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May 21st, 2009
An Idle Word: Bring out your dead

An Idle Word: A column

The last time I was in New Orleans, I picked up a signed copy of John M. Barry’s Then recently released “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History” at Faulkner House Books. Barry’ 2004 history of the “Spanish flu” of 1918 was drawing rave reviews and I returned home to place it on my bedside reading stack where it has set for five years.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I went to the library and checked out Barry’s previous book, the 1998 “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America” to compare with the relief efforts of present times.

It was this flood that left thousands of Southerners homeless and inspired the Crescent City’s unofficial new anthem, Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1967,” best known in the Aaron Neville version. Ironically, New Orleans was spared serious damage by that flood, thanks mainly because of an astute businesses leadership that had the levees dynamited so the floodwaters poured into the adjoining parish.

President Coolidge’s Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover spearheaded the national government’s relief efforts and while there is controversy about how effective he really was, the pre-FEMA assignment did catapult him from a dark horse candidate into the White House. At least, Coolidge never said, “Great work, Hoovie.”

So, five years after its publication, Barry has once again achieved topicality with his 500-page tome on the flu that is estimated to have killed as many as 100 million people worldwide. With the near panic surrounding “swine flu,” it is fascinating to read of both the changes and similarities and draw your own conclusions as to whether we are on the brink of another pandemic.

The book is at the San Marcos Public Library and while currently checked out can be put on reserve for you.

To begin with, it seems as though the Spaniards got a bad rap with the naming of this all-too-real pandemic.

While it is impossible to pinpoint with certainty the origin of the “Great Influenza,”

Barry seems convinced that it most likely began on the remote plains of Kansas in January of 1918. A doctor from Haskell County whose practice covered hundreds of miles, Loring Minor became deluged with dozens of patients with flu symptoms that were “more violent, rapid…and sometimes lethal” than he had ever recorded, striking down seemingly healthy and robust people in the area.

By March of that year, the flu seemed to have passed but the doctor remained “frightened” by the possibility of what the Haskell County outbreak could represent and tried, with little success, to alert public health officials nationwide about its implications.

But with the passing the of the Haskell County flu, people’s thought’s again turned to World War I, which the United States had entered late but with a vengeance as President Woodrow Wilson mounted an unprecedented military build-up.

Only 300 miles from Haskell County, Camp Funston was the second-largest military containment in the nation, a severely crowded training camp, which became the new host for the flu, which was then spread to Europe as the troops were deployed.

Publicity about the new strain of flu was discouraged, sometimes extremely, not only in the U.S. but also in Europe lest rumors damage troop morale. Spain being a neutral country in World War I had the only extensive press coverage warning of this outbreak, which thus became known as the “Spanish flu.”

The disease soon raged around the world and the hardest hit were the young, whose bodies had not had a lifetime of immunity built up from prior flu strains, and remote areas where such diseases had never been known. Entire Eskimo villages and South Sea islands were virtually decimated.

In major metropolitan centers such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia, corrupt political machines put patronage ahead of public health concerns. And there literally were carriages on those city streets calling on citizens to bring out their dead as in medieval times of plague.

American medical training was still in its adolescence, being in a woeful state at the beginning of the 20th Century, and a handful of doctors worked feverishly to find answers.

And then it began to burn itself out. But the work of the scientists continued and led to the breakthroughs that have helped contained such pestilences. Until now?

I came away from Barry’s book with the feeling that the current “swine flu” panic will go the way of “Legionnaire’s disease” and other brief outbreaks during the recent past, due not only to medical science but to public awareness, which was so curtailed during the “Great Influenza.”

Of course, I’m somewhat buoyed by Wednesday’s report on MSNBC that if you’re older than 52, you’re probably protected from “swine flue” by virtue of the immunity build-up from earlier encounters with flu virus.

So, I don’t believe we’ll be seeing any openings in the local health department for “bring out your dead” cart drivers.

But then again, if you begin to experience strange dreams of an elderly African-American woman beckoning you to her cabin in the cornfields of Nebraska or a dark figure in cowboy boots and a denim jacket with a “Smiley Face” button on it walking down a lonely road, let me know so I can head to Boulder and start preparing my own Stand.


TO INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY: Thanks for the kind words but if you still remember me as “Scoop” Cunningham, it makes me wonder what institution your memories are of. Then again if you’re old enough to remember me as “Scoop,” you’re lucky to still have a memory.

TO DIANA: Thanks for saying that I “hit the nail on the head” last week. You obviously haven’t seen my swollen and battered thumb.

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2 thoughts on “An Idle Word: Bring out your dead

  1. Thanks, to Scoop–yes, I am that old–for the review of Barry’s book, “The Great Influenza:….” . I remain unconvinced that this particular H1N1 virus has run its course. It is spring in Mexico, as it is here, not late fall and winter–the time of year when flu spreads. Our first clues will come from South America. If it catches it, North America may catch it, too, in November-December. Legionnaires disease still pops up sporadically, but it requires a specific and rare environment for it to proliferate. Thus it is never likely to reach epidemic proportions. But I still hold my nose when I pass by a hot tub display at a big box home building center or when the vegetable misters cook off in a grocery store.

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