Labor Day 2021

Elizabeth McWilliams of Summerville, N.J. She sailed from New York in October as a Red Cross nurse’s aid and died of pneumonia just as the ship reached the British port. She is buried not far from Red Cross Headquarters in London. There was an outbreak of influenza on the ship in which Miss McWilliams sailed. She worked hard all the first day scrubbing out the influenza-infected baggage room to provide a temporary hospital. That night she worked as an emergency cook for three hours and then until midnight wrote letters for the influenza patients. Next morning she was herself stricken. Her last words were “I am happy because I’ve tried to be a real American.” Image via the Library of Congress

Let’s go back 103 years:

MY FELLOW CITIZENS: Labor Day, 1918, is not like any Labor Day that we have known. Labor Day was always deeply significant with us. Now it is supremely significant. Keenly as we were aware a year ago of the enterprise of life and death upon which the Nation had embarked, we did not perceive its meaning as clearly as we do now. We knew that we were all partners and must stand and strive together, but we did not realize as we do now that we are all enlisted men, members of a single army, of many parts and many tasks but commanded by a single obligation, our faces set toward a single object. We now know that every tool in every essential industry is a weapon, and a weapon wielded for the same purpose that an Army rifle is wielded-a weapon which if we were to lay down no rifle would be of any use.

Let us make this, therefore, a day of fresh comprehension not only of what we are about, and of renewed and clear-eyed resolution, but a day of consecration also, in which we devote ourselves without pause or limit to the great task of setting our own country and the whole world free to render justice to all and of making it impossible for small groups of political rulers anywhere to disturb our peace or the peace of the world or in any way to make tools and puppets of those upon whose consent and upon whose power their own authority and their own very existence depend.

We may count upon each other. The Nation is of a single mind. It is taking counsel with no special class. It is serving no private or single interest. Its own mind has been cleared and fortified by these days which burn the dross away. The light of a new conviction has penetrated to every class amongst us. We realize as we never realized before that we are comrades, dependent on one another, irresistible when united, powerless when divided. And so we join hands to lead the world to a new and better day.

By the time that Woodrow Wilson gave this speech on Labor Day in 1918, the second wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic was under way at Camp Devens just outside of Boston, although it wasn’t diagnosed as such until 12 September. As a literary side note, draftee e.e. cummings was there in lockdown along with his fellow soldiers, noting to a friend that “The Spanish Flu has claimed so many that there is some talk of one’s being introduced to the hook-worm and Dixie. Je m’en fous, comme toujours [“As always, I don’t give a crap”] – feeling well enough to die anytime”.

By the end of the month, 14,000 cases were reported at Camp Devans, resulting in 757 deaths.

Where do we stand today? At the close of yet another war, in the middle of yet another pandemic, in a nation that is not of a single mind, and where we are not sure we can count upon one another.

A day of fresh comprehension? Good idea. Will it happen?

Until then, give a thought to those who must work today, particularly the doctors and nurses.

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