Pvt. Earl W. Gustafson, 18, stares out of a sepia photograph I have in a family album. The photo was taken in 1918. Handsome and square-jawed in his Army uniform, Pvt. Gustafson looks ready to save the world for democracy during World War I, and come back home to Marquette, Mich.
Except he never got to do that.
He died stateside in an Army camp of the influenza epidemic that swept the world that year.
His sisters, my second cousins, many of whom lived into the late 1990s, still remembered Earl. He was a funny, athletic boy who loved to fish and hunt in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But they never got the chance to see him grow into a father and husband, or a craftsman, a teacher or a community leader.
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The H1N1 strain of flu virus is smashing the Sacramento region hard this season. Sacramento County accounts for 24 of the 147 fatalities statewide of people under 65 so far. They include Nancy Pinnella, a vivacious 47-year-old News10 executive. In Fresno, the flu claimed Wayne Kodama, a beloved 52-year-old dentist. This flu preys on everyone, but seemingly attacks healthy, younger people, precisely the type of individuals who might blow off getting vaccinated.
Tragically, neither Pinnella nor Kodama had taken the time to get a flu shot. Had they done so, they probably would not be the subject of this notebook or the many news stories about the dozens of victims of this particular flu.
Both of the families of these victims have publicly and vehemently urged everyone to get flu shots. These sad deaths even prompted California first lady Anne Gust Brown to get vaccinated, something she said she had never done before. Good for her for being a belated yet positive example.
Flu shots still are widely available in the area for free. There are two very good reasons for getting them: First, they can prevent you from getting the flu with a statistically microscopic chance of anything going seriously wrong, and second, getting a vaccination will help limit the spread of the flu virus.
We’re not sure why the flu is clustering here, but it is. Get a shot. It won’t hurt, and it will hurt even less knowing you could be saving some future Cousin Earl.
Eighty years after he died, his sisters said he was truly going to be somebody.