Copyright 2012 by JT Lewis
June 17, 1918
The current rise of temperature has brought out the stench of human waste in our little trench home. I fear my feet will rot in my boots from sloughing around in it constantly as we hunker over to avoid the enemy’s bullets.
Seems there is always someone available over there to fling bullets our way, some with deadly effect.
Willy Jones caught one yesterday, I was with him as he passed. Never have I seen such fear expressed in someone’s eyes as when he took his last breath. I had to work to remove his hands from my tunic after he grabbed my collar in a desperate attempt to hold on to his life I suppose.
Was the fear in his eyes from his lack of belief in anything after this life, or the certainty of it?
I pray often…hoping there is something….someone there listening. But it seems less likely the longer I live in this hell.
And yet…it’s the only hope I have.
I closed the old leather journal, taking a moment to trace my finger across the strange tooled cross on the front of it. Gabriel’s cross they had always called it, my grandfather Gabriel.
I sullenly stared at it, thinking back on him, missing him already.
He had lived like no one else I knew of, just dying like he had seemed so out of character for him. No adventure, no plan… he just didn’t wake up.
I sighed as I laid the book on the bed and walked over to the window. The yard was full of people milling about in their Sunday best. Most had come to pay their respects, some just for a free meal. I desperately wanted them all to go, to leave us to our sorrow so that we could make peace with this new reality.
At sixteen, I had very little experience with death, much less dealing with a close family member’s. I felt an errant tear making its way down my cheek and quickly wiped it away with my sleeve. My emotions had been all over the place today, it was hard to keep it all in sometimes.
Turning back toward the bed, I again glanced at the journal. I thought how strange it was to read about his experiences in the Great War. He would never talk to me of these, saying it was just something that he had done, no more, no less.
I did remember him telling me once however, that he hadn’t laughed at anything for six months after it was over. When finally he did, he described how strange it had felt at first…and how wonderful. He had enjoyed the sensation so much in fact, that he wasn’t able to stop for twenty minutes.
When finally he had excised it all, he had realized that he had finally started healing, and that it was time to move on with his life. And that’s what he did, never looking back on the war from that day forward.
But I was interested.
I felt the irrational need to look farther into the mind that was my grandfather. Experience his war, his thoughts. I was not ready to say goodbye yet.
Sitting on the bed, I opened the journal again.
June 20, 1918
I have gotten addicted to the French cigarettes that they ration to us daily, it helps pass the time…giving us something to do besides kill and contemplate our own death.
Alexander Hill and I were on duty earlier today with the rest of the squad. Being “on duty” here currently means we take turns shooting at the enemy…trying to keep their heads down. We created quite a game out of the shooting…whenever anyone got a hit, everyone would give that guy a cigarette. There was a time early in the day where I was two days ahead in my ration! I guess all of that rabbit hunting paid off after all!
The fun kinda tapered off though after Bill Shelton caught one in the neck. We patched him up as best we could, but it didn’t look good for him.
The rain is back now, and we are stuck outside, leaning against the slimy wall of the trench. I have found a small amount of protection from a walkway board overhead, allowing me a small area to write.. We are all smoking, nothing else to do. My biggest joy at the moment is watching the smoke gather under the lip of my helmet, creating my own little cloud around my head.
Wishing I were home.
“Gabe …You up there?”
I put the old book down with a sigh.
“Yeah…I’m here,” I said, wishing my mom had forgotten about me.
I heard her coming up the steps. “What are you doing up here by yourself?” she asked as she turned the corner into my room. “Everybody is asking about you downstairs.”
I shrugged indifferently as I rolled off of the bed.
Noticing the journal lying on the bed, she asked, “what do you have there son?”
Shrugging again, “Granddad’s journal, from when he was in the war. He said I could have it when he passed,” I said, suddenly defensive.
She walked over to the bed and picked up the leather-bound book, studying it intensely. “I’ve never seen this before,” she uttered as she slowly sat on the bed, never taking her eyes off of the volume. She ran her fingers tenderly over the cross on the cover as I had done earlier.
Snapping out of her trance, “Where did you find it? I’ve never come across it in the twenty years I’ve lived here?”
“He had it in his safe,” I mumbled, “he showed it to me a long time ago.”
Mom smiled sadly, patting the bed beside her for me to sit. Looking up at me with her large brown eyes, I saw tenderness in them as she smiled at me.
“He sure loved you,” she said, taking my hand, “I know you will miss him more than anybody. You two were always thick as thieves.”
Putting the palm of her hand on my face lovingly, “And that’s why I’m more worried about you with all of this…I don’t want you to withdraw from life because he’s gone. He wouldn’t have wanted that either.”
“Your grandfather could get more life out of things than anyone I have ever met. I would hope that if you change in any way because of this, it would be to be even more like him than you already are.”
“I’m ok mom, I just miss him is all.”
I leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek.
“Good! Now come down and visit with your family…they all loved him too.”
“I will, I promise,” I said standing up, “in a minute, I just want to read a little bit more, ok?”
She smiled, “ok, but not too long, we will be eating soon.”
I nodded at her before she turned and made her way back down the stairs. Sitting back down on the bed, I again picked up the journal and turned to where I had left off.
July 4, 1918
All thoughts of Independence Day festivities were dashed early this morning when we were awakened at sunrise by a loud noise approaching overhead. The lightening sky was darkened by an armada of German Zeppelin and
bombers as they rained our positions with deafening and deadly explosions. Gotha
Bill Russell jumped on the Browning machine gun and started blasting away at one of the huge airships with little results. Finding myself devoid of anything else productive to do, I joined him, feeding the ammo belt while he inoculated the sky with bullets.
Although I’m sure our efforts did some damage somewhere, it seemed at the time very ineffectual. Men were running frantically back and forth in an attempt to find some protection from the falling bombs. The screams surrounding me attested to their lack of success in that matter.
It all looked pretty bleak for us as the trench filled up with blood and body parts of my comrades, I was amazed that Bill and I had escaped any harm at all as we continued to fill the skies with our little bullets.
Suddenly one of the enemy bombers turned on its side as smoke came out of the engine. It then nosed over and headed for the ground, crashing to earth and exploding not fifty yards from us in a hail of fire.
Having ducked down to avoid the flying debris, we raised our heads and were met by a delightful sight. One of our flyboys buzzed our position after he had followed the bomber down to confirm his kill.
A cheer rose up from all around me as we spotted the whole of his squadron taking on the large bombers with ease. Soon the enemy planes were more worried with escaping than bombing us as one after the other fell to the ground.
I admit I was grinning ear to ear as I watched the spectacle in the skies above, but came quickly down again as we got started collecting our dead. We were hit hard, nearly half my unit decimated by the overhead assault. We would be combined with another unit I was told, at least it wouldn’t be a bunch of virgins this time.
Many were my friend that I helped gather up today, and I would miss them. But the sorrow I used to feel for their passing is not in me anymore.
They are the lucky ones.
“There you are!”
Startled out of my revere, I looked up to see Clair standing in the doorway. Beautiful Clair, my next door neighbor who I thought I was secretly in love with. Friends since first grade, we were the best of buddies, a status she didn’t seem inclined to change.
“Hi!” I sputtered as I sat up quickly, trying to act cool.
Clair came over and sat next to me on the bed like we did it every day. She then grabbed my hand and looked deeply into my eyes with concern on her face.
“I’m really sorry about granddad, I really miss him too.” A tear pooled up in the corner of her eye as she said this. “It won’t be the same around here without him.”
Being more or less one of the family in my granddad’s eyes, Clair had been included in many of our activities over the years. That they too had developed a special relationship of their own had always seemed natural to me, and had never been a source of contention.
Reaching up to Clair’s face, I gently wiped the tear away with my thumb. She smiled a sad smile, and reached over and gave me a hug.
“We’ll get through this together,” she whispered in my ear, “I promise.”
I hugged her back a little tighter for that, and we sat there for a couple of minutes that way, comforting each other.
Finally pulling away, “Your mom said the meal is ready, we should go down.” I nodded as she stood and then pulled me up with her hand, giving a squeeze before pulling me toward the hallway.
As I was leaving, I looked back over my shoulder at the journal lying on the bed. My last unexplored connection to my grandfather, I yearned to read more. I knew that after we ate, I would sneak back here at the earliest opportunity to continue reading his experiences.
Even with the sadness of his writings, it was comforting reading the thoughts that he had written. The words were alive on the pages, a living remnant still communicating to me even after his passing.
October 14, 1918
Well, the war is over for me, but from what I hear, it sounds like the war may be over soon anyway
My luck finally ran out on September 14, one month ago today. Bill and I had been on duty when a courier carrying dispatches for our unit was mowed down ten feet from our trench.
He was still alive.
Bill and I looked at each other and nodded, knowing what was on each other’s mind. We both pulled ourselves up the muddy wall and over the side. We then made our way toward the injured man amid bullets that were plowing up the earth around us. Reaching him finally, Bill started pulling one shoulders while I took the other as we made our way back toward the trench.
As we lowered him over the edge to others of our unit, I felt a burning sensation in my back. I quickly rolled over the edge, my head finding a rock on the way down. I was blinded by blood as it seeped quickly from the wound. I wiped it with my sleeve and got up, intending to make my way to the first aid orderly.
Dizziness swam through my head as I stood unsteadily, unable to fathom why I felt so weak. I looked up to see them pull Bill down over the edge, his lifeless eyes staring at the sky from where he landed.
The noise around me was getting quieter and my vision becoming blurry. One of the new men, can’t remember his name, ran to me with concern on his face and yelled something…but couldn’t make out his words.
“I can’t hear you!” I yelled.
Everything was starting to get dim as I made out the man pulling his face close to my ear. The last thing I remember before I blacked out was this man shouting into my ear.
“You’ve been shot!”
I was shocked! The whole time I had know him, he had never once mentioned that he had been injured in the war. He had truly put it all behind him I guess. But that was like him to the letter. Although it was also a painful time in his life, he was more willing to talk about living through the great depression than some other things he had endured. He had told me once that the only way he had survived the economic downturn was to get up every morning and go to work.
He owned his own business and it had suffered greatly during that time. But he said all he could do was plod on one day at a time. Most of his customers had no money, and he had been forced to take food and various animals as payment for things his customers desperately needed.
He also did many things on account, letting his customers pay as they could. He revealed that at one time, 80% of his business’ income was owed to him by his customers that had no money.
I had asked him once how he was able to have enough trust in these people, trust that they would eventually pay him back.
He quoted something that he eventually made me memorize:
Without trust, there is no promise for the future.
October 15, 1917
I feel slightly guilty I think, getting out of this war with my life while my unit, or what’s left of it continue to fight.
Guilty or not, I have had enough. Far from the noble cause I once thought it to be, I now have a realistic attitude to the atrocities of war, and its causes. Not that one shouldn’t defend oneself if faced with a force that wants to take what is yours, but why does that force want what is yours?
All of this suffering and carnage over one man’s belief that he should rule so much more of the earth than he does, if not all of it.
I have come to another conclusion. During my time here I have gotten to know a fine French fellow by the name of Jacques. He has invited me to travel with him to
to help with an archeological dig. Egypt
The thought of going back home with my present state of mind does not settle well with me. I am not the man that left
last year, and I think I should see if I can find him if possible before returning. Indiana
I’m not even sure if there is a God anymore. Surely a loving God would not let things like this war happen. Prayer was long ago lost to me, I feel like I have already lived through hell, so what’s the point?
My parents certainly would not understand the man that I am today.
The crickets were chirping outside my open window as I put down the book. Looking over at the clock, I see that it is 12:30. I have been reading the journal nonstop since everyone left around 6:00. Rolling over onto my back, I stared at the ceiling and contemplated the story lying beside me.
It was hard to fathom that the man that I knew had endured so much by the time he had reached the age of 22. I felt guilty that he had gone through so much at that point, and that I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
The cool breeze flowing in through the window felt good on my skin. I closed my eyes to enjoy it for a moment, but apparently dozed off as the clock revealed it to be 4:30 when I again opened them.
I thought about just going back to sleep, but knew that I would be up in an hour anyway. Taking up the journal again, I read through some of his entries from
. Most were the dry details of the mundane, day by day life as an Archeologist’s helper. Digging here and mapping location of their finds. Egypt
Finally, I skipped to the last entry.
March 3, 1919
I laughed today!
I had come to this place three months ago with no great expectations, and the daily monotony of our work gave me exactly what I wanted…nothing.
No emotions need be involved to dig into the lives of the long dead, and I fell into the work easily.
I worked hard when I was supposed to, giving it my all physically. This allowed me the deep dreamless sleep that kept out the nightmares that had haunted me since the war. It was all that I wanted out of the experience, and it fulfilled the need more than adequately.
Whenever there was a social gathering, people joining together to blow off steam and enjoy one another’s company, I would decline. I was broken, and I felt that no amount of social interaction would fix that.
Last night however, I deigned to sit with my friend Jacques around a fire with a few of the others. The coffee was good and hot, and I did miss it as it was seldom available here.
We were all sitting there, mostly quiet, except for Kareem. Kareem is a monkey, a pet of one of the local workers at the dig. He was making his way around the fire, just being a monkey.
When Jacques found the monkey in front of him, he started talking to him in French. I could make out only a few of the words spilling out of my friend’s mouth as he gave the monkey a speech worthy of a politician. The monkey just stared at the Frenchman with a look of wonder as the words continued to spill out of my friend’s mouth.
Finally finished with his speech, Jacques put his cigarette back to his mouth and took a long drag. In a flash, the monkey crawled up his legs, and pulled the cigarette out of his mouth. Turning around to face the rest of us, the monkey sat on Jacques’ lap and took a long drag himself.
Blowing out the smoke, he proceeded to start chattering while moving the hand holding the cigarette around like the Frenchman had done moments before.
I busted out laughing at the sight. Once started, I could not contain myself, continuing long past when everyone else had stopped. Concern passed on many of those around the fire as I continued my gut wrenching laughter.
Jacques however, lit another cigarette and just watched with a knowing smile on his face.
He had been there.
I felt life return to me in those moments. The love I felt for my family and friends, the need to do something, to get on with my life. Even God seemed to have a chance of returning to me.
I have three more weeks to go in my commitment to this project. I will fulfill that with ease, but I am ready to go home now. I am ready to move on to the next thing, the next adventure.
Since this journal seems to be the story of my life in the trenches, this will be my last entry.
I have come full circle.
From the kid with the high ideals, into the depths of hell and back again, this is hopefully the story of only a small portion of my life. It will always be with me, be a part of me, but it is now over. I will store it like one is apt to do with any part of their lives, but it no longer rules.
It is a good feeling.
I closed the book with a smile on my lips, noticing that the clock now said 5:30. A new perception of this man who was my grandfather had emerged this night. I now understood better his refusal to ever talk of the war, but also of the profound effect it had had on his life.
I thought about the lesson it seemed to be trying to impart on my own life.
Don’t let your past rule your life, but deal with it and then let it go.
I could recognize the wisdom, but knew that it would be hard enough to put into practice in real life. Still, it was something to strive for. After all, there had to be some reason that he had kept this book around for all of these years.
Picking up the leather book, I took a moment to wrap the rawhide string around it and tied it securely. Taking it over to my bookcase, I gently placed it on the shelf with a smile.
“Thanks gramps,” I said as I turned and headed downstairs. It was time for breakfast, and I was starved.
Copyright 2012 by JT Lewis