I have been lucky so far this year. I haven’t come down with the flu yet, but knocking on wood is part of my daily routine. Fifty years ago, my family and I weren’t so fortunate.
Let’s see. Subtract 50 from 2018, and the answer should be 1968, the year of the Hong Kong flu pandemic. Hong Kong was an H3N2 flu virus, the same type that is floating around this season. If you caught it, you probably still remember it, and not fondly.
Actually, my mom, dad and I didn’t catch it until early 1969, not that it mattered much. I don’t remember my brother catching it all, the bum.
You’ve heard the expression “misery loves company”? The “loves” part is open to debate, but we did share the misery in a grand way.
I was in eighth grade and sat in the front row of Mr. Gill’s Pennsylvania history class. As the hour progressed, I started feeling weirdly unwell and ended up feeling delirious. A couple of weeks later, Mr. Gill told me that he watched the color draining from my face.
I managed to finish the school day, but I don’t know how. It seemed the honorable American thing to do at the time. In reality, I was a walking petri dish of swarming flu virus.
The Hong Kong flu hit you with a severe delirium, so I don’t remember much of the following few days. It wasn’t the type that let you feel better after two or three days, but dragged on for a solid week or more. We are talking about the kind of sickness that makes you reel in your steps.
Naturally, the experience was enhanced for my family because Dad was in the middle of one of those chronic remodeling projects. In the winter of 1968-69, our living room was a disaster area of plaster dust and wood splinters. All its furniture was crowded into the dining room.
That worked out kind of well for what was to follow.
We were all deathly sick, so trotting up and down the stairs to take care of flu victims was out of the question. Climbing the steps to go to bed at night was a challenge in itself.
For some reason, we had a wealth of sofas at the time, two of them, accompanied by a large overstuffed chair. These were to be our nests of pestilence for a couple of weeks. Mom, Dad and I took turns collapsing onto the couches, the odd man out roosting wherever he or she fell.
I’m not above using a little hyperbole when writing, but this flu was not funny. Literally, you couldn’t wait to find a cushiony semi-horizontal surface to lie on. The cat made himself scarce for a while.
Cat or no cat, we could watch television after a fashion. The couches were lined up, one in front of the other, like bus seats. The guy lying on the rear couch could only listen, but he didn’t care because Walter Cronkite looked peculiar from any angle.
Somehow, Mom managed to keep us all fed because that’s just what mothers do. It had to have been an ordeal, crawling to the kitchen to prepare a meal that nobody felt like eating. I remember sitting at the table, barely keeping my head out of my plate and picking at the food.
Meanwhile, my brother was trotting in and out as 17-year-old boys do. He and his buddies were just fine. One evening, one of them phoned to see if he was at home.
I don’t remember where Mom and Dad were, but I heard the phone ringing and crawled through the hall to answer it. I had not yet learned that it is okay to let it ring if you feel like death on a cracker.
It was Steve Silvis calling, and he was one of the big guys we junior-high girls wanted to impress. I mean, when you’re on the verge of turning 13, you don’t want your big brother’s friends thinking you are a lightweight. All the same, I croaked like a robot into the phone, wishing silently that he would just shut up all ready so I could expire in peace on the couch.
Obviously, the Hong Kong flu didn’t finish me off that year. All three of us recovered, and I returned to school after a several-days absence.
People overuse the word “decimated.” It means to get rid of every tenth person. The Hong Kong flu probably deserved a word of its own, because it surpassed 10 percent with ease.
Every homeroom received a daily absentee list. A group of us got hold of one and marveled at the number of classmates who were out sick. One day, I think that nearly one third of the people in eighth grade were absent. The classrooms were eery.
And people make fun of zombie apocalypses.
To put the 1918 flu pandemic in perspective, we all felt terrible but most of us didn’t die of the Hong Kong variety in 1968-69. I remember that winter and just shake my head when I read stories about the so-called Spanish flu.
All the same, keep an eye on H3N2. It is no joke and it likes to mutate faster than some of the other varieties. It might be time to brush up on your home nursing skills.