On a shelf in his bedroom sits the treasures of a 16-year-old boy. Scattered among plane models, old military insignias torn from long lost uniforms and used tickets from Major League Baseball games lies a sepia toned photograph. Its frame leans up against an old brass shell casing that bears the mark of a French arms maker, plucked from a bloody battlefield almost a century ago. Printed on a heavy cardboard, a small crack invades the image from its right flank.
Even without color, the paleness of the blue eyes standout, as does the small round button on the left collar – two crossed semaphore flags – the symbol of the United States Signal Corps.
It was originally a parting gift, a remembrance from a son to his mother. With his country at war, the young man looks into the camera’s lens and contemplates an imminent departure for France in 1917.
In these days before radio his job will be to help lay telephone lines along the trenches. A buddy and he will sit strapped together back-to-back on a motorcycle. As he maneuvers the cycle along the trenches, his comrade will feed a spool of telephone wire from one end to the other. Every time they do this they make a target of themselves but this is the only method for direct voice communication. Eventually the odds will catch up with them, as one day in Verdun his friend is killed by a German bullet.
This young man, like the overwhelming majority of the million Doughboys he served with, will have done his duty and return to the States after the Armistice and live a life of anonymity. For him there will be marriage and a baby girl. Business will boom in the 20’s and bust in the Great Depression. As an electrician he will be among the lucky ones who finds a steady job in the steel mills of the Midwest.
On the morning of December 8, 1941, just one month short his 48th birthday, he will fill out a draft card just in case his country needs him again. The nation declines his offer but the war will still bring him tragedy as he loses his wife in ’44 to breast cancer at the tender age of 42.
On Good Friday of 1956 he stops at a bar on the way home from another day at the mill. His friends revel in good talk, good beer and a game of pinball. He grabs his chest, winces and falls to the floor. He is gone just like that.
All that remains are the photographs. The grandson that he never knew occasionally catches the great-grandson looking at his picture. The 16-year-old, with the military mementos of family known to him only by stories, sleeps beneath the shelf. The cold blue eyes still stare out, ever watching, ever on guard, from among the unknown legion that bought forth an American Century.
This weekend is Memorial Day. Between the picnics, the car races, the pickup games and the yard chores, remember them all – the famous and the anonymous, the recent and those lost to the ages.
Through many countries and over many seas
I have come, Brother, to these melancholy rites,
to show this final honour to the dead,
and speak (to what purpose?) to your silent ashes,
since now fate takes you, even you, from me.
Oh, Brother, ripped away from me so cruelly,
now at least take these last offerings, blessed
by the tradition of our parents, gifts to the dead.
Accept, by custom, what a brother’s tears drown,
and, for eternity, Brother, ‘Hail and Farewell’.
Ave atque Vale