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Life on the Deckle Edge

Poetry Friday - Family Ties & Armistice Day Centennial

 

The intriguing discussion on public radio's On Point on Thursday reminded me that Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, when World War I officially ended.

 

Meghna Chakrabarti hosted Lora Vogt and Jack Beatty in an exploration of history and World War I, in which Vogt said "20th-Century technology pushed up against 19th-Century ideology."  Seven countries entered the war when it began in 1914; at its end in 1918, 30-plus countries were involved on every inhabited continent.

 

My mother's father, John Hollingsworth Conditt, was a small and evidently feisty Arkansas teenager when war broke out.  He lied about his age to join the Army.  In fact, somehow I've inherited the very shirt he wore when he signed up – with some blood stains on it from a blow he took to the nose during some kind of a fight that day….

 

Regular readers over here know I'm a little obsessed with family history and Ancestry.com.  Recalling the photo of my grandfather above, I visited my online tree to see if any military "hints" popped up for my grandfather. I found an application for a military headstone.  Over the initial writing, a red pencil added details… a change in rank from private to corporal, and, under the "Medals" section, "Purple Heart" and "Silver Star"!  My eyes filled with tears.  (I should add that a few hours of online sleuthing have yet to substantiate the red-pencilled additions on that 1959 form, but I'm still on the hunt. I was able to find military transport records back and forth across the seas. )

 

A call to my mother (Hi, Mom!) revealed that she didn't really know about medals, except for a vague memory of a ribbon and metal medal with a clasp in a hinged tin box on the shelves in their kitchen, when she was very little. Hmmmm….  She knew her father had been shot in the hip in France. (Which would explain the Purple Heart, though I haven't found records yet. There's not a comprehensive list, evidently – maybe the same for the Silver Star?)  I did find that he came back on a ship from France in 1919, but then evidently headed out again.... Mom recalled that he was part of the lingering forces on the China Expedition, which occurred around the turn of the century when he was born, but US troops were still coming and going into the early 1920s.)

 

My mother also recalled how, after her dad returned home from the Army in 1922 and was walking through his little town with a buddy, he saw my grandmother in a field and declared, "I'm going to marry her."  He didn't know who she was. They wed the next year.  Outside in the middle of the road, mind you – her father had some objection (perhaps her age of 18? We're not sure…) and wouldn't let them get married in the house.  My grandmother said it was very cold outside! 

 

In my studio among my many old books I found THE VITAL ISSUES OF THE WAR (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1918), a collection of sermons by Richard Wilson Boynton, a Unitarian Minister and professor.  I have not read it all, only skimmed some of it.  But I sympathize with the struggle between a longing for pacifism and the gritty reality that evil cannot be permitted to destroy innocent lives unchecked.

 

From Sermon III, THE GOSPEL OF PACIFISM, a few excerpted lines:

 

"But until August, 1914, I supposed myself to be a fairly consistent peace advocate.  Up to that fateful summer most Americans, one fancies, had a more or less fervent hope for the near advent of the new internationalism, the gradual reduction of armaments on land and sea, the progress of the principle of arbitration in disputes between nations – in short, the whole group of world-ideals represented by the two Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907."

 

And, "It is well to practice kindness to animals, but that does not mean stopping to reason with a mad dog when he is attacking your child."

 

Boynton ended Sermon V, THE INFLUENCE OF SEA POWER IN THE WAR, with this poem below by Alfred Noyes. (I can't find an easy link so will include the whole poem.)

 

 

   The Searchlights

 

Shadow by shadow, stripped for fight,

          The lean black cruisers search the sea.

Night-long their level shafts of light

          Revolve, and find no enemy.

Only they know each leaping wave

May hide the lightning, and their grave.

 

And in the land they guard so well

          Is there no silent watch to keep?

An age is dying and the bell

          Rings midnight on a vaster deep.

But over all its waves, once more

The searchlights move, from shore to shore.

 

And captains that we thought were dead,

          And dreamers that we thought were dumb,

And voices that we thought were fled,

          Arise, and call us, and we come;

And "Search in thine own soul," they cry;

"For there, too, lurks thine enemy."

 

Search for the foe in thine own soul,

          The sloth, the intellectual pride;

The trivial jest that veils the goal

          For which our father lived and died;

The lawless dreams, the cynic Art,

That rend thy nobler self apart.

 

Not far, not far into the night,

          These level swords of light can pierce;

Yet for her faith does England fight,

          Her faith in this our universe,

Believing Truth and Justice draw

From founts of everlasting law;

 

The law that rules the stars, our stay,

          Our compass through the world's wide sea,

The one sure light, the one sure way,

          The one firm base of Liberty;

The one firm road that men have trod

Through Chaos to the throne of God.

 

Therefore a Power above the State,

          The unconquerable Power, returns,

The fire, the fire that made her great

          Once more upon her altar burns,

Once more, redeemed and healed and whole,

She moves to the Eternal Goal.

 

(Learn more about Alfred Noyes, of "The Highwayman" fame, here.) 

 

Finally, - and thanks for bearing with a long post - today (Poetry Friday) is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht ("The Night of Broken Glass," termed by the Nazis). On this horrific night, anti-Semitic sentiment and laws erupted into actual violence and brutality, and the Holocaust followed.  [On Thursday, Joshua Johnson on public radio's 1A hosted an important  show about preserving Holocaust survivor stories.]

 

We cannot forget.  It's barely fathomable that the lives of those beautiful souls at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were taken not even two weeks ago. Only 20 years from Armistice Day to Kristallnacht. And 80 years from then to now.  History is important.  

 

Please visit the ever-thoughtful Michelle at Today's Little Ditty for this week's Roundup. 

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