What is it that makes history interesting? What is it that brings history to life? I suppose that is for each person to decide, although for many, there is nothing about history that is interesting. To them, history means a bunch of boring facts, figures, dates and names, along with dusty museums and static displays with “Do Not Touch” signs.
To me, what makes history interesting is the people: Their stories; their motivations; the challenges and adversity they faced and overcame—or didn’t overcome; and the result.
Take the story related in Three Area Soldiers. One Epidemic. Three Graves that appears on my Clare County history blog. It’s the story of Ervin Reed, James Garrity and Arthur Looker, three area men who enlisted in the service during in WWI and within just months of enlisting, were dead. Reed enlisted first in the National Guards; Garrity and Looker were cousins and enlisted together in the Navy the following year.
I ran across the gravestones of Reed and Garrity in a small, partly overgrown cemetery in the northeast corner of Clare County’s Hamilton Township. I had stopped there to get an idea of the work required to clean up the cemetery, and had noticed the two discolored gravestones and metal flag holder with flags that identified the graves as those of military personnel.
Then I noticed the dates of enlistment and the dates of death.
I was saddened and intrigued. The thought of a small community losing two men in such a short time and not long after enlistment got me wondering. What had happened to them? Why had they died ? And from what? Their tombstones seemed to indicate they had not even left the states.
Returning home, I pulled up the Find A Grave, a national database that provides information on the dead. While not all deceased individuals are found on the site, and the amount of information can vary from grave to grave (it depends on what data the volunteer chooses to enter), there was a wealth of information on Garrity and Reed, including their two obituaries.
It was from those obits I learned that Garrity had enlisted with his cousin Arthur, who died one day before James and at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. It was also from the obits that I learned that all three had died from pneumonia.
Now I have always considered pneumonia a killer of the elderly and something that is treatable. Plus, I thought, what was the odds of three young farmboys all dying of pneumonia?
So I went back to the Internet and conducted some research. It was there I learned a few things that fascinated me:
1) Back in 1917, we didn’t have antibiotics to deal with bacterial infections like pneumonia.
2) The period the three soldiers enlisted coincided with the Great Flu Pandemic of 1917-18 that primarily killed young people, sometimes within hours of the first symptoms and that many times, the flu caused the lungs to clog with fluids—pneumonia, in other words.
3) Military training camps were perfect for spreading the flu virus. In those camps were thousands of young men training, sleeping, eating, and bathing together.
As a result tens of thousands died. In fact, more men died of the flu then died form German bullets.
My heart still breaks when I think of the family and friends of the three men. I wonder if they have any family still in the Clare and Gladwin area. I wonder if anyone in those families knows the stories, visits the graves. I wonder if anyone out there cares…
On Memorial Day weekend this year, I cleaned the Garrity Cemetery, cutting invasive Autumn Olive and trimming branches. I also brought some water, soap and a brush and cleaned off Garrity and Reed’s tombstones, so the words etched on them are a bit easier to read.
The two men in that cemetery mean something to me now. I know about them. I know their story a little and, as a result, I can imagine the pain their families and friends felt when the boys returned to Clare County in flag-draped coffins just a few months after they left.
Those boys are more to me now than names. After all, I know their stories. I know their histories. And that makes them real. That to me, is a big part of what history is about: Making the past live again.