All the more so as I get out of the icy wind and enter a chilly subway and walk passed an old unwashed homeless man chewing his food with an intense look of “Oh that is so good!” as he clutches a precious plastic salad bar container crammed with Thanksgiving dinner provided him by some charitable entity.
And I walk down the platform to a too-skinny woman of 30 trying on sneakers before rejecting them. She leaves them on the dumpster, and twitches her way by me as her companion glares at me with piercing blue eyes from out of the brambles of thick blonde hair and a blonde bushy beard, and then shuffles passed me, clearly worried about her as he shoulders a couple of bags while tugging along a dirty carry-on suitcase held by a long knotted rag.
I’m thankful the train will provide a little warmth for them. But I assume the old man is staying put and quite thankful to just be out of that wind.
Today I commemorate Veterans Day with a documentary made by a young man about the volunteer unit in the 101st Airborne in which his father served during the Viet Nam War.
It also features my cousin, who I have never actually met, as well as other members of the unit, and members of the North Vietnamese who fought them in a battle that changed them all forever.
It is more important than ever that the true and good reason we commemorate this day to all who have served and sacrificed in the combined armed forces, now that the USA has been continually at war for decades with no end in site.
While we dedicate this day to honor all veterans, the reason we do it on this specific day should never be taken for granted. The eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month was when the First World War came to its official close, back in 1918. Ninety-seven years ago today.
The end of a war should be commemorated, with giving thanks and celebration, both. Just as its beginning should never be forgotten, while we mourn all that was lost during the war.
Anyone who went to war will have their own personal sacrifice to live with, if they were fortunate enough to live through it in the first place. One does not have to serve in a front line unit to end up in harm’s way, but only the veterans who served in actual combat know the full measure of such service. And yet, we can all know that such events give good reason to mark the end of wars, lest we forget what happens in them.
That fact has never been more important than right now, as the United States has been at war longer than ever before in its history – even if most Americans hardly notice.
“On Armistice Day the philharmonic will play and the songs that they sing will be sad…”
The Great War of 1914-1918 remains unique in our collective history. Tactics developed during the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War met and were bested by modern weaponry capable of horrors never before visited upon mankind. The results exceed what civilized humans can imagine.
In one battle alone, on the River Somme, there were over one million casualties, with 310,486 killed outright and many more dying in the coming months as a result of their wounds. On a single day in 1916 the British army lost over 57,000 men in one engagement. Such numbers make the American losses on D-Day seem like footnotes. The losses of the French and Germans during the many battles around Verdun are beyond comprehension. And they kept at it; bravely charging into the of face death again and again.
On the whole, the world had never seen anything like it. Unfortunately we cannot say such things were never seen again.
Today the 11th November is referred to as Veterans Day and has been expanded to remember and honor all veterans who served their country ever since, in peacetime and in war. That is a good thing.
For some years, I would choose this day to open a cardboard box with some remnants of my grandfather’s time in the U.S. Navy.
There is a photo of a group of jovial sailors. The penciled script on the back says it is from 1912 and shows “a group of electricians on the Louisiana in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” My grandfather sits smiling among them, and that implies he was involved in at least one of the two actions against rebels in Cuba that year. He later took part in the invasion of Mexico when they occupied Vera Cruz and tried to capture Poncho Villa. His unit went ashore to lay telephone wire in support of the Marines, and did some demolition work.
Then came the Great War. By the time he went overseas he had joined to the 1st Aeronautics Corps, where he operated an in-flight observation camera and machine gun. He qualified as an observer in St. Rafael, France, but spent most of his fighting time based in Italy, first at Lake Bolsena, north of Rome, and then at a base on the western coast at Corsini. From there they attacked the Austrian Empire across the Adriatic sea.
Their aircraft were the large Macchi M8 bomber, a flying boat that took off from the water with a two-man gondola, landing with the help of pontoons sticking down from the lower wing.
An Italian Macchi M5 fighter with US Navy colors circa 1918
My childhood interest in my grandfather’s photos had to do with the planes and the war itself. I found it a thing of awe that they often were engaged in combat against the German Albatross D.III, the same lethal fighter plane piloted by the Red Baron when scoring 24 of his 80 aerial victories. Only in later years did I start to notice the people in the photographs and wonder who they were and what became of them.
There was this particular man who really stood out to me. Man? Many of them seem boys to me, as I look at the photos from the perspective of advancing age. They were much older when seen in my childhood.
He always appeared well-groomed and serious, more mature than the rest. He just looked like a confident leader and someone other people admired.
I kept one photo of this man, because it was the only shot that displayed the officer’s uniform from head to toe. One can see the high boots with those odd bands of tight cloth that go around the leg just below the knee, which was the style of the time. He looks out from the photo with a subtle smile like he is happy someone is snapping his photo.
I had the photos for some years when I began to read the backs, which usually just mentioned where they were taken and sometimes who was in them. But on the back of the photo of the cool looking officer is written in my grandfather’s flowing script, in pencil with that fancy capital F that people no longer use these days,
“Jimmie Goggins, Master Pilot. Bolsena, Italy. Burned to death in his battle plane at the Front, over the Adriatic Sea, September 1918.”
And just like the first time I read that, anyone who has looked through that box has had the same reaction, as our fascination with adventures and daring do in canvas covered biplanes changes to a contemplation of the lives lost in wars and the sorrows visited upon countless families as a result.
In the same box is a larger piece of thick construction paper. On it is a hand-colored drawing, showing patriotic symbols like an eagle, the American flag and a G.I. fighting man of the WWII era. These would have been handed out or sold to servicemen to send home. On the back there is a short note, also written in pencil.
It says, “Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, From a foxhole in France I wish you a very merry Xmas. Love, Walter.”
My mother had no idea who this would have been. She was 15 in 1944. Our only fighting serviceman during that war from my mother’s side was her brother-in-law. By that Christmas he had been on many harrowing missions in action over North Africa and the Mediterranean. He was part of the first American unit to bomb Europe and took part in the Berlin Airlift after the war. Later, he commanded a squadron of KC-135 Stratotankers under the Strategic Air Command. His son fought with the 101st Airborne in the jungles of Viet Nam. In 2017 an extraordinary documentary was made about his rifle platoon, Phantom Force Revisited.
My father was 16 in 1944. His youngest uncle was in the Submarine Service in the Pacific and told REALLY frightful stories at his brother’s funeral. My dad’s own service included air patrols as a navigator and radio man over the Arctic Circle during the 1950s. His colorblindness kept him from being a pilot. That’s him in the backseat of this F-89D Scorpion.
He designed the blue fox insignia used by his squadron. After six years he was discharged and went to law school thanks to the GI Bill. Some years later his favorite pilot went missing in action over North Viet Nam.
Every time I go through this box I think about that. And I wonder what happened to Walter, and to all the Jimmies and Walters.
And it reminds me that November 11th is about much more than discussing who got the day off and which of us had to go to work. It is about other folks, past and present who had to go do a job very different from any I have done. In the UK they call it Remembrance Day.
I like that, as there is much to remember.
My grandfather’s leather flying helmet, goggles, scarf, and identity bracelet.
Just as my location plunged below freezing, I came upon this piece of transportive writing, wonderfully rendered to remind us just how Spring is worth waiting for.
If you prefer to hear it beautifully read by a professional actress, click THIS LINK and scroll down to Ch. 29.
(The fact the person traveling through this excerpt is a Class A villain incapable of appreciating such natural beauty, and a bigot of great privilege who uses his charm to con many who mistake imagined wealth for greatness, and harms anyone of a social/economic/religious group he condemns, is irrelevant.)
“The thoughts of worldly men are for ever regulated by a moral law of gravitation, which, like the physical one, holds them down to earth. The bright glory of day, and the silent wonders of a starlit night, appeal to their minds in vain. There are no signs in the sun, or in the moon, or in the stars, for their reading. They are like some wise men, who, learning to know each planet by its Latin name, have quite forgotten such small heavenly constellations as Charity, Forbearance, Universal Love, and Mercy, although they shine by night and day so brightly that the blind may see them; and who, looking upward at the spangled sky, see nothing there but the reflection of their own great wisdom and book-learning.
It is curious to imagine these people of the world, busy in thought, turning their eyes towards the countless spheres that shine above us, and making them reflect the only images their minds contain. The man who lives but in the breath of princes, has nothing in his sight but stars for courtiers’ breasts. The envious man beholds his neighbours’ honours even in the sky; to the money-hoarder, and the mass of worldly folk, the whole great universe above glitters with sterling coin—fresh from the mint—stamped with the sovereign’s head—coming always between them and heaven, turn where they may. So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.
Everything was fresh and gay, as though the world were but that morning made, when Mr Chester rode at a tranquil pace along the Forest road. Though early in the season, it was warm and genial weather; the trees were budding into leaf, the hedges and the grass were green, the air was musical with songs of birds, and high above them all the lark poured out her richest melody. In shady spots, the morning dew sparkled on each young leaf and blade of grass; and where the sun was shining, some diamond drops yet glistened brightly, as in unwillingness to leave so fair a world, and have such brief existence. Even the light wind, whose rustling was as gentle to the ear as softly-falling water, had its hope and promise; and, leaving a pleasant fragrance in its track as it went fluttering by, whispered of its intercourse with Summer, and of his happy coming.
The solitary rider went glancing on among the trees, from sunlight into shade and back again, at the same even pace—looking about him, certainly, from time to time, but with no greater thought of the day or the scene through which he moved, than that he was fortunate (being choicely dressed) to have such favourable weather. He smiled very complacently at such times, but rather as if he were satisfied with himself than with anything else: and so went riding on, upon his chestnut cob, as pleasant to look upon as his own horse, and probably far less sensitive to the many cheerful influences by which he was surrounded.”
– Chapter 29, Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ’80
by Charles Dickens