A hundred years ago in the fall of 1918, there were many who seriously wondered if the world was coming to an end. A great war was still raging in Europe and decimating the young male population. Across the globe there was unrest and a general feeling that life would never be quite the same again. The worst surprise of that autumn was to come in the form of a tiny virus not yet visible to the human eye with the microscopes of the day. It would lead to an outbreak of influenza that eventually killed as many as five million people worldwide and hundreds of thousands in the United States. One sneeze from an infected person had the potential to infect ten thousand, and for a time nobody knew what to do.
It appears to have begun at a military base in Kansas where it was first thought to be little more than the typical seasonal outbreak of illness. It soon became apparent that the new strain was unlike anything doctors and biologists had ever before seen. It started with coughing and a fever that quickly grew ever more severe. It filled the lungs of the ill with so much fluid that they literally drowned. Before long there were not enough beds or doctors for the affected, and not enough coffins for those who died. During the months of September and October of that year the disease spread like wildfire, sparking dire accusations that the Germans had somehow planted germs in the bodies of soldiers fighting in the trenches. The fact that German troops were just as susceptible to the sickness did not allay the fears of those who were losing loved ones and friends so rapidly that it felt as though there was nothing that was going to stop the rampage of death.
More American citizens died during those weeks than in all of the wars of the twentieth century, and yet there was no cure, no idea of what the cause might be. For some reason the virus was more likely to spare the very young and old, but was most deadly for strong and healthy adults in their twenties and thirties. It would be years later before researchers found the virus that had wreaked such havoc on the population, and began to understand that the sickness had burned itself out when those who survived became immune without any form of medical assistance. Our understanding of such diseases grew over time, but always there continues to be a silent fear that something similar may one day return to infect humanity like a plague.
I had never heard about the horrific influenza of 1918, until I read a book shared by my daughter. She is a nurse and science teacher who has a great deal of interest in such things, and she thought that I might find the topic interesting as well. I was stunned to learn about the horrific events and to realize that none of the older people I had known who would have been young adults during that period had ever mentioned the event. I was particularly surprised that my grandfather who was well known for his vivid stories of the past had not brought up the topic. Since I was unaware of that part of history I had not known to quiz him about what he remembered regarding that sad chapter, and so I was not privy to his eye witness account.
Historians conjecture that this particular episode must have been so personally horrific that those who had endured it did not want to speak of it again. Perhaps it was the impetus for the roaring liveliness of the twenties when people appeared to throw all caution to the wind. Living through such tragedy must have caused people to view the world much differently than they otherwise might have. Most certainly they would have wanted to blunt the memories that must have been quite horrific. When the next decade of frivolity was followed by a worldwide depression and eventually another war, the personal stories of illness and death might have seemed trivial to them by comparison. In truth, they would have been right to wonder if the bad news would ever stop, and when it finally did they most probably decided never to speak of it again.
My father-in-law served in Korea during the war there. He has only mentioned what he saw there once in all of the years that I have known him. His eyes filled with tears as he recounted his experience and his voice was shaky. It was much too painful a memory for him to think about for very long. I have noticed that my uncles who fought during World War II were just as reluctant to share stories of their adventures as were my peers who fought in Vietnam. I suppose that there are events that are so horrible that we prefer to bury the thoughts of them deep within our psyches. It is simply too much to dwell on them for very long.
I suspect that those who were witness to the 1918 influenza epidemic simply did not want to speak of the unspeakable. They lost loved ones and friends in a matter of days and weeks. They worried that the horror might return at any moment. To dwell on their heartbreak and fears would have been unbearable and so they did not include mention of the outbreak in their tales of living. The story languished until curious souls began to ferret out the details and bring them to light once again. What is a curiosity for those of us removed by a hundred years was all too real for those who were there when it happened.
Each generation has its share of tragedy. For those of us who grew up just after World War II the events etched permanently inside our brains include the good, the bad and the ugly. We recall with clarity exactly where we were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It pains us to think of the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy that made is wonder if anarchy was going to rule the day. Many of have personal tragedies that affected us as well, the death of a father or hearing that a friend was killed in Vietnam. We smile when when we think of the first man to walk on the moon, and recoil at the vision of the twin towers in New York City falling like toy constructions before our eyes. These things affect us and change us and our ways of viewing the world, but we don’t often speak of them because the thoughts associated with them are too powerful and emotional. I suppose that the reality is that no matter how conversant we are there are no words sufficient to describe such things, and so we are silent just as my grandparents were about so much of the history that affected them.
Today we have new worries, but mostly go about our business hoping and praying that none of our biggest concerns will ever take place. Our natures compel us to be optimistic and to carry on even when situations seem dire. Like Scarlett O’Hara we believe that tomorrow will be a better day and we concentrate our thinking on the future rather than the past and the present. It’s how we survive. Still, there is something so fascinating about events like the influenza epidemic of 1918, that we can’t avert our gaze. We have to look if only for a moment so that we might remember that we are not immune to the same kinds of heartbreaking situations that plagued our ancestors. We are as human as they were, and we can only hope that when faced with tragedy we will respond well and not be judged too harshly for any mistakes that we make.
It’s all too easy to form opinions of what might have or should have happened. but we will never know what we might actually have done if we had faced similar hardships. It must have been a dark time, but somehow those who came before us found a way to keep moving forward without focusing too much on a past that they could not change. Perhaps we might learn from them and embrace each new day as an opportunity rather than dwelling on the heartache of the past. Yesterday is gone, today is an opportunity, and tomorrow allows us to repair any mistakes we have made. It’s the cycle that keeps the story of humanity alive.