My grandfather was 19 years old when the Great Spanish Influenza struck southeastern Kentucky in 1918. His brothers were already in Europe or on their way to fight World War I. Grandpa told me that there were not, for months, enough people to dig all the graves that were needed to bury the dead the pandemic killed.
He knew many people who had the Spanish flu and he and other young men in the community moved and buried bodies of those whom it had killed. It killed healthy folk, more often than not, between 25 and 40 years old. He never understood why he didn’t get it. But many people who lived in that rural Big Sandy River farming community did and many died. He and his brother, Carl Hayes, a rural mail carrier for decades at Lowmansville on the Lawrence/Johnson County line told me about finding flu victims dead in houses, one couple reaching across the table to one another.
“The Great Influenza,” by John M. Barry, published by Viking Press in 2004, chronicles the Spanish Flu which in a very short span, 1918 through 1919 killed 25 million people. It gave rise to the customs for sanitation still used by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, when I served. Barriers between sleeping soldiers were a minimum in winter. COVID-19 won’t do that. Our health care is better and it is less deadly than the Spanish Flu. But especially once it reaches the Third World, COVID-19 will end the lives of the aged and infirm. Because so many of our clients and friends that we see weekly are in the danger zone for COVID-19 by age or condition, we have been militant about requiring masks and social distancing at home and work. Our grade school-age children have been confined since March with very limited contacts. But even people who live in a hollow or on a hilltop have to come out some time. When we have ventured out it was always with caution and care for others in mind.
Over two weeks ago, we believe a family member was exposed to the virus at a doctor’s office in Knoxville. They are much less serious about the spread of COVID-19 in Tennessee. Experiencing some aches and discomfort, that person tested. Negative. With a week of travel and depositions coming up, I quietly tested the next day. Negative.
Then, last week , that person tested again. Positive. We loaded up the whole family and kept the clinic up an extra hour that evening. Out of six of us five were positive. he only negative is my teenage niece.
All my life, I have had hay fever in the fall. As a boy learning to hunt, the hardest part was not sneezing or clearing my throat in the woods. A cough and a headache now 10 days past have been my only symptoms of COVID-19. Those and a positive test for it. The women in the family have had head and body aches. The little kids have had nothing but perhaps my son coughing early; he has hay fever, too. So, we could feel pretty good about it and as cavalier as some of my young friends. My doctor says it throws antibodies of a kind and level that no one who recovers will get it again, like a good vaccine.
Some of my friends refuse to mask even in public and state and restate how unafraid they are. Frankly, when I tested positive I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about my chances. But there are older people and folks with chronic conditions in all our lives that I am unwilling to kill to keep from wearing a mask.
Others believe it is a nefarious plot. I spoke with a cousin last week, a former chair of Democratic Women where she lives. She believes it is a Chinese plot to defeat President Trump. She was amazed when I told her we all had it and a friend had died from it. Frankly, as I told her, it was a great opportunity for the President to have shown leadership. If he had been successful at any level, concerning this pandemic, he would be unassailable now. Americans are so spoiled they can’t understand that something could happen to shatter the things they take for granted and move them into the uncertain.
A dear friend and fellow traveler, former mayor of nearby Cumberland Gap, Tennessee and one-time client, contracted it and died in days. The daughter of a noted Pentecostal evangelist, a bank teller who cared for her father late in his life, contracted it and is dead. Both last week.
These losses leave gaps of knowledge and experience in our lives that cannot be filled. The virus is common, it is real and it hunts the people that we love, the ones who helped build our communities.
“A View From The Mountain” is a column written by Bill Hayes for over 20 years. Hayes is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor practicing law in Kentucky and the Eastern District of Tennessee with an office view of the Virginia mountains. He is a former member of the Kentucky Democratic State Executive Committee. Hayes lives in Middlesboro, Kentucky with his wife and their two children.