Logo Click BACK to return to Basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Irene Dispatch

Meet Irene

Irene Archive

Cool Links

Read more on the flu epidemic at the
The Discovery channel



When War Intrudes Upon Love and Health

War? What war? Never mind that while the rest of the world was busy annihilating itself on a scale unprecedented in human history, America hummed along, trying to ignore the first global war and its use of the most sophisticated modern technology. The United States was coming into its own as a genuine superpower, and its entry into WWI in 1917 meant the country was bursting with patriotism. The US soldier's face was glorified everywhere, but because the battles were being fought on another continent, everyday life for the first few years of the war remained pleasantly unaffected, unlike the poverty and starvation that inflicted Europe. But America would soon learn firsthand about the murderous and unpredictable nature of war.

Across America, life seemed rosy and idyllic (except perhaps for the African Americans who were being lynched left and right). Suffragettes demanded the vote for women. Airmail service began zooming between New York and Chicago. Babe Ruth led the Boston Red Sox to victory in the World Series. In Lincoln, Illinois, William Maxwell describes what life was like in the early war years:

"In 1918, Lincoln was a town of 12,000 people. It was perhaps 50 years old; just time enough for the trees to mature so that the branches met over the sidewalks. Yards were large, the children played in clusters in the summer evenings. On Sunday morning the church bells were pretty to hear. But my father had had enough of church going so we went fishing on Sunday, out in the country with a picnic. It was a life not very much impinged on by the outside world."
**[[poster.jpg: Posters promoted the sale of Liberty Bonds.]]**
posters promoted the sale of Liberty Bonds

For Pulitzer Prize winning author Katherine Anne Porter, the reality of war took second place to her love affair with a handsome soldier, a relationship she documented in her short story "Pale Horse, Pale Rider." Though the characters are named Miranda and Adam, the story is mostly autobiographical. In 1918, Porter was 24 years old and working as a newspaper theater critic in Denver, Colorado, caught up in the intrigue of love. I think some of us can identify with that!

As "Miranda's" romance blooms, so does her awareness of the wave of nationalism sweeping the country. Her job is to "write pieces advising other young women to knit and roll bandages and do without sugar and help win the war." Marches were held in all parts of the country to bolster support against the German Kaiser government. One girl said, "We would march up the streets singin' 'tramp, tramp, tramp the boys are marching. I spy Kaiser at the door. And we'll get a lemon pie and we'll squash him in his eye and there won't be any Kaiser anymore.'" Cathryn Guyler remembered, "It was a good world, but it was an age of innocence; we really didn't know what was ahead."


Shady stuff: Denver was great, except for two incidents

Porter soon realized that all the patriotism being proclaimed throughout the country could have its dark side. Sleazy characters announced themselves everywhere, threatening people if they did not pay up for Liberty Bonds. Wars cost lots of money to finance. The US Government sold what were called Liberty Bonds to cover military expenses. Salesmen would use crude tactics and accusations of anti-Americanism if people didn't purchase any.

In "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," Miranda's weekly salary is $18, and the bond salesmen want to take $5 out of her paycheck for Liberty Bonds. Despite her telling them she does not have a cent to spare, they lecture her on how everyone is suffering, men are dying in Belleau Wood, and that all Americans have to contribute. Miranda silently wishes she could tell these jerks what she really wants to say, "Suppose I said to hell with this filthy war? Suppose I asked that little thug, What's the matter with you, why aren't you rotting in Belleau Wood? I wish you were." Her hysterical co-worker cries, "I can't do it. I'll never be able to raise the money. I told them, I can't, I can't, I can't, but they wouldn't listen." To Miranda, these are the first hints of the greed and ruthlessness that war can foster.

Cheering up bed-ridden soldiers was one of the many duties women performed during the War
caption border=
Miranda also sees another contradiction between the country's united idealism versus the reality of that idealism. Young girls during the war would hold tea dances to raise money to buy the soldiers cigarettes, candy, and magazines. They would then visit hospitals that housed ill soldiers. Some would outright refuse their gifts. Others barely acknowledged their presence. Miranda finds it all humiliating while her friend wonders, "I don't know what good it does, really." One funny fact revealed by Miranda is that the boy soldiers didn't like wearing wristwatches because only "sissies" wore them. "I'll slap you on the wristwatch" was a common joke.

Soon, Miranda is exploring the cracks in her love affair with Adam, cracks that will mirror the full-blown crisis America will encounter in 1918. America's optimism about the war, its optimism about a boundless future full of possibility, was shattered by a tragedy that has largely been forgotten and whose roots have never been solved. The Spanish flu that rocked the world would claim around 20-40 million lives total. In the United States, more Americans would die from it (over 675,000) than Americans in all the wars of this century combined. So why have we forgotten about the influenza epidemic? Why did I not know a thing about it before I started this dispatch? Maybe because it was such a traumatizing experience for all those involved, among them Katherine Anne Porter.
The influenza epidemic cut down people who were in the prime years of their life

For over a century, American medicine had made amazing discoveries, coming up with vaccines for smallpox, rabies and anthrax. So when a soldier in Fort Riley, Kansas started complaining of a sore throat and fever, doctors didn't pay much attention, thinking it was just a mild flu. 500 cases later, they knew this was no ordinary flu. 48 soldiers would die that spring. The official cause was labelled "pneumonia." Suddenly, soldiers in every part of the world were becoming infected with this mysterious disease. Civilians were infected by soldiers. Scientists were baffled by what they were seeing. Without warning, you could wake up one day with a sore throat and by nightfall be dead.

Americans now no longer took for granted their lives. War had wiped out millions. Influenza spread by the effects of the war would kill many more. Entire families could be killed in a day. Children began singing:

I had a little bird/ Its name was Enza/ I opened up the window/ and in flew enza.

The stench of death, which Europeans had grown accustomed to, was becoming an inescapable part of American life. Schools, churches, and any public spaces were shut down to prevent infections. Coffins were in short supply. Bodies piled up in hospitals. However, there was still a war to be fought, and draft notices that brought hundreds of men together in cities like Philadelphia resulted in the wildfire spread of influenza. In Denver, Porter's "Adam" is given a leave extension. He notes, "The men are dying like flies out there. This funny new disease. Simply knocks you into a cocked hat." Miranda says, "It seems to be a plague, something out of the Middle Ages. Did you ever see so many funerals?"
Miranda would hallucinate about the Rocky Mountain scenery during her bout with influenza

Miranda, like Porter in real life, was stricken with the disease. As she fights for dear life, her landlady, signaling the petrified paranoia of many Americans, insists that Miranda be moved to a hospital or she'll "put her on the sidewalk." Miranda slips into a near-death coma, has many visions of crystal blue lakes and green meadows and seeing the ghosts of her past. She eventually battles back to life, but her boyfriend is not so lucky. Heartbroken by the loss, the "dead cold light of tomorrow" silences her, and survival looks like anything but a gift. Porter knows that like the soldier who escaped death in WWI, she, and the country, has forever changed. The price of war, its effects on the soul and mind, should make anyone with a heartbeat consider whether victory is finally worth the emotional cost.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Pancho Villa: The man, the myth, the legend
Stephanie - Speak your mind and go to prison?
Nick - The long road to world peace Neda - Anarchy and chaos in the USA!