Thursday, January 21, 2016

Charlie's War, part two

Continued from here

Poughkeepsie, New York
June 1915 – June 1916

Despite repeated attempts by his parents, his brothers, the Colonel, and his sister, Hank left Yale two years before receiving his degree and traveled by train to Toronto, where he volunteered for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The officials with the CEF didn't seem disturbed by the fact that he was an American; they welcomed him with open arms, trained him, gave him a gun, and sent him off to France. He was the grandson of an Irish immigrant, after all. British blood ran in his veins.

The spring and summer of 1915 were a time of intense changes for the McNamaras. Not only had Hank shipped off to Europe to fight in a war that promised to change the world forever, but Charlie had been accepted to Vassar College in upstate New York, Junior's wife had given birth to their first child—a girl they named Isabella Marjorie—and Al began expressing the desire to leave school to pursue a career as a painter.

Charlie received only two letters from Hank during the summer months and both were brief and vague. He talked about how much he missed home and hot, home-cooked meals. He talked about basic training and how much he was looking forward to finally seeing some action. He described hearing mortars exploding in the distance and the constant chattering of machine gunfire. The only indication he gave about just how awful the conditions were for the boys was when he mentioned going out of his way to avoid the medical tents because of the stench and the constant moans of agony from the soldiers inside.

In September, Charlie and her mother packed up Charlie's things and boarded a train that would take them clear across the country to New York state. Charlie viewed attending college with a strange mix of apprehension and excitement. She was worried that her coarse, back-woods education and manners would ostracise her from her classmates. These fears were alleviated immediately upon meeting her roommate, a girl from New York City who found Charlie's stories of hunting and fishing and amateur archaeological digs fascinating.

October brought with it amazing autumn colours that put the golden Colorado aspens to shame. Vassar's campus had been planted with over two hundred types of trees, and the month's cold snap brought with it a patchwork quilt in a riot of scarlet, aubergine, and amber. It also brought another letter from Hank, a letter that Charlie cried over every night for a week.

Hank had finally seen battle in a skirmish with the Germans in a French village called Loos. It was mostly successful, but at one point, the officer in charge of releasing the chlorine gas timed it incorrectly and inadvertently gassed his own men, poisoning more than 2,500 of them. The reserve troops had been forced to march fifty miles in only four days and were utterly exhausted when they arrived on the front lines. They were inexperienced troops as well, and in the four-day period of the battle, the British lost 50,000 men, mostly to German machine guns. Hank described in detail what he experienced while in the trenches:

Men are blown into showers or their bellies are turned inside out. To die from a single bullet seems to be nothing. Parts of our being remain intact. But, Charlie, to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp, this is the fear that flesh cannot support and which is fundamentally the greatest suffering.

We eat beside the dead, drink beside the dead, relieve ourselves beside the dead and we sleep beside the dead in these trenches. The stench is awful. People will say that the front line was Hell. Hell cannot be so terrible as this. Humanity is mad; it must be mad to do what it is doing.

Charlie wrote to him, begging him to leave, to come back to America where it was safe. She didn't hear from him for months. The very real fear of losing her brother distracted her from her studies and her grades began to slip. Her professors eventually offered her the chance to write for The Miscellany News, Vassar's weekly newspaper, in an attempt to find a constructive outlet for her worries. She quickly took to it, becoming one of the most popular writers on staff, working side by side with Edna St. Vincent Millay to develop her editorial voice.

Finally, in February of 1916, Charlie's father wrote to her to say that he'd heard from a friend of a friend that Hank was still alive, though deeply entrenched on the Western Front with the CEF's 13th Battalion. This relieved Charlie greatly and she found she could once more concentrate on her studies though her dreams were still filled with the horrible images Hank had relayed to her in his last letter. She ended her freshman year at Vassar on a high note, receiving perfect marks in all of her classes, making many new friends, and had discovered a promising career as a journalist.

Poughkeepsie, New York
June 1917

And so we can see that these two answers look different until we remember to include the arbitrary constant when we compute the antiderivative. Any questions?” Professor Ashby turned away from his blackboard, and peered over the top of his half-moon cheaters, scanning the classroom full of second-year calculus students. With less than a few weeks left in the school year, he was worried that his girls weren't paying attention to his reviews and wouldn't score well on the final. “No questions? Well, let's move on then.”

Just then, there was a knock on the classroom's door and a student stuck her head in. “Is Charlotte McNamara in here?” she asked the Professor, who turned and nodded to Charlie. The girl walked quietly to Charlie's desk and handed her a slip of paper and then exited the classroom.

Frowning softly, Charlie unfolded the note and read, “Please come to the Dean of Students office immediately.” With a dawning feeling of dread, she shoved the note into her book bag, gathered her things, and left the classroom, walking quickly towards the Dean's offices. What could have happened? Was it Papa? Had something happened to him? Could he be sick?

She arrived at the Dean's office and saw Al standing with the Dean himself. They were both wearing sorrowful expressions and Charlie's knees felt suddenly weak. Al looked up at her and rushed to her side, cupping her elbow and murmuring soft words that went unheard. It wasn't Papa. It was Hank. She knew it immediately. Something had happened to him in France. The world went a little grey at the edges and the next thing she knew, she was sitting down with Al's arm wrapped around her shoulders and the Dean kneeling at her feet. “Charlie? Charlotte, can you hear me? Eunice, bring her a glass of water. Quickly now, please,” the Dean said.

She nodded woodenly and turned to Al. “What happened?” she asked. It was terribly difficult to get words past the lump her heart had made in her throat. Someone pressed a glass of water into her hand and she mechanically sipped it. The coolness of the liquid made it somewhat easier to breathe.

Papa phoned me at Yale and sent me here to get you. We're going back home, Charlie.” Al paused and glanced at the Dean for a moment, then back to Charlie. He reached out and laid his hand over her free one and said in a voice thick with tears, “Hank's been killed in France.”

There was a loud crash and the sound of glass shattering, and suddenly Charlie's feet were wet. She heard a high-pitched keening and it took her a moment to realize that it was her making that noise. She covered her face with her hands and shook her head back and forth, denying Al's words. A bubble of anger burst in her chest and she stood up, throwing a right cross at Al's nose. The blow landed perfectly, snapping his head back and breaking his nose to send a river of blood gushing down his face and onto the front of his snowy-white shirt. She screamed, “Don't you lie to me, Alfred Hanson McNamara! This isn't funny! Hank's not dead! Do you hear me! Hank's not dead!”

Mass confusion ensued. Al clutched his broken nose while at the same time tried to comfort his hysterical sister. Charlie collapsed in a heap on the floor of the Dean's office, sobbing and keening. The Dean called for a nurse while his secretary rushed around trying to staunch the blood flowing from Al's nose. Finally, the nurse came and pushed a sleeping pill on Charlie and tended to Al's nose. Charlie soon calmed down enough for Al to take her out to the car that had brought him from New Haven. They drove back to Charlie's room and Al helped her pack her things before driving back into the City and getting on a westbound train.

The next week went by in a fog. Charlie would have no memory of the train trip from New York to Colorado even years later. Her first clear memory after Al breaking the news to her about Hank's death was being crushed in an embrace by the Colonel on the front porch of her family home. The old man's cheeks were wet and he wouldn't let go of her hand all throughout Hank's memorial service. The entire town turned out for it, then filled the house afterward, forming up into little groups who spoke in hushed, reverent tones and tip-toed around the grieving family.

Charlie found she couldn't breathe and the walls of the house began closing in on her. “I have to get out of these clothes,” she said to the Colonel. She gently disengaged her hand from his and went up the stairs to her bedroom, where she changed from the confining, stiff black dress her mother had insisted she wear. She put on soft flannel trousers, a linen shirt, and an old denim jacket that had been handed down from Junior. Then she dug out her knee-high leather boots, put them on, found her rifle, and slipped out the back door, headed for the river. Her Mama had mentioned wanting goose or duck for supper.

Moments later, Junior and Al caught up with her, carrying their guns and wearing hunting gear, too. No one spoke as they cut their way through the new spring turf. They soon reached the river and headed towards their old blind, which they found in nearly-perfect condition. After making a few repairs to it, they settled in and began the worst part of hunting–the waiting.

Charlie broke the silence first. “What happened to him? Where did it happen?” She couldn't bring herself to say Hank's name.

Al and Junior exchanged looks and Junior eventually said, “It was at a place called Vimy Ridge. He and the other gunners were dug in and laying covering fire against the Germans. That's all we know.”

Charlie nodded and went back to staring out at the river, watching the water silently. The McNamara brothers exchanged helpless looks and watched the water as well. Finally, Charlie said at length, “Do you remember the summer I was twelve? When Papa and the Colonel took Hank and us on that dig down near Hartsel?”

When you and Al found all those arrowheads and the big scraping stone?” Junior asked.

Yeah, I remember that,” Al said, cracking the first smile since his father had phoned him with the news of Hank's death. “That was a great week.”

And so it went until an hour before sundown. They exchanged memories and stories of Hank, recalling his wicked sense of humour, love of practical jokes, and his fierce love of and loyalty to his family. They didn't shoot anything, forgetting entirely after a few hours of talking that they'd went to the river to bring home supper. When they finally made their way home, they discovered that everyone had left, leaving Howard, Marjorie, and the Colonel in rockers on the front porch. After a supper of warmed-up casseroles and a roast brought by the Sheriff's wife, Charlie went up to her room and re-read Hank's letters before falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Continued here

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