An Epidemic, Depression & World War: My Grandpa’s Life

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The week before our world largely shut down, and those of us who can remain sheltered in home, a friend and I were talking at the gym. We’re both Medicare age. Actually, I’m still a few months away. That means we both had grandparents who lived through some troubling times.

“We’ve had it easy until now,” he said, as it became clear our world was going to change very quickly, and not in a good way. He is right, though that might be of little comfort to some.

Until now, the most traumatic event that affected all Americans in our lifetimes was the Great Recession of 2008-2009, which these days seems relatively mild compared to our present economic collapse. It wasn’t mild, of course, for the millions of people who lost their jobs and their homes. My friend and I just lost a chunk of our 401Ks.

Of course, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were horrific. They changed much of our world besides the horrendous loss of life. Heightened airport security, two grueling wars, and enhanced surveillance in all facets of our lives resulted.

I have been researching the life of my paternal grandfather, who was born in 1906. In May 1918, Carl Borders traveled with his recently divorced father, Henry W. Borders, Jr., from Illinois to homestead a section in Converse County, in eastern Wyoming. The 640-acre tract was officially titled “Section 30, Township 39, Range 74.” It was roughly equidistant from Douglas, a small town, and Casper, a more substantial city. Both communities were about 50 miles away, a two-day trip by horseback.

Earlier that year, the Spanish Flu epidemic — as it is popularly called — swept the world. The title stuck, even though most medical researchers believe it originated in Haskell County, a sparsely populated area in southwestern Kansas, beginning in January 1918. From there it traveled 300 miles via soldiers or families visiting to the east to Camp Funston, which was part of Fort Riley, near Junction City. The flu then traveled to Europe with those soldiers. It became known as the Spanish Flu because that country had stayed out of the Great War and more freely reported on the epidemic than wartime newspapers. At least that’s the theory, according to a piece I accessed on the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health website. (https://tinyurl.com/woxgquu)

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, nearly 600 miles northwest, the flu epidemic struck by late fall of 1918. An online article from the Wyoming State Historical Society states that nearly 800 people died from either the flu or pneumonia. My grandfather, living on an isolated homestead 40 miles from the nearest town, apparently emerged unscathed. He didn’t mention it in the lengthy oral history he made in the late 1970s, which I have transcribed.

Henry Borders, my great-grandfather, bought a lot in Casper, built a home and started an insurance agency. My grandfather graduated from high school five years before the Great Depression struck in 1929. Both Henry and Carl headed back to the Midwest. My grandfather became an insurance salesman in Saginaw, Michigan. At some point, he moved back to Wyoming. In 1936, he filed for bankruptcy, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. My grandfather was a gregarious, cheerful man when I knew him, and it must have been a crushing blow to file for bankruptcy at the age of 30. He never mentioned it to us, naturally. It is likely a result of the harsh economic conditions brought on by the Depression. Again, that’s my theory.

Five years later, the United States entered World War II, with my grandfather still living and working in Wyoming. I never asked him if he considered joining the military. He was 35 by then with two young children and working as a police officer. He made a career change in 1944 and became a professional Boy Scout. For the remainder of the war, he helped oversee the Boy Scout troops created at Heart Mountain, a Japanese internment camp near Powell, Wyoming, about 13 miles north of Cody, where he had moved. At its high point, the Heart Mountain internment camp, which had nearly 11,000 detainees — all American citizens — had 350 boys enrolled in Boy Scouts. One hopes that scouting gave these boys, whose lives had been uprooted for highly dubious reasons, some comfort.

By the time my grandfather was 40, he had lived through a flu, a depression, and a world war. He spent most of his remaining working life as a Boy Scout executive, which brought him to Longview in 1953. He lived a long life, dying of colon cancer at 89 in 1995. If the tumultuous times he lived through had any lasting effect on his sunny outlook on life, it sure didn’t show.

Reflecting on my grandfather’s life helps me have perspective on what we are going through right now. We will get through this, I believe, but not without pain and sacrifice.

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