My Grandfather Never Went to Church Because of the Spanish Influenza

My Grandfather's Main Warehouse circa 1933

My grandfather was W.A. Livingston. His name is painted on the building. This was his  main warehouse, circa 1930. He was in business in this location from 1903 until his death in 1969. He was a great man and I miss him to this very day.

 

My Grandfather, known to the family as “Pop,” never attended church. This was highly unusual since being in the Deep South everyone else in the family had to go to church unless you were sick-in-bed. Even then, you were expected to listen to the service on the radio. (Now that almost fifty years have passed, I will finally confess that I never did this).

I often wondered about Grandfather’s lack of church attendance. I asked my mother. “He’s a Methodist,” she explained. Yet as I got older and wiser the idea that my Grandfather didn’t have to go to church because he was a Methodist began to wane. That couldn’t be it. There had to be a better reason. But what it be? Only thirty-five years later did I finally learn the truth.

My older brother, Will, clued me in during a rambling conversation about the family we were having a few years back. “Pop told me he didn’t go to church because during the Spanish flu epidemic people were told not to congregate in public places.”

Given the little that was known about the Spanish flu in 1919, that was sound advice. Other medical advice given to the citizenry at the time: don’t spit. Don’t congregate in public places. Wash your hands. “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases,” said the US Public Health Service, which urged Americans to cover their noses and mouths when coughing. (Something I wish people would have the courtesy to do now.)

My Grandfather was a civic leader. Naturally he would have conducted himself so as to be an example to others. I’m certain he never spread germs because surely he washed his hands, covered his nose and mouth when he sneezed, and he stayed away from public places– which included church on Sundays.

Yet he told my brother this in 1969. The Spanish flu epidemic had occurred in 1919, more than fifty years before. This is the reason Grandfather would not attend divine service? Does this strike you as odd? I mean, after the epidemic waned, were people supposed to avoid attending church for the next fifty years? Didn’t the US Public Health Service advise people they could go back into public places, including church, after the Spanish Influenza finally stopped? Certainly they must have, don’t you think?

But maybe not. Grandfather gave out that he was dubious that the all-clear had been sounded as far as congregating in church was concerned. While he didn’t avoid any other places of public gathering, he avoided the Methodist Church on Center Street like the plague — even in 1969.

Presumably he thought the place so contaminated with germs that a sane person dare not venture in. Those foolish enough to have done so must have come reeling out of the sanctuary so afflicted with Spanish flu, malaria or St. Vitus dance as to expire immediately on the church steps. No wonder the Methodists built a new church in 1970 and moved.

Said my brother, Will, of Pop’s reasoning, “that excuse worked for him in 1919 and he just kept using it.”

Curiously, my Grandfather was a veteran of the Spanish-American War.

My grandfather, W.A. Livingston, in a photo I took in 1970. We had been fishing one afternoon in one of the large ponds on our property and my grandfather caught this twelve pound large-mouth bass. (My grandfather fished in a suit). We were fishing off a dock and we didn't have a net with us. The fish was jumping and didn't want to be caught and my grandfather very skillfully reeled the fish in until it was close to the dock. He wasn't using heavy fishing line and couldn't just pull the fish out of the water because the fishing line would break. Because this type of fish has lots of spiny points in its gills which can cut you, I took my shirt off, wrapped it around my hand, leaned way over and slipped my hand through one of the gills and brought the fish up.

My Grandfather, W.A. Livingston, in a photo I took in 1968. We had been fishing one afternoon in one of the large ponds on the grounds of my Grandfather’s country home, Pinetop, which is where I grew up. As you will note, my Grandfather fished in a suit. He did not wear causal clothes–ever. During that expedition, Grandfather caught this twelve pound large-mouth bass with a rod and reel.
During our afternoon expedition, Pop caught this twelve pound large-mouth bass with a rod and reel.We were fishing off a dock and we didn’t have a net with us. Once the fish took the bait, it starting jumping clear of the water and performing all sorts of acrobatics above and below water to escape.
But my grandfather was a very skilled fisherman. He played the fish perfectly by allowing it to tire itself out then he reeled in the fish until it was close to the dock. Never having anticipated there was a fish as big as this one in the pond, Grandfather wasn’t using heavy fishing line. So he couldn’t pull the fish out of the water because the fishing line would break. Because this type of fish has lots of spiny points in its gills which can cut you, I took my shirt off, wrapped it around my hand, leaned way over, slipped my hand through one of the gills and brought the fish up.
My cousin Nonie and I had the fish stuffed and gave it to Pop for Christmas that year. He was thrilled.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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