Pandemic evokes memories of fatal 1917 flu

Alone. Admiral Richard E. Byrd wrote a book called “Alone” about his living alone for six months in the Antarctic. It was a “harrowing and heartfelt account” of his bid to reach the South Pole.

I have often wondered how I would fare in such circumstances.

I had a few samplings of being alone when I was a child. I had measles, mumps, chicken pox, scarlet fever and tonsillitis. I spent most of those days lying on the living room couch.

For each of these childhood diseases, a nurse from the health department came to our house and posted a sign by the front door (I think it was yellow) that stated my malady and had “Quarantine” printed in large letters. I was not allowed out.

Although Mom was always there, I felt so alone without any of my young friends. My window on the world back then was my home’s bay window looking out onto Genesee Avenue in Warren. I sat there for hours, just counting cars.

There were no TV’s or computers, so I listened to the radio, played 78 rpm records and read the Tribune. Sometimes, while reading the funnies on the floor, I fell asleep and woke up with the imprint of a panel from the “Li’l Abner” comic strip on my forehead.

Now, of course, I’m not alone in the Antarctic — but I am alone. Due to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s order, I must stay all cooped up in my house — only going out when necessary to get supplies. Phone calls to friends are important

What do I do to keep busy? I “redd up” things. My family is Pennsylvania Dutch, so “redding up” is a normal way to say that I am tidying up my house.

The thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic that are keeping me alone, take me back over 100 years to the bitterly cold, harsh winter of 1917-1918 when my mother’s family — the Bickels — was living in Luthersburg, Pa. There were nine kids then. Arthur, who had died in 1903 of typhoid fever, would have been number 10.

Seven-year-old Maria Anna, my 10-year-old mom’s sister and best buddy, had fallen ill with an early case of the “Spanish flu,” which later became a pandemic that ultimately killed 50 million people worldwide.

She languished for quite a while, but the doctor could do little for her. She finally succumbed, as did 675,000 others in the United States.

The people from the funeral home came to take her body away. To avoid contagion by bringing her body down the stairs, the undertakers chose to take her body through her upstairs bedroom window, onto the porch roof and down to the waiting hearse.

After a brief and private ceremony at the nearby Luthersburg Lutheran Church, Maria’s coffin was taken out to the churchyard cemetery, where they left it, along with about a dozen others, above ground for the duration of that harsh winter. No shovel could penetrate that frozen ground.

You can imagine how my 10-year-old mom felt as she came to worship services every Sunday to see her buddy Maria’s coffin still out there in the churchyard. Finally, all those coffins were buried in late spring of 1918.

To Mom’s dying day, she never forgot, and often reminded me, of that scene in the churchyard as she saw all those coffins, including her beloved little sister’s, awaiting their final resting place.

I really hope that such a sad tale won’t be told of us here in good old Warren. I’m happy to stay isolated and alone. It’s so much better than the alternative.

“We’re in this together.”


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