At the beginning of May, the last veteran of World War I died at age 110. Claude Stanley Choules lived in Australia, and served in its Navy during the Great War. Even as he reached 100, he swam in the ocean. And at age 108, the autobiography of his experiences in World War I, along with the rest of his extraordinarily long life, was published. He was, as the title of his book said, The Last of the Last.
Why do we believe that someone’s story needs to be extraordinary in order to be told? Why do we wait until someone is “the last” to care? What about all the other stories?
It wasn’t the passing of Mr. Choules that put this bee in my bonnet, but it certainly drove the idea home. What got me thinking about all the missing stories were the stories from my own family that I will never know. It started with the portrait of a young corporal buried at the bottom of a box, and scraps of paper and rolls of fabric stashed around a one-hundred-year-old house.
When my paternal grandmother died, my father and uncle were already deceased. So my brother and I – along with my cousins, my mom and my aunt – inherited Gram’s house and its contents.
I isolated myself in my favorite room – the corner bedroom with a screen door to an airing deck. It’s where I’d spend the night as a child, tucked into a double bed with cotton sheets and a chenille bedspread; smelling starch, Zest bath soap, mothballs, and aging wood; hearing the ping of the mantle clock; under the careful observation of a 16-year-old version of my dad, a small picture of Pope John Paul II, and Jesus.
The room included a bench, covered with a vinyl tablecloth and dotted with coleus and jade plants and Christmas cacti. As we began sorting and exploring, I moved the plants and the tablecloth so we’d have a space to set things.
If I hadn’t removed the tablecloth I never would have noticed that the “bench” had hinges and a lid and was, in fact, a hope chest. Simple and rustic, and hiding in plain sight my entire life.
Mystery geek that I am, it was a Nancy Drew moment for me – lifting the lid, wondering what I’d find. Would it be parasols and pinafores? Photo albums? Stacks of twenties?
Empty green hanging file folders? Not so much…but that’s what sat on top.
I removed the files. The next layer included every picture I’d ever drawn for my grandparents. I sobbed, turning the picture book images in my hands, astonished that they’d been saved all these years. I dug down…layer by layer, finding oddities that made me laugh, and relics that made me cry.
At the very bottom, two large pieces of cardboard seemed stuck together. They were about 18” by 24”, looking creased and crinkled around the edges. Separating the panels, my heart froze as two pairs of eyes looked back at me.
In one hand, I held the portrait of a handsome, dark-haired man looking dignified in his military uniform. In the other hand, I held the portrait of a baby boy. The soldier’s portrait was monochrome, rendered in blacks and grays. The infant’s portrait was in colorful pastels – peachy complexion, lacy Christening gown, blue background, and – per the notes written on the back of the board – brown hair, brown eyes.
I’ve speculated about the infant. It could be my grandfather as a baby. It could be my grandfather’s brother, William, who died in the 1919 flu epidemic. I just don’t know for sure. Yet. The notes on the back indicate that the portrait was based on a photo, and if I find the photo, I might find my answer.
When my aunt told me the name of the soldier, I knew who he was, but until that moment, I’d never seen him, never met him. He’d died when I was three weeks old. And I’d never known he was a veteran of World War I.
He was my great-grandfather, whom the family called “Poppy.” My grandmother’s father, James Dlouhy.
And as my cousins and brother dug through drawers and cabinets and rooms, they brought me other artifacts: a long cigar box interesting enough on its own, but containing Poppy’s dog tags and discharge papers; a small circular box bearing a large ring, a medal on a white and red ribbon, another medal on a rainbow-colored ribbon, a lapel pin of crossed cannons, and buttons with the letters “U.S.” I also found a diary, a French driver’s license, and a Soldiers and Sailors Prayer Book. In a second hope chest, we found rolled up green fabric that turned out to be Poppy’s uniform. Someone else found an old postcard. The front of the card was identical to the portrait – Poppy, posed in uniform, a band on his finger.
On the reverse, in fading script, were the words “Note the ring, kid. I’ll have one for you. James.” There was no addressee on the postcard, so I assume he gave it to her before he left. “Her” being my great-grandmother, Anna.
I brought the whole collection back home with me – trunk and all – having no idea what I was going to do with it. I spread it out on the floor one day, and looked at it piece by piece, and the artifacts…the jumble of metal and fabric and paper…became someone’s life. James Dlouhy simply lived it. It just was. And no one wrote anything down. Maybe he never talked about his experiences in France with family, thinking they wouldn’t understand. Maybe remaining silent helped him forget. I’ll never know. All I can do is arrange the pieces of his life.
I see a war story…a love story…a family story. I can only extrapolate from history books and my artifacts what Poppy experienced. The rainbow-ribboned medal with five stars is called the U.S. Victory Medal. It includes five small bars, or clasps: Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, Oise-Aisne, Meuse-Argonne, and Defensive Sector. The medal with the red ribbon is the French Verdun medal, given by the French government to U.S. troops who participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest operation and victory of American Expeditionary Forces during WWI.
In six weeks, more than 26,000 AEF soldiers were killed and more than 95,000 were wounded. More than a million – yes, a million – Americans took part in the campaign. Including a 32-year-old truck driver from Cleveland named James Dlouhy, whose sweetheart Anna was waiting for him to come home.
Author’s note: There are stories that dissolve into nothingness with every generation, and I cannot begin to understand the lives of veterans and their families because I have not lived them. But on Sunday at church, my friend Frank – dad, husband, veteran, and all-around great guy – put it all into perspective and boiled all the soldiers’ stories that ever were into one sentence.
My daughter counted the medals on his Navy uniform – eleven in all.
Frank smiled kindly at her and said, “One for every missed birthday and missed Christmas and missed anniversary.”
Sometimes it’s not about where you were, but where you weren’t.