That fall of 1895 had been unusually wet and cold, conditions conducive to “catching your death.”
With no vaccines or pharmaceuticals to prevent or mitigate a viral infection, anyone who came down with the flu basically had only their immune system to rely on. That and a strong dose of luck.
A hardworking Navarro County farmer who didn’t have much to show for his efforts other than a loving family and their modest household goods, fell ill with influenza. The transplanted Tennessean, a practical, frugal man, tried to shake it off on his own, but his condition continued to worsen. After several days, his worried wife sent word to Corsicana that her husband needed a doctor.
The good doctor managed to make it over muddy roads to the man’s farm and hastened inside the house to examine the patient.
Alas, it did not look good for the ailing farmer. Outside the patient’s presence, the physician quietly conferred with the family. Likely, he told the man’s wife, the father of her children had only a day or so to live.
A considerate man, the doctor told the farmer’s sons and their mother that since there really wasn’t anything else that could be done, there would be no need for him to make a follow-up visit. That, he explained, would save them $2, a not inconsiderable sum back then.
Their mother overwrought, the boys paid the doctor for that day’s house call and said they appreciated his gesture. But their father was suffering. Was there anything the doctor could do to make the old man’s last hours more comfortable?
That the doctor could do. He scribbled down a narcoticladen prescription and handed it to one of the boys. If their father lived through the night, he whispered, get this filled and give it to him. The medicine wouldn’t cure him, but it would at least make him feel better.
When their afflicted father indeed made it through the night, the boys called a family meeting. No matter the washed-out bridges and muddy roads, they would hitch the family’s four mules to their farm wagon and try to make it to Corsicana to get the medicine for their father. Too, the family was just about out of food. It would be a hard but desperately important trip.
With the bad weather persisting, it took them half a day, but the boys finally made it to the county seat. They got the prescription filled at a drug store on the square and bought groceries for the family’s larder.
Before they left for what they knew would be an equally arduous trip home, the boys had a somber discussion.
Given the difficulty of traveling from their farm to town, and with the rain showing no sign of abating, the two sons made a hard decision. Since the doctor had said they were about to lose their father, they might as well go ahead and buy him a coffin. Surely, they thought, if not delirious from fever their father would appreciate the practicality of what they had decided to do.
On the other hand, they also realized that their mother still clung to the hope that her husband would get better. So, not only would showing up with a coffin leave their mother further distraught, it certainly wouldn’t do their father’s morale any good. Assuming he was still alive.
After a bit more discussion, they decided that they would get the coffin but hide it in the barn before either of their parents had a chance to see it.
By the time they succeeded in navigating the bog-like roads, it was almost dark. Reaching their farm, the son handling the team slapped the mules’ flanks with the reins and raced them past the house to the barn, fearful one of their parents might notice the coffin in the wagon bed.
The fast-moving wagon made a fair amount of noise. Though still sick, their father was still alert enough to realize something was up. The boys oughtn’t be running those mules like that. Peering out the window adjacent to his sick bed, the farmer saw something long and black sticking out from the back of the wagon. He knew what it was and he didn’t like it one darn bit.
When the boys came inside, he told them he wasn’t about to die. After upbraiding his sons for their costly and unneeded purchase, once he calmed down the father demonstrated how the boys had come by their pragmatic outlook on life. As long as you’ve bought it, he said between coughs, we’ll keep that coffin and use it as a food trough for the mules.
Whether due to divine providence, the surge of adrenaline on seeing his own coffin or plain ole country toughness, the farmer recovered from the flu. And as soon as he was able, he attached four legs to the coffin in the barn and used it to hold corn for the mules.
More than 20 years passed before the farmer did die. And when he did, his sons had him buried in the former feed trough.
An award-winning author of more than 30 non-fiction books, Mike Cox is an elected member of the Texas Institute of Letters. A long-time freelance writer and public speaker, he lives near Wimberley in the Hill Country.