1918 Spanish Flu

[in 1918 Kenneth Balcomb was working as an engineer for the New Mexico highway dept. to survey roads around the state. He received a letter from the War Department, stating that the Army Engineers were in need of officers, and that he, as a graduate Engineer, was eligible for special enlistment in the engineering corps. Not long after he enlisted and was sent to Washington, D.C., this country was hit by the Spanish Flu epidemic. From his memoirs:]

In September of 1918, most of the engineering troops and officers in Camp Humphreys were shipped overseas, and another contingent of draftees was expected in, which would require more officers. An order was issued to a select thirty men for intensive training to prepare them to assist in handling the new troops. Tom Brown and I were included in the call. The intensive training they gave us for two weeks was the most punishing exercise I ever endured.

Before we completed the training, the Spanish Influenza epidemic hit the country. In an attempt to prevent us from catching it, we were lined up every morning and a shot of Argyrol was injected it into our noses—a most distasteful operation. On a Sunday afternoon, a few days after the epidemic started, another chap and I were resting on our bunks when an officer doctor entered to announce they had concocted a vaccine to prevent one from contracting the flu, and he wanted two volunteers to take it to ascertain its effectiveness. The other chap looked at me and said, “We have volunteered for everything else in this war, what do you say we volunteer for this?” I agreed, later to realize that it was this decision that prevented me from becoming an officer in the US Army. We reported to the infirmary and got a shot in the arm and were told there would probably be a reaction to the shot and, if so, we were to report to sick call in the morning.

The special group I was with was to start training in pontoon bridge building on Monday morning. Although I felt I had some fever and should have gone to sick call, I did not wish to miss this important part of training, so instead reported for pontoon training. It was a cold rainy day. The training was carried out on the Potomac River, where we launched the heavy boats and, two by two, carried the heavy planks, wading through hip-deep water to deposit them on the boats to form the bridge. As the day went on, I could feel my condition worsening, but stuck it out to the completion of the exercise and marched back to the camp with the company.

That night I really got sick, and I reported belatedly to sick call in the morning and was placed in a barracks which had been set aside as a sick bay. The next day I was ordered to the hospital.

I was terribly frightened. I was the sixth man from the company to be sent to the hospital, and the other five were dead. The rough ride to the hospital in the army ambulance did not cheer me. At the hospital I was carried on a stretcher and placed on the floor in the receiving room, from which wards about 80 feet long radiated like the spokes on a wheel.

The hospital at Camp Humphries was designed to accommodate 400 patients, but 1200 were to go through it in two months, so rapidly that all were at first diagnosed as having Spanish Influenza, though many were later discovered to have measles or scarlet fever, and there was even one case of smallpox.

It must have been two hours before they finally carried me to a cot in one of the wards. The cots were about five feet apart with a “flu sheet” draped between them in an attempt to prevent contagion spreading from one to the other. After they left me in the cot, the flu sheet to my right was pulled aside and the chap in the next cot said, “Is that bed warm?” When I asked him what he meant, he said, “It should still be warm, because they just took a boy out of it that died.” Of course this did not encourage me.

That session in Army Hospital was a terrifying experience. Six patients in our ward died the first two days I was there, and deaths from Spanish Influenza, usually combined with lobar pneumonia, were awful to hear and see. When it happened, it left the rest of us nervous wrecks.

With the thousands of cases of flu that had developed in Washington and all over the country, there was such a shortage of doctors and nurses it was impossible to have someone on hand to always control such outbreaks. Each time, it resulted in carrying out the dead person, and this further unnerved us.

The day after I was put in the cot, a military doctor came to check me. I said to him, “Sir, I don’t want this thing to kill me. What can I do to help out?” “The best thing you can do,” he answered, “is to keep covered. Keep your arms and neck covered. It is exposure to cold air with such a high fever that causes convulsions and death. Try with all your might to keep your sanity and stay covered.” I did. Although I was to have a high fever and remain unconscious for a day or two at a time, I seemed subconsciously to make the effort to keep covered.

The wholesale deaths from Spanish Influenza were the result, to a great extent, of the medical profession having no specifics for its treatment. They tried everything: hot and cold baths, various douches, several kinds of nasal washing, aspirin. In some cases they even tried plying a patient with whiskey, and I was one of the lucky ones who received this treatment. As I remember, I was given an ounce of whiskey every three hours. Whether this was what pulled me through, I will never know, but I do know that I looked forward to this medication and had my best sleeps after a dose. The particularly pleasing dosage I received was just before “lights out.” A huge lady nurse—she seemed huge, anyway, as she stood beside my bed with her flu mask and wrapped in a fuzzy warm sweater—would come with a large mug of hot eggnog laced with whiskey and say, “Here’s your nightcap.” I don’t know who she was, but it was easy for me to imagine she wore a halo, and she remains a blessed person in my lexicon.

Besides an occasional female nurse, we were attended by soldier orderlies. Doctors, nurses, and orderlies all wore flu masks, gauze padding which covered the nose and mouth to the chin. One little orderly named Jim took my temperature twice daily. He was most friendly and considerate and had a kindly pair of blue eyes, and I gained an affection for him. He would tell me what my temperature was, which I am sure was against the rules.

In those days, long before I became a portrait painter, I thought that eyes are the most important source of facial expression, and I was sure that the kindly look in Jim’s eyes was the main thing conveying his kindly disposition. One day after I reached the convalescent stage and was able to go to the common hospital table for my meals, Jim sat across the table without his flu mask on. I would not have recognized him except that he told me who he was. I was shocked. He had a receding chin, a snaggle-toothed, cruel-looking mouth, and his eyes, which I admired so much, looked positively malevolent. I was to learn later that the eyes only reflect the disposition indicated by the rest of the facial elements, but in spite of the contradictions to my original impressions of Jim, I have always felt grateful to him for his kindness to me.

My wife’s Aunt Cody had a cousin named Ed Bryant, called Red Buck Bryant in journalistic circles, who was at the time the Washington representative of the New York World. Aunt Cody appealed to him to see if he could do anything to help me, so one day as I was about half conscious I looked up to see men standing by my bedside looking down at me. One was in civilian clothes and the other two were in uniform, one showing the insignia of a major and the other, a general. I felt like I must stand up and salute, but of course could not.

The man in civilian clothes identified himself as Ed Bryant, a cousin of Aunt Cody, and he introduced the major as a doctor, and the general. They asked how I felt. The major felt my pulse, and the general smiled and said something about staying in there and fighting. They were then joined by the military doctor who had given me my first examination, and they talked together. They finally said goodbye to me with expressions of good luck. I don’t suppose there was actually anything they could do, but their visit gave meet me courage and certainly gave me prestige among my fellow patients.

For the first three weeks I was in hospital I had not shaved, but as the fever began to leave and I felt better, the stubble on my face became uncomfortable. Several times, visiting preachers of one denomination or another came by to visit us patients and would always ask if they could do anything for us. I always asked them to see if they could get my razor outfit from my company, but none ever came back with it. Finally, a Jewish rabbi came by and I made the same request of him and, sure enough, the next day he showed up with my razor outfit. Shaving the long matted whiskers from a tender face brought tears to my eyes, but I got the stuff off and felt like a new man.

The day finally came when a nurse said it was time for me to get out of bed and walk, and that was another surprising and painful experience. The first time I tried it, I took three steps away from the bed, but would not have been able to make it back without the aid of the nurse. My legs felt like 1000 pins were sticking in them, and they buckled under me. My head swam and I felt horrible. I still feel a sympathy when I see a little baby taking his first faltering steps—I know how he feels. But the nurse persisted, and against my will she made me try until I gained strength and confidence and finally could walk the length of the quarter, the mess hall, and even ventured out of doors.

One day, as another ambitious patient and I were strolling down one of the company streets near the hospital, we saw men loading bundles into a truck. It turned out they were loading bodies to be taken to a mortuary for preparation for internment. After the truck left, we peeked in the building from which the bodies had been taken, and to our horror saw the entire floor was covered with bodies. What we saw in this assembly center for corpses was a three-day accumulation of those who had died in the hospital. My companion and I both had the same idea, harking back to what we remembered was a quotation from one of Shakespeare’s characters: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

I did not know how near I had come to joining that ghastly throng of corpses until I returned to my barracks and again saw Tom Brown. He told me of having been summoned to the captain’s office one day and informed that I had died. The captain instructed him to wire the news to my wife, telling her that he would accompany my body to Albuquerque. Tom said he could not bring himself to send the wire that day, and the next morning, to his great relief, he was again summoned and told that I was not dead—that there had been a mixup of names reported.

Shortly afterwards, the war ended and Kenneth went back to New Mexico to work for the United States Bureau of Public Roads as an engineer, surveying, inspecting, and constructing highways. Between 1919 and 1923 he was assigned a WWI Army surplus Model T to travel over 63,000 miles “through good weather and bad, sometimes pleasant and sometimes horrendous.” And during it all, his right-rear tire always seemed to find the nail, the spike—anything that would puncture it, yet again. He wrote about this period of his life in Me & the Model T, 63,000 Miles in Mr. Ford’s Wonder Car.This book is an important snapshot of a unique time in America, right when the country was converting from the horse-and-buggy to the automobile. Told in the form of his actual letters to his wife Katharine and brother John, an engineer, these tales chronicle an era in the United States right at the birth and growth of its National Highway System.