Over There… | TheFencePost.com

Over There…

by Charles Oz Collins Eaton, Colo.

The yellowed postcard lies among a small jumble of papers. In an even and feminine hand it is postmarked Angers, June 11, 1918.

“Dear Great Friend,” it begins, “hoping to divert you I am sending to you two cards.” Later, near the bottom, it reads, “Papa, Mama, and me we are ever affectionately for our dear American Friend, and we hope soon to see again you,” signed “Your little friend Marie Charlotte Maindrou.” Additional cards, some in English and some in French, paint the picture of a young woman and her family who have adopted an American doughboy plunged into the throes of a war far from his native land. The young woman’s warm affection for the soldier is evident as she writes, “I am sending to you a few blossoms which will give to you all my best kindness.”

War-after-war, every era has produced its heroes, the vast majority unsung. What some have called The Great War, or more incredibly, The War to End All Wars (World War I), was no exception. Never before had so many heeded the call, and incredibly, many donned their gear and boarded ships exuberant about the sure and just outcome of the conflict, and even its gallantry.

Another card from the pile bears an older brother’s greeting, “Hello Kid,” and his wish to be reunited in France that, “Oh Boy, we will go over the top together.” Such sentiments faded as the conflict descended into the brutal and bloody trench warfare for which the “Great” War will ever be known. Never before had so many returned home scarred in body and spirit; and never had so many failed to return home. Instead, they lay in often anonymous graves tended by strangers. Many who survived said little of their experiences ” preferring, one must think, to leave the haunting memories behind when possible.

As a young boy I knew Junius as the local fix-it man. He lived in a little two-room house in Galeton, Colorado. Once he had built haystackers, erected windmills, laid drain tile, and done general construction and repair about our community, but by the time I really became aware of the little man with the prominent roman nose, he mostly took care of his garden and his bees. He no longer drove the ancient Maxwell parked beneath the large poplar tree in his yard, but either walked where he needed to go or accepted rides, a good many times with our family.

Over time it came to my attention that Junius was a character. Unfortunately, this seemed to reveal itself most often in various confrontations with neighbors and other community members. When the utility company advised him it was necessary to trim back his trees that crowded its power lines he advised the company representative that those trees did not need trimming and if he saw anyone in them with a saw he would “bring them down with his shotgun.” From that day forward Junius lived without electricity, relying instead on a wood burning stove and coal oil lantern. When his personality clashed with a similarly prickly one belonging to the neighbor in charge of the town’s water system, Junius dug down to the pipe, cut it, and drove a plug in the end. It was his unique way of telling them that he didn’t need “their” water. Never again would he enjoy piped water but instead carried it bucket-by-bucket from Finch’s filling station.

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Also found within the tiny trove of his papers was evidence that Junius had volunteered for service as a mechanic within a regiment of engineers. By the time the American Expeditionary Force went to war, however, his regiment had been designated the 1st Gas Regiment of the 1st Army, America’s pioneer chemical warfare unit. General John J. Pershing himself had requested this counterforce to the German willingness to deploy toxic gases on the battlefield. Pictures of soldiers wearing their masks inevitably give WWI battle scenes an “other-worldly” character, and in a small way I sensed the inexplicable inhumanity of such battles as I lifted Junius’ gas mask from beside his papers. Examining it, I found still inside these instructions: “When alarm sounds, take mask out of haversack, grasp with both hands …” Still intact are the nose clip, mouthpiece, and the large burnt-orange eyepieces. A battlefield viewed from this hooded, oppressive perspective must have seemed to the soldier like they struggled in the fiery glow of Hell itself.

Junius never spoke of gas warfare when I was present; indeed, he seldom spoke of the war at all. Like most young boys I was fascinated by the subject and tried to privately collect any and every reference the old fellow might make. I recall that he did say he spent a lot of time on a motorcycle, which he always pronounced “motor-sickle.” Some family members recall that “Uncle Junius” was a courier for Pershing, but whether this was directly or in a general sense is unclear. Indeed, a good many soldiers served as couriers and often the reliable Indian “sickles” were able to work through and around the morass that rain rendered the roads of France, quagmires where trucks and even horse-drawn vehicles were often hopelessly bogged down for days at a time.

The yellowed postcard lies among a small jumble of papers. In an even and feminine hand it is postmarked Angers, June 11, 1918.

“Dear Great Friend,” it begins, “hoping to divert you I am sending to you two cards.” Later, near the bottom, it reads, “Papa, Mama, and me we are ever affectionately for our dear American Friend, and we hope soon to see again you,” signed “Your little friend Marie Charlotte Maindrou.” Additional cards, some in English and some in French, paint the picture of a young woman and her family who have adopted an American doughboy plunged into the throes of a war far from his native land. The young woman’s warm affection for the soldier is evident as she writes, “I am sending to you a few blossoms which will give to you all my best kindness.”

War-after-war, every era has produced its heroes, the vast majority unsung. What some have called The Great War, or more incredibly, The War to End All Wars (World War I), was no exception. Never before had so many heeded the call, and incredibly, many donned their gear and boarded ships exuberant about the sure and just outcome of the conflict, and even its gallantry.

Another card from the pile bears an older brother’s greeting, “Hello Kid,” and his wish to be reunited in France that, “Oh Boy, we will go over the top together.” Such sentiments faded as the conflict descended into the brutal and bloody trench warfare for which the “Great” War will ever be known. Never before had so many returned home scarred in body and spirit; and never had so many failed to return home. Instead, they lay in often anonymous graves tended by strangers. Many who survived said little of their experiences ” preferring, one must think, to leave the haunting memories behind when possible.

As a young boy I knew Junius as the local fix-it man. He lived in a little two-room house in Galeton, Colorado. Once he had built haystackers, erected windmills, laid drain tile, and done general construction and repair about our community, but by the time I really became aware of the little man with the prominent roman nose, he mostly took care of his garden and his bees. He no longer drove the ancient Maxwell parked beneath the large poplar tree in his yard, but either walked where he needed to go or accepted rides, a good many times with our family.

Over time it came to my attention that Junius was a character. Unfortunately, this seemed to reveal itself most often in various confrontations with neighbors and other community members. When the utility company advised him it was necessary to trim back his trees that crowded its power lines he advised the company representative that those trees did not need trimming and if he saw anyone in them with a saw he would “bring them down with his shotgun.” From that day forward Junius lived without electricity, relying instead on a wood burning stove and coal oil lantern. When his personality clashed with a similarly prickly one belonging to the neighbor in charge of the town’s water system, Junius dug down to the pipe, cut it, and drove a plug in the end. It was his unique way of telling them that he didn’t need “their” water. Never again would he enjoy piped water but instead carried it bucket-by-bucket from Finch’s filling station.

Also found within the tiny trove of his papers was evidence that Junius had volunteered for service as a mechanic within a regiment of engineers. By the time the American Expeditionary Force went to war, however, his regiment had been designated the 1st Gas Regiment of the 1st Army, America’s pioneer chemical warfare unit. General John J. Pershing himself had requested this counterforce to the German willingness to deploy toxic gases on the battlefield. Pictures of soldiers wearing their masks inevitably give WWI battle scenes an “other-worldly” character, and in a small way I sensed the inexplicable inhumanity of such battles as I lifted Junius’ gas mask from beside his papers. Examining it, I found still inside these instructions: “When alarm sounds, take mask out of haversack, grasp with both hands …” Still intact are the nose clip, mouthpiece, and the large burnt-orange eyepieces. A battlefield viewed from this hooded, oppressive perspective must have seemed to the soldier like they struggled in the fiery glow of Hell itself.

Junius never spoke of gas warfare when I was present; indeed, he seldom spoke of the war at all. Like most young boys I was fascinated by the subject and tried to privately collect any and every reference the old fellow might make. I recall that he did say he spent a lot of time on a motorcycle, which he always pronounced “motor-sickle.” Some family members recall that “Uncle Junius” was a courier for Pershing, but whether this was directly or in a general sense is unclear. Indeed, a good many soldiers served as couriers and often the reliable Indian “sickles” were able to work through and around the morass that rain rendered the roads of France, quagmires where trucks and even horse-drawn vehicles were often hopelessly bogged down for days at a time.