Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Nightmare of October

(This is another piece I wrote for my congregation's newsletter. I hope you enjoy it. I am on vacation this week and will not be posting thoughts on the RCL readings.)

An emergency influenza ward in Oakland during the 1918 pandemic.

Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty.” (Isaiah 13:6)

The falling leaves of October are upon us. The trappings of Halloween, the spider webs and bats and ghostly pumpkins, can be seen all around the neighborhoods. Americans are in love with fright, or so it seems. But this October my thoughts go to a horror more ghastly, fearful, and deadly than any ghost story, fright flick, or Stephen King novel. It is a true story, and it happened a hundred years ago.

In October of 1918 over three hundred thousand Americans died a slow and horrible death. It was a world-wide pandemic, the deadliest in all of human history. The first cases of this plague had been reported in Kansas in January, but by October the scourge had not only spread across America, but around the entire globe—even to remote South Sea Islands and to the Arctic. Historians believe that this viral monster, which became known as the “Spanish Flu” or, today, the “Great Influenza,” infected one out of every three human beings on the face of the earth. 10 to 20 percent of all those infected died—mostly young adults in their twenties or thirties. The Great Influenza killed more people in its twenty-four month reign of terror than the AIDS epidemic killed in twenty-four years. It killed more than died of the Black Death in a century during the Middle Ages. It killed more than succumbed to the violence of the trenches of the First World War. Estimates range from fifty to one hundred million people lost their lives to the flu.

One of the cities hit the hardest by the pandemic was Philadelphia. Health officials warned the city leaders, begging them to cancel a victory parade in honor of the success of American troops fighting in France. The city fathers paid no heed. The parade was held, the crowds came out in the thousands, and the epidemic swept through Philadelphia like a match touched to gasoline. It is said that in one week over forty-six hundred Philadelphians died of the flu. Corpses were actually stacked on the streets to be buried without caskets in mass graves.

Upstate, the flu spread through the coal country, easily spread by young men working in close quarters. A twenty-two-year-old mining electrician in Taylor fell ill with the disease and died in October of 1918, leaving behind a widow, a four-year-old daughter, and a two-month-old baby boy who would grow up to be my father.

For people of my dad’s generation—and there are so few of them left now—it was impossible to grow up without knowing some family which had lost a father or a mother. There was no SNAP program in those days for a family without a bread-winner. There was no Social Security, no welfare. There was only the charitable support of family, the goodness of neighbors, or the ministry of the church. It doesn’t surprise me that his generation was considered the most church-going in American history.

I wonder at times what my dad’s youth was like since he was raised without a father, but he often told me of how uncles and others banded together to look after him and his mother and sister. Selflessness seems to be at the core of those who grew up during that time. And to think: while they were still children, the entire U.S. economy collapsed in the stock market crash, leading to twenty-four percent unemployment by 1933. When they came of age, the world again dove headlong into unspeakable violence. Over four hundred thousand American servicemen never came home from North Africa, Europe, or the Pacific. Those left behind during World War II bought bonds, planted victory gardens, and endured rationing. And prayed.

I think now of the children who grew up in the shadow of the Great Influenza of 1918 and of how their elders taught them compassion and duty and faith—lessons which would be useful when they faced the Depression and the war that were to come. I wonder how we in this time would fare if we were to face a pandemic of the magnitude of 1918. Would it teach us anything about being community? Would it take us out of our shells of individuality and force us to open our hearts to our neighbors? Does God need to send us another horror to wake us up and remind us we are all rowing the same boat?

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