Patriotic pieces from the Great War/The Spirit of '17
THE SPIRIT OF '17
Used by permission of the Atlantic Monthly, Boston
En route from Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, to Detroit, whither my husband was ordered to join his base hospital, we were delayed in Ithaca, New York. While waiting in the hotel lounge, I chanced to overhear an interesting conversation.
I had noticed a fine-looking man near me, reading the morning paper: he was distinctly the very prosperous city business man, his well-kempt appearance bespoke culture, money, and intelligence. While I was occupied with my speculations about him, a young man, just a boy, in fact, came in. He was a well-set-up chap, with the fresh healthy skin and clear-eyed eagerness of a country lad. He had never been far from the up-country farm where they raised the best breeds of livestock. He couldn't have given a college yell to save his life, and he was innocent of fraternity decorations and secrets. Just the kind of boy I would like to have call me "mother." His clothes were good, but evidently from the general store of the small town. He carried a good-sized box, which he put across his knees as he seated himself. I knew that it was his luncheon which mother had packed, and that it included fried chicken and cold home-made sausage, cakes, sandwiches, fried cakes, crullers, mince pie and cheese, apples and winter pears; and a few relishes besides. Why, I could smell the luncheon that my mother had put up for my brother forty years ago.
The Boy gazed all around, took in each detail of the room and its furnishings, with all the quiet dignity and interest of a well-born American country youth. You know a real Yankee country boy isn't like any other; there is a balance, an understanding, that is natural. It is inborn to be at home in any surrounding, however new and strange, so long as it is real.
After the Boy had surveyed the room, he looked over at the man reading. He sat perfectly still a few minutes, then "Oh hummed," and waited again, and fidgeted a bit; but nobody spoke. I could see that he was fairly bursting with news of something. Finally, to the man, "Can you tell me how far it is to Syracuse, sir?"
"Well,"—lowering his paper,—"not exactly, but three or four hours, I'd say. Going to Syracuse?"
"Yes, I've enlisted. I passed one examination, but I'm going to Syracuse for another and then I'm going to Spartansburg. Senator Wadsworth says, and it looks that way to me, that it is just as much our fight as theirs, and we ought to have been in it three years ago; they are getting tired over there. I'd hate to be drafted. I'd feel mean to think I had to be dragged in; besides I want to do my part. Every fellow ought to get into it."
"What part of the service did you elect?"
"The Infantry, sir. I'm going to Spartansburg to the training-camp." Silence for some moments; then, showing that his bridges were burned, "I've sold my clothes; sold 'em for four dollars and I'm to send 'em right back soon's I get my uniform. I hope I don't have to wait for the soldier clothes. I think I got a good bargain and so did the fellow I sold 'em to. I thought I wouldn't need 'em while I was in the army, and when I got back they'd be all out of style; and then—I may never come back." A ripple of seriousness passed over his boyish face. "But it was a good chance and I took it. Have you a son, sir?"
"Yes, I have a son just eighteen, at Cornell. He expects to go next year if they need him in the aviation."
"I'm just nineteen. I thought I'd better enlist. It's just possible they might draft 'em later, and I just couldn't stand it to be drafted. Do you think I'll be able to go home for Thanksgiving?" he asked eagerly.
"I wouldn't think quite so soon. You'll hardly get there by that time."
"Well, I think I can go home for Christmas, don't you?" And a shade of anxiety crept into his tone. "I live up the road here a way,—Wellsville, you know, about forty miles. Don't you think I'll get to Syracuse to-night if I go right on? I'd like to get through so I could be ready for work to-morrow morning. I don't want to waste any time now that I'm all ready."
The Boy settled back with a look of forced patience, and the man held up his paper again; but I could see that he was not reading, and there was a look of suffused sadness in his face.
The Boy had taken from his pocket a pair of big, dark-blue, home-knitted mittens; on the palms was sewn red woolen to reënforce them. He carefully drew them on, folded his hands, thumbs up, on his luncheon-box, edged to the front of his chair, and sat thinking with eyes fixed on the far-away places of his dream. He was going over it all again; there was no haste, no excitement, no foolish sentiment, but sure determination and the courage of youth suddenly turned to manhood. With a little start he came back to the present, and, rising, said, "I guess I'd better be going. You said I could get a train in about half an hour?"
"Before you go, will you tell me, my boy, why you chose the infantry?"
"Well, when you read of anything real hard that has to be done you will notice that it is always the infantry that does it. They have to be strong, young fellows they can depend on for the real hard things. So I chose the infantry, sir."
There was a silence, which he broke with the quiet words, "I think I'll be going. Good-by, sir."
Springing from his chair, the man grasped the boy's hand. "God bless you, son, and good luck!"
With misty vision we both stood and watched him out of sight; then, with all previous convention of acquaintance forgotten as we looked into each other's eyes, the man said, "It is the spirit of '17 gone to the colors."