I never met my paternal grandfather, a Slavic immigrant who changed his name from Spihor to Smith, John Smith — a generic American name. He landed in Montana with myriads of other East Europeans to work in the mines. His job was to man the coke ovens up Trail Creek outside of Livingston.
Coking was the process of converting coal into coke by burning out all the impurities. The big copper mining companies such as Anaconda Copper Company used coke in the process of smelting copper, so it was a hot commodity in the early 1900s.
The beehive-shaped coke ovens blazed and immigrants who manned the fires earned about $2 per oven. A good worker could pull 2-1/2 ovens per day. John Smith was one of those workers. Just in his 30s, he needed to provide for his six children all of whom lived in a one-room cabin on the banks of Little Pine Creek.
Then came the so-called “Spanish” flu in 1918 on the heels of the First World War. Montana was hit hard, the fourth state in the number of cases. There was a black wreath on nearly every door, indicating a death. Miners were especially vulnerable. Butte, home to the Berkeley Pit — an enormous open-pit copper mine — recorded skyrocketing numbers. Even though schools, universities, churches, theaters, dance halls and sporting events were closed and canceled, bars remained open with defiant proprietors.
Residents became complacent when a lull in cases occurred in the fall. They took to the streets to celebrate the end of World War I in November. That became a fatal mistake as the flu came back with a vengeance and every establishment that had been given a green light to open was shut down. Deaths soared. Butte eventually recorded one-fifth of all the deaths from the flu in Montana.
My grandfather contracted the virus, died quickly, and spread the disease to one of his sons, John Jr. My father was 7 years old when he lost his father and his little brother. He and his three older brothers all of a sudden became responsible for their mother and little sister. The road ahead was not an easy one.
It’s hard not to think of the Spanish flu as we face this dogged coronavirus. We may not personally know anyone who has contracted the bug and even less likely that we know someone who has died as a result of the disease; but, as of today over 600,000 people have died worldwide — 142,000 in the United States alone. A childhood friend of my sons did not escape the virus; he was a young man of 42 who had immigrated from Laos when he was just three years old. Known as the embodiment of selflessness, many will miss him — a life cut short.
The virus is real. The sickness and death are real. The most helpful thing each of us can do to prevent the spread is to wear a mask. It’s hard to even contemplate why that is so hard for some to do. It’s not about “me,” it’s about what Aristotle called the “common good” — greater value in the common good than in the individual good. It seems trite to say, but we are all in this together. The virus has no fears, no boundaries, and no preferences. It is opportunistic: so wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance and maybe we’ll see abatement.