The Heroes of an Ancient War
by Zack C. Waters
This is my brother’s memorial to our grandfather, Zack A. Crumpton. Farmer, mechanic, patriot, Southern story-teller, and thinker, Grandpa made a lasting impression on all he met.
The day was November 11, and back then Americans called it “Armistice Day.”
The first time I saw the Armistice Day gathering there were 12 “buddies.” Why they had picked my grandfather’s ranch in north-central Florida for their mini-reunion I don’t recall, but it had become something of an annual event. My grandmother brought pitchers of lemonade and homemade cookies to the front porch and then quietly excused herself, leaving us “men” to our important discussions.
Being eight years old, I thought the men were incredibly old (though they were probably no older that I am now). One was missing an arm, his long-sleeved shirt neatly rolled up to the stump of his arm and safety-pinned in place. He spoke with a Northern accent and had either been a member of the “Lost Battalion” or had been part of the force that relieved the “Lost Battalion.”
Two of the men were occasionally shaken with coughing spasms. They sounded as if they were trying to retch up a lung, their gaunt bodies shaking like spastic puppets. My grandfather later explained that they had breathed mustard gas.
They all wore red plastic poppies in the button-holes of their coat lapels.
I don’t now remember the combat stories they told. I’m sure there were tales of machine-gun fire and battles fought across grassy plains dotted with red flowers, because I drew pictures of that scene in my notebook over and over, when I should have been listening to my math or science teachers. My lined paper was crammed with more violence and contorted bodies that any painting Otto Dix ever created.
My grandfather explained that he had been a lowly truck driver during the Great War, now generally known as World War I. He had carried ammunition to the front, and the dead and wounded to the rear, from places like Belleau Woods and Chateau Thierry. He was my hero, and I felt certain he was just being modest. I was pretty sure that when “Black Jack” Pershing had faced a particularly trying problem he stopped by the motor pool to ask “Old Zack” what to do. People in western Marion County often came to ask for his advice, so why not General Pershing.
More than anything, though, I remember the songs the old vets sang. Some were sentimental, some silly, and others heartbreakingly sad. I particularly loved this one:
“Goodbye Maw, goodbye Paw,
Goodbye mule with your old hee-haw.
I’ll bring you a Turk, and a Kaiser, too,
And that’s about all one old boy can do.”
It was the bawdy version of “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” that got my grandfather and me in trouble. The next day at lunch I innocently asked my grandfather what was the “clap”? My grandmother hit the roof. She shouted that I would never attend another of those meetings with a bunch of dirty-mouthed old men, but my grandfather must have calmed her down, because the next year I was back on the front porch humming along with their songs.
I missed the last Armistice Day reunion. I was busy with teenage concerns (girls, sports, and food), but my grandmother said there were only four vets at the last meeting. My grandfather was blind by then, and one of the other doughboys was in a wheelchair. Grandma said his “spinster” daughter complained the whole time about having to bring the old man “all the way out to Fellowship to grumble about the government and sing smutty songs.”
So the next November 11, no one showed up. I think my grandfather knew they would not come. Still, he sat on the front porch in his Sunday suit with a red poppy in the lapel, sipping lemonade and keeping a lonely vigil. The hero of an ancient war spent the afternoon humming tunes that only the dead could hear.