by Tyler Wells Lynch
For a lot of kids, childhood is just a period of jumping from one hobby to the next. It could be anything: minerals, bulldozers, Pokémon, dinosaurs. It consumes you for a short while in adolescence then fades away as quickly as it came.
For me, that hobby was 20th century military history. In case you need someone to tell you, that’s odd. This is not a hobby impressionable young children should be into—least of all sheltered, red-haired suburbanites like myself. It’s too complex, too dark. And yet, before I hit the age of 13 I had read all the major Stephen Ambrose books, as well as key titles like The Guns of August, Hiroshima, and Stalingrad. Very nerdy stuff for a preteen.
I can recall, at the peak of my historical promiscuity, researching the number of surviving World War I veterans on a clumsy HP desktop with a dial-up connection. This was around the turn of the century, so there were still a few veterans left (the last, Frank Buckles, died in 2011). It dawned on me then, in the way only a dimwitted 11-year-old could realize, that eventually each and every one of these veterans would be dead. That’s a sobering thought—to realize that the arc of history, which I was just then coming to appreciate, applied with equal measure to the lineage of generations. They are all equally subject to that tyrannical arrow of time.
Fast-forward 15 years and every veteran of the war is dead. I’m 26, and I’m visiting my mother in the quaint suburban town of my upbringing. She hands me a scrappy old legal pad written through in faint pencil. The entire thing is about a hundred pages long, and every line, every space, even the backs of some of the pages are filled with ornate, delicate cursive. She looks at me with a slight grin and says…
“This was the journal kept by your great-grandfather during World War I.”
I let the force of the comment register, recalling those solitary moments from my childhood, researching trench warfare and sulfur-mustard and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the domino effect of alliances that would bring about the most brutal conflict in world history, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory on VHS—the sheer insanity of the truth and how alien it was to my placid upbringing.
“You’re kidding me,” I tell her. “What did he do in the war?”
“He was a captain in the Army,” she answered. “Hence, the nickname ‘Cap.’ I haven’t read the journal since I was a kid, so I can’t say what he experienced. I just don’t remember.”
My great-grandfather was indeed nicknamed “Cap,” but that was about as much as I knew about the man. He died in 1981, six years before I was born. But how often do people remember their great-grandparents anyway? What even is a great-grandparent? To most people, it means very little. It’s a story told at Thanksgiving, a strange anecdote, a distant cousin too far removed to even recognize. To most people, a great-grandparent is just an ancestor.
Mom continued: “You should take it home with you, read it and find out for yourself.”
The journal was exhaustive. It spanned the entire length of Cap’s service—from the two-week journey across the Atlantic Ocean in June 1918 to his arrival back in the States in early 1919. It detailed training among the hills and villages of rural France; a chance meeting with General Pershing; leading troops during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive—which few recall, but is the bloodiest battle in American history—and the final day of fighting on November 11, 1918. That date also happened to be the day Cap suffered a life-changing injury: He was exposed to a near-lethal volume of mustard gas. The poison left him blind for several days, hospitalized for weeks, and eventually forced the removal of his right lung. Complications from it would remain with him until the day he died.
I sat on the journal for a few months, unable to shake the feeling that I needed to do something with it. I didn’t want to hand it over to a museum or the National Archives or anything like that. This was a family emblem first, historical document second. I decided that, at the very least, it needed to be transcribed.
So, over the next several months, I took to rewriting the journal, word for word, in my free time. I read once about how Hunter S. Thompson used to transcribe the words of his literary heroes—people like Fitzgerald and Hemmingway—believing the experience would vicariously empower him with the wisdom of great writers. Cap was no Fitzgerald, but the experience of transcribing his words was eerie, to say the least—sort of like forcing your hand into a glove that doesn’t fit, and then realizing the glove belonged to a war hero.
I became obsessed. I created a website and began publishing the journal’s contents. I collected photographs from family members; solicited military records from the National Archives; obtained a copy of his death certificate from the town of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts; took photographs of the journal and other primary sources; drove to Cap’s hometown of Athol, Massachusetts, to pour through microfiche in the local library. I was hoping to find a record of his service in the local newspaper. But really, I was reconstructing the existence of a dead man, a stranger, and I wasn’t even sure why. It was just compulsive.
I wondered, what’s the reason for all this? Why am I doing this? Is it my natural interest in history or simple family research? Soon enough I was asking my mother, my grandfather, and my uncle about Cap: Who was he? What was he like? Did he carry the burden of the war with him? What kind of man was he?
The stories, I found, were endless. He sold sporting goods to the MLB; he met Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; he was the first white officer in charge of an all-black regiment; he played semi-pro baseball; he worked as a golf instructor having known nothing about golf; he taught at Smith College; he published his war journal in the local newspaper; he was a self-taught jeweler; he met General Pershing; he was a blast at parties. I damn near expected him to have a pet tiger, this man of the times.
My favorite story was relayed to me by my grandfather, John, who was Cap’s only child. After the war ended, he told me, Cap remained stationed in France for several months. When he was finally discharged in February 1919, he was living in the port city of Brest. This was rare, for an officer to be discharged while still overseas, so instead of returning to base in the U.S. he went straight home to Athol. And so, with a wry grin, he used to tell my grandfather:
“I’m the only man in the history of the United States Army who went directly from Brest to Athol.”
That was Cap, and the more I learned about the man, the more the distance between the generations seemed to shrink. It no longer felt like I was studying an ancestor or some historical figure found only in books. This was a family member, a man with a personality not unlike my own: In his official military portrait he looks eerily like my brother. A friend told me Cap’s prose has a strange similarity to my own. I even get my middle name, Wells, from Cap’s father. This was a man who meant something to my mother, to my uncle, and to my grandparents.
But he was also a man who suffered a horrendous injury during one of the most horrendous wars ever fought—an injury that stayed with him his entire life. Cap’s death certificate lists his official cause of death as “myocardial infarction stemming from severe pulmonary emphysema.” How can there not be a darkness to a man who experienced this, however subdued or remote?
In his journal, you can occasionally detect a sense of horror at some of the things he saw. In describing the chaos of the war’s final days, during the peak of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Cap wrote:
“The roads were jammed with advancing artillery. Boche prisoners were being marched to the rear. The wounded were being evacuated to the rear in crowded ambulances. One poor soldier stood by the roadside crazy with shell shock. He had stripped off every stitch of his clothes, and he stood there waving his arms and shivering with the cold, a pitiful sight. The Colonel at once directed a passing soldier to care for him.”
And in an earlier entry from September:
“Each night about 9:30 p.m. we can hear the Boche planes going over on their way to bomb some city in the rear zones, to kill the innocent women and children and do what other damage possible—and they call that war.”
And, finally, in describing his injury at the hands of a gas attack on the final day of fighting:
“I lay in bed and many, many times wondered if I would ever see again, and I can assure you it was anything but pleasant. On the 14th of November we were pronounced somewhat better and moved to Base Hospital #82 at Toul. There in the gas ward the sights that we necessarily saw were anything but encouraging: big fine American soldiers, blind, burnt completely over their bodies and physical wrecks—all the result of mustard & other gases. Sure was enough to take the heart out of you.”
Despite this horror, Cap was not a man who carried pain with him. He never spoke of his experience in the war, which seems characteristic of nearly every veteran of every conflict ever, and the journal itself is devoid of great emotion or graphic detail. But according to family members, this reticence was not limited to his war experiences.
In 1929, Cap’s wife died after giving birth to my grandfather, John. Details of the event are sparse, but here’s what I was able to put together: Because he was so devastated by the loss of his wife, Cap decided to send his infant son and only child John (my grandfather) to live with his brother and sister in Athol. Little more is known about Cap during this period—not his health, his employment, or even his whereabouts.
Mind you, my grandfather was born in 1929—the year of the Stock Market Crash. It was around this time that Cap’s employer, a sporting goods distributor, went bust. So, presumably, in addition to the loss of his wife Cap also lost his job. Only a few years later Cap’s war injury began to catch up with him: He contracted tuberculosis and was forced to spend the next three years in a sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York.
By then, Cap had been reunited with his son, John. He also got remarried—to a woman named Cybil Wardwell. She raised my grandfather John as if he were her own, and remained with Cap until the day he died.
The fact that my great-grandfather Cap lived to be 90 is actually pretty remarkable, given the extent of his injury. In the end, however, it was this injury—suffered 63 years prior—that caused his demise.
My mother, who was very close with Cap, married only a few days before he died in 1981, and she insists that the timing was intentional, that he purposefully held on, waiting for his granddaughter to return from her honeymoon before passing.
Even in his death, with his wife Cybil by his side, Cap appears to have been considerate of the toll his passing would have on those around him. On the last night of his life—after having spoken to my mother about her honeymoon and telling her how happy he was for her—Cap intimated that the oxygen hose he was wearing was irritating his nostrils. Cybil withdrew to the bathroom to moisturize the tongs, and when she returned, just a minute later, he had passed away.
Around the time I finished transcribing Cap’s journal I became an uncle, and my grandfather, John, became a great-grandfather. Victoria, my niece, was born on Thanksgiving, 2013—95 years after the end of World War I, and 123 years after Cap was born.
These numbers got me thinking about history itself, how entwined it is with the subjective experience of families, and how each moment seems to carry with it an undeniable burden. Those forgotten individuals and their forgotten experiences—collectively, they measure the significance of history. They are history.
I can’t be certain, but maybe this is why 20th century military history was so fascinating to me as a child: The weight of the events that unfolded was so disproportionately greater than its constituent parts, so much heavier than its anatomy, that it seems impossible—sort of like the sequence of chance events that make up a family.
Today, exactly a century after the start of the Great War, it seems like all of those elements have been forgotten. There are no more witnesses, no more testimonies. With the last breath of the last veteran, the war faded into that distant, impersonal realm of the past—not unlike great-grandparents themselves, who so often feel like the last remnants of a family before they fade into ancestry.
From my perspective, the Great War’s centennial is merely a coincidence. My brush with one of its veterans occurred by mere chance at the perfect time in my life—an age that just so happened to be the same as Cap’s when he departed for France in June of 1918. It’s an arresting confluence of time, maturity, and history, and not easy to overlook. But, wonder aside, it’s still just a coincidence, a confluence of random forces, the same stuff of which history—and families—are made.
Cap’s journal can be read in its entirety at WhiningPast.com