Fifty two years ago this past week astronauts Virgil L. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee died in a flash fire aboard their Apollo 1 spacecraft on January 27, 1967 the same month 49 years earlier the 1918 flu pandemic began.
What’s the reason for my comparison of these two apparently widely disparate events?
It’s people’s persistence. Perseverance. Tenacity. Resolve. Doggedness.
Whatever you want to call the winning American trait to never give up…to keep on keeping on, whatever the odds and whatever the challenges.
In 1967 our nation was working hard to beat the Russians in the space race. We had done well up to the point of that tragic Apollo 1 mishap. A great tortoise and hare story, wee started behind the Russians after their launch of Sputnik, caught up to them, and then ultimately passed them on the great race to the moon. Still, there was much criticism from many fronts regarding the costs of this space race with so many, some said, higher priorities at home.
In today’s over-politicized and highly-regulated country in which we live, it’s hard to imagine that manned flights were suspended for only 21 months while the cause of the accident was investigated and improvements made to safety so the race to the moon could continue.
Nonetheless, we prevailed by a dogged determination to do what we said we were going to do, great perseverance by the American people, and the spending of political capital our silly politicians arguing over border security can’t even envision today. In only two years after the death of three astronaut heroes on that 1967 launch pad Americans landed on the moon in 1969.
The race to the moon was expensive in terms of priceless lives lost and its monetary cost. But the value of the technological gains, the prestige America received, and the restored confidence of its citizens are incalculable. It was perseverance that allowed us to shake off our failures and win.
Exactly forty-nine years before that horrible fire, and 100 years ago, an even greater horror befell our nation. The 1918 flu pandemic (January 1918 – December 1920) began. Killing 500,000 in the US alone, the pandemic devastated families throughout America.
This silent death hit the Hayes household in Cincinnati, Ohio particularly hard, taking both my maternal great grandparents within days of each other. My grand-mother Margaret Hayes, born in 1903 as an only child, was orphaned at 15. She was left with nothing.
According to an article in the October 2018 edition of Military Officer Magazine by John Prime, the author of the bestselling book “The Great Influenza” (John Barry, Penguin, 2004) wrote, “People knew this Spanish flu (as it was called then) was not ordinary influenza by another name.
A Washingtonian who lived through it was quoted as saying, ‘It kept people apart. You couldn’t play with your playmates, attend class, or meet your neighbors. The fear was so great people were afraid to leave their homes. You had no school life, no church life, nothing. It destroyed family and community life. People were afraid to kiss one another, afraid to eat with one another. Constantly afraid. You were quarantined…from fear.’”
Yet Margaret persevered. She put behind her the fear and the hopelessness of her parents’ deaths and made her way north to Cleveland where she managing to eke out a living as a housekeeper. Married at 17, she later divorced her abusive husband after bearing him two sons.
A single mother who smoked (aghast!) cigarettes in the 1920’s, she eventually remarried, bearing her new husband—my grandfather—two daughters, one of them my mother. Margaret refused to give up and led her family through the Great Depression and WWII where her two sons served in combat. Margaret persisted to become the matriarch of a large family and lived to embody the words of the English poet W.E. Henely who wrote:
“In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud:
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.”
So yes, the Apollo 1 tragedy and the 1918 flu pandemic can be compared and both events helped define America’s greatness. And those widely unrelated events are both summed up by President Calvin Coolidge who said, “Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
It’s “pressing on” against the odds and in the face of fear and sadness and naysayers that wins the day. It’s staying power that allows us to survive to fight on and become successful. And it’s one of the many things—our propensity for it—that make America great.