© Copyright 2020 by Judith Nakken
This is my stepfather's true story and also contains a warning that the Spanish flu lasted the better part of 2 years.
Clifford Guy Wessman, unlovingly remembered as my Wicked Stepfather, was inducted into the army shortly after the United States finally entered World War I, the War to End all Wars. He was twenty-five, married but childless. When he left Alta, Iowa in July of 1918 he had no idea -. had never even heard a rumor - that the Spanish Influenza had a six-months start on becoming a global pandemic.
I hated him with the passions put to use in my current griefs, and with my childhood’s angst (apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning!), but that’s a story for another time. This is about the war stories he would tell over the New Year’s Tom and Jerrys with the aunts and uncles gathered around. Mostly lies, of course. Even in my early teens, 1950 or so, I could realize the falsity of his stories, and wonder why they listened so politely.
“Just before I was to go to the front in France,” he would grin, “I got the flu. I could hear the big guns booming up there. Aha! I thought, I won’t get killed after all. But then, my fever went to 105 and they thought I was going to die.”
He’d stop for effect, take a drink from his cup, often wipe the brow beneath his thin, graying hair for effect. “Whew! That was HOT,” he always said.
On he went, much the same story each time, about the makeshift tent hospital that housed all the flu victims, and how four orderlies came in the evening to carry out those who had died during the day. “I heard them at my bed, as God is my witness,” he would swear and I would cringe. “One guy said ‘this one will be gone before morning, anyway’ and they wired a tag on my big toe and stretchered me to another tent. I could barely see through the haze of the fever, but was pretty sure all them 3-tiered bunks was full of dead soldiers.”
He’d stop, then, and pay close attention to the liquid in his cup. Soon someone would say “C’mon, Wes. What happened?” That was his cue to finish the story.
“I didn’t die!” His laugh shook his big Swede frame from the inside, but emerged as only a sly giggle. “I didn’t die! When I woke up, my fever had broke and my curly hair was straight as a string!”
Clifford Guy Wessman passed away in 1954 at the age of 61. When my mother was ailing, 20 years later, she gave me his World War I diary. “Please read it,” she begged as she handed me the thin leather volume. “Get to know him better.”
His crabbed, right-handed writing was impossible to decipher in places (he’d had his left hand tied behind him in his early school days,) but I managed to wade through the entries made from 7/25/1918 to 4/6/1919. They chronicled in minute detail his trip to his first camp, his sea voyage to France, and most of the meals he was served anywhere. He recorded the serial number of the 30-30 Eddystone rifle issued to him in training, and made note of the Springfield rifle, steel helmet and gas mask he was given on September 23, 1918 in France, as well as the extra good supper that evening.
There is a gap in the daily record, from November 6 to November 28. It takes up again with this matter of fact line: Went to the hospital with influenza Nov. 8th,,.then tells of days of recuperation, of being in the kitchen (Black Jack Pershing passed beneath Wes’s kitchen window and got a half line in the diary,) of cake and ice cream there on his 26th birthday in January. He was finally shipped to the U.S. to recuperate in New York City; the old Siegel Cooper seven-story department store building had been transformed into an army hospital. The rest of the diary chronicles his time there, a Broadway play, and many meals. Finally discharged as well enough to return home, he got back to Iowa on Sunday, April 6th, 1919.
The diary was a repository for some loose items; a French postcard (no, not a naughty one!) a tissue-thin letter from his wife, and a pencil-filled hospital form #55-J of daily temperatures, which began at 102.6 and peaked at (yes,) 105. Further disrupting my childhood suspicion of his story was a picture of him with two buddies, his mop of curly hair distinctive.
Never once, in his diary or in his stories, did my stepfather show that he knew the Spanish Flu was a pandemic that killed thirty or forty million people on the planet in its nearly two-year reign of terror, or that over 45 thousand U.S. troops perished with it, 15 thousand in France in 1918. I don’t remember his ever indicating that his so-called recovery was anything like a miracle. And yet ….
The last loose item from the diary was a manila-colored tag about 2 x 4 inches, with illegible pencil writing for the most part. Legible is the date, and Regt. 304th. There is no form number on this battered memento, which surely encircled someone’s big toe with the two fine wires still attached.
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