I found this tiny paper tag—about 2 inches square–in the box of Grandpa’s letters. It wasn’t enclosed in an envelope, which could have provided a date. Clearly it related to the belongings kept for a patient. But when was Grandpa a patient, where, and for what condition?
The information on the other side appeared unrelated to the instructions. Instead of giving, as requested, the “Name of Hospital” and “Name of Patient,” whoever filled out the tag put Grandpa’s name at the top: Alderson, Thomas W. The middle section provided military identification: Private, Co. C, 356 Infantry, followed by a nearly illegible line. At the bottom appeared the name and address of his next of kin: Wm Alderson (father), King City Mo.
At first, I imagined this tag marked his belongings during a long hospitalization in France. His battle injury in November 1918, required weeks of medical attention.
But after considering all the illnesses at Camp Funston during the fall of 1917, I studied the back of the tag more closely under my trusty magnifying loupe. The crinkled surface finally offered up the middle line: “Suspect Spinal Meningitis.”
And that’s the clue I needed to answer my questions. Grandpa showed symptoms of meningitis, one of the illnesses frequently reported at camp in 1917. None of his later correspondence mentioned the illness.
The tag also helped me piece together his correspondence from the last week of November and the first two weeks of December. There was a week when he didn’t write at all, at the end of November, or at least didn’t send what he’d written. He used both postcards and stationery, often leaving them undated. Sometimes, in one letter he would refer to an earlier note, explaining that he was enclosing both in the same envelope, further complicating a timeline that might explain this chaotic episode.
Here’s what I think happened.
The week of Thanksgiving, Grandpa was taken from his barracks with symptoms, carrying with him some of his belongings (and perhaps the tag).
He spent some days (perhaps a week?) in one of the tents at the detention camp, where the army isolated “germ carriers.” On December 4, in the first letter he mailed since November 26, he mentioned how he “slept cold.” He never provided the date he was sent to this camp.
He also reported (letter on the left, below) how “fifteen of our boys leaving for Funston today, I only wish I was one of them.” (To picture his movement about camp, think about the biggest area being Ft. Riley, inside whose boundaries were the detention camp on an area called Pawnee Flats, and across the river the actual Camp Funston, which approached the look and size of a town of more than 40,000 people. The large base hospital occupied still another area.)
“I will perhaps get out by Sat if I have good luck.” He didn’t. Instead, he was transported from the detention camp to the base hospital.
In the letter on the right, written from the hospital on December 9th, he told Grandma, “I was at the carriers camp and was almost ready to get out when I got my Blood Poison, they brought me here Thurs night [December 6]. I was pretty sick.” In a later note, he would identify his arm as the site of the infection. The change in handwriting, one letter to the next, looks like he was writing in pain.
I like the detail in the December 9th letter, “my clothes is scattered all over the state of Kansas.” The transfer from the camp to the hospital must have separated Grandpa from his belongings (and the tag). On the 11th, he told her one of those missing items was the sweater she had knit for him. Also that day, he wrote, “My second culture was taken since I came here and was found negative so I am loose from the Spinal Meningitis deal,” confirming the tag’s origin to December, 1917.
Grandpa was discharged from the hospital and permitted to go home for Christmas, between December 16 and 26. After his return, his luck changed. He stayed healthy during the rest of his training at Camp Funston. He also found the sweater. At the end of his December 29th letter, he added a P.S. “I told you I got my sweater didn’t I yesterday.”
Thanks to that little tag, I bet.
One thought on “One small clue”
This is a fascinating piece! Your writing includes the tension of the situation through your grandfather’s understatement. The tag is such a mysterious entry (and closure) to this sad and lonely time. I am imagining the joy he must have had going home for Christmas. Well timed, Writer!