The Influenza

The Influenza

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The Influenza

It was time to bring in the crops--this was one of the best years I'd ever had. For the first time in a long time, I was looking forward to getting into the field to gather the crop I'd worked so hard to grow. A farmer's life is never easy, but this was my year. I'd managed to get more land, and I was way past the days of just putting food on my family's table. The fall of 1918 turned out to be one of the worst times of my life. I had a rather large family--two boys and two girls. They were all teenagers in 1918. My wife, my children, and I all lived in Riley County, Kansas. Fort Riley's Camp Funston brought a lot of activity into the area. In the fall of 1918, there were soldiers there preparing to go overseas to join in the battles. The soldiers brought new life to our community, as well as chaos. We were happy, for the most part, to have the soldiers around our community, until their presence proved too costly.

As I mentioned, in September of 1918, I was eager to get to the fall harvesting. All of my children were excited and ready to help, as they knew the harvest would bring money into the household. We'd heard about the influenza at Camp Funston, and I'd told my family to steer clear of any wayward soldiers. My youngest son began to hang around the camp, against my wishes, in order to see what was occurring there. He and his friends made a habit of sneaking around the outside. We'd managed since the spring to avoid influenza. We heard from workers inside the fort that the soldiers were dying quickly, but we all assumed that it would stay inside the camp and away from our families.

Little by little, in the fall, influenza began to creep into the communities around the camp. I thought I was fortunate in that none of my neighbors worked in or near Camp Funston, and I didn't expect to have to deal with any sickness. My family was warned, and everyone in the communities around the camp was being as careful as possible to keep the influenza from spreading. Then my son brought influenza, the soldiers' problem, into our family.

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My son began to feel ill. He had a fever, chills, and a headache. A day after he began to feel badly, he started to cough incessantly, he was thoroughly congested, and he began to turn blue. His fingernails and toes were blue, and his face turned a deep blue color. He gasped for every breath the day that his color began to change. There was nothing we could do--we made him comfortable. We gave him his own room, no one but his mother, the doctor, and I entered the room. The doctor wore a mask, my wife and I washed our hands and tried not to get too close to him. We wanted to comfort him, but we knew the disease would kill us all if we weren't careful.

The doctor made a point of telling us that the soldiers he was seeing were in large numbers--he confirmed the rumors that the disease was very contagious. The doctor had no way of curing or even helping my son, and he could not be at our home for long, as he was needed desperately at Camp Funston, where the soldiers were continuing to die. My son died in four days, struggling for every last breath on his last day alive. We were relieved to see his suffering end, but we couldn't waste time mourning him after he died. We burnt his sheets and clothing and buried him as quickly as possible. My wife became sick shortly thereafter--she began to notice stiffness and a dull headache, and then she had chills along with a high fever. The disease took her in two days, and she died as my son had--gasping for each breath and changing color.

Within a few weeks, all of the farms near ours had sick families. My remaining children had the flu for months before they felt well. I tried bringing in the crops alone, but I failed. I didn't have time to nurse my family back to health and tend to my land. I brought in just enough to feed everyone, and I lost the rest of my crops. The neighboring farms didn't manage to bring in their crops either--the fall brought the biggest financial and personal loss that we'd suffered to that date. The soldiers and families in our county continued to die, through the winter. I nursed my family back to health through the winter, just barely managing to feed them. Influenza finally began to die down in our county, leaving tens of thousands dead.

Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy. Pandemic Influenza: 1918-1919 (Spanish Flu).

Rod Daniels. In Search of an Enigma: "The Spanish Lady". National Institute for Medical Research. 1998.

N.R. Grist. Copy of letter written September 29, 1918.

Lori Goodson. Pandemic. The Manhattan Mercury. March 1, 1998.
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