Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst John Kirby, a retired rear admiral in the US Navy, was a spokesman for both the State and Defense Departments in the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
My grandfather called it a nightmare.
Death and stench everywhere. Mass graves dug by steam shovel, graves so deep and so large the shovel looked to someone standing on the rim of the trench like a Tonka toy in a sandbox. Entire families wiped out in the span of just a few days.
It was the autumn of 1918 in Philadelphia, and the so-called Spanish Flu raged through the city. Philadelphia took an especially bad beating, suffering more than 12,000 deaths in six weeks, with about 47,000 reported cases, according to the University of Pennsylvania. After six months, some 16,000 residents had died and there were more than half a million cases.
“An apparently healthy person, active and even joking with you in the morning could be buried that night,” my grandfather recalled. “People dying like flies.”
Pop remembered all this, vividly, and he wrote it down in a memoir some 60 years later.
I had forgotten about that. Indeed, I had forgotten about the memoir entirely. It’s been tucked away in a file drawer for years. But, like so many other people nowadays in this quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been hunting around the house looking for things to read. I came across the little journal and found myself immediately engrossed, lost in time and in the story of my own family.
In 1918, my grandfather was just a teenager, but he remembered somber men in black coveralls and black hats — set off by the bright, white face masks they wore — pulling up in black canvas-covered wagons outside the house next door, entering slowly, gingerly, and coming back out again with a body wrapped in whatever covering could be found: a carpet, an overcoat, a table cloth or even the very bed sheet in which the victim had died.
On some days, the somber men took away more than one body from a single house. And he knew they would be back again the next day. Maybe to the same house. Maybe to the one across the street. Maybe to his own.
Pop’s house stood in the middle of Second Street, in the block between Green and Market Streets, down by the Delaware River. The house wasn’t much to look at, but then, neither was Second Street. Just a bunch of tiny rowhouses lining each side, crammed with the families of working-class stiffs.
His father worked for a paving company. He was expected to work each day. The company issued their employees face masks equipped with little pipes that emitted some sort of vapor that killed germs, or at least that’s what they had been told.
Amazingly, no one in the Kirby house got sick. Pop credits his father’s hot toddies for that: a little hot water, whiskey, lemon and sugar each day for each kid.
Once the bodies were collected, Pop said the somber men took them to a nearby barrel factory that had been commissioned to make boxes. He didn’t call them coffins.
“The lid nailed on, a box was loaded in a large, flat freight wagon with maybe ten others and hauled to a cemetery outside of town,” he wrote. Then they were “shouldered and carried down a long incline” into the trench and stacked as high as they could go.
“Some of the people had been alive an hour before.”
Pop wrote about his service aboard merchant ships and working down at the docks and as a steam engineer in a local power plant. He wrote about the pain of losing his older sister to pneumonia in 1915 and about meeting my grandmother and eloping with her to Maryland on a snowy Christmas Day in 1925. He wrote about boxing as a club fighter during the Great Depression, just to put food on the table. I remember his nose bearing the signs of so many punches.
But it was the page and a half he devoted to the 1918 influenza pandemic that really grabbed me. And I guess that makes sense. Here I sit, quarantined in my home during a new pandemic, wondering how this will all come out.
Pop may have given me the answer.
“Well, it also passed,” he concluded, “and life started all over for the rest of us.”
He wasn’t being dismissive in that line. He wasn’t being cavalier about loved ones lost. Quite the contrary. You can feel the fear in his writing, and the shock of seeing body upon body stacked like cord wood in mass graves. What a sight that must have been for an eighth grader.
But no, Pop was being honest and hopeful and respectful about what it meant to be “the rest of us.”
As I write this, nearly 200,000 people around the world have been killed by the coronavirus, more than 50,000 of them in the United States.
We may be reaching the peak, experts say, and yet more people will die. More families will grieve. More coffins will be ordered. More sacrifices will be made. And more risks will be taken by our health care professionals, law-enforcement personnel, postal workers, bus drivers, and grocery store employees. People who, like my great-grandfather, cannot stay home.
I don’t know much about public health. But if our past teaches us nothing else, let it teach us to learn from all this, even in real time, to admit our mistakes and to be as honest with ourselves as we can about what needs to be done to prevent — or at least to minimize — the deadly effects of a pandemic disease in the future. Because there’s a lot of future still left to the coronavirus.
Pop’s journal reminds me that I, too, am part of the “rest of us” — that I, too, have an obligation to learn from all this, so that when it’s over, I am a more compassionate human being, a more thoughtful neighbor, a more informed citizen. And, like him, a man unafraid to remember.
Pop called it a nightmare. And it surely was.
It’s a nightmare now for far too many families.
I forgot about his story. But I sure as hell hope I never forget theirs.