Marilyn Brown, owner of See the World Travel & Tours in
Harbor City, Calif., remembers vividly the events of late December 1968.
She and her husband, Claude, had enjoyed Christmas Day with
their four children. It was the first Christmas for their youngest, Steven, who
was born three months prior on Sept. 27.
The next morning, though, Steven would wake up very sick.
Brown immediately took him to the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Los Angeles,
which she found in a state she never expected.
“It was jam-packed,” Brown recalled. “I’ve never been in a
hospital since then where I had seen so many people. We had to sit on the floor
with this sick baby, and when they finally saw him, they said he had to be
The youngest Brown had contracted the H3N2 influenza A
virus, colloquially known as the Hong Kong flu. The 1968 pandemic caused by
H3N2 was the last of the 20th century, according to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.
Now, amid the second pandemic of the 21st century (the first
was the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, often referred to as swine flu), Brown, 81,
reflected about her experience in 1968 and how today’s pandemic feels very,
Marilyn Brown (front right) with part of a group she took on a cruise that returned Jan. 28.
Much like today’s Covid-19 patients are isolated from
healthy populations, Brown’s son was isolated in 1968.
“We couldn’t go any further than the door to the room,” she
said. She recalled that he was hospitalized for a little over a week, and
because he was an infant, “they put the IV in his forehead, in the top of his
head, so he couldn’t thrash and knock it out. I remember that just about killed
us, watching that.”
Although watching Steven’s illness play out was painful for
his family, they respected the isolation, and he made a full recovery.
Before Steven got sick, the Browns didn’t know much about
the flu. After the ordeal, she still viewed it as just a particularly bad flu --
it wasn’t like the coronavirus today, with much of the country under quarantine
or being asked to self-isolate and practice social distancing.
At the time, Brown worked for the Los Angeles Department of
Public Social Services (she would go on to take travel courses at the Los
Angeles Community College District in 1980 and went full time as an agent upon
her retirement in 1993).
“Other than my coworkers bringing their own alcohol to wipe
down their desks and wipe down pencils and not use pencils that clients had
used, we didn’t do anything,” Brown said.
In fact, the coronavirus reminds Brown more of the polio
epidemic that she went through as a child growing up in Michigan. One of her
cousins died as a result.
“I can remember my mother worrying all summer,” she said.
Today, Brown finds herself taking the recommended
precautions against coronavirus, such as rigorous cleaning, staying home and
getting only takeout or delivery from her favorite restaurants. One of her
children brings her groceries.
Brown primarily books group trips for active seniors. The
most recent trip she led returned from Dubai on Jan. 28. For the first 10 days
after the trip, the group remained in contact, sharing photos and memories.
“And then all of a sudden, it was like, will we ever be able
to travel again?” she said.
Business going forward hasn’t been too affected -- she has
some cruises on the books that haven’t canceled -- but Brown likened the
pandemic’s potential impact on travel advisors to the airline commission cuts
of the 1990s. At the time, she was an independent contractor for an agency that
was forced to shut its doors due to the cuts. In the aftermath, Brown began her
focus on group trips.
As the travel agency community deals with coronavirus, Brown
recommended that advisors use the time to call their clients.
“Call and talk, and think about bringing in travel into the
conversations: ‘Where would you like to go if we weren’t stuck here? Would you
like to start planning so that you’ll be ready?’” she said.