Today was Veterans Day – but yesterday will always be Armistice Day.
The November federal holiday honoring those who have served in the American military has been called Veterans Day far longer than the name it was first known by, Armistice Day.
My grandfather, however, a veteran of World War I whose first name was Angelo, never thought of November 11 as anything but Armistice Day. In coming to realize the meaning of the day to him, beyond the personal aspect, I think of it the same way.
I could never remember the names of the European towns where he was stationed or the dates of battles in which he was engaged during World War I, and he never attempted to make me or anyone else remember.
He had not endured any great trauma from the war but the world had so completely moved on from what the end of that conflict had once meant that recollecting the bloodshed and battles which preceded the Armistice peace treaty signing was futile to him, I think.
I did once ask him how it felt, at age 22 to be drafted and sent to war. He just shrugged his shoulders. I’m not sure he genuinely remembered how it felt and certainly did not care to try and remember.
The very concept of felt was foreign to him. at least by the time I knew him. At that point, he had long before developed a startling lack of any sentiment and an ability to detach.
He refused to renew his Veterans of Foreign War membership and only went to church on Palm Sunday on the premise that both institutions existed merely to ask for his money. Immigrating to the United States as a teenager he never had the desire or made the effort to again see his parents.
He provided for his sons but my uncle felt he gave more attention to his wardrobe and cars than to family members.
He kept abreast of the world, reading the paper and watching the news daily, but went off alone to read a book when others began arguing their opinions. He taught himself to speak French and to play the mandolin.
He whistled often without the need to suggest why he was so untroubled. With natural decorum, he never addressed his son’s mother-in-law informally by using her first name.
Partner in a thriving laundry service business, he retired as early as possible and lived into his 100th year, indulging his passions for fishing and pheasant hunting – and making clear that Lulu, the first dog I knew and loved was his, for hunting.
He always had his pipe. Nobody ever tried to sit in his chair. He kept his own counsel and never let go of it. His self-discipline was worthy of emulation. He was just purposefully inaccessible.
Bring up the subject of World War I, however, and he transformed.
My grandfather gave one his full attention if asked anything about his time overseas with the U.S. Army during what had been called “The Great War,” before World War II had begun. The more specific the question one asked him, the more engaged he became, but he never weighed down himself or the person questioning him with the names of places or of dates. Instead, as I was thinking back in writing this, he tended to focus on people from different counties also engaged in war.
He could describe the shivering people he glimpsed on a blustery day in Scotland viewed from a train taking his battalion to an American base there. He could delineate the rank of German officers based on that enemy’s uniforms and helmets. He remembered how many rows of French people lined the streets to see President Wilson pass by in his open carriage, when he arrived there shortly after the signing of the Armistice treaty, which ended the war.
The Armistice seemed to be the one event from both his personal past and that of the larger world’s which continued to remain important to him, no matter how many years passed. He never talked about the day he got married or the day he retired, but a glint of idealism seemed refreshed in him when he recalled “the day everyone thought there was never be another war.”
November eleventh was the one day each year I made sure to call him, just so he had the pleasure of repeating to me that there had once been a collective moment in the world when everyone did actually believe, however briefly, that peace had come to the world – and that it would stay.
Before he would emphasize the importance of what Armistice Day had meant, however, he always first opened with a stirring affirmation of the famous phrase about that very moment when the treaty had been signed in 1918: “On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month …”
Over time, I also detected a sense of hope in his recitation, dusted off and shown once a year, as if repeating it would remind the world of that time when it was seriously thought that warring nations had just concluded “the war to end all wars.”
And I also detected he had pride for playing his own small part in helping to achieve it.
I made that call even on his last Armistice Day, in November of 1994.
And whether or not those who commemorate Veterans Day are aware of it, embedded in the process of honoring those who fought wars is still the hope that once marked Armistice Day.
Postscript: In reading through the above, I recognize that an important but missing element to the story of my grandfather and World War I is a parallel narrative about his wife, my grandmother Pauline. She seemed to instinctively understand how one’s personal story naturally infuses one’s comprehension of the larger and common public narrative of “history” and was an assiduous chronicler through her highly detailed photo albums and natural gift for vivid recollections of any incidents about which I had questions. This was in radical contrast to my grandfather. Her recollections of her favorite era, the 20s, was edited out here; it is a different story. Yet in remembering what she recalled of the World War I era, I also belatedly recalled how she “translated” one incident involving my grandfather’s war service which might be a key to comprehending both him and his wartime experiences.
Sometime in the early 70s, while watching a documentary on World War I with my grandmother, he suddenly shot up from his chair when a still picture flashed on the screen showing him and some comrades crawling beneath a barbed-wire fence as a superior officer approached them with a gun.
My grandmother contacted CBS in an effort to locate a copy of the picture but was unable to obtain one. Still, she later told me the story behind the image, which my grandfather had felt compelled to explain to her when they saw it.
It was a picture taken just as German soldiers were firing on the Americans and the superior officer assumed my grandfather and his comrades had panicked and hit the ground. My grandfather snapped back that no, there was considerable crawl space beneath the fencing which would allow them to approach the line of fire more safely – and that it was a situation which had no need for extra drama; they intended to fire on the Germans but had no intention of needlessly making themselves targets just to appear heroic.
He always valued one’s ability to be “sensible” in any situation.
In wonder about how my grandmother and grandfather maintained their distinctly different perspectives on life all through their 5o years together, I also remembered a final aspect of this story of which I have a personal memory.
Her mother, my great-grandmother Rosalie, also lived to nearly a century and I met her on several occasions when I was very young.
To this day the one distinct association I have with her is how she always sang the old World War I song, Over There! when I saw her.
I am told she had been singing that song for decades and it it was her favorite song. Here it is:
My great-grandmother’s son, my great-uncle Charlie, was too young to be drafted in World War I. While this is speculative, I suspect that my grandfather’s lack of any desire to see his own parents again may have been partially influenced by the fact that in his mother-in-law Rosalie he had found a sense of maternal welcome and patriotic pride for his service. They also both loved dogs.
- Have an Awkward Armistice Day (misanthropology101.wordpress.com)
- In Honor of Armistice Day – Throwing Veteran’s Day Over Our Shoulders (wakingtimes.com)
- Thoughts on Veteran’s Day 2012 (warmsouthernbreeze.wordpress.com)