Learning From The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Day 42

Dr. White’s workplace

When can it become just too much?

One of the too-much times can be when a bad thing you didn’t expect joins the bad thing you’re already coping with.

And the more sudden, the more jolting the second bad thing is…well, it can be very hard to absorb.

That’s the start of Day 42 in the home called Place.

He is Homer. She is Bertha. They’re the Places, Mr and Mrs for what will be their second wedding anniversary next month in the town of Marion, Ohio.

She is vivacious. Strangers don’t exist for her. They’re not around for long because of Bertha’s gift of warmth, friendliness, and hospitality.

He’s not quite that way. A little more reserved, a little more quiet. But the thing you knotice about Homer is that he works like no one else. Dogged, constant, up to the task. All day long he’s working on the railroad, a fireman for the Erie Line.

It’s a grand life for Homer and Bertha Place.

That is, until influenza, the bad thing. By last week the sickness came to the Places. Took advantage of her friendship and his work ethic. And now, Day 42, they’re sealed off from the world, hoping to recover, praying for a future and that the course of life doesn’t become too much. In their little house. But before dawn, a second bad thing.

A mouse might have warned them.

Up the street, in a cellar of a home, down where the onions and potatoes and turnips sit. Likely, a mouse or two is there as well, thankful for the nibble of food. Somewhere near the wooden vegetable bins, a soft whistle. Coming from a hose. A strange odor is there, spreading throughout the cellar. It’s a seeker, a seeker of all things in empty spaces. The odor explores in the darkness. Floor. Walls. Planks in the ceiling. Holes in the corners. And a metal tank. Water inside. Heated by a flame underneath.


And boom.

The open flame ignites the leaking natural gas. The explosion might as well have come from Captain Harry Truman’s 75mm artillery guns in the Argonne woods. Orange fire bursts into the air. Rock and dirt and wood are hurled upward, outward, forward in every direction. The blast unleashes a shock wave. It too is a seeker.

And down the street, window panes on the Place house shatter into a million pieces.

Homer and Bertha leap up, reach for each other, their bodies sick with fever and achiness, coughing and shaking. Good God Almighty, what is happening now? Is this the second thing?

Yes it is, and now it’s over. Back to the first thing and another day.

A few states west, in Springfield, Missouri, a spiritual magazine called the “Christian Evangel” has printed in today’s edition a quote from Jesus Christ: “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers…


Homer and Bertha know all about it.

Arkansas for the past two weeks has known all about Biblical-style plagues. Almost 12,000 cases of influenza have occurred in that time. New York City’s cases of influenza have done nothing but increase in the same span. Officials in Chicago are today re-investigating the city’s hospitals to see if they can find even a few open beds for the hundreds of patients still pouring in. In San Francisco the rate of illness has changed what people argue about—the latest issue is whether to encourage or require people to wear face masks in public.

The approach of a too-much moment can produce strange behavior. In New York the editors of the Tribune state that conspiracy-theorists can’t seriously believe that the cancellation of a speech by William Jennings Bryan—a populist figure with a national following—is the work of urban media elites and not influenza. Also in New York, Dr. Royal Copeland, public health director, continues to insist that the schools won’t be closed. He’s seeing reports where pneumonia is dropping while influenza is climbing and, maybe, that’s a sign influenza will soon drop, too. In Corpus Christi, Texas Mayor Roy Miller is very hopeful the worst is over—he’s predicting a re-opening of churches and schools in twelve more days. Many newspapers push reports of influenza to the back pages or use normalizing language to make it seem less severe.

And in the category of too good to be true, located suggestively close to the too-much-to-take moment, the chief bacteriologist of Philadelphia General Hospital, Dr. C.Y. White, announces that he has the answer—yes, the answer—in the form of a vaccine that will both prevent and treat influenza. He found this answer after weeks of experimentation and, best yet, it will be available free of charge to doctors and patients. White adds a final piece: he followed work done on successfully treating children with infantile paralysis. It’s a miracle, an answered prayer, an ace of hearts dealt from the deck.

Too good to be true. Too much to take. They sit side-by-side on the too long day of October 19, 1918.

A thought for you on Day 42, April 23, 2020, forty-two days after President Trump declares Covid-19 a national emergency—Dr. White’s discovery and announcement. Think for a few minutes about the dynamics of this story. Philadelphia is one of the worst cities for influenza. General Hospital is one of the city’s best medical facilities. Dr. White is in a proper position with the proper credentials to do this vital work. He’s linking it to previous breakthroughs that people will recognize and value. And it’s in time and at the price everyone affords. It can’t get any better. Think now about people reading the newspaper, rushing out to their doctor, and begging for immediate access to the wonder medicine. Then they take it, hopes and dreams rising to fever levels. And nothing. And nothing. And nothing. It’s a cruel fate, indeed. We’re always striking balances in our lives. The balances in play with Covid-19, however, are vast and gigantic. One of them is balancing a gritty realism (which keeps you grounded and gets your through the days) against a glorious optimism (which gives you hope and at least some sliver of cheerfulness for getting through the days). The axiom of trust-but-verify should be adapted to hope-but-realize—realize that while things can and do take a negative turn perhaps more often than not, it’s the hope that drives you forward, raises you up, carries you ahead. Find your hope where you know hope is proven. Hope but realize—it’s a good Place.

One of the work sites of Homer Place, Marion, Ohio, 1918

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