It was an unseasonably cold evening in early October, 1918 when Emmett McDonough (my grandfather) stood before his orchestra at a Wallingford, Connecticut dance hall for his clarinet solo. He was well known in the area as a musical virtuoso and everyone was eager to hear him play. The crowd was in especially good spirits that night, since newspaper headlines shouted that World War I would soon be at an end.
A group of teen-aged girls began to foxtrot in front of the bandstand and one girl (I'll call her Mary) began tossing a teddy bear to her friends. Teddy bears were all the rage in 1918, so it was no surprise that she'd bring one to a dance. After several tosses, Mary lost her grip and the bear tumbled airborne toward the bandstand. Emmett, now finishing his solo, was hit square in the face. He picked up the teddy bear and handed it back to young Mary.
Just two days after the dance Emmett began to cough and felt a general malaise. By mid-week he was bedridden. Jimmy, his three year old son, was sent to stay with relatives. Emmett's wife Nellie (my grandmother) could do little more than drape him with cold compresses and put Vick's VapoRub on his chest (yes, it was around then). By week's end he'd taken a turn for the worse.
The flu was now wide spread and people were dropping left and right. Young Mary, the teen-aged teddy bear owner, was one such victim. Speculation says that Mary must have sneezed into her teddy bear's fur, leaving droplets of live virus that my grandfather inhaled.
*The Spanish Influenza started as an avian virus which spread from bird to man, then horribly mutated and spread from human to human. It was an especially virulent strain. The dead included not only the elderly and infants but also robust adults in the prime of life. It's estimated that this pandemic killed 675,000 in the United States and as many as 100 million world-wide.
The country was now in panic mode, and all of the area hospitals were full. Sister Winifred, my grandmother's sister, was a nurse/nun at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford and was able to pull some strings to get Emmett admitted. It was too late though, by now his lungs had filled with fluid and he was essentially drowning. He died from pneumonia on October 10th 1918. He had just celebrated his 29th birthday.
Nellie never remarried, which left their son Jimmy (my father) an only child. Without any substantial means of support, they shuffled from house to house living with a series of Nellie's sisters and family in Wallingford. My father would later say that it was a lonely existence and that he hated being an only child. That, in part, is why he had nine children. The youngest being me.
So when you think about it, I guess I owe my existence to...a teddy bear.
*New York Times -04/28/09