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Feverish recollections

May 15, 2009

Lately I've found myself fascinated by the swine flu outbreak. I neither obsess nor laugh at it, but. I'm aware and wary of it. I've read too much about the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 to be otherwise.

For some unknown reason, the epidemic of 1918 is either forgotten or downright ignored. I don't know if it's taught in school today, but it wasn't when I was a student. However, due to its enormity, it sure should have been.

First, it wasn't an epidemic so much as a pandemic. It spread worldwide and killed more people than any other disease or event in history. Only vague estimates can be made but the agreed-upon minimum number of deaths is 50 million. In the U.S., the death toll was around 650,000, which is our current population's equivalent of two million.

As opposed to all other flues, which mostly kill the very old and the very young, the Spanish influenza mostly laid to waste the age group in between. And most horrific of all, from start to finish it lasted a "mere" nine months.

What all this means to me is the threat of flu pandemic is - if you'll pardon the pun - nothing to sneeze at. This is especially true in light of our public health contingency plan, which is somewhat along the lines of "Drink lots of liquids, take two aspirin every four hours, and call us in a couple of weeks if you can."

The fall of '57

Since 1918 there've been several other flu epidemics and I clearly remember one of them - the Asian Flu Epidemic of 1957.

I was in sixth grade and while I'm sure I'd heard about the epidemic from its start, nothing dawned on me till it was literally in my backyard, which seemed to happen overnight. One day all my classmates and I were at school, running around, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, energy unboundedand the next thing I knew my class (or what was left of them) looked like the last stragglers of the Lost Battalion. Which only made sense, since the public schools were ideal breeding grounds and vectors for all communicable diseases.

There were warning signs, if you noticed them coughing, sneezing, hacking, wheezing and the like. Plus we were all given the classic admonition - cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. It was sage advice, certainly, but it was followed only by healthy kids. The sick ones were too busy hallucinating from fever and spraying the room with viruses to heed it.

Having always been blessed with an iron constitution and the Fort Knox of immune systems, I was in fine fettle. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for my brother.

I always attributed his fragility to his devoting too much time to such effete pursuits as people-pleasing and studying.

The major flu months in the U.S. were October and November, and sometime after Halloween but before Thanksgiving, my brother got laid low. My mother, not wanting both of her kids sick at the same time, took strict measures to avoid spreading the contagion.

It was hardly a masterpiece of epidemiology - she just had three common sense rules we had to abide by. First, she confined him to his bedroom. Second, she prohibited me from visiting him. And third, I had to spend as much time as possible out of the house.

The first rule was a given, since my brother couldn't have left his room if he'd wanted to. The second was also no problem, since the last thing I wanted to do was look at the poor sod as he thrashed about in fever-soaked sheets, totally non compos mentis. The third one also worked welluntil it worked too well.

During the week, what with my time at school and my diddy-boppin' around afterwards, I was only home for a few hours anyway. The problem was the weekend, when I had nothing but free time.

Usually, I spent my free time playing outside with my friends. Unfortunately, due to so many kids being sick, there was almost no one to play with. As a matter of fact, there were so few kids, I spent almost all my time looking for them - a depressing chore indeed. And even more depressing, when I did find them, they were as bummed out as I was, so all we did was sit around, literally, tiny victims of premature Weltschmerz.

Now keep in mind, this was long before the days of global warming - early November in My Home Town was unrelentingly cold. Actively playing outside in the cold, even for an extended period of time, is one thing. But sitting on your duff on a stone wall for hours on end (which is what we did) is something altogether different. The first is energizing and good for you; the second is good for only one thing - lowering your resistance. And that's exactly what happened.

About halfway through Saturday's sit-in, I caught a chill and by the time I got home, I felt pretty beat. I ate supper and then - unusual for me - immediately went to bed. When I got up on Sunday, I wasn't sickbut I wasn't up to snuff either. I did feel good enough to go out and repeat the previous day's performance, which was a mistake if ever there was one, because when I finally called it quits, I was completely wiped out, weak and achy.

As soon as I stumbled into the house, my mother took one look at me and realized I was following in my brother's infected footsteps.

The Red Menace strikes again

My bout with the flu wasn't very extreme - certainly nothing worth remembering. But what was worth remembering was a conversation I heard in the St. Regis Hotel lobby later that year.

I was sitting in one of the huge overstuffed chairs by the fireplace, doing what I did best - eavesdropping on the old guys who were always there, gabbing and smoking cigars.

They were chatting about this and that when the topic of the flu came up and one of them said, "I bet I know how it started."

"Oh?" said one of his cronies. "How's that?"

"The frappin' Russians and that satellite of theirs," the first one said. "Spread them germs all the hell over the place!"

I was always a great fan of conspiracies, but even then the Sputnik Theory of Flu Contagion struck me as pure malarkey. Nonetheless, for a long time afterwards, whenever the subject of the epidemic came up, I blamed it on the Russians too.

After all, even if I didn't believe it myself, it was a whole lot easier to blame the Russians than my mother.



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