Tag Archives: Stuff I’ve Learned

Encouraging the next generation of Kansas writers

A few weeks ago, Mrs. Jenkins, a teacher at Ottawa High School, invited me to speak to her class about what it means to be a writer. Completely flattered, I said yes and then spent the next few weeks wondering what I would say. Luckily for me, Mrs. Jenkins’ class developed a fantastic series of questions. Some of my favorites:

  • What is your favorite piece of work you have written?
  • How long would you say it takes to write a book?
  • Do you wish to become a professional writer like James Patterson, or is it just a hobby?
  • Is anyone in your family not supportive of you being a writer?
  • When did you decide to become a writer? Why?

These questions really got me thinking about the writing process and reminded me why I love writing. Even on the days when I delete twenty pages because I realize the story is moving in the wrong direction. Especially on the days when I figure out which direction the story should go.

So, just for fun, here’s the presentation I put together so we all have something to stare at in the event that I can’t remember what I was going to say.

Writing Presentation – Ottawa High School

We’ll have a good time. I hope. At least, I hope no one falls asleep.

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Lessons from a Kansas graveyard: What a 1903 outbreak of diphtheria can teach us today

In a shady corner of St. Mary’s Cemetery, a curious collection of little headstones, all of the same size and age, surround a large hooded monument. Unassuming and unadorned, the large family headstone does not prepare you for what you will read. This little cemetery just south of Hartford, Kansas is the final resting place for the “Children of James & Anna O’Marra,” eight of whom died in 1903.

James and Anna O’Marra and their nine children, ranging in age from six months to 21 years, lived seven miles south of Hartford. Their family was in mourning for James’ brother John, who had died of pneumonia on March 30, 1903. The newspapers are not clear as to exactly what happened next, but John O’Marra’s funeral may be a clue, as family members from outside the area came to Lyon County to pay their respects.

According to the Neosho Valley Times, a cousin visiting from Anderson County might have been the unwitting carrier for the tragedy that would devastate the O’Marra family.

“What’s diphtheria?” my colleague asked me as I told her this story.

“We’re so lucky we don’t know first hand,” I told her.

On April 10, nine-year-old Julia O’Marra was taken down with respiratory “black” diphtheria. As the bacteria grew thick dark membranes around her tonsils and throat, she grew weak, gasping for air, until the membrane completely blocked her airway. On the morning of Tuesday, April 14, Julia suffocated to death. She was buried the same afternoon.

The tiny marker for Julia O’Marra, age 9, the first to die of diphtheria.

Before the last of the earth was shoveled onto her grave, all eight of the remaining O’Marra children were extremely ill. Rumors were circulating that the O’Marras had already infected members of other large families. Though unfounded, the stories prevented many neighbors from offering assistance. Beyond the help of “the old priest,” Father J.W. “Paul” O’Connor and the undertaker, Mr. Holloway, the O’Marra family was on their own.

Thirteen-year-old Anastasia, called Annie, died Saturday morning, April 18, and was buried the same day. Her four-year-old brother James died at 11 o’clock Saturday night, followed by his seventeen-year-old sister Ellen, called Nellie, who died early Sunday morning.

Anastasia “Annie” O’Marra was the second sibling to die.

James and Nellie were buried in the same coffin Sunday afternoon.

James and Ellen “Nellie ” O’Marra died within hours of each other, and were buried in the same grave.

How serious is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a serious disease: 5%-10% of all people with diphtheria die. Up to 20% of cases lead to death in certain age groups of individuals (e.g., children younger than age 5 years and adults older than age 40 years).

Immunization Action Coalition

On Monday, April 20, 21-year-0ld William and his six-year-old sister, Hanora, called Nora, also passed away. They were buried in the same casket later that afternoon.

William and Hanora “Nora” O’Marra also share a grave after dying the same morning.

James and Anna were beside themselves with grief and worry. Anna grew physically ill herself, and it was feared that she, too, had contracted diphtheria from her children. While the parents looked on, the local doctor, S.P. Reser, administered anti-toxin, a therapy that had only been in use since the late 1890s, to the three remaining children. He was too late. Maggie, the six-month-old baby, died Monday night.

Six-month old Margaret “Maggie” O’Marra was the seventh sibling to die, despite anti-toxin treament.

A nurse from Kansas City arrived to help care for the two remaining children and the heart-sick, exhausted parents. The two surviving children, eighteen-year-old Mary and eleven-year-old Lizzie, appeared to respond to the anti-toxin treatment. Neighbors stepped in to help as they could. It was thought the two girls would recover.

On the morning of May 5, Mary’s heart gave out, most likely from myocarditis.

Thought to be recovering, Mary, the eldest daughter, died on May 5.

Lizzie, the middle child in a family of 11, was now the only surviving daughter to two of the most grief-stricken parents in Lyon County’s history. She would outlive her siblings by nearly six decades.

A confirmed case has not been reported in the U.S. since 2003. Approximately 0.001 cases per 100,000 population in the U.S. since 1980; before the introduction of vaccine in the 1920s incidence was 100-200 cases per 100,000 population. Diphtheria remains endemic in developing countries with low vaccination coverage. During the 1990s, the countries of the former Soviet Union reported >150,000 cases in a large epidemic.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Diphtheria

Cemeteries are rich with the history of the people who live in a particular area. They indicate wealth, social status, social and religious affiliations, and ethnicity. They are also a strong indicator of the hard existence our not-so-distant ancestors endured.  For me, the graves of children are both the most heartbreaking and the most honest, because it is our nature as humans to do all we can to protect our young. The headstones and markers of the young tell the stories of those we couldn’t protect from stillbirth, disease, or tragic accident.

Cemeteries that date back a century or more often protect the remains of far more infants and children than most of us are comfortable seeing. The late 1800s and early 1900s brought death to children, death from diseases most of us have never even seen in another living being: tetanus, small pox, diphtheria, typhoid, and polio, as well as others that are beginning to reappear as more and more Americans lose the immunity acquired through vaccination or choose not to vaccinate their children (measles, mumps, pertussis). These families lost children — sometimes many or all of their children — in a matter of days or weeks.

I acknowledge that some of the most important decisions we ever face are those concerning our own health and the health of our loved ones. As thousands of children died all over the world from highly communicable and extremely dangerous diseases, doctors and scientists and other public health officials sought ways to protect the entire population by protecting the most vulnerable: the very young.

In some ways, those scientists and doctors and public health officials were almost too successful. We have forgotten how severe, painful, dangerous, and heartbreaking many of these diseases really are.

Vaccines have always generated dissenters as well as supporters. As the concept of vaccination spread through New England, many argued that to “sicken oneself as a way of preventing God from sickening you…[was] an act of supreme arrogance,” and considered a sin.  (See Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver by Arthur Allen.) Today, many believe that vaccines are physically dangerous, that there is no need to to vaccinate children from diseases that are sometimes mistakenly believed to have been eradicated. Yet we know that unvaccinated children are only as safe as the people around them, completely dependent on the immunity of others to protect them from harm.

As many news stories have demonstrated, in a world where people travel freely from city to city, state to state, country to country, it is very difficult to prevent exposure to some of these extremely deadly diseases. What’s more, there is a tremendous cost, physical and financial, to minimizing the impact these diseases have once they are reintroduced to populated areas.

My reaction is more visceral. When I hear of someone arguing against the benefits of vaccinations, I want to say, “Before you make up your mind, let me show you something.” Then I want to take them out to a local cemetery. “This,” I want to say, “This is why we have vaccines. Because I believe in my heart the O’Marras would have given anything to have protected their children from this. They would have given anything to have had children who lived full lives.”

I believe the O’Marras would have given anything for their children to have more than the occasional stranger standing over their graves, wondering what awful tragedy befell them in 1903.

The O’Marra family plot at St. Mary’s Cemetery, south of Hartford, Kansas.

Author’s note: Two newspapers covered the O’Marra family tragedy: the Emporia Gazette and the Neosho Valley Times. The exact times of death vary slightly between the two papers; I opted to go with the times listed in the Neosho Valley Times, which was the more local paper for Hartford. O’Marra is occasionally spelled O’Mara, though all of the family markers at St. Mary’s Cemetery spell it “O’Marra.” All photos by Diana Staresinic-Deane.

02/22/2015 Update: I’ve often wondered what happened to the surviving O’Marra family members who were left to pick up the pieces of their lives. Margaret O’Marra Miller, a descendant, reached out to me to share their story. Read more about Lizzie, James, and Anna here.

How I developed a healthy fear of giant mutant chiggers

I. Can’t. Stop. Thinking about it. Every time I almost push it out of my mind, that tiny pin prick of an insect bite begins to pulse, the itch radiating away from the center, until all I can think about it scrubbing it with my fingernails for ten measly seconds of relief.

I. Hate. Chiggers.

Growing up in Kansas, I considered bug bites a rite of passage. Childhood summers were spent peddling bicycles and turning cartwheels in grass on legs lumpy with mosquito bites. I’ve been stung by wasps, bees, and have even been unfortunate enough to step on an ant hill barefooted. But the chiggers and all of the mythology surrounding them were always the most itchy and obnoxious and disgusting. I remember dousing bites with alcohol, fingernail polish, calamine lotion, and a bunch of other weird stuff that someone always swore worked.

Chiggers are also very rude about where they choose to attack on one’s person.

I can’t even describe the joy I felt when I discovered most of these creatures didn’t live in Southern California. Some say the air was too dry; some say it was the smog. I didn’t care. I was just happy to spend summer evenings riding the rides at Disneyland without smelling like Off! and still scratching under my socks.

Then I moved back to Kansas.

I had forgotten about the chiggers.

When I returned to the Midwest, I took a position handling communications for a university alumni and fundraising office. I had written a sweet little piece about one of the parks on campus for the alumni magazine. The park, named for the family who donated the land, escaped being turned into a parking lot because the donors were wise enough to stipulate conditions of use in the trust.

Pleased with the story, one of the descendants decided to pay a visit. Would I join her for a walk in the park?

Preferring a stroll through a woodsy, grassy park with some charming WPA architecture over sitting in my office, I readily agreed.

Later that night, I realized how much trouble I was in.

Chiggers are sneaky.

You don’t feel them crawling on you. You don’t feel them bite. The bites don’t inflame immediately. It’s not until after, when it’s much too late, that you realize what has happened.

“Oh, my God,” I said to my then-fiance-now-husband. “Look at me! LOOK. AT. ME.”

My then-fiance-now-husband stared at me in horror.

“Where did you go?” he asked, and prodded my leg. “Were you hiking through a farm field?”

“I was at the park! On campus!” I was standing in front of a full-length mirror, feeling sick. “Why on earth doesn’t the university treat the grass?”

I was looking at the most gruesome collection of chigger bites I had ever seen. The started at my toes and covered my entire body to my shirt collar.

Once I reached 300, I couldn’t remember which ones I had already counted. I didn’t have a few chigger bites. I had ALL the chigger bites. All the chiggers in all the land had come after me that afternoon.

I still remember lying in bed, shivering from the itching, wishing a nice coma would settle over me so I couldn’t feel them anymore. I broke out into a cold sweat. I started to cry.

By morning, those 300-plus chigger bites were completely inflamed. I was in trouble.

“You need to see a doctor,” my then-fiance-now-husband said.

The receptionist was not impressed when I called. “You want to come in to see a doctor because of some chigger bites? ” She said. “Honey, you’re in Kansas. You’re gonna get a lot of those.”

“You don’t understand,” I said, trying not to hold back a sob. “I have A LOT of them. And they. Are. BAD.”

She begrudgingly scheduled an appointment for me, and the doctor begrudgingly saw me, opening the folder with the appointment note paper clipped to it.

“So we’re seeing you for a…chigger bite?” he looked at me suspiciously.

“No,” I said, grinding my teeth in both annoyance and severe pain. Sweat was tracing my jaw line. I wanted to run outside and rub against a tree. “I’m here because I have HUNDREDS of chigger bites.”

“Let’s have a look,” he said, and I pulled back the gown.

His horror was deeply gratifying.

HA! I wanted to scream while jabbing my chigger-bitten finger in his chest. I. Told. You. So.

“My God,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Not words you want to hear from your doctor. But at least he was appreciating my situation.

“Where did you go? Were you at a lake? Or a farm?”

“I was on campus,” I said. “I was at work. This happened to me at work!”

Twenty minutes later, I was sent home with a prescription for steroids and instructions to stay home for a couple of days, and he no doubt went to his office to write my mutant chigger attack up for a medical journal.

I called work.

“You are not coming to work because of chigger bites?” my boss said dubiously.

“This is not a normal attack,” I said. “Do you want to talk to my doctor?”

The chigger that got me Tuesday when I mowed the grass was testing the waters. He thinks he won. He’ll brag to his friends. They’ll laugh their little buglaughs, sitting around at their little bug party drinking little bug drinks with little ladybug-print umbrellas in them.

But what he doesn’t know is that the SECOND I suspect chiggers might be around, I backstroke through enough DEET to take down a herd of elephants. I will stick their little heads on pikes if given the chance.

Look out, mutant chiggers. I’m on to you.

What I wasn’t looking for but found: WPA Federal Writers’ Project manuscripts

While searching for something completely unrelated, I found myself digging through the vertical files at the library.  I can’t speak for all vertical files everywhere, but I have found three general truths about vertical files:

  1. They’re rarely indexed.
  2. They are almost never cross referenced.
  3. You have to understand the mindset of the person responsible for compiling them more than you do your own concept of logic.

That said, the wonderful bit about vertical files is that they are a glorious treasure trove for absolutely everything you aren’t actually looking for.

So. Here I am, looking for something completely unrelated, when I stumble upon a folder with a carbon of a an old manuscript dated 1936. It turned out to be a copy of a submission to the W.P.A. Federal Writers’ Project.

Normally, when I think about the W.P.A. – the Work Progress Administration that kept many Americans employed through projects that benefited communities – I mainly think about construction. Schools, community centers, picnic areas, park entrances and other construction projects for public spaces employed thousands while creating structures that continue to be used decades later.

What I forget is that the WPA also found ways to put people with writing skills to use. Beginning with the American Guide series, writers worked to capture the essence of the history of their local communities. The project later expanded to gather folklore, slave narratives, and other social and historical information.

Which brings me back to my discovery in the library vertical files.

Based on the time sheet that was filed in with the pile of fragile papers, there were numerous Lyon County citizens who sought out the history of Lyon County businesses, old settlers, Civil War veterans, and architecture. The notes and handwritten manuscripts were compiled and typed by Lillian Perry.

The pieces were written with history in mind. Even so, 75 years later, they are an intimate glimpse into the feelings and impressions of Lyon County citizens of 1936.

Some of the compiled information is statistical in an almanac sort of way. For example, under the header “Bakers,” the manuscript reads,

At least twenty-four families are supported by the employees of the four bakeries. Around 876,000 loaves of bread, at an average of eight cents a loaf and about 26,000 dozen cookies at fifteen cents a dozen besides many cakes, rolls, buns and pies are made and sold each year. To do this, 700,000 pounds of flour, 1,075 sacks of sugar and quantities of many other ingredients are used yearly.

Then there are the snippets of history of everyday people whose houses might not otherwise merit description in the history books. Under the header, “The Old Corbett Home,” the manuscript reads,

The Corbetts landed in Emporia by stage coach in May and Mr. Corbett, a stonecutter by trade, immediately began to think of ideas of a modern American house. He wanted a brick house, because there were nothing but old-fashioned stone houses in Wales and he wanted to be an up and coming American.

Most important, these manuscripts vividly captured the people and places that have since disappeared. Under the heading, “The Old Fawcett Place,” the manuscript describes “Grandmother” Fawcett as a spiritualist, and explains,

The bodies of two daughters were buried in the yard of the Fawcett home and that with the popular belief that “Grandmother” Fawcett “talked with the spirits” probably gave rise to the stories that the old house was haunted.

After describing the grand stone house out in the country, the writer continues,

The walls are cracked and spreading and the door and window frames and sashes which were made of black walnut have warped and pulled apart. The cornice has fallen away in places, the floors are worn and shaky and the stairs creaky and unstable. Only the rats scurry about…No doubt the stone in the old house will finally be crushed and used on driveways.

The Library of Congress has made many of the original manuscripts available through the WPA Life Histories web site. Unfortunately, they do not (yet) include examples of work from Kansas. However, the University of Kansas press does have a collection called the WPA Guide to 1930s Kansas, which is still in print and available at many Kansas libraries.

Scars upon the earth

Since childhood, I’ve been a map hoarder – maps of countries, cities, universities, shopping malls, amusement parks – any graphic representation of places known and unknown. Tracing my fingers along road maps and mountain ranges, I have long been enamored with a map’s ability to create both a comforting since of understanding one’s place, as well as the allure of accessing places previously unknown.

The internet is a treasure trove of maps. I have spent hours happily clicking through old county atlases at Historic Map Works, sometimes for research, sometimes for fun, sometimes to trace the changes on a particular piece of land through decades of maps. However, if I had to give my heart to just one mapping web site – and I hope I’ll never be forced to put all my love in one basket like that – it would be Google Earth/Google Maps.

Through their incredible system of satellite images and street views, Google brings us face to face with ourselves and the effect we have on the planet. Flying over the prairie in Google Earth, we can see every single change human beings have made to the Earth, good and bad. We can see the evidence of our own history.

Earlier this week, I found myself playing with Google Maps, tracing the path of the Santa Fe Trail across Kansas after studying several National Historic Register documents at the Kansas State Historical Society web site. Imagine my sense of wonder, as I scrolled along U.S. 54/400 past Dodge City, and saw this:

Santa Fe Trail ruts west of Dodge City, Kansas
View Larger Map

That curve of tracks, like an archer’s bow holding the string of highway, are the result of thousands of wagons following the Santa Fe Trail, their wheels digging deep ruts into the prairie sod as they made their way along a rough 1,200 mile journey fraught with danger. The route was only officially used by wagons for about six decades, a geological moment in time so small it’s nearly irrelevant. Yet, 130 years after trains replaced wagons as the transportation mode of choice, an arch nearly two miles long remains to tell the story of people willing to put themselves at great risk to cross foreign territory. Over time, it is likely that rivers will shift, the ruts will fill in, or some weather-related catastrophe will obscure them. But right now, we have an easily accessible window from which we can peer into the past and glean understanding from something as simple as the path of thousands of wagon wheels.

And now I’m officially trained to spot weather

It’s hard to think about tornado season when the ground is still covered with snow and ice, but tonight my husband and I went to a Spotter Talk to become trained weather spotters.

Reasons to become a trained spotter:

May 4, 2003 tornado outbreak in Kansas City

The remnants of my godparents' son's house, hit during the May 4, 2003 tornado outbreak in the Kansas City metro area.

Aftermath of the Greensburg, Kansas tornado in 2007.

Aftermath of the Greensburg, Kansas tornado in 2007.

Kansas’ wide-open skies lend themselves to cloud watching. Yet there have been times, especially while on the road, 30 miles away from the nearest exit, when all I could see were dark clouds and I and had no idea whether or not I was in real danger. One summer, we learned the hard way that you can’t always count on the regular radio. Convinced we were seeing a wall cloud, we flipped through the radio stations as we barreled south down the Turnpike toward the Topeka exit. There were no news breaks or updates. Yet when we arrived at the Topeka rest station, other travelers were surfacing from the storm shelter because the sirens had sounded in Topeka.

I’m not likely to turn into one of those insane storm chasers driving right into a storm. But thanks to what I learned during tonight’s 90-minute presentation, you might see me safely driving away from one.