Dear Mom: I’m not sick; I’m not dead

This blog post was written by Graduate Student Assistant B.J. Thome. B.J. is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature in his first year at The Texas Collection. He processed and wrote a finding aid for the Henry C. Smith papers, #3784. 

Image from original letter by Henry C. Smith with the text: No mother, I am not sick with Influenza nor am I dead. I am just seeing how hard i can work for 33 dollars per month. Every person in this office is in the hospital with the "Influ" and I am trying to see if I  can handle four men's jobs. Believe me it has kept me going 7:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. for the last three days...
Excerpt form the Henry C. Smith letter dated October 11, 1918.

Concerned that his mother might worry about his health given the epidemic raging throughout the United States, Henry C. Smith sends her a message: “No mother, I am not sick with the Influenza nor am I dead.” Replace “Influenza” with “Coronavirus,” and Henry’s message might resemble messages we’ve sent our own mothers recently. But Henry’s message isn’t recent. It is, in fact, more than one hundred years old, written to his mother on October 11, 1918. Despite the century-long gap between Henry’s experience and our own, his descriptions of quarantine and his attempts to deemphasize the epidemic’s effects on his life might feel eerily familiar to our own pandemic experiences.

Henry C. Smith enlisted in the Army near the end of World War I, seeking a commission as a pilot. Throughout 1918, he studied in various camps and flight schools: first at Cornell, then at Camp Dick near Dallas, and ultimately learning to fly at Rich Field in Waco, Texas. (Rich Field was an army air base founded in Waco in 1917.  The Extraco Events Center and Waco High School now sit on the land formerly occupied by Rich Field.)

Black and white photo of twelve men dressed in World War I U S military uniform standing in front of a bi-plane.
During World War I, army cadets like Henry C. Smith and the cadets in this photo learned how to fly at Rich Field in Waco, Texas. Henry often references accidents or damaged planes in his letters suggesting that cadets also occasionally learned how to crash. (George H. Williams papers, Accession #3297, Box [156], Folder 7)
As a cadet, Henry wrote almost daily to his mother; his letters from October reference the ongoing Influenza epidemic and the quarantine measures put in place to slow its spread. In one letter, he notes, “We are not allowed to go in public gatherings from today on.” In another, he tells his mother, “Did I tell you we are under quarantine. We have to sleep with out [sic] bunks at least five feet apart and they prefer having you sleep under the stars.” Avoiding crowds, staying several feet apart, and being safer outside than inside—sound familiar?

Even as Henry frequently notes the quarantine procedures, he attempts to downplay their importance, preferring to focus on his flight training. The October 11 letter, for example, discusses the flu and quarantine in only a few lines, most of which have already been quoted. The bulk of the letter describes his first solo flight and the wonder of that experience. Other letters referencing the flu are similar: lines mentioning that he feels fine and quarantine safeguards, while the rest of the letter recounts his experiences training.

However, despite his tendency to deemphasize the impact of the epidemic and quarantine, his brief mentions of it reveal a more significant effect on Henry’s life than he probably wanted to admit. In a letter from October 13, he notes, seemingly in passing, that the nearby Camp MacArthur is hauling out the dead: “Thirty-three dead ones were shipped out yesterday.” In a letter from October 19, he notes that he loaned his last dollar to one of his bunkmates so that he could go home to care for his sick wife. Given how often Henry’s letters emphasize his lack of money, he obviously thought being sick with the flu was serious enough to give away his last dollar.

Most telling of Henry’s influenza-related fears, is the brief letter from October 23. In it, Henry writes: “I don’t really have the time to write but no letter came today and I am afraid someone is sick. Please write if it is only a note and let me know if everything is alright.” Henry’s mother and sisters had the habit of writing to Henry at least as often as he wrote to them. When he didn’t receive a letter for some time, he began to worry that someone might be sick—and given the ongoing epidemic and his frequent assertions that he doesn’t have it, the clear implication is that he worries someone in his family might be sick with the flu.

Henry’s letters demonstrate experiences from 1918 which we, having survived 2020, might well share. The precautions we are encouraged to undertake during our own pandemic resemble the precautions Henry took during his quarantine. Our own complex responses to the current pandemic allow us to sympathize with the complicated mix of Henry’s desire to focus on the normalcy of his training rather than the danger of the spreading disease while still fearing that it might harm his loved ones.

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