“I had a little bird, its name was Enza.
I opened the window, and in-flu-enza.”
In the spring of 1918, the first rumblings of what was to become the most devastating pandemic in history were being felt. By the time it was over, the influenza pandemic of 1918-9 killed ten times as many Americans as had died in World War One. But perhaps the most bitter parallel between this pandemic and World War One was that they both preferentially struck down young healthy adults in the prime of their lives. However, influenza showed no sexual preferences, afflicting men and women alike with a virulence twenty-five times more lethal than any other strain of influenza ever seen by man, before or since.
One of those whose promising life was snuffed out was my great uncle, Clive Ellerby Chambliss.
Clive Ellerby Chambliss was my grandmother’s (Laviece Mae Gwin Chambliss Oliver) older brother. He graduated from his father’s (Thomas Williams Chambliss) alma mater, Wake Forest College, and returned home to Asheville, NC to begin his professional life.
In what must have been a disappointment to his father, Clive did not continue his education at the Southeastern Baptist Seminary, which is also in Wake Forest, NC. Clive’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather had all been Baptist ministers of some renown. But Clive was still young and maybe a few years working in the secular world would serve him well, once the call came, as it surely would.
So when Clive announced that he wanted to be a journalist, not only did his father acquiesce, but he supported that decision by investing in the local Asheville newspaper where Clive worked. Further, journalism was not a totally unprecedented advocation among the Chambliss men. During the mid-1800's, Clive’s great-grandfather, Alexander Wiles Chambliss, had been the editor and publisher of “The Alabama Baptist Advocate”, expanded coverage of that periodical westward to New Orleans, and changed its name to “The South Western Baptist.” Clive’s grandfather, Joseph Ellerbe Chambliss, achieved modest success as the author of a book chronicling the then current exploits of Livingstone and Stanley in Africa, “The Life and Labors of David Livingstone.”
Even though the details of Clive’s career as a journalist are lost from the collective family memory, one would like to think that his excellent education at Wake Forest prepared him well It can also be imagined that the intimate association with all walks of life that is part and parcel of the journalism profession was the best of all possible training should Clive later be called to the ministry, as had four previous generations of Chambliss men.
But we will never know if Clive was destined to be a man of the cloth. Clive’s destiny lay with the 20 to 40 million persons worldwide who perished in the influenza pandemic. To this day, it remains a mystery why this particular strain of influenza passed by the old and infirm and the young and weak, but instead struck disproportionally hard at young healthy adults (ages 20 to 40). Another perplexing feature of the 1918-9 influenza was the rapidity with which it killed. There are reliable reports of persons dying within hours of the first appearance of symptoms.
It is perhaps a tribute to my grandmother and her mother (Mary “Mamie” Beall Cottingham Chambliss) that Clive did not die within hours of first exhibiting symptoms. Undoubtedly as a result of their tireless and loving care, Clive survived for five days before finally succumbing. But it was not just their love for Clive that made their care so effective, Laviece and Mamie knew what they were doing. Both were Red Cross volunteers during the pandemic.
Today, it is difficult to imagine the courage that Laviece and Mamie Chambliss demonstrated in volunteering to tend the sick and dying. To walk knowingly into the jaws of the deadliest pandemic in the recorded history of the world was a display of that uniquely feminine form of fearlessness which is every bit the equal of the most gallant of manly deeds performed on a field of battle. My grandmother told of tending to entire families stricken with influenza only to return on her next visit to find everyone in the house dead. Knowing what they knew, seeing what they saw, what must Laviece and Mamie have thought when Clive fell into the grip of this terrible disease?
This question will forever remain unanswered, because the death of her brother was something that my grandmother seldom discussed and then only in a cursory fashion. But despite the personal tragedy that struck them, Laviece and Mamie were not dissuaded from their continuing duties as Red Cross volunteers. On they went, heedless of the mortal peril that they faced on a daily basis as a consequence of their close contact with those infected with influenza. But eventually the influenza pandemic ran its course and the incidence of new cases slowly began to drop. While nothing could ever compensate the Red Cross volunteers for the death and horrors they had faced or the personal losses each had undoubtedly suffered, the Red Cross volunteers in the Asheville, NC area did receive a thank you from that town’s leading citizen.
In late spring of 1919, the leading citizen of Asheville was Edith Stuyvesant Dresser Vanderbilt, the widow of George W. Vanderbilt. The modest thank you she offered to the Red Cross volunteers was an invitation to tea at the Biltmore Mansion, then as now, the largest private home in the United States. But this was no superficial gesture of noblesse oblige, for Mrs. Vanderbilt herself was a fellow Red Cross volunteer who herself had tended to the sick and dying. While tea at the Biltmore was undoubtedly an elegant affair, one cannot help but think that it was not a joyful celebration of their victory, but a somber gathering of scarred veterans of a terrible battle, still drained from their exertions with images of a devastated generation fresh in their memories.
But the members of the generation that survived the influenza pandemic of 1918-9 occupied positions of leadership and responsibility when the even deadlier scourge of totalitarianism swept the world in the late 1930's and early 1940's in the form of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The rigors they weathered in 1918-9 steeled them to the task that lay before them in World War Two. Armed with the knowledge that they could endure the worst nature had to offer, the survivors of the influenza pandemic led the free peoples of the world to victory against the worst man had to offer.