From the forthcoming collection Junk Shop Window
My father always said that his first memory was of standing on the couch in his parent’s living room, small hands on the back cushion, peering out a picture widow at a neighborhood street in Bend, Oregon. There is a slow-moving line of cars and horse-drawn carriages inching its way down the lane. The line of cars is there every day, and every day he stands there and watches. His street is a long one and at the end of it is the cemetery. He is not allowed to go outside to play. Death is all anyone talks about. Death from a great flu epidemic. Death from a great war just ending. Everyone has lost someone. Most have lost a few. It is 1918.
My parents were born during the First World War, my father in 1915, mother in 1917. I didn’t know my grandparents. I was raised on the other side of the continent. When I was in my teens and early twenties, the last of the WWI generation, then in their 70s and above, were all around me, and treated with quiet reverence by one and all. Armistice Day, November 11, was still celebrated with great fanfare. On Lovesick Lake, where I spent my summers, most islands and cottages on the mainland were populated with retirees from the ‘between the wars’ generation, and their remaining elders from WWI.
In those years, our summer home on Clovelly Island must have been a comfortable place for the older ones to visit, as most of the look and feel of the place would have been very familiar to them. A big iron and wood barrel butter churn – now used for holding summer flowers – greeted them on the front porch. There was a fully functioning cast iron wood stove in the kitchen, and smaller wood stoves in the bedrooms for heat. Coal-oil lamps burned late in the evening. There was a saw-dust house for preserving ice, and an ice box, instead of a refrigerator, in a nook behind the kitchen away from the heat. A sundial on the front lawn kept pretty good time. The benches and furniture, outside and in, were all hand-crafted by local folk from local trees and timbers.
“You know, was a time, when everything in the world was hand-made,” laughed one old-timer when I pointed out a favorite rocking chair, constructed from a collection of hickory sticks and branches.
They called me a “history buff,” because they needed an easy explanation for a boy who reads all the time. But it would have been impossible to keep up with the adults around me if I didn’t study up on their life and times. Every now and then, while sitting on the porch playing chess, or under a shady tree watching the world of the lake go by, one of these folks would open up about those days when they were young. Young like I was at the time. So, once in a while, during a quiet moment, the right question would open a door.
“I heard that you enlisted?”
“Oh, I enlisted because I hated my father,” old Chester Jacobs told me on one of those afternoons. His friends called him Jake, as he hated his given name. I called him Mr. Jacobs.
“You hated your old man so much you volunteered to go fight in the worst war ever fought, thousands of miles from home?”
“Oh, Christ yes, getting thousands of miles away from him was the reason to do it! He was a right old prick he was. A farmer, he must have beat me, all of us, within an inch of our lives, oh, I can’t tell how many times.”
“And you thought it safer to take your chances with the Germans?”
“Hell yes!” he laughed.
“So, father owned the only motor vehicle in the whole township. Had one of the first motorized tractors too. He taught me to drive so I could be a useful hand on his farm, which I hated. Anyway, as soon as I got the hang of this driving piece of business, I stole his car and ran away. I knew he’d kill me if he found me, so I drove to a recruitment center all the way down in Oshawa and signed up. I was only sixteen, but I was the only recruit who knew how to drive, so they took me anyway. Just before I shipped out, I sold the car.”
Jake looked like the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, with bald head, bulbous nose, and eyes in a perpetual squint, but that’s as far as the resemblance went. There was nothing funny, doddering, or frivolous about the man, and he surely wasn’t deaf or blind. He was in his late seventies when I got to know him, and as real as ice on stone. He wore heavy black-rimmed glasses that were fashionable among serious people back then. His skin was like old leather with a few bristles of snow-white hair on his chest and over his ears. He shook when he talked, not for any medical reason, but because he got excited when he was telling a story. In the summer he always went without a shirt, so he was deeply tanned, and as with most men who live around the lakes, he liked to work outdoors. The most amazing thing about old Jake was that mosquitos and deer flies wouldn’t touch him. I’d be swatting at them every few seconds, the bites eventually out-numbering the kills, but not Jake.
“The old fart still has that poison gas seeping from his pores, no doubt,” my mother would quip when he was within earshot. He would grin devilishly, wink at me, and stick his tongue out at her. His tongue looked round and dry, like a parrot’s.
He had been poisoned by mustard gas during the war. It burned his esophagus and stomach. The doctors had told him he could never drink alcohol again, so he drank his rye whiskey with whole milk. He could sip those all afternoon, and if I kept them coming he might tell me a story.
“So, they looked the other way about your age because you could drive?”
He would begin every soliloquy by tilting his head back, squinting into a long distant past, and say through a sigh, “Oh…” as his shoulders and hands shook, and ice tinkled in his glass.
“Oh…, Christ yes, they needed people to drive the ambulance trucks from the front to the rear and back again. They didn’t train me to march or crawl under barbed wires, nothin’ like that. They said, ‘you’ll figure all that out as soon as you get there.’ But they did let me loose with every kind of truck, car, or other vehicles they had. They didn’t train me six weeks like the other fellas either, I was on a boat as soon as they could pack me off.”
“You must have been wondering what you’d got yourself into though?”
“Oh, God! So, my first day over there I was driving this big truck toward the front and the shells just started dropping all around us! I yelled, ‘what are they shootin’ at me for?’ You see, my truck had a great big red cross in a big white patch painted on the sides, you could see the son-of-a-bitch for miles! Like a big bulls-eye, a perfect target for the German gunners. They knew we were just going to patch those boys up and send them right back into the fight. So, I gathered some fellas around and we painted those red cross emblems green or brown to give ourselves a chance.”
“So, you got to see some pretty gruesome shit your first day?”
“Oh,” Jake went quiet. I thought perhaps I may have gone a bit too far, maybe he was conjuring up scenes that were better left buried in his psyche, but no, he stopped talking if he saw over my shoulder one of the women coming near. My mother brought sandwiches. He pointed to the chess board, “Your move.” We hadn’t been playing.
When she moved off, he recommenced, sotto voce, his eyes open and penetrating, as an elder would when imparting a real-world secret to a younger male coming of age. “How those poor boys did scream and holler when we was haulin’ ‘m back behind the lines, beggin’ me to stop, slow down, screamin’ for Jesus, screamin’ for their mothers. They had legs and arms half shot off, half torn to pieces with shrapnel, guts hanging out, bare bones sticking up, eyes and faces burned off. Half of them died on the way. We’d throw buckets of water on the floor to wash out the blood and guts for the next run if we had time.
“But the gas was the worst. There were different kinds of gas. Some gas would kill you pretty quick, not pleasant, but over in a hurry, I mean. But the mustard gas would sneak up on you, later sometimes. It lay for days, heavy, in the shell craters, trenches, and foxholes. Those poor fellas would jump in the bomb hole to get away from the shells without knowing it was there. You didn’t even have to breathe it, it burned on contact. Burned their insides out slowly, drowning in their own blood, clawing at their eyes.”
“So, it isn’t true that shells never hit the same place twice?”
“Of course not, they hit the same spot over and over again, that’s the bloody idea of it!”
“And you don’t dare jump for cover?”
“You lie flat on the ground or curled up in a ball and hope one doesn’t hit ya.
“So, after a few dozen missions I put in to be a driving instructor, so some other poor buggers could drive through the artillery fire and listen to them boys holler.”
“But you were gassed too?”
“Oh, I’m not sure when, but we drove through clouds of it. Like fog. I probably got a little here, then a little there.”
“Did the gas masks help?”
“They helped against chlorine, but the mustard stuff was different. Yeah, I was never without one though.”
A World War One re-enactor I know reports that, even today, someone will purchase an authentic gas mask from the Great War and, putting it on, discover too late that the filter in the breathing mask was still caked with mustard gas. Now, a hundred years later, it will do its evil work.
Jake’s wife’s name was Elaine. She was a good twenty years younger than he and still quite a looker. She was part French Canadian, had pale blue eyes and long dark hair, tied up in a bun. She used a razor blade to keep her eyebrows bare and pencil them in herself. She was good at it. She would vary the countenance ever so slightly from day to day with an upward angle or a downward turn. It doesn’t work on most faces, but hers was perfect for it. Her long black hair only got lovelier as it slowly streaked with grey.
I’ll wager that in the 1940s and 50s she was right in style, exotic, and turned every head. Elaine was great pals with my mother, Dorothy Rose, and that’s how I knew Jake. Jake and I didn’t have much in common. I couldn’t tear down an engine, and was pretty useless in a tool shed, but I did bring cases of Metamucil - a concoction older folks use to keep regular - for old Jake whenever I came to town, and flowers for Elaine. So, I was always welcome. It was Elaine and my mother who formed a local ladies cocktail group. I was pouring drinks for them one afternoon when I overheard Elaine say that, “Old Jake would get mad if you ever mentioned his dad, that is, of course, until Jimmy Patterson asked him why he’d rather face the whole German Army than go home.”
Another WWI veteran lived across the lake. They called him “Feather,” which was short for Featherstonehaugh. He had been stricken by mustard gas too. Unlike Jake, he had been torn up by shrapnel as well. His reconstructed stomach and abdomen bulged out like he had a bowl under his shirt. “A hernia,” his wife explained. He would swim with a shirt on, but I would see him when he changed out of his bathing trunks. His lower abdomen looked like he had swallowed a bowling ball, and there were deep red gouges in his skin all over his torso front and back. There were also several small pieces of metal bomb fragments in his lower body that the doctors had decided to leave in. “Feather” drank his rye with milk too. To Feather the origins of the Great War were not in any way ambiguous.
“Europe back then was ruled by royalties, kings and queens. All the royalties were related to one another. There was no such thing as Germany. They were Prussians. But in the 1800s The French invaded Prussia, and the Prussians had to unify to fight back, and they did. That created Germany. To get even they took a couple of French provinces as payback. Queen Victoria’s grandson was the Prussian Emperor, and he was the cousin of the Czar in Russia. Well, the queen’s grandson was a big fat dummy, and he wanted a war so he could be a big shot like his relatives in England and Russia. The great thing about America and Canada is we don’t allow that kind of nonsense.”
Although I saw Jake and Feather together often, at the same gatherings, I never heard them speak openly at the same time about the war because women and children were always nearby.
Ask Jake about how the war started he’d shrug and say, “Who cares? It’s too late now.”
Feather was an engineer and after the war he had gone on to become the president of an aircraft manufacturing company. Jake had much more colorful post-war adventures.
Jake and a few associates began building slot machines. These were illegal but that didn’t stop Jake and his boys from putting them on a barge and taking them across Lake Michigan in the middle of the night to Chicago and setting them up in bars and speak-easies. One night, as they were making their way across the lake, they got the signal from shore to turn back. Each of the establishments that had a machine of his had been blown up by a “hot shot named Al Capone.”
Decades later they set up the same system for pin-ball machines. Jake made a lot of money on these endeavors but eventually he settled down and became a blue-collar efficiency expert. I imagine he was a pretty tough task master. They said he made a killing.
My parents had separated for a couple of years during the time I got to know Jake. Mom had wanted Dad to retire before he was ready, and she returned to her native Canada and waited for him to come to his senses. But the big old house she lived in there could get lonely. So, Jake and Elaine would have her over for drinks on a Friday afternoon, and usually she would camp out with them all weekend, cooking meals and playing cards or watching movies.
I would visit when I could, and dropping in on these three for happy hour cocktails or a Sunday brunch was always a fun time of boozy hilarity and great conversation. Also, if you have older people in your life, you check up on them often, just because. One Sunday morning I popped in after a trip to town where I had picked up some supplies they needed, but when I rang the bell no one came to the door. People didn’t lock their doors back then, so I poked my head in and gave a holler.
They were usually early risers, so I was mildly alarmed to hear everything so quiet. I set down the groceries and took a look around. Last night’s empty cocktail glasses where on the coffee table. The ash trays were full. Snack plates were here and there, and a trail of popcorn led back to the kitchen. I called out again.
“Is that Jimmy?” I heard Elaine mutter from the upstairs hallway. As I cautiously ascended the stairs there they were, all three of them, under a quilted comforter with lots of pillows, and I could hear them giggling from under the covers like school kids having a sleepover. The night before, old Jake was in his cups and they had been helping him up the stairs when he just decided to lay down and go to sleep on the carpet in the hallway. Not knowing what else to do, they got some blankets and pillows and bedded down with him right where he lay.
“I, um, I’ll just go down and get the coffee started, and don’t worry, I can let myself out.” I could still hear them laughing as I closed the back door behind me.
After all he had lived through, Jake would have no truck with religion or the notion of God. On another Sunday morning I popped in just as Dorothy and Elaine were leaving for church.
“Where are you two hussies going all dressed up, to a party on Sunday morning?” Jake teased.
“To church, you old heathen, and if you had any hope for your mortal soul you’d change clothes and come with us,” my mother scolded.
He gave a wry smile and said back, “It’s your time, and your money, waste it however you will.”
And yet, on another Sunday morning, after I had spent the night in nearby Peterborough, the young lady whose guest I had been the night before insisted I attend church services with her after breakfast. There in the vestibule of the old Anglican Church was a giant bronze plaque listing the church donors of yesteryear to whom we should all be eternally grateful. At least a hundred names were immortalized in bronze, and there at the top of the list, his name bigger than all the rest, the number one church patron of all time, was none other than CHESTER JACOBS.
When the centennial of the outbreak of WWI rolled around, in 2014, long after Jake, Feather, Elaine, and my dear Dorothy Rose had departed the scene, there were several marvelous books published to commemorate the outbreak of the war. My favorites were The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, 1913 – The Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illes, and The War That Ended Peace – How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan.
The World of Yesterday is a love letter to the world that was destroyed by both world wars. Vienna, pre-1914, with its high culture - opera, symphony, philosophy, nascent psychology, and literature - was Stefan Zweig’s milieu. Before the Great War, eighty percent of those living in Austria-Hungary could read and write. Zweig admits that politics didn’t concern him. He reports that he and his peers never voted. A friend to Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler, he once wrote to Freud, “Psychology is the great business of my life.”
Zweig, a Jewish man, would go on to be the most translated author in history. Those are his books you see burning in some of the old newsreels of Hitler’s Germany. He wrote his love letter to the past from exile in South America – exiled for the crime of being Jewish - and after he mailed his manuscript to his publisher, he and his wife committed suicide. That was in 1942. Hitler was in Paris. They must have believed he was there to stay.
The World of Yesterday is a deeply moving tract on freedom, and culture, on intellectualism and its naivete in dealing with the anti-intellectual barbarian mind. The pages drip with charm and wounded honesty. His depiction of sexuality, 19th century style, resonates, as my parents and grand-parents worlds were made of these mores that bent, broke, and were passed down, mangled and strange, to us, born in the 1950s and 1960s.
“My literary work, in the language in which I wrote it, has been burnt to ashes in the country in which my books made millions of readers their friends.” Zweig writes about the hideous desecration of the mind and body of culture brought about by the Nazis and the First World War which preceded them. “Against my will, I have witnessed the most terrible defeat of Reason and the most savage triumph of brutality in the chronicles of time.”
1913, The Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illies, also takes a look, a last fleeting look, at what was left behind. The book is simply laid out in twelve chapters, one for each month of the year. It begins a few seconds after midnight in New Orleans, where a 12-year-old boy is picked up by the cops for firing a revolver to ring in the new year. The next day he is sent to a detention center, the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, where the youth is so unruly, that, at a loss as to what else to do, the director hands the lad a trumpet. The youth was Louis Armstrong.
The book is a series of short vignettes, usually two or more to a page. Here, a young Joseph Stalin and a young Adolf Hitler go for a stroll in the same Viennese park every afternoon, but never meet. They never will. There, Franz Kafka goes to the theatre and weeps.
We will tour the art stalls in the Baroque city of Dresden, then contrast them with the raw urbanity of the art being made in Berlin.
Meanwhile in Paris, Harry Kessler sleeps late, goes for drinks at the Ritz where he meets Andre Gide and Igor Stravinsky. Later that evening, tempers flare at a rehearsal of a new ballet by Nijinsky and Diaghilev, music by Stravinsky. Debussy is with them. Nijinsky shouts, and Debussy shouts, and Diaghilev shouts. They all repair to a bar next door and drown their argument in good champagne. All agree that the ballet will cause a great scandal. The Rite of Spring will indeed send shock waves through the art world from Moscow to New York. Coco Chanel and Marcel Duchamp are in the audience.
In 1913 intellectuals everywhere agree that a Great War is not possible because of Globalization and the interdependence of financial markets. They say, banks won’t pay for it and industry won’t support it.
In 1913 it’s been a hundred years since the age of Napoleon ended and The Hague is planning a Peace Conference - for 1915 - which intends to solve all as yet unresolved problems between nations.
One hundred and one years later, in March, 2014, I attended a lecture by the Canadian historian Barbara MacMillan in Oxford, England. Her appearance was at Christ Church, in an ornate lecture hall which has been re-named the Harry Potter Room for the many scenes shot there for the movie series that bears his name. MacMillan is tall, slender, elegant, mature, soft spoken.
“Since the Great War ended there have been twenty-two thousand books published explaining its origins,” she begins, and then quips, “So here, for the first time, I can reveal the true culprits; it was the Canadians.”
The premise of her book, and why it stands out, is an investigation of why Europe gave up on Peace. After all, since Napoleon exited the scene a hundred years earlier, there had been a few minor dust-ups - including France’s ill-fated incursion into Prussia - but nothing to rival the conflagrations that had raked across Europe in the previous centuries since the Reformation. In that century of peace, unprecedented advances in technology, medicine, education, transportation, philosophy, and the arts had gone unchecked, and culture went steam-rolling into the twentieth century on a cloud of optimism and the assuredness, it seemed, that the human race may have turned a corner, once and for all, away from the atrocities of the past. Societies for Peace were cropping up unilaterally across Europe. Labor was getting behind disarmament and openly challenging conscription. Long chapters with titles like “What Were They Thinking?” and “Dreaming of Peace,” introduce us to noble characters, now practically forgotten, who should have been household names - heroes and saints who turned the world away from wholesale slaughter once and for all.
Two characters really caught my imagination and I instantly felt a kinship with each that was accompanied by a concomitant sense of tragic loss. It was as though I had stumbled across the fountainhead of ideas and ideals that had somehow been, vicariously, handed down to me from a previously unknown source. The first was Bertha von Suttner. It was she who cajoled and shamed Alfred Nobel, the arms and munitions manufacturer, into awarding a Peace Prize. Her international best seller “Lay Down Your Weapons” hasn’t been available in English for a long time. If it’s possible to fall in love with a person who died a hundred years ago, I fell for her.
The other character to emerge from MacMillan’s marvelous history is Jean Jaures, a labor organizer, social activist, and peace advocate. Both of these people inspired millions. Jaures was on an international campaign to get labor to refuse the call if conscription came. Days before the war broke out, Jaures was assassinated in a Paris Café, the very evening of the day he had declared to the authorities that he intended to continue to advocate for peace, war or no war. A plaque still marks the spot where he died in the Café du Croissant in the Rue de Montmartre.
Von Suttner died in bed a week before the Arch Duke’s assassination. She was seventy, and to my knowledge, no one suggested foul play. Arch Duke Ferdinand was, MacMillan tells us, the last statesman, or person in power, who might have stopped the war. He knew that should war come, the empire he was about to inherit, Austria-Hungary, would cease to be. (Hint: there are no current biographies of either Suttner or Jaures, you young biographers who love feminism and are anti-war, you know what to do. Get to work!) Rasputin was stabbed in the belly the day the Arche Duke was killed. The list of people who could have helped prevent the war who were murdered, killed, or died mysteriously in the run up to Sarajevo, is chilling.
MacMillan concludes, “Liberals and the left as well as the peace movement attacked the arms race and its ‘merchants of death’ at the time, and after the Great War, it was singled out as one of the main factors, perhaps indeed the key one, in bringing about the catastrophe. It was a view that had a particular resonance in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, where disillusionment about American participation in the war had grown. In 1934 Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota chaired a special Senate committee to investigate the role of arms manufacturers in creating the Great War and promised to show ‘that war and the preparation for war is not a matter of national honor and national defence, but a matter of profit for the few,’…what the arms race did do was raise the level of tensions in Europe and put pressure on decision-makers to pull the trigger before the enemy did.”
Otto Von Bismarck said, “Preemptive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death,” and yet, such reasoning, horrifically, is still seriously discussed today as a viable solution for our contemporary international disputes.
In her lecture as well as her book, MacMillan challenges some widely held notions. One, that the victors in war write the histories. Yes, the treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI put crippling reparations on the Germans. The Germans, however, only made one partial payment of the first of three massive payments due. The notion that the treaty was the cause of WWII was Hitler’s idea. Plus, the return to France of the confiscated provinces Alsace and Lorraine from their earlier Prussian adventure, only corrected the surrender of those provinces. No, she says, it was the Great Depression that brought Hitler to power igniting WWII.
Nevertheless, by November 11, 1918, the day we now commemorate as Veterans Day, sixty-five million men had fought in the Great War. There were forty million casualties.
As for me I never have and never will accept the old adage that war will always be with us, that the poor will always be poor. I do believe that several times throughout history humans have nearly succeeded in eradicating poverty and war. And I also believe we will never stop trying. In the meantime, books like these, and the memories shared by the likes of Chester Jacobs, Feathersonehaugh, Stephan Zweig, Florian Illies, Margaret MacMillan, and countless others, should make us all aware that war and poverty are not pre-ordained.
On a personal note, I understand why President Eisenhower changed the name of our national holiday called Armistsice Day to Veterans Day to honor all American veterans. I prefer Armistice Day. Honoring our veterans is, of course, a necessary and proper thing to do. Celebrating the end of a war, however, is a different thing, and leaves open the possibility that maybe someday there won’t be any wars at all.