Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Grandfather's War Diary

My grandfather drew a series of cartoons about his  army life starting in basic training camp to the hospital where he was stationed. He looks like the man holding the private down as the doctor gives the shot. This was his second series of about 12 cartoons. Presumably there is a first series.

I loved this book. Full of trench warfare slang in 3 languages. A "Thomas" is a French chamberpot in the trenches. Also useful phrases: Don't shoot! Help me dig a trench!
Unbeknownst to me, my grandfather's widow had given my brother boxes of personal effects. One was a box of his photos that I didn't get around to looking at. I assume these were mainly travel photos. He travelled alot. But the much more interesting box was that of his personal effects which included 2 diaries: one from 1913 and one from 1918-1919. Between celebrating my birthday and sightseeing, I didn't have enough time to fully explore these but I spent as much time as possible sorting through these.

My grandfather was an extremely impressive man. Everything interested him. He was an avid reader with a photographic mind. He also was very out-going with a booming voice. He commanded respect where ever he went. He was born into an upper-middle class family in Troy, Ohio, the 4th of 5 kids in 1890. He received a forestry degree from the University of Michigan in 1912 hoping to use it around the Puget Sound area. This never happened. Included in the box were detailed notes for his botany classes complete with publication worthy diagrams of plant parts. Later he would take me on walks giving me the Latin names and all the conventional names and uses of every plant. Maybe about 1% of this stuck with me. I know for a class project, he planted willow saplings around a recently dammed portion of the Huron River (Barton Pond, right outside of Ann Arbor. The dam provided the city with power for quite a while). These now over a hundred year old willows are still there and were huge even in the 1960s when I was told about them.

The 1913 diary covered his experience as a forest manager in Boyne City, Michigan. Many diagrams of his work spaces and lists! He loved lists. Trees that he saw, plants that he saw, birds that he saw and insects. Top of the insect list was Black Flies! These made him and his co-workers miserable. The saddest thing he wrote is the crew destroying a nest of indigo bunting fledglings and the mama bird hovering over the former site for hours with food for her now gone babies. I didn't spend much time on this diary concerning the quotidian life of a lumberman..on to the War Diary.

Previous to the war, he had moved to Moline Illinois to be a chemistry teacher. He met my grandmother who had a master's degree in Latin and German who taught at the same school. Despite her having higher degrees than he, his salary was much more. Her mother was a trained concert pianist who had studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music. I wonder how many of her fellow students were women. In 1917 on a visit home, he contracted small pox. Outside of town, there was what they called the Pest House, a small cabin  where diseased people could recover without infecting others. In a photograph, he is smiling outside of it so I suspect his case was mild though it left scars. He enlisted into the army in 1918 not long after his 28th birthday in late August 1918. I skipped through his basic training in Georgia to where he was sent in France. He was stationed in Toul, a town in Lorraine just east of Nancy. Steve and I drove by it in 2003 spending a few hours in Nancy (half of which was driving aimlessly around trying to figure out how to get out of it and towards Strasbourg). We should have stopped in Toul, right off the N4. The Germans had won back Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War of the late 1800's but France and its allies must have won at least part of Lorraine back by the time the US entered the war. He was just 60 miles away from Verdun, center of the largest slaughter encountered in probably any war (we did visit there) but Toul was generally considered quiet. Still lots of bombs fell around him like a hundred 4th of Julys at once. He never expressed fear or anxiety in this diary, mainly just wonder. He seemed to be perpetually in good spirits despite having constant disagreements with his co-command whom he skewered in his cartoons so I assume these cartoons were not for publication.Although he hadn't gone to med school (yet), he was a medic and was quickly promoted due to his calm  and commanding presence in the face of danger. I read his promotion recommendations  But the actual time near the front was short as he came there in late September and by November, the war was over. He didn't return to the States until July 1919. He had a lot of time to travel with his fellow officers and seemed to enjoy every minute of it.
He married his fellow teacher a few years later and found a better paying job at John Deere where he was a manager of some sort. Somehow he was able to invest enough money to finance a medical education. Maybe he pulled out of the market at the exact right moment. Early in 1927, he had my father, his only child. If only some of his wonderfulness had rubbed off on him. He started medical school in Ann Arbor that summer right after turning 37 making him the oldest student by far. As he was close to 80 when he retired, they got years of service out of him. Even in retirement, he was in constant demand as a lecturer. He never used notes. He also had numerous publications.

On one of his lists, he listed every disease he ever had with dates underlining and starring the most serious. From diphtheria as a 4 year old, the small pox at 27, to squamous cell carcinoma at 40 (a red head that was constantly outside was at great risk) and , a series of broken ribs (not starred). He had a mild heart attack when he was in his 70s and insisted that his wife drive him 560 miles home to be treated. He had a stroke when he was 88 (I was pregnant with Shanna) leaving him paralyzed on one side briefly but through unbelieveable persistence in occupational therapy, he recovered. Shortly after his 90th birthday, he had another heart attack in which he was revived but told me, if it happened again, he was to be let go. He wanted to quit while he was ahead as his mental abilities were still in top form. Choking on food a few days later, he started to have another heart attack but he insisted that no one come near him.

My biological grandmother was usually in poor health due to diabetes. When she died, he quickly found a new, much younger  Quebecoise wife who lived until just a few years ago.

I wish I had 'borrowed' this diary to read it more thoroughly  At some point, all this historical family stuff will be transferred to Shanna as the other grandkids are not interested. Or maybe to a great-grandkid.


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