TV commentators have been marking the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Pact that ended World War I. I put my flag up this November morning because of a memory. I grew up with, spent time with, and was loved by men who fought in World War I. It has made me pause as I took at the vastness of that time in calendar years all the while experiencing the immediacy that memories evoke as I recall my grandfather’s World War I uniform. As a child, I used to put it on and pretend I was a soldier.
My grandfather was a slight man. He only stood 5’10. Uniforms in those days were made by tailors and paid for by officers themselves. My grandfather literally had to outfit himself to serve his country.
The uniform was tailored to fit him. It was an odd olive green. The jacket had a high stiff collar with two hooks to pull it tightly across the Adam’s apple. The epaulets on the shoulders had brass buttons at the outer edges that had become a burnished dark brown because there was no one to polish them. The buttons went down the entire front which flared as it passed the hips. It had two deep side pockets.
The pants were jodhpurs, billowing out at the thighs and then narrowing at the knee. These, too had buttons that ran down the outside of the bottom half to tightly wrap around his calves. Side pockets were deep and lined with a smooth silk material, unlike the hardier khaki exterior. The outfit was completed with an officer’s cap (my grandfather was a Second Lieutenant). The brim and band were made out of leather and in the middle of the front, the eagle with her wings spread, her talons gripping arrows and olive branches.
I have a picture of my grandfather in his uniform. It is not one of those formal “Man in Uniform” pictures sent home to proud parents. In this one, he is sitting on a rooftop, in some unidentified town. His three-quarter pose captures his 23-year old bravado, as his left leg rests on a low wall, and his right leg extends out showing the jodhpurs at their best. He wears a great coat over his uniform, suggesting the picture was taken during the winter months. He has a smile on his face that is part insouciance and part pride.
We kept that uniform until after my grandfather died in the 1970’s. It finally gave way to age. I still have the brass, though – the “U.S.” lapel pin, the lieutenant’s bars, and that marvelous eagle.
I remember my grandfather telling me about Armistice Day. How important it was to honor the fallen and never forget the price they paid for our freedom. Such a phrase coming from him actually rang true. I remember standing with him at the eleventh hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, facing east and putting my small hand over my heart as he put his over his heart. His stories of what the world was like back in 1918 still are with me, a legacy of both the events and his ability to bring them to life.
We would get the flag out from the closet under the stairs and put it up in front of the house. The flag was an old one with 48 stars, as we never got a new one. It stood in a pipe stand that had been bored into the ground next to the front walk.
Unlike angled flag pole brackets, our flag stood erect in that stand, billowing out in the breeze of November, amidst the changing leaves and sometimes early snow of the Midwest. Come sundown, the flag would come back in the house, and be rolled up carefully and returned to its post beneath the stairs.
We had a coffee table book filled with pictures of the calamitous events of World War I. Black and white pictures of mud and bombed out homes, trees without limbs or leaves, and dead bodies of both men and horses, bloated and stiff. Pictures of weapons, cannons and guns. Pictures of trenches. And seemingly endless shots of hollow-eyed soldiers in mud. As a child, I did not understand that the past had any color to it. It was all black and white.
It was a war that was supposed to end all wars. The carnage and suffering fundamentally re-shaped the world and we continue to live with consequences of decisions made in 1918. Members of my family have served in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Each succeeding generation returned from service having paid a different price. None of my relatives lost their life in combat. But several have carried with them the negative consequences of having served during wartime.
Unfortunately, the war to end all wars did not succeed in its noble goal. We continue to find it difficult, if not impossible to live together without resorting to tribal and territorial dispute resolution that includes increasingly more potent ways of killing each other. Our country no longer can claim to be free of terror, as we see with increasing frequency on the nightly news.
I cannot help but wonder what my grandfather would think about how things turned out. He gave me the legacy of patriotism borne of an idealism that no longer exists. I continue to honor his contribution, and that of those known and those known only to God, who paid the highest price in defense of liberty.