Article posted Thursday, June 11, 2009 3:49pm

Item #1:  One of the disturbing aspects of our ability to instantaneously transmit information these days is the consequences that arise when the information turns out to be wrong or incomplete. Remember the apple scare a few years back when almost an entire season’s worth of apples from the state of Washington went unsold because of fears of salmonella contamination? That fear proved unfounded.

More recently, we had the fear of tomatoes being contaminated by salmonella that led to hundreds of tons of perfectly safe tomatoes being destroyed or left to rot in the fields. This reported contamination also proved unfounded.

I was reminded of these two events during the recent outbreak of the heretofore unseen flu virus. For almost two weeks, news coverage in this country was focused almost exclusively on this outbreak and while the coverage has tapered off somewhat, this flu still remains a significant story in our news media.

But back during those first two weeks, when the media covered this story, they invariably referred to the virus as the swine flu, even though the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization reported within a few days of the outbreak that this flu strain was a combination of swine, bird, and human flu viruses.

It wasn’t until almost two weeks into the coverage, after the pork industry began to seriously be affected and mounted a campaign to clarify the facts that the news coverage began to call the virus the H1N1 flu virus.

In fairness to our present day and age and our current media services, these types of mistakes have always been with us. During the recent H1N1 outbreak, stories of the Great Influenza of 1918 have resurfaced. During the Great Influenza outbreak, the common name in the newspapers and wire services for the virus was the Spanish Flu, which led people at the time (and many today) to believe that the virus originated in Spain. As you probably surmised, this is completely untrue.

The Great Influenza arose during World War I and though it didn’t begin on the battlefields, as the number of infections (and deaths) rose among soldiers, alarm among the combatant countries also began to rise. Whether there was a concerted effort to keep news of the virus quiet among the warring countries or not is unknown, but the fact that the news was kept from the general public is indisputable.

What the warring countries did not count on was Spain, which was neutral during WWI. As influenza infections rose among the soldiers on both sides and the population as a whole, Spanish newspapers and wire services were the first to actively report news of the virus. And thus, in a great testament to the adage that no good deed goes unpunished, the Great Influenza of 1918 became known as the Spanish Flu.

So where did this virus actually originate? Well, not surprisingly, it is very difficult to determine, but several researchers believe that the virus may have first appeared in Haskell County, Kansas, and the first confirmed infections in the U.S. were at Fort Riley, Kansas.

Item #2:  When time has allowed this spring, I have been attempting to clean out some of the accumulated clutter that fills my home. Though this is a tedious, time consuming task that often feels like an exercise in futility, there are those occasional discoveries that can thrill you and make the whole process seem worthwhile.

This past week I experienced one of those discoveries:  a letter tucked inside the cover of one of the books on my shelf. The book is The Color of Man, a coffee table size book filled with photos and text, which was published in 1964 and given to me by my parents. The letter was undated but I believe it was written sometime in 1967 when we were living in Tampa. If I’m correct, I was 9 years old and in fourth grade.

We were living in a large apartment complex on the Hillsborough River. My sister, Sharon, and I went to elementary school several blocks from the complex and my little sister, Alison, went to a day care in the home of Evelyn Johnson, just a short way from our apartment.

Evelyn is the author of the letter I found and though I have no recollection of what led me to loan her The Color of Man her letter and its message is timeless and delightful. I don’t know if, as a 9-year-old I appreciated this letter as much as I do now, but I know that I thought enough to save it safely inside the cover of the book that inspired her epistle.

Here then, is the letter Evelyn wrote some 32 years ago:

Dear Stephen –

Thank you for letting me read this beautiful book.

I have an amusing story to tell about color. In Central and South America because of climate and racial intermarriages of Indian, Negroid and Caucasian individuals, there are many people whose skin color is darker than “us palefaces.” Tampa has a large mixture of Latin American people. Many years ago when restaurants were just beginning to be integrated, my sister Marian was a cashier for Morrison’s Cafeteria. One day a couple approached her and whispered a question about another customer, asking if he were Latin or Negro. My sister answered, “If you can’t tell, what difference does it make?”

Another story I treasure is one I heard this year. I have a friend who lives in a suburb of San Francisco. She has a son Douglas who became 9 in December. I have his birthday party picture. His buddies include a Japanese, a Chinese, a Mexican, a Canadian, a Negro, a couple of Anglo-Saxon Caucasian Protestants, and a Jewish boy. They play together constantly, tease each other about being fat, tall, skinny, stupid, etc. The only time Doug’s mother has ever heard racial heritage or skin color alluded to was on a day they were playing cowboys and Indians and Marvin (Negro) giggling [sic] protested being called “a Paleface!”

I hope you will never succumb to the sickness of prejudice about skin color. It impacts all races of man.

Evelyn Johnson