Gary Horton | Pandemics Are Personal and Real

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The picture shown is of a serene and idyllic day in May 1918. Row, row, row your boat gently up the Hudson. William Horton had married Emma Muldoon two short years earlier. They’d had a son, Robert, 18 months old at the time of the photo. Another was on the way, Donald, my father. Wife Emma took this photo as William rowed along.

William was an ice-cutter on the Hudson, north of New York. His father had a fishing and maritime transport business, plying the Hudson, up and down New York and generally establishing the family into solid upper-middle-class – and this at a time when poverty was pervasive.

The future was bright. World War I was winding down. Married life was good. The family was growing and prospering. William, as the picture shows, was healthy, stout and strong. 

Five short months later, William was dead. The flu pandemic of 1918, known also as the Spanish Flu, took William unsuspectedly. Despite his robust health, William became one of some 50,000 New Yorkers and 700,000 Americans who would succumb to the flu pandemic. Later, his wife, Emma, would write that the bodies outside their building, “…were stacked up like cordwood.”

As the flu ravaged the world it very much ravaged our family’s trajectory. Emma, now a widow, would give birth to my father without a family provider. Single with two kids, and with the ice business folded, she took to working in a lamp shade factory in Brooklyn. Consider a lamp shade factory in 1918 Brooklyn, before OSHA…

For reasons unknown, William’s father, John, abandoned Emma to care for herself. Thus, after but a few days of illness, our Horton family, two generations back, flipped from blue skies ahead to storm clouds all around.

The two boys grew up poor. Working their way through New York public schools, they hoped to attend college. But first came the Great Depression, and just as the two boys arrived at adulthood, came World War II. The family couldn’t catch a break. Son Robert would later fight at one of the war’s most ferocious battles – Guadalcanal. Son Donald had physical impairments yet still served stateside and in Europe with the Marines. Both came home to a mother dying of an extremely rare genetic disease known as Joseph’s ataxia. Eventually she became paralyzed and died of pneumonia. As also would Donald later and his daughter Cathy – my sister.

A flu pandemic, unseen and unexpected, tore through our family’s trajectory like a grenade. Yes, through grit and mammoth determination, the two surviving boys eventually escaped despair, immigrating to California, starting new lives in the Valley. But the father was lost, his influence and care went missing, and poverty replaced security for the entire generation. Robert and Donald never forgot it and our lives were shaped by caution and reserve.

When folks talk about government as though it’s a dirty word, they might consider this story. When they disregard the proper role government plays in organizing society and providing services no one person can supply for themselves, they overlook such overt and pressing threats as a pandemic. When they deride, “socialized services,” they should think about what a public pandemic just might do without expert intervention and support.

Today, some are feeling perhaps we’ve gone too far tearing apart the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control as our ultra-conservative, anti-government has had its way. Now, under threat of coronavirus, we need expertise over political rallies. Now we need real action over placating talk. Certainly, the body count from coronavirus is still low, but those in the know, know how these things can quickly blow out of control. By the time the Spanish Flu had burnt itself out, some 60 million to 75 million worldwide had died… World War I was certainly bad enough. Yet in body count, the flu pandemic eclipsed all the killing of the greatest war in history thus far, multiple times over.

Yes, professional, competent, responsive government matters. And we’re hoping right now that we’ve got what it takes to coordinate and manage coronavirus before it wiggles and twists and gets past us and runs up the score.

Universal health care? That sure would have helped our family back in 1918 and beyond. Social safety nets? No such thing back then, but fortunately, a kind Jewish man in Brooklyn took to my Protestant grandmother and secretly provided the young family some support and protection. (Crossing religious boundaries in Brooklyn back then wasn’t the kind of thing one did.) Without it, indeed my grandma and father and uncle could have easily been homeless.

Pandemic response is personal to me. Who I am, who my mom, my dad, and all of us would and could be, was hijacked in 1918 as the flu pandemic then ripped up the lives of our family, and those of hundreds of thousands of Americans. We recovered, but we’ll never know the, “What if…”

Be glad, today we’ve got such expertise as the CDC and NIH. Be glad, we enjoy the skills and knowledge of our sophisticated research universities today. Know we’ve got to support these things, pay for these things, and fortunately, today we benefit from these things. 

You wouldn’t want to go through what Emma Horton and hundreds of thousands more suffered…

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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