Susan and Frank Steele and their children Laura, Jack and Miles are the composite Agincourt family I’ve drawn from the Birge and Irons story told a few blogs ago. Frank Steele will be the railroad employee, “freethinker” and builder of the their water tower meeting place. Steele’s character requires a crisis of faith, such as that experienced by the Irons and Birge families. I can’t say with certainty that Frank Irons had such a crisis, but he did leave the Episcopal church (where his deceased son had sung in the choir) and joined the Unitarians–about as close to “freethinking” as Fargoans were likely to get in the 1880s.
Here is a first draft of Frank Steele’s story, set in the pandemic of 1918.
Iowa reported its first cases of Spanish Flu on October 5th, at Des Moines and Dodge City; soldiers at Fort Dodge may have been the source. Doc Fahnstock diagnosed Agincourt’s first victims by mid-month, and on November 1st a dozen patients moved to the unused dormitory wing of the old Bishop Kemper Academy. Luke, the Physician (Agincourt’s hospital) was unable to accommodate their numbers and unwilling to risk the level of contagion.
Young adults (25 to 35) constituted the majority of community cases, but a handful of youngsters succumbed, including two of the Steele children, aged 7 and 8. How the boys were exposed remains a mystery, but they shared a bedroom and had probably infected one another. Of seventy-seven documented cases in Agincourt, there were twelve deaths, including little Miles and Jack. Their parents, Frank and Susan Steele (unprepared for the children’s passing or their own, for that matter) hadn’t bought a cemetery plot; hadn’t thought it necessary at their age.
The Shades opened a special section for influenza victims–quarantined in death as they’d been in life. Several of the graves were so fresh and muddy that cold December afternoon, in fact, that planks had been laid across them; umbrellas congealed into a thick black canopy overhead. The Steeles, their daughter Laura, other family members and friends stood throughout the service, as Pastor Grant droned on about inscrutability and release from this vale of tears. Frank wondered about other answers.
Dulled, numbed and muffled, wrapped in sorrow, Frank momentarily left his body.
He soared through time and space, saw a small child born to loving parents, welcomed by siblings, nurtured by community, but soon enough cast into poverty by the father’s loss of a limb in a factory accident; working conditions driven by profit at any cost, a cost borne by theft, theft punished by transport to another side of the world, a world of pain; pain dulled by drugs from half a world away again, a place of natural beauty perverted; perversion multiplied in houses of indenture where humans buy their kind, buyers leading double lives of dark and light; only one face seen by the world, faces mouthing words of faith, hollow words; domino after domino falling against the next until it brought a germ to the lips of an American soldier, who coughed on a drinking fountain in a public square where a child would drink, a child whose only self-confessed sin had been taking one shiny coin from a dresser top barely within reach.
Good intentions fail. Bad people prosper. Harm comes to the innocent and the guilty with indifference. Not even love is perfect. Frank committed himself to understanding why.
Frank returned from that very long moment in space-time; broke from his chrysalis of grief and rejoined the graveside company–changed.
He could imagine an omniscient god, one who might have set in motion a freight train of events such as these to test his faith. He could also imagine a clockwork deity aloof from human affairs. What he could not imagine, however, was that the first god was worthy of worship or that the second would want it. In that moment his old faith evaporated–so much smoke and shadow in the dawn–and cleared a space for simpler belief in the interconnectedness of all things. He saw that heaven and hell were here and now. The choice is ours.
Forty-five minutes is a long time to walk ten blocks. When they got home, Susan brewed a pot of Earl Grey. Frank began to take down the Christmas tree.
[…] 2010 December 06: In every community, there are watershed events that can best be read on the tombstones of the dead: the influenza epidemic of 1918, for example. Surely there will be others of both global and local significance. […]