeastern France.

Another man from Missouri sits in the big chair up above the smaller chairs spread out below him in the great hall. On Capitol Hill in Washington DC he’s known as “Champ,” the nickname of James Beauchamp Clark. That’s Champ as in Congressman from that part of Missouri called “Little Dixie,” and as in Speaker of the House of Representatives. Champ Clark slams the gavel down on the piece of wood in front of him. Whack!

The sound echoes across the House chamber. 166 empty chairs and 166 empty desks are there. 50 people—50 congressional representatives—look up at Champ Clark. There are only 50 sitting there because everyone else is sick with influenza. The first congressional death from influenza is a week old.

The 50 say nothing. The 50 do nothing. And it’s all going according to plan.

Champ Clark yells out for anyone who opposes the rule to begin debate. “Anyone opposed?!?!”

Silence from the 50.

You see, it’s prearranged top to bottom by Clark a short while ago inside a small office at the Capitol building.

Again, Clark slams the gavel. He nods, smiles inwardly, and the discussion begins. He’s bent the rules so something can be done as a national governmental institution in response to influenza. A congressman from Illinois, Dr. Martin Foster, breathes with relief. Now, his bill can be openly argued over, potentially changed and, maybe one day soon, voted on to send over to the Senate. If the Senate agrees, off it could go to the desk of President Woodrow Wilson, the same desk where papers about Wilson’s sole focus, the World War, are stacked high.

Dr. Foster is proposing money to pay for more doctors to join the “reserve” of the United States Public Health Service. Organized to fight influenza, Foster hopes they’ll lighten the load on the few doctors still seeing patients back in the United States. If enrolled, these Reservists will join the frontlines in cities, towns, and villages across the nation.

Such a turn on Capitol Hill. Back last April 1917, 18 months ago, no one who voted for the US to enter the World War had ever dreamed of influenza doing what it’s been doing for the past 38 days. Back then, Champ Clark was in the minority who had voted against joining the war. He never thought he’d be balancing a war over there against a war right here.

While debate begins in the government, influenza presides over the governed. In Lakeland, Florida 10-year old Lula May Carter and her father have just started coughing, only a few days after Mother Carter and Mrs. Carter, one and the same, had survived the illness. In Seattle, Washington 15-year old Violet Harrison writes excitedly in her diary about her school closing, beginning tomorrow. In Indianapolis, Indiana 33-year old Johnny Aitkens dies. To followers of the new pastime, auto racing, Aitkens is well-known for having led the first lap of a new event called the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.

And in the ranks of caregivers, under assault by influenza’s invisible army, two soldiers fight bizarrely different wars. In northern New Jersey, Dr. Frances Tyson is 43-years old and almost a decade into a semi-forced retirement; her husband had preferred she not continue seeing patients. She sees the destruction around her, tells her husband it’s time for her to serve in the fight against influenza, and becomes the town’s health director and the schools’ chief medical officer. Meanwhile, south of Tyson, in North Carolina’s city of Charlotte and county of Mecklenburg, Dr. C.C. Hudson—knowledgeable, innovative, and skilled—continues his personal effort to weaken the public’s belief in the dangers of influenza. Skewing and misshaping the data, he reports that 20 people have died of influenza when in fact 103 people are killed so far by this enemy. Two doctors, two missions, one purpose clearly known, one purpose utterly unimaginable.

It’s Day 38. The guns fire. The wars go on. And the water boils.

A thought for you on Day 38, April 19, 2020, thirty-eight days after President Trump declares Covid-19 a national emergency—the world belongs to the essense. At the bottom of the boiling pot, when the water’s gone, one thing that remains is the world. I’m referring to the world around you. It might be totally redrawn and reconfigured. Still, a world for you will be there. You’ll have to make of it what you’re called and able to do. Each of the stories for Day 38 involves a world of varying extents and dimensions. For some it’s a family, or a place, or a life’s work, or a life’s moment. Some will be recognizable. Some not at all and with only the darkest forms moving in the shadows. Regardless, the essence that remains will include a world for you to inhabit, with an environment for you to experience. The current state of reduction to essence is one of loss, struggle, and disappearance. But these are temporary stages on the way to conclusion. At the end of conclusion is not a space of void. It is, rather, a world refound in even the smallest of drops.

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