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‘History is what’s happening now’: Maryland Historical Society wants your coronavirus tales

Nurses care for victims of a Spanish influenza epidemic outdoors amidst canvas tents during an outdoor fresh air cure in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1918 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images/TNS)
Nurses care for victims of a Spanish influenza epidemic outdoors amidst canvas tents during an outdoor fresh air cure in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1918 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images/TNS)(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Theirs were stories of death and miraculous survival.

Rural doctors tried home remedies, but in the small town where Mrs. Janie Jackson had grown up, most afflicted with influenza still died faster than people could bury them.

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“During the flu, it was awful because a lot of your schoolmates died right near you and you didn’t even know they were dead,” Jackson told an interviewer in the late 1970s.

The illness killed a young newlywed couple; they died in bed together.

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The disease could fell a robust iron worker, or a soldier.

Joseph Kanter remembered the sight of bodies stacked high at Camp Meade. Placed in pine boxes, they were sent by train back to their families, who had been urged by the Army to write cheerful letters. Around 700 people would eventually die there of flu and pneumonia.

Some soldiers would live long enough to carry the disease to Europe.

Off in France, Philip Meyers, an officer in the 319th Infantry of the 80th Division, got sick after burying the bodies of German prisoners of war. He was taken to an American hospital and placed in a ward with six other officers.

“The last thing I remember is hearing the hot water bottle, clunk, clunk, clunk, drop on the floor because they were trying to break my fever,” he recalled, 60 years later.

He woke up to find a bowl of roses on the table beside him. The nurses had put them there, in preparation, they thought, for his funeral.

Somehow, Meyers survived. An officer in bed next to him cracked wise. “Smell ‘em, you lucky guy, you’re the only person I ever knew who smelled his own funeral flowers.”

These fragments of life during the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918 come from oral histories housed at The Maryland Historical Society. The interviews were conducted at Baltimore’s Waxter Center in the late 1970s by Marie Lehnert, who used them as the basis for a video play called “The Last Day of the Old World.” Afterwards, Lehnert told The Baltimore Sun that recording the interviews helped the seniors “realize the art in their lives; art in the sense that they have something no one else has. They have first-hand knowledge of how things were.”

Now, The Sun is partnering with The Maryland Historical Society to paint a picture of life during the coronavirus pandemic for future generations.

“It’s so important to remember that history is what’s happening now,” said Catherine Mayfield, France-Merrick Director of the H. Furlong Baldwin Library.

The “Collecting in Quarantine” initiative invites Marylanders of all ages and walks of life to share their experiences for posterity. They can include glimpses caught from beneath a cloth mask, waiting in line to enter the grocery store, or the stress of caring for someone sick with the illness. It could be the boredom of a child home from school, or the disappointment of a high school graduate missing the chance to celebrate with friends. Whatever it is, Mayfield wants people to know: “Your story is important.”

The project parallels other so-called rapid-response collecting efforts by museums and institutions in the wake of a major news event.

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Submissions of 450 words or less may be sent to The Sun at talkback@baltimoresun.com with the subject line “Coronavirus story.” Please include name, phone number and street address. The Sun will edit and compile these vignettes for later publication in the newspaper, and share them with the Maryland Historical Society for possible inclusion in their collection.

Personal stories can also be sent directly to the Maryland Historical Society at lettersfromthehomefront@mdhs.org. Photos and accounts related to how commerce is being impacted by the virus are also welcome.

Together, these accounts will illustrated for posterity the many ways that the coronavirus, like the flu epidemic of 1918, altered the landscape of Maryland, leaving so much destruction in its wake.

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