Research Notes – The Great War (8) Patient Zero: The Spanish Flu

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set partially during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. Some of the older material I’m reposting in order to better organize it. This post from 2016, is especially important as the Spanish Flu will play a central role in the historical timeline. I hope you find it interesting and don’t mind me recycling! ~ Meg

The mysterious virus that emerged in 1917-1918 and reached pandemic proportions has a murky origin story. Smaller outbreaks had been occurring in the years leading up to 1918 but the flu wasn’t as severe in nature or as long in duration. People were getting over it within a few days to a week at most. The earliest and most authoritative report of the Spanish Flu comes from Haskell County, Kansas, USA. So why on earth was it called “Spanish” flu? More about that in a bit.

Fort Riley in Haskell County had been set up fifty years earlier to be a cavalry barracks during the Indian Wars. The fort was surrounded by rich farmland and sat near the confluence of two rivers. In the spring of 1917, when the USA decided to declare war on Germany, Fort Riley was hastily converted to a training facility. A large army encampment –Camp Funston–was constructed within the sprawling military reserve lands, to hold and prepare some 56,000 troops to go ‘over there.’

On March 4, 1918, Camp Funston’s cook, Albert Gitchell reported sick with a sore throat, fever and headache. He would have been up before dawn to prepare breakfast but after a restless night without sleep, he felt so unwell by morning that he reported to the camp’s infirmary. Gitchell is thought to be the great flu epidemic’s patient zero.

One after the other, men began reporting with similar symptoms. They were placed in isolation wards and the medic in charge informed his boss, chief medical officer, Colonel Edward Schreiner. By noon, 107 cases had reported and the fear of epidemic became real. By the end of the week, 522 cases had reported and by month’s end 1100 men had become incapacitated. Colonel Shreiner requisitioned a hangar to house the overflow from the overcrowded base hospital.

It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary flu. While most did recover, 48 men had died. The symptoms were alarming. The violent cough, projectile nose bleeds and the deathly blue discoloration of the face were not symptoms of the classic seasonal flu outbreaks. The medical staff realized they had something more deadly on their hands.

So why the “Spanish Flu” you might ask, when the origin was likely from the other side of the ocean? The flu was in fact, erupting all over Europe during the spring of 1918. However, the nations involved in the turmoil were reluctant to give publicity to the flu outbreak so as not to panic or further demoralize the already battered and war weary civilian population.

The sobriquet “Spanish” Flu became popular when the outbreak hit Madrid, Spain. Theaters, schools and tram service was curtailed to stop the spread of the disease. Most notably though was the contraction of the flu by King Alfonso XIII and members of his government. The Prime Minister and Finance Minister were both afflicted along with a third of the population of Spain. As a noncombatant country, the Spanish had no concerns about a ‘civilian scare’ and thus both foreign and domestic correspondents reported freely on the pandemic in that nation. Thus the virulent flu became known as “Spanish.”

Source material: Living With Enza – The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, by Mark Honigsbaum

Small Cuts (12) Genevieve

To find links to all parts of this story, please visit the Small Cuts Page. This is what’s happening with Genevieve:

Upon discovering that I was alone in the house, I had a moment of panic, if Oliver was gone and I had lost time, just how much time had I lost? Was it only the two hours I had originally thought or was it perhaps an entire day? Was it still Sunday, or was it a weekday and Oliver had left for work? I ran to the family room, turned on the television, and flipped the channel to CNN where I was sure the date and time would be displayed across the bottom of the screen.

Breaking News, another mass shooting had happened last night —this time at a Senior Prom in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. Students and teachers dead. A teenage gunman with an assault weapon took his own life when the police arrived. I took note of the date —still Sunday— and turned the TV off. I couldn’t watch. This was exactly the kind of thing that reaffirmed my decision about having children. This world was becoming a living nightmare.

I returned to the kitchen and brewed another pot of coffee, waited while the French roast dripped into the carafe. Time, time. How did I lose nearly two hours? My skin tingled —was this how it felt when your atoms flew apart? No, no, stop… I was just cold. The air conditioning had kicked on at its preprogrammed time. But the time… Think. I must have fallen asleep on my feet. The sleepless night had caught up with me. It was the only rational explanation. The other option was too dreadful to conceive: that maybe I really was in some horrible dream.

I had tried to talk to Oliver about the idea recently. He had argued that people were happy, or at least had a measure of happiness, and such a thing wouldn’t be possible if we were all in some sort of nightmare realm. That it could only be a place of abject misery and fear for everyone existing there. I disagreed. I thought of it in more personal terms. After all, what could be worse for a miserable person than to be in the company of people who were happy? Especially if those people had seemingly worse circumstances than you did and still managed to find some joy in life. No, it had to be that these happy people were some sort of incarnations inhabiting my personal hell, placed there by an external malevolent force so that I would feel guilt by comparison.

“What does that make me?” Oliver had argued. “Some sort of evil figment of your imagination?”

I didn’t know how to answer that. The other dominant thought I’d been having was that I was slipping out of existence. If Oliver was a figment of my imagination, then my reality was even more fractured than I thought. I could not lose this anchor for my existence. Oliver’s wife. I was Oliver’s wife. Genevieve, Genevieve, Genevieve. Get ahold of yourself.

Shaking my head to clear it, I laughed nervously and told him to forget it. “I’m just philosophizing again.”

“Your philosophizing always leads you down a very dark path, Gen. I don’t like it,” he said gently. “Sometimes, you scare me.”

Sometimes I scare myself, I thought.

The coffee maker beeped and I poured a cup. Oliver, Oliver, where did you go this morning? Were things between us so bad that you didn’t feel the need to tell me? What if something happens to you? How would I know?

The phone. I could check the phone. We had that app that lets you find all the devices on your account. I set my coffee mug down, sloshing the contents, and ran back to the bedroom where I had left my phone. I swiped it open and found the app. Four blinking blue dots appeared: two phones, two iPads. Three of those dots were here at home, but the fourth was in Center City, off Rittenhouse Square, the parking garage of The Park Hotel. Why? Why? Was Ollie meeting someone for brunch? Did I forget some appointment he had with a client? Or was it with a friend? What friend? We rarely did anything with anybody besides James and Elaine. Was it James? My friend James. James who was going to resurrect me. I should call James. See what he and Elaine were doing. Elaine. Elaine. Elaine. No. No, no, no, no…. it couldn’t be…

I tore off my pajamas and grabbed a shirt and jeans from my closet. Then stuffing my phone in my purse, I ran for the garage. Keys, keys. Back into the house for keys. Hit the garage door opener. Breathe. Breathe. Ignition. Reverse.

GPS. I needed the fastest way to The Park Hotel. I searched the address at the end of the driveway and started the turn by turn directions. “In 50 yards, turn left.”

Turn left. Leaving the development. Out to the boulevard, on to the highway…“merge onto 676 East, The Vine street Expressway…”

Horns, horns, shrieking tires, the crunch of metal on metal. The thump and whoosh of the airbags exploding. Shattering of glass. Screaming, someone was screaming. Then silence.

Header image: Polka Dots ~ Francesca Woodman

The Way You Move…

Adventures in fiction writing.

There are many descriptors that a writer can use to convey the physical act of walking. For example:

  • Walk
  • Run
  • Pace
  • Shuffle
  • Amble
  • Trudge
  • Hurry
  • Scurry
  • Sidle
  • Tip toe
  • Stomp
  • Trot
  • Hike
  • Meander
  • Stroll

You get the idea… However, one of the mistakes I made in my early fiction pieces –fortunately one that I caught before publishing– is to over-describe a character’s movements within a scene. Let’s suppose we are writing a scene in which a couple at home is having a conversation, while cooking together in the kitchen.

Joni walked to the refrigerator and gathered all the ingredients for the salad. Then she walked to the counter and set them in front of Graham before hurrying back to the stove to stir the soup.

That’s just two sentences, but imagine that going on throughout a 300 page novel! Every time a character makes a move, the writer doesn’t need to describe it.

Joni gathered the salad ingredients from the refrigerator and set them in front of Graham, then returned to the stove to stir the soup.

The use of a variety of descriptors for movement helps us to visualize the scene. it is part of the concept of ‘show don’t tell’ in writing. Some scenes will require a lot of movement –a fight scene, or a foot chase, for example. A heated discussion might have a character agitated and pacing or wildly gesturing. In those instances, a detailed description of their moves would be appropriate. But in a routine setting like the one above, the reader doesn’t need to see every little move a character makes.

Happy writing and productive editing!

(Header image courtesy Google images)