By Chaplain Franklin Sasser
It might seem like “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” but I experienced the Hong Kong Flu in the winter of 1968 and 1969. It was an infamous year. The nation had experienced division and turmoil that had assassinated public figures, burned cities and set neighbor against neighbor and generation against generation. Along with the weekly death count from Vietnam, Walter Cronkite reported all of that to me five nights per week at 6:30.
My little world in Georgia’s Gulf Coastal Plain near the Florida line was smaller, but held its own challenges to a young boy who was trying to find some place in this world.
My world was not Memphis, Detroit or South Central Los Angeles, but it was a world that threatened life more than I could have realized at the time. We lost our source of one of the most basic human needs. The well went dry. Deep wells were a rarity in my world. We were in a drought and there was no water in the top 33 feet of our dirt. For nine months we hauled every drop of water we used. My father set up a spot on the west end of the barn where we stored our hoard in new, galvanized trash cans. In the winter of 1968-1969 the west side was the best place to keep the water from turning to ice – yes, even on the Georgia-Florida line. In Tallahassee, 30 miles to the south, the temperature dropped to 18 degrees that winter. If your water freezes, you don’t have any water.
As an adolescent boy, it was my job to keep water in the kitchen and water in the foot tub beside the toilet in order to do a dry-weather-flush. For 10 cents, we could fill the cans in town at the city utility department. Mama warmed water on the stove and poured it in the tub. There were no bubble baths, but you got clean.
My grandfather wound up in Tallahassee Memorial Hospital with the Hong Kong Flu. My father and other family members were taking turns staying with him. Daddy caught the flu from him, and I caught it from Daddy. I was sitting in a club chair in the living room when my aunt called from her sitting shift and told Daddy that my grandfather was dead. A disease all the way from China had taken his life at 57 years-of-age.
Family and friends started to gather at our home, and we had no running water. There was the foot tub by the toilet and a pitcher by the sink. We quickly moved the wake to my uncle’s house in town. At my uncle’s home, all you had to do was turn the knob.
With losses come gifts. With death comes life. On Christmas Eve, two weeks before the death of my grandfather, came the gift of a cousin. She is now a nurse practitioner who is providing care at Albany, Georgia.
We also received the gift of water. The rains finally came and so did a deep well. I remember the approach of the following winter for on Thanksgiving Day I filled in the reserve pit that had been dug to drill a new deep well. Next door to the house we lived in, was the beginning of our new house that we would occupy before the end of that winter.
The CDC currently reports that 100,000 American died of that 1968 flu. The population of the United States was 200.7 million. Today the population is 331 million. When it is 18 degrees, you are sick with a disease that killed your grandfather and there is no running water, it might be difficult to see that there is a new cousin, a deep well is on the way, and a new house is going to be built with not only running water, but also with central heat and air. It is even going to have an exhaust hood over the stove. “Do not be anxious about your life…. And which of you