Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Just another American story

November 11, 1918 found Rutherford B. Edwards laid up in a military hospital in Kansas. About six weeks earlier, the corporal in the US 1st Infantry Division had gotten a whiff of either phosgene or mustard gas when his crappy issue gas mask had failed during a German gas attack. He never made much of an effort to find out exactly what had happened – he was just damned happy to be alive.

After his discharge from the hospital (and from the Army) some months later, “Red” (so nicknamed because of his thick, red hair) didn’t immediately head back east to his hometown of Ashland, Kentucky. He was a brother or two down the totem pole from taking over the family farm, jobs were scarce back home in the post-war wind-down and, besides, there was an influenza epidemic raging that he figured somebody with gas-damaged lungs should probably try to avoid.

Kansas and neighboring states still offered plenty of opportunity to work in the wide-open spaces, so Red knocked around a bit working farm jobs, punching cows and mending fences. A lot of Great War veterans did essentially the same thing – just with different details in different parts of the country – because it was difficult for them to settle in to work-a-day America after what they had just been through.

War has never been a pleasant experience for those on the pointy end, but World War I was warfare as men had never before seen. The tools and systems of industrialization enabled slaughter on an unimaginable scale. Mass conscription kept the technological abattoir freshly stocked, and simultaneously insured that tens of thousands of survivors were exposed to war’s most soul-shattering horrors.

In 1919 they didn’t call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but many veterans wrestled with the horror just the same. Fortunately Red had a good religious grounding and a common-sense understanding of human nature that helped him cope. He knew other men who weren’t so fortunate, however, so until his dying day he thanked God that he always had the ability to face his wartime experience and not allow it to dominate his life.

Red had a gal back home, but he wasn’t able to lure her westwards. When the American Rolling Mill Company announced construction of a new plant in Ashland in 1920, Red headed back home to take both a steady job and a wife.

By the time I came along, my granddad Edwards was already 70 or thereabouts and long-retired from Armco Steel. “Papaw” always carried a bit of the war around with him – although no one else in his family would really ever know it.

Except for me, anyway. He had plenty of grand-children (6, I think), but I guess of them all I was the best listener. I wonder to this day if he thought I understood what he was talking about all those afternoons we spent sitting on that old concrete culvert down on the back of his property. My guess is that he knew, at least a little bit, his experiences would help shape my view of the world.

So today, as on every Veteran’s Day, it’s with a mixture of awe and sadness that I think about my Papaw Edwards and all of the veterans who stood for their country during the Great War and in every American war since.

I am awed by their courage and their sacrifice. And I am saddened that the War to End All Wars… wasn’t – and that none of the wars since then have been, either.

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