The Eleventh

 TALKING TO MYSELF: November 11, 2011

Today, Veterans Day, falls on 11/11/11, and the roundness of that number reminds me why Americans pause to honor veterans on this particular date each year.  In 1918, at “the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month" the fighting ceased  in what was thought would be “the war to end all wars.” WWI would not officially end until June 18, 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, but for practical purposes it ended when Germany and the Allied Forces agreed to an armistice.

In 1954, President Eisenhour signed a bill establishing Veterans Day to honor Americans who had served in all wars. However, the significance of November 11, itself, seems etched in the collective memory of Americans. Efforts in the 1970s, for example, to celebrate Veterans Day on other dates to give federal employees an additional three-day weekend met with wide-spread resistance. As a result, President Gerald Ford signed Public Law 94-97, declaring that Veterans Day, beginning in 1978, would be observed nation-wide on November 11.

I would like to think that resistance had something to do with Americans’ love affair with peace, that in honoring our veterans we choose to emphasize the day a world war ceased, and not the making of war itself. 

Today, I remember my triple-great grandfather, Gerard Green, who served in the American Revolution; my father, Dexter Green, who volunteered to serve in WWII; my classmates who went to Viet Nam, sweet young Owen County boys like my cousin Larry Henage who returned to us, and some, like William Lee Juett, who did not. I think of Chris, an earnest engineering student who came courting our daughter one year and who would lose a leg the following year in the Iraq War. 

But mostly, I remember today my two great-uncles, Diztler and Murphy Hudson, and our neighbor, Ernest Carroll, who fought in Europe in that war that was meant to end all wars but didn't.

Uncle Ditzler was a tall, handsome Owen County farm boy chasing women when he was shipped off to fight in Europe in WWI. He nearly died on foreign soil but not from artillery wounds. He was caught in the great influenza epidemic of 1918 that ravaged our troops, and lay near death in a foreign hospital for weeks. 

Uncle Murphy, never a strong man, also nearly died in Europe but from the effects of mustard gas. When he was a very old man, he would chuckle, telling me that they were ordered to put gas masks on their horses (yes, Americans were still fighting in the cavalry in WWI) before they put masks on themselves. Because Army doctors thought he would only live for a few months, he was discharged with a tiny lifetime military disability pension. Though frail and skinny, he was a stubborn coot, and refused to die until he was ninety-six. He drew his small pension until the end.

And then there was our neighbor Ernest Carroll. Ernest didn’t die in WWI, but he did not exactly come home. Here is his story as it appeared in my book YOU CAN GO ANYWHERE (Wind, 2008.)   

Mr. Carroll’s Trip to Hell

          There is a Hell, he assured me, in case I had any doubt.  He had been there and back on a train.  Then, like the author of a Fromm’s Tour Guidebook, he proceeded to describe the place to me so that I would know what to expect should I, too, ever travel there. 

          I was about twelve, and hadn’t had time, I figured, to do much that would put me on the road to damnation.  I was also smart enough to understand that even the most religious folks I knew didn’t talk this way.  No one claimed to have been to either Heaven or Hell.   Mr. Carroll, our housepainter, was clearly off his rocker.

          He walked the roads of  my childhood.   He did not drive, and made the essential trips of his life – to the store, to his next painting job – on foot.  My parents, who considered all neighbors in our farm community extended family, would pull to a stop on the narrow, graveled lanes whenever they came upon him, and offer him a ride.  Mr. Carroll would respond with a reserved dignity as though he were accepting an invitation to Sunday dinner. 

          “Well, yes, thank you.  That would be appreciated.  A lift would be nice on a hot day (or a cold day or a rainy day) such as this.”   And then he would jerk his head slightly and clear his throat, like a shy schoolboy, though he was a man a generation older than my father.

          He never asked for a ride, mind you.  He never held his thumb out, begging, like I’d seen hitchhikers do on U. S. 25 when we drove over to Lexington.  But he always accepted a seat in our car when it was offered.  I suspect he may have been more eager for our company than for the expediency of reaching his destination.  He lived alone, and if he had any family left in the world, I never heard about them.

           Even before our travelogue to Hell, I felt uneasy whenever my parents picked him up.  I would have been hard pressed to say why.  His appearance was tidy, and he was polite to a fault, “yes-mam-ing” me as well as my mother. 

          He dressed differently for his painting jobs than my father did for farm work, and his fastidious look fascinated me.  His broadcloth dress shirts were crisply pressed, and his khaki-green cotton work pants were held in place by suspenders, an unfashionable curiosity in the 1950s.  A dapper white painter’s cap finished off his uniform.

          Only five feet four, and slender, he was not physically intimidating even to a child.   And in my memory, his aging face was almost boyish, tanned and clean-shaven, with brown eyes sparkling beneath a full head of dark, thick hair.  

          We stuck to safe subjects when he rode with us.  The weather.  The tobacco crop.  Other than the slight jerk of his head when he cleared his throat, he seemed normal.

          And yet I sensed he wasn’t.  Maybe I read between the lines when my parents spotted him walking on the road and slowed the car to a stop. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Daddy would say.

 Something about his nervous manner set him apart from the easy way of other adults.   I noticed that people didn’t treat him with the jocular give and take that was the norm among farm folks.   They didn’t banter with him the way they did with others.

My uneasiness about Mr. Carroll increased after the incident at Caney Fork Baptist Church.   My best friend, Mable Dean Vance, whose family were active in the little church, invited me to go with her to the summer revival meeting.  It was an old congregation, founded a hundred and fifty years before she and I were born.   The church house sat isolated on a rocky bank of Caney Creek in a plot the pioneers had considered useless for farming.   Ancient cedar trees reached for heaven at the corners of the clapboard building, and sent a chill through me, despite the still July heat.  It was a lonely place for a church, I thought, as Mable Dean’s daddy pulled their car to a stop out front.  My family worshiped with the Methodists located over on the main road next to Nick’s Grocery.

  But it was a sweet smelling summer night, full of fresh mowed grass, lightening bugs and giggles with Mable Dean.  I was soon over my hesitation about the place and entered into the hymn singing with gusto.  There weren’t many of us there, but we were loud.  Somewhere about the second verse of the second hymn, after the welcome remarks, after the first prayer, I became aware of a fine baritone voice filtering in through the open doors.  Someone outside was singing with our small group.

 Seeing the puzzled look on my face, Mable Dean whispered, “Oh, that’s just Mr. Carroll.  He slips up the road from his house after he knows we’re inside, and sits on the steps every time we have a revival meeting.  He won’t come in no matter how many times we ask him.  He’ll be gone before we’re done, too.”  

 He sat there, I’m sure, throughout the long sermon because I heard him  singing as we began the final hymn.  “Just as I am without one plea – ”

Come to the altar and repent, the sweating evangelist pleaded again and again  before we repeated the final verse for the fourth time.  But Mr. Carroll was gone by then.  Long before the last amen, he had faded into the darkness as quietly as he had come. 

I badgered my father for more information about Mr. Carroll after that night.  Pressed, Daddy finally said, as though he’d rather not talk about it, that Mr. Carroll had been “a little funny” ever since he returned from service in World War I.   He’d been captured by the enemy and held as a prisoner.  Then Daddy added, as though it would make a difference to me, as though I would know what he meant, “And that was before the Geneva Conventions.”

Mable Dean and I discussed what Daddy had told me, but it didn’t make much sense to us.  Our pretty third grade teacher, Miss Betty, had married a man who’d been a prisoner of war in Korea, and he looked happy.  They’d had a parade for him at the county seat when he came home, and his picture had been in all the papers.  And men like Daddy who’d been in World War II never talked about anything except standing in long lines to eat.  They always kind of joked and laughed when they told stories about being in the army.  Mable Dean and I concluded that Mr. Carroll was just crazy.  But Daddy had said he wouldn’t hurt a fly so we decided we weren’t afraid of him.

          Since Mr. Carroll didn’t drive, his custom when he took a painting job was to stay over until it was done.  So when he was employed to paint for us later that fall, he took up temporary residence in our guest room, and ate his meals at our table.  That is how he and I came to be sitting together in our small living room watching television at twilight, waiting for suppertime.

          I’m not sure what started him off.  Perhaps it was something he saw on the small black and white screen.  But slowly and precisely, in a quiet voice, as though he were describing an accident he’d seen last week, he began to tell me about his trip to Hell.

           On one awful day, he had traveled by train straight through Hell, he said.  From his coach seat window, he had seen it all.   He described the burning buildings to me, the impenetrable smoke that filled his nostrils, the unbearable heat.  He spoke matter of factly about the haunting screams of the damned that assaulted his ears.  The thrashing, dying horses.  The rotting smell of flesh.  And his thirst.  Oh, his thirst. 

Then he began to talk faster and his voice took on a tone that  began to scare me.    His voice sounded parched and hoarse until finally, he was near whispering, but he could not, would not, stop telling me about his train ride through the fiery furnaces of Hell, a trip that had lasted hour after thirsty hour. 

          Not wanting to agitate him further, I asked no questions.  I did not call for my mother who was in the adjacent kitchen, but sat still, barely breathing, only moving to nod my head with what I hoped was empathy when he glanced at me for affirmation.  I was unsure what frightened me more – Mr. Carroll’s madness or the vision of Hell he was describing.   

I was in college before I read the great literature that emerged from World War I.  When I stumbled upon novels such as “All Quiet on the Western Front,” I finally understood that Mr. Carroll had been describing the heinous battlefield scenes he’d witnessed.  He was telling me about the horrors of that first “modern” war using metaphorical language that was meaningful to his deranged mind.

            A lifetime later – a lifetime so full of wars I can’t even begin to name them all – I believe he may not have been crazy after all.  War is, indeed, Hell, I know now.   And Mr. Carroll had been there.