Monday, June 8, 2009

When Pigs Fly

I’m sure that you have heard the joke by now…the one that says that some world event would happen when pigs fly…and now that it’s happened, sure enough…SWINE FLU.

Aren’t you glad that – so far – the Swine Flu, or H1N1 virus, has been a bit of a joke itself? Do you even realize how terrifying it could have been if it had not been pathetic?

My great grandmother died in the Flu Epidemic of 1918. I’d always heard this, but never quite understood until I was an adult. I wondered how the flu, a seemingly benign bug that confines you to your bed for a few days, but is only serious in the weak and infirm, could kill a vibrant young mother.

Anna Fairchild Miller was living a good life. Her husband was railroad engineer for the Santa Fe Railroad, well respected and established. She had two beautiful little girls that were 4 and 6. She was young, and healthy, and had her whole life ahead of her. That was until the “Spanish Flu”, as it was known by, came to visit in her small hometown. She and her husband both became ill, as well as the nurse that had come in to care for her and the girls. Only Anna died, thankfully. To this day, we have not found a grave for her. It is likely that we never will.

1918 was a time of war, and the entire country was primed to support our troops. The government had taken this to the extreme, disallowing anything to be printed in news papers that might demoralize our fighting men. We certainly could not broadcast news of a flu so virulent that it often killed within 24 hours, especially our young, strong men and women. The lack of information allowed the virus to sweep across the globe, leaving death and loss in it’s path. My grandmother was left without a mother. Thousands of other children were robbed of both parents, left as orphans.

The way this virus presented was the key to the rate of destruction. It chided the immune systems of the most vivacious age groups into overreacting. This shut down essential bodily systems, causing a death by suffocation, or lack of oxygen. It didn’t prey upon the weak – it took our most energetic.

It was unrelenting, sweeping across the globe, killing perhaps 100 million over the course of a year. Anna died in the tail end of the pandemic, when our resources were most depleted. Doctors and nurses had been lost as they struggled to keep up with the demand, only to fall victim themselves. There simply were not enough mortuaries to handle the overload of bodies that filled the towns, and bodies were hurriedly buried in mass graves. It is said that if you lost a family member, you simply set them out on the sidewalk, where a roving crew would pick up the dead and dispose of them. I’m sure that no records were kept of these hauls; it was all that they could do to just keep up with the bodies for sanitation reasons.

One small town in Utah, I believe, had the right idea. They locked the town up tight when the flu was spreading across the country. By keeping outsiders out and waiting until the bug had worn out it’s virulence, they escaped major loss.

I absolutely take the flu seriously, including the latest scares with bird flu and swine flu. I get flu shots every year, and I believe that everyone should. After reading the book “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry, I am convinced that it is our patriotic duty to do so. He explains in detail how the virus spreads, how it kills, how it mutates and weakens, and how it can be thwarted if it is not allowed to run rampant. Something to think about.

I wish that more had been written about the subject, but little remains of that time. As I said, the government did not allow open discussion of the virus. Personal accounts were non-existent except in military or health records. Those who suffered did not want to remember this time, and those who remained were too shell-shocked to do so. I can imagine that it was a terrifying time for everyone. I wonder if my grandmother and her sister were aware that their mother was ill, and that they could lose her. I’m not even sure how long she was sick. Then to see their father too ill to attend her funeral…they must have worried that they would lose him, too.

I tend to see death dates and try to match up this time with some event in history. Most notable are the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the Flu Epidemic in 1918. Both were of great interest to me, although for different reasons, but because both were so integral to our history as a culture. Each of these events changed us in an inexplicably profound way, changing the course of our society in the process.

I found this grave at the old cemetery that we cleaned on Sunday. It was for two little twins, just three years old, who died within days of one another in 1917. Too early for the flu, which began in March of 1918. Surely, if they died of illness, it must have been something contagious, as they died so close to one another. Or an accident, that perhaps took one much more quickly than the other?

I am a memory keeper, a preservationist by nature. I want information to be recorded, shared, and readily available. I hope that the family of these twins have recorded the stories of these individuals so that at least they remember them, and the lives that they lead. I obtained a copy of the list of those buried on that property today, and I’m so excited to research them a bit and see if I can find out more.

I wish that we had more information about Anna, who incidentally grew up without a mother herself. I’ll save that story for another time! (I’ve got plenty of them!) You can read about Anna in an article written by my aunt at “Days Past”, a historical society in Arizona.

We are so blessed to have so much information available to us! Through the magic of the internet, I was able to identify and flesh out the stories of the family pictures that we were given recently. (see Preserving Artfully) This research would have been far to cumbersome and time consuming without this vital resource! The countless hours spent by volunteers who are seeking out this information and providing it in a digital format that is so effortlessly shared with the masses is staggering.

And we have such tools to record our own histories! We can assure that we are not just a name on a headstone…to be wondered about, speculated about, and ultimately forgotten. We can record our memories and our stories in many formats…from scrapbooking to diaries, online journals (see, digital formats, forums, and of course…blogs. I am writing, which makes me happy. But I am also sharing my stories, and leaving an indelible impression on the world around me.

Are you making sure that your story is told? That the stories of those that you love are recorded forever? Take some time today to write something down…copy a story or two off of your Facebook page, and add it to your family history. Read about an ancestor, then share it with your children. Or post it here, I LOVE stories! (can you tell??)

That’s it for today, I have some names to look up!


  1. so, which side of the family is she on? I see Kevin in her face for sure! I read an interesting book a few years ago about one of the first woman doc's who worked through the spanish flu. I think I gave it away but if I find it, I will let you use it. I too am grateful the swine flu wasn't more serious.

  2. Anna Fairchild was Dad's grandmother...definitely where Dad gets his looks, also! BTW, there's a funny story about our lineage, but the dark hair and eyes are French.