The year 1918 had dawned auspiciously enough. The Great War, the war to end all wars, had ended and the stock market was soaring to record levels. The Jazz Age was about to begin in full swing.
That meant flamboyant flappers, speakeasies where illegal whiskey flowed behind closed doors and curtained booths, the emergence of gangsters armed with “Tommy guns,” and the re-emergence of home-grown terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. A few years later, they would even march down Pennsylvania Avenue, unashamedly, in large numbers past the White House.
Baseball greats like Ty Cobb wowed stadiums with the swat of his bat. The Russians had toppled the czar and his family which were soon executed in the woods. A century later, the Romanovs would finally receive a state funeral.
Closer to home, two Russian princesses would be buried in New Bethlehem Cemetery in Nesbit. But that’s another story.
In 1918, the world was cast into pandemonium with the arrival of the dreaded Spanish influenza. That year, the Spanish flu was said to have infected more than a third of the people on the planet. Roughly two to three percent of that number would succumb to the disease.
In October of 1918, more than 200,000 people in America alone died of the Spanish flu.
Social distancing began, with front-page headlines blaring that people should not stand within four feet of one another.
Then, as now, public schools were shut down. Colleges were required to self-quarantine. At Mississippi A&M College, now Mississippi State University, sick and dying soldiers recently back from the front lines of World War I were housed in the college infirmary, now J.Z. George Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. One of those soldiers was the Time Traveler’s own grandfather, R.L. or Robert Lee Long, Sr., also known as “Laundry Long” because he put himself through school by working in the college laundry. He had been transported by hospital train from the army barracks at Fort Sheridan, Illinois to the A&M College campus. Despite chills and a temperature that hovered in the triple digits for several days, he would survive and would later become a well-respected Methodist minister in North Mississippi. He would pass away at age 94 in 1991.
Masks, then as now, were in short supply. Movie houses, churches, and soda fountains were closed.
There was a great debate about people being on public beaches. Sound familiar?
The truth is that there have been pestilences, diseases, and plagues since the dawn of time.
Perhaps, as the Time Traveler has observed, diseases like this dreadful coronavirus that is presently sweeping the globe are a constant reminder that our world, in fact, our very lives are fragile. They are precious. And most certainly, they are not to be taken for granted.
As President John F. Kennedy once observed, “We are all mortal. We all breathe the same air.”
Let us learn from the lessons of history that we are all connected. “No man,” said the poet John Donne, “is an island unto himself.”
Each death from this scary disease diminishes us all. Each survivor’s story encourages us. Inspires us. Despite the slight interruptions in our lives those three or four months in 1918 — and in fact, some cases lingered until 1920, some two years later — civilization survived. Humanity triumphed, despite its brush with extinction.
None of us knows what the future holds for us or the duration of this disease, or how long our lives will be affected.
However, if we learn from the lessons of history, we can see that life will endure. Calm will prevail. The future will once again lay before us like an open field of golden wheat. The harvest will once again be plenty. The storehouses will once again be full.
Look to the past. Look to history. Look now as the future awaits us. Let’s all put our hands to the plow and pledge to forge a new path, together.