What ails us.
Alfred Crosby America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918
On March 11, 1918, an Army private at Fort Riley, Kansas, reported to the camp hospital with complaints of fever, sore throat and headache. By noon, the hospital had treated more than one hundred soldiers for similar symptoms, by week's end, five hundred. Thereafter, the Spanish influenza swept across the United States, afflicting one-quarter of the country's population. One in five died; 195, 000 Americans died in the month of October, 1918, alone. Many, including high ranking military officials, believed the influenza was evidence of germ warfare. This theory gained credibility when newspapers reported the remarks of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Doane, who was in charge of health and sanitation for U.S. troops. "It would be quite easy, "he said, "for one of these German agents to turn loose Spanish influenza germs in some place where large numbers of persons are assembled. The Germans have started epidemics in Europe and there is no reason why they should be particularly gentle with America."
By the end of the pandemic, half a million people in the U.S., and twenty five million worldwide, had died. As many WWI servicemen died from the influenza as were killed in combat. Ten times as many civilians as soldiers were claimed by the virus. While influenza fatalities usually occur among the very young and the very old, those most likely to die from the Spanish influenza were young adults between the ages of twenty and forty five, many of whom succumbed within forty eight hours of the first appearance of symptoms. Those who survived the Spanish influenza often suffered debilitating depression for years after other effects of the virus had disappeared.
The epidemic reached its height in West Virginia between September 28 and October 5, 1918. The Martinsburg Journal reported that public health officials confiscated aspirin and other medical stock from local drugstores. Auburn Wagon Co. in Martinsburg was temporarily released from its wartime government contracts to furnish forms and materials for kiln-dried white oak caskets. Employees of Foreman Construction stopped work on a building for Berkeley Woolen Co. to dig graves.
Our national memory bears little trace of the epidemic. Coach Northup, my 8th grade West Virginia history teacher, didn't include the Spanish Influenza in his lesson plan, although mines were shut down as the virus made its way through coal towns so the unafflicted could care for the sick and bury the dead. In high-school history classes, Mrs. McNeely made us memorize a detailed time line of all the battles and skirmishes of WWI, but the pandemic of 1918-19 didn't warrant a mention.
It's Tuesday and I'm home on the couch, wrapped in an afghan, nursing another cold. My mother says I am "run down." It's unusual for me to be sick. But this season I've been plagued by little illnesses: colds, the stomach flu, a sinus infection, and tonsillitis. My body barely recovers from one ailment before another one strikes. Early on in my recent infirmity I'd had my fill of daytime television so, while riding out each sickness, I've read novels, magazines and history books. Today, I'm passing the time sifting through a box of family photographs, thinking about what makes us sick, what makes us well, and what conditions pass from one generation to the next.
This is a photograph of the Howell family of Jackson County, 1919. The girl with the hat is my paternal grandmother, Chloe Grace Howell, at 17. She was born on June 9, 1902, although there is no official record of her birth. Births and deaths were not officially recorded in West Virginia until 1918, and even then compliance was sporadic. There isn't much official mention of the Spanish influenza in Jackson County, either at the courthouse or the library. No newspapers from the time of the epidemic have been preserved. But the virus was there.
Chloe's brother, Horton, an Army medic stationed in France, included in his letters news of the soldiers and civilians who were dying of Spanish influenza. Back home, Chloe cared for her brothers, Raymond and Floyd, who had contracted the flu, burning their soiled bed linens and burying the contents of their chamber pots in the field behind the barn. Perhaps it was the ugliness, the stench and the danger of these sickbed responsibilities that left Chloe without a domestic or maternal bone in her body, and triggered her craving for freedom and sensuality.
A beautiful young woman, tall and lean like her father, blue eyes like her mother, Chloe was the envy of her sisters. Even years later, when Lora and Bess recounted for me the names, birthdates and personal histories of those in the photo, they begrudged Chloe the hat she wore. She had only one child, late, at the age of thirty seven. That child was my father. She and my grandfather never married. They lived together for brief periods while my father was an infant, then not at all. When my father was just a toddler, Chloe "went off" and lived with other men for weeks at a time, leaving her baby with her sister Lora, whose own children were mostly grown. Lora was as close as my father came to having a "mother," and as close as I got to having a bread-baking, gray-haired grandmother on my father's side of the family. Yet, as much as Lora loved my father, she condemned Chloe; in her eyes, Chloe was a sinner. Not just because she'd had multiple lovers, or borne a child out of wedlock, or left that child for her sister to raise, but because she chewed tobacco and danced and wore red lipstick and men's cologne long after her hair turned white, long after she'd moved into her subsidized apartment under the Shadle Bridge, long after she should have known better.
I don't know any of these things about Chloe from my father. I know these things about Chloe from listening, wide-eyed and unnoticed, while great aunts and great uncles and cousins twice removed told stories around the dinner table or in front porch swings or at someone's funeral. I can only wonder what my father remembers when he thinks of his mother. It's not something I'd be comfortable asking him about. Our conversations are restrained, nothing intimate, nothing too close to addressing old wounds or painful truths. We can discuss the weather, history or mutual acquaintances. When my defenses are down my father, a rabid Democrat, can pull me into a discussion of politics, and we'll argue for sport. My father and I are not at a loss for words. Our losses lie somewhere below the surface of the words we have for each other.
In the alveoli, tiny air sacs in the lungs where gaseous waste from the blood is exchanged for oxygen, the human body is as delicate as a soap bubble. Each of the 750 million alveoli is the thickness of a single red blood cell and, when healthy, are buoyant like a balloon. When lungs are affected by pneumonia, which often develops as a result of influenza, the lung tissue becomes coarse and consolidated. But the lungs of those who died from Spanish influenza looked nothing like the lungs of influenza victims doctors were used to seeing on autopsy. The alveoli in the lungs of these victims filled with fluid, then ruptured. As a patient's oxygen supply decreased, their extremities turned blue, then black.
As Johan Hultin, a physician researching the epidemic, observed, "That was how nurses determined who had the best chance of surviving. If the medical staff saw your feet were black, they'd put you off to one side to die so they could concentrate their energy and resources on those with some chance of pulling through."
In 1960, immediately after graduating from Ripley High School, my father left West Virginia for the first time, riding a train out of the landscape of hills and rivers toward the Midwestern flatlands, and down into the Texas heat for basic training. This is a photograph of my father, a medic, stationed at Schilling Air Force Base, Salina, Kansas, in October,1961,just days before the Bay of Pigs invasion. It was in Kansas that, perhaps for the first time, someone took an interest in my father's future. A doctor encouraged him to go to college and pursue a career as a nurse anesthetist. My father was not obligated to anyone, and the Air Force provided him a kind of stability he hadn't known before, forced though it was. He had not yet met my mother at the Salina U.S.O.. He had not yet taken on a wife and a child, finished his military commitment, then worked nights in a flour mill while struggling through basic college courses during the day. He had not yet cut short his education and moved his wife and child back to West Virginia to work as a laborer for the Department of Highways, then thirty years as a laboratory technician in a chemical plant. The day that photograph was taken may have been the last on which my father thought of himself as having potential.
If the traits that make us individuals reside in our DNA, then somewhere in my cells Chloe's capriciousness and independence spiral around my father's melancholy sense of duty. It's an uneasy pairing, one characteristic always distrustful of and concealed from the other. These pieces sometimes feel so disparate that I'm tempted to chalk them up to accident. But, I think I study and catalog family photographs hoping to find some strand of recognition from one generation to the next, hoping to name the thing that tethers us to each other.
This is a photograph of Chloe the way I want to remember her, smiling, sparkling. When we were still small, my father took my younger sister and me to visit Grandma Chloe often. He never stayed, just dropped us off and went on to work or to run errands. The time we spent with our grandmother in her tworoom apartment could be stifling. She had a television, black and white, but allowed us to watch only evangelical faith healers or soap operas, which she called her "stories." If we visited during the winter months, her disposition was often sour, her temper short. We listened to a litany of complaints against her siblings, their alliances, slights and jealousies. We memorized her long list of physical ailments, chief among them a "dropped uterus" and "arthritis of the tailbone."
When we were hungry, she fed us warm colby cheese, warm dill pickles, chicken noodle soup and orange marshmallow candy. She offered us buttermilk, but we declined in favor of tap water. If we were visiting in the summer and a storm happened to come up, the three of us huddled in the apartment's tiny bathroom, because she was deathly afraid of thunder and lightning.
But sometimes, if her mood and the weather were good, Chloe promised us an outing to Heck's department store or Battle Monument Park and Gift Shop or TuEnDuWei Restaurant. Then we'd wait for hours while she washed and set and combed her hair, put on rouge and layers of red lipstick, counted out her money and put it in her handbag with a handkerchief, face powder and Sen Sens. Finally, she'd lock the door to her apartment, check it, then check it again, and we'd be off. Once out of the apartment, my sister and I had to walk quietly, as children were to be seen, not heard. If our outing was to the restaurant, we had to eat quietly also, but could have pie, any flavor, and as much Coca Cola as we wanted. Chloe didn't eat, drank only coffee with lots of cream, which she sipped from the saucer, not from the cup. She let us put dimes in the jukebox and play Loretta Lynn songs. Those days in the restaurant a steady stream of politicians, farmers, and shop owners stopped by our booth to chat with Chloe, and she laughed loudly and often, an inviting, open-mouthed kind of laugh.
Charming as she could be, Grandma Chloe wasn't able to soften my father's temperament. Sometimes our visits with her ended abruptly with my father blowing his car horn from the parking lot. If he came to the door, he came only to the door. She did her best to hold him there, claiming her oven wasn't working or that she needed a ride to the drugstore, or that she didn't understand a letter from the insurance man. But he was not moved. When my sister and I had hurried into our shoes and sweaters and scrambled into his red Ford Fairlane, he was silent, driving with one hand on the steering wheel, tapping out an angry beat with his thumb. And there in the backseat, we knew better than to say anything on the way home.
As a child, I had bad tonsils. Every other month they'd flare up and my mother would take me to Dr. Eshenauer's office, where she worked as an insurance clerk. Dr. Eshenauer and my mother were fond of each other, like a niece and a beloved uncle. He was old and gruff and scared the daylights out of me, but I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing it. Maybe he expected all kids to be like my sister, bellowing and screaming until they had to be consoled on their mothers' laps while he examined them. But not me. I climbed up onto his examining table by myself, a no nonsense, no tantrum, no tears kind of kid. And while he poked my belly, looked in my ears with a tiny light, and examined the lymph nodes in my neck with rough, stubby fingers, I watched him. I watched him and nodded or shook my head or shrugged my shoulders in response to his infrequent questions. This, I think, made him suspicious.
The diagnosis was always the same, tonsillitis, as was the treatment: a shot of penicillin, chalky pink pills for a week, no school until the fever subsided. Dr. Eshenauer didn't lie or sugar coat the truth about the injection, and he didn't waste time. He coaxed me onto my belly, pulled down my panties, made a swipe with a cold alcohol swab, then plunged the needle in. Even then, no tears. But he always ended with a great smack to my bottom which sounded worse than it felt. I'm sure he cupped his hand to magnify the noise of this final indignity. And it was that slap, though I knew it was coming, which inevitably made the tears fall.
Back home it was my father who sat vigil while the sickness played itself out. I slept on the couch wrapped in a quilt, or kicking off the quilt, depending on my temperature, and he sat next to me in his easy chair. When I woke, he spoke only to encourage me to take sips of gingerale or to "open" or "close" my mouth around a thermometer. He doled out pink antibiotics and orange baby aspirin on schedule, and sometimes brought me warm chicken soup in a cup. But, when I felt a little stronger and could sit up and play with my crayons and coloring books, it would be business as usual between us.
Alfred Crosby, author of"America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918" attributes our history's silence about Spanish influenza to a collective"inaptitude for wonder and fear." He notes that in 1918-19, other major events were competing with the virus for America's attention and imagination. The Spanish influenza swept through communities, claimed its victims quickly, then moved on, leaving no lingering threat of future harm. Thus, while statistics describing the Spanish influenza may have been recorded, the virus did not capture the interest of many historians or more than a handful of writers and poets. The pandemic has, for the most part, slipped from the country's memory as a result of prolonged silence.
It's surprising how often I associate "silence" with my father. He was not, and is not, typically a silent man. He can be a skillful, but sometimes overbearing, conversationalist. He is a large man with a booming voice who does not keep his opinions to himself. When I was a child, he indulged in great fits of anger and wounding tirades detailing what he judged to be my failings, shortcomings and flaws. He used language like a weapon, knowing just how hard and how far to fling an accusation or an indictment to ensure it lodged, permanently, somewhere too deep to ever be called back. In his anger, he had the stamina of a warrior trained not to stop until the vanquished was dead or dying, or, in the case of his wife and daughters, limp and crying.
No, the silence I attribute to him is not the reserved and embarrassed hush of one who does not know where to find the words and, therefore, cannot speak. My father's silence is the deliberate refusal to speak when expected, to give when an appeal for words has been made. His is a silence with mens rea.
My mother and I (though not my sister) forgave him this cruel silence and everything else because we knew his history. We empathized and tried to understand what he must have felt, being ashamed of the circumstances of his birth and abandoned by his mother. I felt a peculiar responsibility to protect him. Maybe I sensed that he'd given up his own ambitions, whatever they had been, to marry my mother and ward off for me the same cloud of illegitimacy under which he'd grown up. And, perhaps out of gratitude I made excuses for him, adopted his ideals as my own and worked to fill what was empty in him. By being a good girl, a good student, a good daughter, I tried to earn from him what he should have given freely. But whatever goodness I was able to muster, it wasn't enough to convince him to dole out even a few words of affection or encouragement, words that might have made all the difference.
By 1988, Chloe had outlived all her siblings, her friends, and just about everyone who'd known her when she was a young woman. Though frail and in a nursing home, she could still recite the alphabet, backwards, faster than most people can recite it forwards. My father made sure she had warm clothes, sweets in her room, and regular visits from the doctor, but he saw her infrequently, mostly on holidays, when he brought her to our house for meals.
Near the end, my father increased the frequency of his visits to the nursing home, standing always at the foot of Chloe's bed, hands in his pockets. She was small with thin, transparent skin, and had curled into herself. She no longer spoke, though she sometimes grunted in the rhythm of conversation. He never relaxed, never touched her, never stayed long.
This is a photograph of me near the end of a difficult pregnancy with twins, near the beginning of what would become the Gulf War. While American troops were being inoculated against potential germ warfare and outfitted to survive nerve gas attacks by Saddam Hussein's armies, I was confined to bed, hoping to hold off labor until the babies' lungs had matured enough to avoid a ventilator.
An ultrasound a few weeks earlier had clearly shown one of the babies to be a boy. I remember calling my parents to tell them the good news and to tell them the name we had chosen for our son. As usual, my father was on the telephone in their living room, my mother on the extension in the bedroom.
"What did you say?" my father asked.
"Richard, after Rick and his dad, and Ross, after you and your dad."
I'm not sure what I expected in return for this gesture, this bond I was making for him. Maybe I wanted to heal him. But the response I got was no real surprise. Silence. Then the click of the receiver, and my mother and I were left to carry on in that silence as best we could.
Chloe died on April 16, 1996. The details of her funeral were left to my father. He chose her casket, bronze, with lilacs painted on the side, creamy quilted satin inside. My father is not a religious man, distrusts the clergy, doesn't even make the expected appearances at church on Christmas and Easter. So I was surprised when he carefully pointed out to me a chamber at the foot of the casket which held an aluminum cylinder. Inside the cylinder, her name had been carefully printed on a scroll, identifying her for her Maker.
He'd sent my mother for a dress. She bought a floral print, pink, and a dignified scarf. Almost as an afterthought, my father found the jewelry box that had been in his basement since Chloe moved into CareHaven, and selected a brooch. At the tiny Baden Presbyterian church, with only me, my sister, two of Chloe's nephews, a widowed niece, Brother Jordan and Brother Durst in attendance, my father watched my mother pin the brooch to Chloe's scarf. Then, after a simple sermon by Brother Jordan, and one hymn played on a tinny piano, we made our way across the muddy church yard to a tent, where we said nothing but the Lord's Prayer. Walking back to our cars, my father wiped his eyes, once. I stopped to comfort him, put my hand on his shoulder, but he kept walking.
Chloe's blithe heart lives on in my sister, who did not try to conform to what my father wanted her to be. She took to vodka when she was thirteen. When she was only a little older she dyed her hair red. She smoked. Instead of blue jeans and t-shirts, she wore flamboyant costumes with bangles and beads and dangling earrings. She landed leading roles in community theatre. When she was in college, she systematically worked her way through romantic relationships with the brothers of Sigma Nu and they made her an honorary member. My sister and my father fought and screamed and argued until she was sobbing uncontrollably and he had slammed doors on his way to the garage. My father and I, on the other hand, gave each other the silent treatment, and still do. It's easy to say what separates my sister and my father and to identify the volatile temper they share. It's not so easy to see the sickness that passed between my father and me.
Recently, I'm not as inclined to forgive my father's silence as I once was. Rather than freeing me, years of forgiveness have left me feeling tired and defeated, like I've been rowing the family boat with a single oar. My current feelings for my father are careful, measured and dutiful.
In this, I find that he and I are not much different. My father's response to Chloe's free spirit and irresponsibility towards him when he was young was to become miserly in his feelings toward her and anyone else he might have been expected to love. My response to him (and I can only hope it is confined to him) is to expect little and give little in return. I am cordial to my father. I welcome him in my home so that he can see his grandchildren. But I stand back, covet the affection he lavishes on them. I'm bitter because of the chances he's had to break his silence toward me, all of which he's let pass.
It has been suggested, by friend and therapist alike, that I have an opportunity to be the bigger person here, that I could "open a dialogue" between my father and me. But I see no such Hallmark moment in our future. It seems to me too risky an endeavor, with so little to be expected on the investment. So perhaps our fate is to go on this way to the end, holding back, holding out, each too stubborn or too afraid to be the first to say words that might be the beginning of a cure for what ails us.
I have tried to write my way out of silence, to cure myself through intellect. More than once I've thought my way through it, and, using words on a page, inoculated myself so I've been able to say, "Now, I understand what passed between my father and me. Now, I can move on." And this works for awhile. The sorrow lies dormant for months, even for years at a time. But, inevitably, like a virus, it comes back around, infecting my consciousness through a memory, a photograph, an innocent attempt to write about something else. Each time it returns it is ever so slightly different, mutated, so that the words which worked before to arrest it are no longer effective. And, with no new words at my disposal, each time it returns the sorrow goes a little deeper, stays a little longer.
Chloe wouldn't have understood or coddled this kind of sadness. She would have dressed it up with a big hat and red lipstick and taken it dancing. She would have been Chloe. Just Chloe, walking a tightrope, lounging in a lover's embrace, maybe even teetering on the edge of ruin, but, wasting no time on regrets, making herself over for no one.
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|Title Annotation:||'America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918'|
|Author:||Vaglienti, Christine S.|
|Article Type:||Personal account|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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