I keep a photograph of my grandmother, Nell Sloan, and her sons John Francis and Nicholas on my writing table. It’s a harvest scene taken in a wheat field near the family farm just north of Hoopeston, Illinois. The picture is undated, but from the fact of the harvest and the ages of the boys—John Francis is no more than 3 and Nicholas still wears a baby’s dress—the photo was likely taken in September of 1918. My father is also in the picture, though his presence is not at all obvious. My grandmother was several months pregnant with him on that hot afternoon, now 87 harvests gone.
In the picture, shown right, John Francis sits barefoot on a stack of newly scythed and bundled wheat, squinting at something off camera to his right. To his left and slightly above, Nicholas smiles down from the safety of his mother’s arms, a hand lightly touching his big brother’s shoulder. Gram’s face is in shadow except for her strong chin, illuminated by a single patch of sunlight spilling over the brim of her work hat.
The photograph—a swirling, nearly Impressionist study of wheat stalks, fabric folds and midday sun and shadows—is all the more remarkable because its composition was surely an accident. My grandparents were not given to unnecessary sentiment. The straightforward inscription on the back is written in the familiar, spiky scrawl of my grandmother’s later years: “Mom, John Francis, Nicholas —in wheat field across from Nesbit’s.”
The picture marks the high point of my grandmother’s life. Just turned 30, she is young and strong, the harvest is nearly complete and her boys and baby-to-be are healthy. She could not have known, of course, that in less than six weeks it would all come crashing down: John Francis, her first-born, would die in the Spanish influenza epidemic that was barreling toward Hoopeston even as the shutter closed.
Spanish influenza swept the globe in three waves over a 10-month period that began in March 1918. More than 20 million people died worldwide in that short span—twice as many as died in combat in all of World War I. The first wave was relatively mild, but late that spring the virus mutated into a germ the human body had never before encountered. Overwhelmed by this strange invader, the immune system of “second-wave” influenza sufferers went haywire, pouring huge amounts of inflammatory fluid into the victim’s lungs. Death could come in a matter of hours, in which case the victim literally drowned in his own body fluids, or several agonizing days later when influenza-weakened lungs finally surrendered to pneumonia.
The second, “killer” wave entered the United States in late August through the shipyards in Boston Harbor. By September 11, aided greatly by wartime troop transports, the disease reached the Great Lakes Naval Training Center just north of Chicago. Three days later it hit Chicago itself. Then Spanish influenza began its inexorable march south through the agricultural heartland of Illinois, striking Hoopeston in mid-October.
I first became aware of my uncle John Francis when I was 9 years old. I came across the harvest photo in a stack of pictures that Gram, then in her 70s, was sorting at her kitchen table. I pointed to the older boy. “Is that Daddy?” I asked. Gram opened her mouth as if to say something, but then she stopped. “No,” she said, without looking up. She swept the unsorted pictures into a shoebox and then slid the box onto a high shelf, well out of my reach.
Later I asked my father about the boy in the picture. He told me that the boy was his brother, who had died near the end of World War I. Gram never talked about him, he said, because it made her sad. I wasn’t to ask her about him again. Bewildered by the discovery of my father’s unknown brother (and a little unclear on my World Wars), I went home that night and wrote a fourth-grade essay about my uncle who had died fighting the Nazis.
It turned out that my father didn’t know much more about his brother than I did. Gram rarely spoke of him. My grandfather never mentioned him at all. Beyond the occasional trip to Floral Hill Cemetery to visit the family graves, all traces of John Francis had simply disappeared by the time my father was old enough to wonder why. Dad approached the subject only once, in high school. Sick in bed one day, he asked his mother how she had managed it all—John Francis’s death, the physical toll of her pregnancy and the day-to-day demands of farm life—without getting sick herself. “I took a lot of castor oil,” she said, and that was that. The subject was closed.
So when I called Dad from California a few weeks before his 80th birthday and asked if he would go with me to Hoopeston, he didn’t hesitate. By then the harvest photograph was mine, a gold-framed gift from my parents a couple of Christmases before. My curiosity about the little boy on the pile of wheat had grown. Maybe we could find out more about him, I said. “Yes,” he replied over the crackle of a bad connection. “Yes, I’d like that.”
The day before my father’s birthday party we made the 50-mile drive to Hoopeston from my parents’ home in Kankakee. I had flown out from San Francisco with my own family a few days earlier, both so that my children could spend time with their grandparents before the flood of relatives arrived and so that Dad and I could have a day to find out what we could about John Francis.
We left Kankakee after breakfast. Forty miles out of town the interstate gave way to a smaller state highway, once the main artery from Chicago to the Corn Belt counties. I hadn’t been to Hoopeston in more than 20 years, since just after Gram died. The flat expanse of empty wintertime fields crisscrossed by unmarked single-lane roads hadn’t changed at all.
Our first stop was the farm, though Dad was reluctant to take me there. The old house still sat on the west side of Highway 1, just north of Hoopeston, but almost nothing else was left of the well-kept place I remembered. The chicken coops and cattle barns were long gone. Pastureland had been plowed under to make way for more grain production. The house itself, in which Dad was born and John Francis had died, was in a state of advanced decay. The windows were boarded up; the front porch had rotted to nothing. We sat in silence for a couple of minutes with the motor running, then Dad turned the car around and drove back out to the highway.
We arrived at Floral Hill Cemetery, an isolated island of trees in a sea of fallow grain fields, just before noon. The Sloan family plot lies just beyond a pair of wrought-iron entry gates, guarded by an ancient, silver-painted Army tank and a memorial to Hoopeston’s war dead. We passed through the gates and circled behind the tank to the three graves nearest the road. My grandparents are buried side by side under simple gray headstones. John Francis lies on Gram’s right, under a smaller granite block inscribed “January 15, 1915—October 29, 1918.”
It was a sunny and unseasonably warm January day. Melting snowdrifts dotted the barren landscape. We left our coats in the car and went to work, clearing brittle tree branches and soggy clumps of leaves from the graves. I asked Dad where the harvest picture of Gram and his brothers had been taken, figuring the old Nesbit place to be a mile or two southwest of where we stood. Dad nodded toward the field that started at the edge of the cemetery. “We passed it on the way in,” he said. He pointed to a spot 50 yards away, an anonymous patch of thawing black earth. “Right there.”
He drew a line with his arm through the field, across the highway and back to the farmhouse, less than a mile to the west. “Your grandmother could see the cemetery from her front porch,” he said. I stood with my armload of brush, looking from John Francis’s headstone to the house and back again. In all my visits to the farm as a child, I had never noticed the cemetery so close by.
We left Floral Hill and drove the couple of miles to the public library, a decrepit limestone box on the edge of Hoopeston’s faded business district. I had expected to spend hours leafing through crumbling archives in the library’s basement, but on hearing our request the librarian simply reached high into a glass-doored cabinet and handed us a small carton of microfilm marked “Evening Herald: September 1918—March 1919.” I spooled the film into a projector and started cranking.
We zipped through the month of September, then slowed as October wound into view. Two major stories—the impending climax of World War I and the mounting death toll from Spanish influenza —dominated the headlines. Front page tales of Germany’s snowballing defeat were interwoven with reports of thousands of flu victims in Chicago, as well as the death notices of a growing number of Hoopestonians.
The Evening Herald of Tuesday, October 29, predicted cool and showery weather. Headlines trumpeted the annihilation of Austrian troops near Piave, Italy. The German army was on the retreat in Alsace and Lorraine. Armistice Day was less than two weeks away. On the local front, the influenza epidemic was described as “unchanged in the previous 24 hours” by Miss Laura Leininger, the head of Hoopeston’s temporary Red Cross hospital. Four hundred sixty-four cases of the disease had been reported within the city limits. Sixteen residents had died. Miss Leininger reported that 17 patients were being cared for at the hospital, “all of them . . . doing nicely,” with the notable exception of the three who were listed in an accompanying article as “near death.”
Dr. A.J. Clay, Hoopeston’s beleaguered health officer, issued a cautiously optimistic update, pointing to a mortality-free day as evidence that the epidemic was leveling off. He was encouraged enough to predict that “by the end of the present week the disease will be under complete control and the epidemic will practically be checked.”
His optimism proved unwarranted. In the following day’s edition four more deaths were reported: Fred Johnson, a 60-year-old Swede; Clarence Bennett, a young man described as “strictly honest and upright, despite having been orphaned at an early age”; Elsie Bell, age unknown, wife of Isaac Bell; and “the little son of Mr. and Mrs. John Sloan, Jr.”
My father found his brother’s obituary a few pages later, nearly lost among the farm reports and advertisements for hernia trusses, tailored suits and a patent medicine billed as a “sure cure” for Spanish influenza. Dad leaned forward and tapped the screen. “There he is,” he whispered, squinting through his trifocals at the tiny print. “Poor little guy.”
Master John Francis Sloan, the four-year-old
son of Mr. and Mrs. John Sloan, Jr., residing
four miles northwest of Hoopeston, died at 8:30
o’clock last evening, following an illness of
about a week from Spanish Influenza. The little
one’s condition had been critical for several
days. Funeral services will be held Thursday
at Floral Hill cemetery.
John Francis’s coffin was taken by truck from the farm to Saint Anthony’s Church in Hoopeston. Because of an influenza-related ban on all public gatherings, the priest simply blessed the body as the truck rolled past the church doors. Only immediate family members were allowed to attend the burial at Floral Hill.
The obituary got his age wrong. My uncle was 3 years, 9 months and 14 days old at his death. He died on his father’s 35th birthday.
We sat up late the night before I flew back to San Francisco, rummaging through a box of old photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings at the kitchen table in Kankakee. Dad laid out his genealogical treasures one by one, painting for me a picture of the nearly extinct family farm way of life he’d known as a child.
He showed me a picture of my grandfather, a gentle bull of a man, steering a horse-drawn plow in a field behind the house as Dad and Uncle Nick trail behind. In another photo Gram and her four sisters, only two of whom lived into my memory, appear as lovely young women. Dad pulled a remarkably well-preserved picture from a crumbling envelope. “Ah, here he is,” he said, handing it across the table. “Here’s your uncle.”
In the photo, a close-up this time, a smiling John Francis mugs for the camera. Seated beside him on the wooden well platform just outside the kitchen door, Gram beams a broad, unguarded smile. This was the first time I had seen my uncle’s face in full: he was undeniably a Sloan, with my father’s round cheeks, high forehead and jet black hair.
I asked Dad what he thought his life would have been like if John Francis had survived the epidemic. He leaned back in his chair for a moment, lips pursed, gaze fixed in a long-vanished middle distance. He fingered the edges of the picture, then slid it back into the envelope.
“I think he would have stayed on the farm,” he said after a long pause. “Being the oldest, your grandfather would have left it to him.” He looked again at the picture of his father behind the plow. “He was disappointed that neither Nick nor I came back to work the place after the war.”
It was past midnight. A gloom had settled over our final night. Dad shook his head, back in the present, and carefully repacked his picture trove in the dilapidated shoebox, sealing it tight with a crossing network of rubber bands.
I pushed back my chair and stood, ready to get some sleep before the drive to the airport. “Maybe he would have been a rotten kid,” I said, trying to lighten the mood a bit. “Just one more big brother to beat you up.”
Dad rose and stretched. He slid the box back onto a high cupboard shelf. “That would have been fine,” he said, wiping an eye as he reached across the table to shut off the light. “That would have been just fine with me.”
Mark Sloan, a pediatrician, lives in Santa Rosa, California, and is working on a book about childbirth and the first day of life.