And Then There Were None.

Harry Patch has died.

He was born in 1898, trained as a plumber at age fifteen, was conscripted into the army of Great Britain in 1916 and was the last living combatant of the First World War. There are three other men still alive who served, but Harry was the last who actually fought. A soldier who, on the day of his nineteenth birthday, entered the trenches for the first time to experience something that no one alive today can fully understand. It’s not possible that we could.

He had a good idea of what lay ahead of him. Not only did he have an older brother who had already been wounded in the conflict that would reshape much of Europe and lay the groundwork for yet another, far bloodier war, but also, this was not 1914 anymore either. By 1917 when he had completed his training, citizens of all nations understood the meat grinder that they were throwing their teenagers and young fathers into. By then, the enthusiasm for glory was diminishing daily. It was understood by all except the embroiled governments that there was no real glory to be had but rather, death, dismemberment, mental anguish that would last a lifetime, reducing men to shadows of their former selves. The wide eyed, naivety and excitement that so commonly clouds the minds of otherwise sensible individuals had been mostly scoured away in the mud of no-man’s land and blood of millions of young men.

Harry was trained as machine gunner, an invention that was used to such effect in those years it became the signature weapon of the Great War. The device, invented years before the outbreak of war, was perfected in this conflict and refined to a point where even for the next generation, designs were near duplicates and carried once again to the fields of France to fight in the war after “The War to End All Wars.”

Machine guns were feared by all on both sides and as such, were prime targets to be taken out as quickly as possible. This was to be the fate of the gun crew Harry was attached to. As they lay in the slime of Passchendaele, a shell exploded over the team. Three, out of the five man team were blown apart. Harry suffered a wound from the flying shrapnel but lived. With a visit from a battlefield medic, a run on a stretcher to an aid station and then to the rear and out of France, he made it back to the Isle of Wight where he would convalesce. Later, still in England, as he drilled on a rifle range, preparing to return to the front, he would receive the news that the Armistice was signed.

stretcher

The war was over. The lives of over eight and a half million soldiers had been lost. Over twenty one million had been wounded. Far more had wounds that did not show outwardly. It took Harry over eighty years before he could bring himself to talk about it. In 2007, he found the strength to return to the fields of Flanders and see the land again where so many men were unlucky enough to not be wounded like himself, but instead mingled with the soil, unseen even to this day.

That one battle alone consumed over 850,000 men.

One battle.

I am a student of history. I have a thirst to know and find awe and respect in the items that have been carried and cared for by those who have held these things; who have lived or just as often, not lived through the fires of past conflict. I am not alone.

Collectors of history cover the globe and the hunt for the right helmet, the correct rifle or the authentic letter spurs on a lively commerce. What worries me is the disconnect that can occur with these items and the stories that refuse to cling to them. An object can’t tell you the story of it’s owner and with the death of those who knew, we loose that human element, and it is a loss. The bayonet that is snapped up at an antiques show that might have ruined the life of a family a century ago. The canteen for sale that once was filled but never drank from. The extra overcoat that was ordered but shipped back unworn. We can’t forget where these things come from or whom they might have touched. We should, however, care for them since we can no longer care for their one time owners. They are not ours, however. We are only stewards and need to teach why there are items of humanity. Why they are special.

In 1914, the European youth were electrified with the promise and thrill of war. There had been a long wait between conflicts and the populace had forgotten that glory was a lie. It wasn’t glorious. It was riding into the jaws of Death and hoping to be the survivor, even as your friends die all around you. The elders of state ordered them to go and they did their duty.

Lions led by Asses.

We can debate the argument if the Great War was inevitable or avoidable. We can question who actually started it and where the fault lies.We can point fingers at incompetent commanders and mourn those who died due to the idiocy of suicidal orders handed out with no care or strategy. What we cannot do, should never do, is think for a moment that the Great War was that. Great. It was a charnel house. We should never for a moment confuse that with glory.

Good night to you Harry Patch, you and all those who saw the war of 1914-1918 with their own eyes. There are yet three more who were there, but you were the last to raise arms against an enemy you barely knew.

The fields are quiet now except for the sounds of traffic and tractors. The memories you shared are written in the annals of history.

May we never forget the price we as men paid to hear them.

“I met someone from the German side, and we both shared the same opinion: We fought, we finished, and we were friends. It wasn’t worth it.”

~Harry Patch

HarryPatch

Over There

“So, I hear that you just got back from Venice?”

Tony, the woman on the other end of the phone line corrected me with the sound of wistful emotion coloring her voice.

“No, Florence. I was in Florence, Italy actually.”

By the sigh that followed the word “actually,” I knew the answer to my next question before I even put it out there, but to ask anyway was proper form. I’m all in favor of letting people gush when they have it in them. Blissful gushing is one of the pinnacles of personal happiness and I, for one, wasn’t going to deny her the chance.

“Oh! It was just so… Oh! All the famous people who’ve lived there and all the beautiful things that they left behind for us to see!”

Smiling, I let her go on for as long a she wished. The enthusiasm in her voice made me smile broadly.

Tony lives alone out here on the island, and is kind enough to watch Lulu Belle for us from time to time. Since her own son, daughter-in-law and grandson live on the other side of the country, it gives her a chance to do grandma duty for our little girl while giving us time to actually accomplish things like work and… work some more.

“Have you ever been to Florence?” The question was asked with the bubble like hope of having a fellow traveler to compare notes with. Sadly, I had to tell her that, no, we hadn’t been so fortunate.

This was followed by the inevitable, “Oh! You should!”

Should, indeed. Acton Girl and I would love nothing more.

We knew all to well what starting a family would mean to our vagabond traveling method. It wouldn’t put a crimp in it. It would crush it in a vice like embrace until turning blue in the face and going limp. Travel, at least for the next seven years or so, would be sporadic, far more tame, or possibly unknown all together. It was a trade we both willingly made, but it still smarts from time to time.

Like, when we think about it.

When I was five, my parents did an incredibly brave thing. They took their very young child and put him on a plane with them. When the door shut, it would not open again for six hundred and twenty-nine hours. Well… perhaps that’s stretching it a bit.

Six hundred and twenty-six hours, then.

It was a very, very long flight from the East coast to Hawaii and when you’re five, the miniature dynamos that run in your chest are controlled by a squirrel that operates your brain, and he keeps them running at full tilt, fueled on a diet of soda, potato chips and pure excitement. I have always maintained that if we could figure out how to harness the power of a five year old, our planet’s energy problems would be solved. That, and you’d wind up with a five year old who’d actually listened to you when you spoke to them.

Win / Win!

I survived the trip and have no memory of the interior of the overhead luggage racks, so I’m assuming that I behaved my self, though memories are a tad sketchy.

That was my introduction to travel and amazingly, things went well enough on that trip that my parents decided to keep taking that little squirrel powered kid with them and I have benefited from that immensely. I had the chance to make some truly amazing journeys as a child and young man and have seen parts of this world that most people know only through history class or movies. Some of the things I saw and places to where I traveled no longer exist at all or are not a place a U.S. citizen could now comfortably walk. For those experiences, I am deeply thankful.

As I grew older, the travel bug stayed with me and with my independence and a new found life-long companion, I had the chance to travel without Mom and Dad and see what that was like. It was great!

Action Girl and I have made several foreign trips together and have really gotten proficient at our own style of travel. We bring packs and travel by train a lot. We look for rooms to rent rather than hotels or hostels. We buy our food at local markets rather than looking for the next restaurant and we are masters at picking a town on a map, hopping on the next train out of town and then making it up once we arrive wherever we picked. If there is no room in town, we’d hop back on the train and try the next stop.

eurorail

Oh, Eurorail Pass, how we love thee.

We vacationed like this for two reasons. The first is because we like it. The second is that we don’t have the cash to do it any other way. To be honest, I’ve traveled both ways, and I like our method the best. We seem to slip into the crowds rather than gliding over them. Rick Steves would approve, I think.

It’s summer here in Maine and Action Girl and I haven’t been on a jet in about three years. “Getting away,” for us means slipping off to the restaurant down the road while Grandparents watch the kids. We sit in our chairs, chatting about what adorable thing Lulu Belle did today or what Short Stack found at the beach as we sip at our drinks, sample each other’s entrees and make furtive glances at watches to see how much time we have left before running home to relieve the troops. As we talk, a sporadic stream of neighbors and fellow islanders walk by on the way to their own tables and make the inevitable comment, “So, who’s watching the kids?”

Us, being us, we tell them, “the cat” and we’re hoping he gets them litter trained tonight.

But, that’s us.

Short Stack is only three and a half and Lulu Belle, sixteen months. I don’t think we’ll take them on a jet for a while yet. I can just barely remember my trip to Hawaii when I was five and don’t see the point in dragging children on a big vacation that they won’t remember. This weekend, we’re trying something new and visiting a local New England attraction. We can easily drive there and might even have the chance to meet up with my blood brother, The Doctor, and his family. It won’t be Florence, but I’m willing to bet that it will be interesting. With three kids under the age of four, how could it be anything else? At least we’ll have them outnumbered.

We’ll see how long Action Girl and I can hold out before we crack and impulsively buy tickets to some corner of the world. I don’t think we’d have any problem slipping back into old travel habits. It’s just going to be more challenging with munchkins coming along for the adventure. In the mean time, I’ll start getting things lined up for our road trip this week. We’re only driving from the Maine coast to northern New Hampshire, so the journey should take about two hundred and thirteen hours.

It can seem like that car occupants, anyway.

Oh, Amtrak, how I wish you were here. They have overhead baggage compartments, you know.

Thank You.

Arlington

Local Talk

Short Stack and I were out the door early this morning and though he didn’t know it, it was motivated more by me wanting him to see his next birthday rather than getting the jump on a beautiful, late Spring day. He hasn’t quite developed the survival instinct about waking his mother up earlier than she wishes, so I, who already bare the scars, decided to intervene and remove him from the premises before he came tottering in to ask her yet another question in that whisper/not-a-whisper that three year olds seem to have perfected.

Other than my own vision being blurry around the edges with the half vaporized dreams of sleep, the day looked crisp and warm and I was happy to get a chance to go and enjoy it with my son. A long walk to the beach, down said beach and then up to a beautiful expanse of grass that overlooks the bay, left him happy but understandably tired. When he started inquiring about breakfast, I knew that he wasn’t making it back to the house under his own power and in one fluid motion, *WHOOSH*, up on my shoulders he went. I’m used to carrying him like this and although he’s getting bigger by the day, I enjoy it very much as he hugs my head and points out items of interest with a pudgy finger.

“Look Dad! A butterfly! Can we catch it?”

As I hefted my chatty load up the last hill and away form the beach, we happened to pass an elderly islander who was on her own morning jaunt.

She greeted us with a smile and approving nod to my wiggling burden. “Well, that’s a mighty fine perch, isn’t it?” She spoke through that smile only old, white haired women can flash, but the smile I came back with was spurred on by more than just a friendly salutation. It was the way she said “perch”

“peauuurch”

This is spoken with the lips extended into an almost kiss when you say the “u” sound.

THAT is how a real Mainer says it. Or, I should say, “Mainahh.” Actually, it extends far beyond the borders of Maine. My Grandmother lived in the flatlands of New Hampshire and I vividly remember the first time she encountered the word “Nerd.”

“Neauuuurd? What on eauuurth is a Neauuurd?”

What is commonly referred to as the “Down East” accent was widely heard in my youth, but is disappearing at mind numbing speed today. Words such as Yassah (yes sir), proppah (proper) and my personal favorite, “wicked pissah, meaning a mighty good time and/or a bad storm and/or someone full of moxie and nerve… um… neauuuurve, are drifting away into the past and being replaced by the bland, universal TV speak that we’re bombarded with, daily.

I have an ear for accents, both conscious and unconscious. I perk up when I hear one and can’t help trying to guess where the speaker is from. I suppose that makes me a bit like the jerk at the embassy ball in “My Fair Lady,” though I do not, in fact, “know everyone in Europe” or teach linguistics, but there is a reason I pay close attention. For me, accents are contagious.

When I am thrown into an environment with foreign or heavily accented speakers, my speech starts to bend and twist in an effort to match. I can’t stop it and it drives me nuts at times.

In England, I sound like a Brit.
In France, I start sounding French.
In Massachusetts, I sound like a Kennedy
In Germany… I sound like a Brit again… I don’t know why. This one REALLY bugs me, especially since I can speak some german.

Action Girl hails from central Vermont and as such, speaks crisp, soft English through mostly closed teeth. When I’ve been visiting old relatives from the coast of New England, she quickly points out my changed speech patterns.

“Please stop! You’re not from Danvers, Mass!”

“That’s pronounced ‘Daanvzz’” I helpfully quip. That usually wins me a flash of “the look” which I attempt to deflect with a toothy grin and quick retreat.

In my head, I can hear both of my Grandmother’s voices with their accents, dropped consonants and drawn out vowels, but my memory is the only place to regularly encounter them. Outside of the pale and pathetic comedians impostering these old linguistics and spinning them into a form of kitsch, you need to hand around with the disappearing generation if you need your yankee-talk fix. I have to say, I love it. It makes me feel like I’m home.

Oddly enough, Short Stack seems to be picking it up here and there, though I don’t know if it has a chance of sticking. Every once in a while, he’ll be telling us something and out will slip my Grandmother, or my friend Jeff or old George, the lobsterman, gone now for over twenty years. Short Stack will be yammering away, as per usual, about the interesting bug he’s spotted or whatever and say something such as, “Well…. That’s rathahh funny, innit?”

There is no way I would ever correct him in this situation.

Someday, the accents will be gone, buried beneath the tidal wave of perfectly quaffed anchor men, gritty action heroes and infomercials, but until then, I’ll try my best to enjoy each one ‘till at last, the bowl is empty.

As we walked home, we spotted a white lilac, decked out in its full springtime glory. My diminutive shoulder monkey pointed to them with enthusiasm and declared that we should get some for Mom. Balancing my son around my neck and snipping off a few branched with my pocketknife, we quickly had our bounty clutched in his happy, little hands as he chirped his monologue the rest of the way home.

Mom was thrilled, naturally, having eked out another half hour of uninterrupted sleep before Lulu Belle decided to start her day. She gratefully received the gift and put them in water as Short Stack pulled out toy trucks, preparing them for a hard day’s workout.

If Grandma were there, she would have told him that the flowers were “wondah-ful.”

All in all, it was an excellent way to spend a morning. In fact, I’d say that it was wicked good, indeed. Finest kind.

Right Grandma?

“Yessah!”

Zwack Attack

Last night, I was the parent on duty. Action Girl mostly works second shift and thus, the evenings are my territory with the Widgets. When it was just the single Widget, Short Stack, it was really not very hard to pull off. Things went pretty smoothly on the whole and hell nights not withstanding, we got along pretty well and he got to sleep at a reasonable hour. Then came Lulu Belle.

Just about the time the evening routine had become highly predictable and easy to execute, we threw in the random variable of a new baby. Things immediately got way more interesting than any sensible person would ever want. With new babies, the real problem is that routines just don’t exist long enough for you to figure them out and exploit them. Just about the time you realize that the baby always likes this or laughs at that, everything changes. Yesterday’s panacea is today’s anathema. It keeps you on your toes. It also makes me relish that evening beer all the more.

After Lulu Belle is tucked in and happily reaming about an edible world and Short Stack is lying in bed pretending to be asleep, but actually whispering stories to him self, I switch off the lights, go to the fridge and grab a beer. The day is over, both kids are fed and I’m pooped. I feel that I’ve earned my cold one.

Last night, disaster struck. As soon as the kids were down and I quietly padded into the kitchen, I had a sinking feeling. I know what I’d find. Opening the door only cemented my horror as an empty beer drawer stared back. This was not what I was hoping for. As the lone adult in the house and with both kiddos asleep (or close enough to asleep), there was no way I could to run down to the store. I was trapped in my beerless home. Just to add insult to injury, my half full bottle of Black Strap rum had been left at another house after an evening of Dark & Stormies, so my other late night favorite was inaccessible as well. I looked around to check out my options.

Scotch? Gone.
Calvados? Finished.
Whiskey? Also empty.

You have GOT to be kidding me!?

With the exception of a few liquors that didn’t appeal to me at the moment (Gin, Sake, Tequila) there was nothing in the “booze” range to be had in the house. Even the wine cellar was looking pretty bare. That’s was okay for the moment though. I didn’t want wine. I wanted BEER!

A conversation with my wife later that evening netted me some sympathy but didn’t whet my whistle. I assured her that would somehow cope without my nighttime libation but as I hung up the phone, I started casting about for something to take its place. I settled on my favorite daytime drink as an alternative and poured my self a generous glass of milk. Though cold, smooth and normally enjoyed fully, the milk lacked a certain… everything. The kicker was when Action Girl returned home after her shift was done and guiltily admitted that after the boats were tied up, she had gone out to the near by pub with a coworker to cap off the night. AAAGH!

So, with the break of a new day and a trip to town scheduled, I knew what my first stop would be. Normally, I would have saved the beer run as the last item on the “to do” list before returning to the ferry terminal… but not today. It was snowing like a bugger and knowing I had a ton of shoveling in my future, I wasn’t willing to risk it. I love my local beer and booze shop, and not just because they’ve given me free beer in the past, though to be honest, it doesn’t hurt their standing in my book. I like them because they are friendly, exceedingly well stocked and very, very knowledgeable. These are not your average front counter drones. They all know their stuff and if you ask them for their opinion on… oh, I don’t know, Finnish vodkas or Belgian dopplebocks, they will have one. A very well informed one. They are worth listening to. They are also curious and keep bringing in more and more unusual alcoholic items from obscure corners of the world. You just never know what you’ll find there.

As I walked through the door with a smile and a wave to the guy behind the counter, I got as far as, “Hey, how ya’ do…” before it changed me pointing with an outstretched hand and to a shouting.

“HOLY CRAP! YOU HAVE ZWACK!”

There, sitting on the counter, still next to the box they were being unloaded from, was the familiar green bottle with the warning-like gold Swiss style cross emblazoned on it. It’s a liqueur made in Budapest and the bottle itself is vaguely shaped like an old fashioned bomb such as one you’d fire from a bronze cannon at invading Napoleonic infantry. Perhaps they did.

“Yah, we just got these in. Are you familiar with it?”

zwack

I marveled at the bottle for a moment and thought back. I have only encountered Zwack on two occasions. The first time was at our friends Laura and Harrold’s house in western Germany. He’s a Colonel in the U.S. military and having a variety of men serving under him, he’s received various gifts to stock the bar over the years. While Action Girl and I were visiting them one time, we all decided to get some drinks going. I spotted the bottle of Zwack.

“So… What is it?” I asked.

Harrold looked at it appraisingly. “You know, I have no idea. I’ve had it for years and sort of never dared get into it.”

We got into it. The name begged for us to. I don’t remember the night too well.

The next time I spotted a bottle was years later in, of all places, a friend of a friend’s house outside of Boston. We were there for a surprise party and the bottle sat happily in the liquor cabinet all night and taunted me. We never did get into it and I wasn’t sure who our host was exactly and so, was unable to inquire in the most leading way possible. Oh, the missed Zwack!

So, a few moments after spotting this rare bird on the countertop of the booze store, I happily walked out with my very own bottle. As I sit here now, with the kiddos tucked in bed and ostensively sleeping, I’m just finishing off my first glass of Hungarian booze in many years. The taste? Well… I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that nostalgia has colored my memory of the taste. It’s a liqueur and so it’s rather syrupy and sweet. Not clean and bracing like good whiskey or vodka. Do I regret the purchase? No, not one bit. It’s a good drink after an evening moving snow around the driveway and warms you all the way down as you sip it. All in all, it’s a perfect winter libation.

Also, I’m betting that it will last us longer than a six pack of the local micro-brew’s beer. At least it had better. If we tried to polish it off in a few nights without our friends here to help us, we’d be speaking slurred Hungarian in no time.

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