Soldiers of the Great War (Part One)

Jenkins was a stranger to Lancer. He only recalled ever seeing him once. On a sunny spring day inside a coffin at his funeral.

Young as Lancer was in 1973, fortune smiled on the boy enough to have him standing at a height which allowed nearly mansize vantage into the casket at the remains. In repose the former doughboy fit the cliché criterion. On display, the old soldier been beautified to look as if he were asleep.

Jenkins wasn’t a “direct” uncle of Lancer’s. He was a grand-uncle. Older relatives who knew him spoke of the departed familiarly. Several had known him at Lancer’s age; when the older man then passed for what counted as middle age.

The generational levels of his family only became more pronounced after the all the eyewitnesses, those who’d heard his stories first hand, and a good number who’d heard them second-hand had already “earned their rewards.” One constant about black families – in them there’s never any shortage of terms and semantics regarding death.

These long-ago sights and sounds returned only after Lancer came in possession of the old soldier’s chronicles. And these augmented by speaking with the few still alive who’d remembered Jenkins.

It never failed astounding Lancer how his super-old relations couldn’t remember what they’d eaten for that day’s lunch yet could summon events from 70-80 years ago with astonishing clarity. Thing was, some reminiscences of Jenkins issued through second-hand recollections of others even now longer dead.

Did Faulkner ever have this problem?

Writer as he styled himself, Lancer wondered how much of human achievement had been lost because few were around to accurately transcribe the verbal into written? Despite the sharpness of memories, repeated verbal recitations always gained superfluous details somehow enhancing or diluting the story.

Griots were terrific insofar as maintaining oral traditions. However, when events were communicated through word of mouth how often did specifics got muddied altogether or changed entirely? Didn’t the children’s game of “telephone” validate this?

Fortunately, Jenkins left behind his chronicle. A chronicle. How else could it have been regarded? His wasn’t a diary. Some might’ve regarded him as a diarist. Actually reading his Great War experiences one determined he’d written for posterity. He’d written for an audience. His hand transcribed sights, slights, impressions, smells even, yet its ultimate purpose of these were to be been accepted as defining documents.

Aren’t diaries personal? They’re more interior and introspective, no? Journals allowed some semblances of objectivity.

Jenkins didn’t chronicle continuously. Paper only absorbed his graphite or ink for explicit events. Long intervals passed between Jenkins’ writing. Seeing how he wrote, Lancer suspected Jenkins formulated and framed narrative in their entirety before his first word set upon paper.

Passages weren’t conjured into paragraphs then these cobbled into a whole. He completely constructed everything in his mind. Only then might he have released them onto paper.

Jenkins rarely scratched out, lined through, or erased. Those few times he did startled Lancer.

While Jenkins’ chronicle spared nothing of the man, it also retained cold-eyed observation despite the indignities its penman endured. That was self-control. A lesser man, a lesser author, might’ve let his humiliations justly color his narrative. Surely Jenkins must’ve seethed. He could’ve gone on tirades about this cracker, harangues about that ofay bastard. Yet he could step outside himself in this respect. He as well as potential 20th century readers, and better than any likely second millennium written word lovers, best knew such complaints common to the era’s black folk.

Redundancy would’ve wasted urgency.

At best, Jenkins’ Great War chronicle solved a mystery which had stayed with Lancer since the granduncle’s funeral. Who was the foreign white man attending that ceremony? Lancer had quizzed his parents about him. Neither knew but each was annoyed by their son’s lack of reserve. At 14, the boy often spouted questions unmindfully.

At Jenkins’ graveside, the stranger respectfully approached Jenkins’ immediate survivors, two sons, two daughters. Too far away to hear condolences, conduct and reaction indicated the emissary’s heartfelt words.

Finished commiserating, he extended a flag Lancer later learned that of France. A daughter graciously accepted it.

Oddly, Lancer never remembered whether a U.S. Army representative or the funereal director had presented Jenkins’ family an American flag.

Jenkins had been a black man of his time. Lightly regarded, if at all, by what passed as mainstream society. A Southern born and raised rural black man born in 1897, he’d known freedmen. He felt ambivalent about them. At one time they’d been chattel. Property. Like hogs or cows. Nonetheless rather than face slaughter, they’d endured. They attained what passed for “freedom.”

The question he asked himself consisted of whether he could’ve survived their same agonies? Naturally being of a different mindset he could never know what they’d done, how they’d comported themselves to survive.

Jenkins was acutely aware enough to know this a mystery without answer. He had hoped himself the same sort of stalwart who had persisted until Union forces delivered them to Canaan land. Yet until the Great War delivered him and countless millions to their own reaper, thresher, and grinder, the question how he might’ve measured up against prior travails weighed upon him.

For most of his young life, whites saw Jenkins as nothing more than black. Actually “colored” was the kindest appellation of that time. Otherwise whites had developed a whole litany of cruelty concerning whoever occupied any black hide. The worst of them leveled these with aplomb. Somehow such people saw flesh tone indicative of the soul within.

None of these detractors bothered recognizing the darkness roiling within their own “pure” skins. That’s how willfully blind they required themselves to have been.

All things considered, Jenkins came from a doubly fortunate family. First, his people owned 40 acres. They farmed intensely. They were diligent about possession and maintaining the land. Second, his father worked for the railroad.

Sustaining life from the land would’ve been enough. Adding a railroad man’s salary was manna.

The father’s presence at home was infrequent throughout Jenkins’ brothers’ and sisters’ lives. Nonetheless the benefits far outweighed his absences. That family had superior comforts relative to most blacks and a lot of whites along that stretch between Charleston and Savannah.

The Jenkins home had good furniture. Their home had books.

After what passed for classes in the “colored school,” once chores were done at home, boys and girls read. They read outside until dusk then inside from candlelight. Aside from acquiring “mother wit,” none of them sounded like the “country niggers” white folks lazily expected. Their “affluence,” their sense of self, could’ve stirred the sort of enmity that might’ve stoked jealousy into the kind of rage which formed mobs who mindlessly destroyed and killed.

Two circumstances blunted these inclinations. Jenkins’ father worked for the railroad. The company maintained strict schedules. These were not to have been disrupted by envious white trash locals whose actions deprived it of a dependable man. Also, Jenkins’ mother, like his father, proved herself a good shot. Besides the usual squirrel guns, their house also contained deer rifles, shot guns, and pistols.

As the children aged, their parents taught sons and daughters marksmanship. These lessons also instilled refusing being helpless. Of being victims. Education alone never guaranteed any future. Being known ready to act did plenty to dissuade malcontents. Once potential dead-of-night-arriving cowards learned the likelihood of possibly accurate return fire, the lessons, though never demonstrated against two-legged targets, must’ve served as deterrents.

Before Lancer reached Jenkins’ passages involving insult, carnage, and glory, this resolve shown by family members stirred him greatly. It made him aware of from whence he came. Having such people in Lancer’s lineage further bolstered his already considerable American pride.

He knew there weren’t a lot of hyphenated-immigrant derived fellow citizens who might honestly claim the same. Lancer loved his clear sense of superiority.

Once he reached “size,” Jenkins’ father got him hired on with the railroad. Apparently this strapping son had heft, height and bulk. Those physical traits formed an ideal stoker. In later years a brakeman. Furthermore, he had the recommendation of a reliable man. Remember this occurred when one’s word was 24 karat and handshakes sealed deals. Unlike the 21st century, going back on either then ruined names or brought shame.

Indeed. What quaint notions.

Death and bequeaths eventually delivered Jenkins’ chronicles to Lancer. Funny how that worked. Funny how family possessions migrated.

In his own branch, hadn’t Lancer transferred ownership of their father’s flag to his sister? While mother had received the banner at the veteran’s graveside, and the son had claimed it upon her death, he knew it only proper for his sister to ultimately have and display.

Lancer’s sister would invite into her home the sort of people who’d actually see the flag in its case. They’d revere it. They’d more fully venerate the service and commitment of who it represented than anyone Lancer might ever invite into his own residence.

Same with the family Bible.

The book’s pages were brittle, on the cusp of dust. The tome best described as an 18th century relic. The oldest of their branch acquired and maintained it.

Upon that elder’s demise the object became the treasure for the next in line. Names and birthdates inscribed on Lancer’s maternal side extended back into Colonial times. It was rather humbling to read them. Not his own or sister’s, of course, nor mother’s and her siblings’, or even grandmother’s and her siblings’, but her mother’s and her siblings’, and so forth and so on until the established lineage wasn’t a branch but a light into original America.

Nothing ornate about what Jenkins had bequeathed. A dozen hard-backed black marbled composition books half-filled a medium-sized cardboard carton. He’d inscribed date ranges and themes onto the books’ covers.

Two factors Lancer valued most about Jenkins’ history. Its continuity. Understanding how those early family members who’d winced under then-pharaohs’ lashes and bent beneath their same yokes had recognized their plights and sought-for deliverance, they named their slave-born issue after Old Testament figures. Only after release from slavery did given names gradually change from Hezekiah, Zebedee, Ruth, Leah, and Sarah to less burdened ones such as Mary, Julia, Lucas, Paul, and Joseph.

In that respect Lancer’s mother had been the eldest survivor of that line. Again, he yielded to lineage. This time to mother’s youngest sister, his aunt, that branch’s last link.

Lancer got Jenkins’ chronicle because the old soldier’s grandchildren knew he wrote. They thought, they knew, they believed, he could raise their grandfather into more than just another black man society saw, if it ever noticed him, as just another anonymous colored fellow who’d bumped along through life. Having read Jenkins’ selections, what he deemed memorable, they, then looking back on their parents who’d read the same, understood the possible complications behind making these accounts public too early.

The palpable fear that some aggrieved relative of a figure Jenkins included might’ve stirred some kind of demands for “justice” or restitution. Lancer and Jenkins’ grandchildren had knowing distance.

Guilty, innocent, mere participants from that era all now shared death. Worrying about the vengeful dissipated into the emergent 21st century. Litigious as American society had become, absent heartbeats didn’t prompt lawsuits.
Even in present-day American the dead can’t claim injury.

And while the dead can always be further glorified, they can’t be defamed. Once The Day Is Done was bugled over the final doughboy, once the last known family member alive during the Great War died, hidden histories and recollections could see light, be read, and fearlessly spoken aloud.

Such is Soldiers of the Great War.

On the centenary of the Armistice, a post, Shades from the Eleventh Hour, ( appeared here. It told of Mojave Desert dwellers verging on being caught up in President Woodrow Wilson’s quest to make the world safe for democracy. Too bad Cervantes lived and wrote centuries before the United States existed and Wilson became its 28th president.

Say this about Wilson, he was far-sighted everywhere but America. About the United States? He was blind.
The denouement of that prior post? Those Americans whose deaths a lonely cross commemorates died for ideals they likely never had.

Jenkins was a black man who recognized the freedoms Wilson professed elsewhere didn’t jibe with what he insisted for his black fellow Americans. No. Jenkins didn’t come to this conclusion by his lonesome.

A. Phillip Randolph, one of many notable Americans conveniently faded from the nation’s conscious, speechified against Wilson’s hypocrisy. Jenkins already knew of the black labor leader, knew of the positions he held and those he inveighed against. Jenkins listened to Randolph speak at an antiwar rally.

Randolph spoke persuasively. At least persuasively enough for all Americans who saw the clear discrepancy of Wilson’s arguing for freedom and self-determinations overseas while doing his absolute damnedest to deny certain citizens the same at home.

In 1917, Jenkins was 20. One year from being recognized as a man but already an adult all but in age.

Wilson had whipped white America into war frenzy. Other Americans were wary. They felt themselves rightful in this stance. The pertinent question asked: why should they fight for strangers harder than for themselves?

In the end, what would have been awarded disenfranchised Americans? That question remained unasked. Probably because who didn’t already know the answer? Nothing. Not a goddamned thing.

The decision whether to serve or not vexed Jenkins. Then, he knew nothing about resorting to conscientious objector status. Even if he had, a black man declaring principles ahead of societal demands? That creature didn’t exist in the eyes of white America.

For the rest of his life Jenkins wondered if in the end he’d succumbed. He justified his decision thusly — the American Expeditionary Force needed railroad men in its quartermaster corps. Despite seeing his involvement, that of other blacks in the Great War, as sacrifice without gratitude or reward, one notion finally overrode his every disinclination: his country needed him. Even if she refused conceding this.

Although whites would’ve been hard pressed to confess such, Jenkins was an American. He became a reluctant warrior.
Before induction, basic training, he returned home. Only after Armistice did he consider that visit his possible last. What warrior before entering combat ever thought he’d become a casualty?

No American then had any idea how industrialization had transformed warfare. The last conflict forcing Americans to marshal martial strength had been the Spanish-American War. Quickly won. Quickly forgotten. And the extermination campaigns conducted upon Plains and Southwest Indians before that had become fodder for Wild West shows and penny dreadfuls featuring cowboys and desperados.

By that time as Jenkins learned decades later the frontier had already been conquered and closed.

Only the War Between the States still resided solidly in American memory. Especially if those memorializing it were blacks. In his youth and throughout his life, May 30th remained Decoration Day. Wasn’t the date almost as celebrated as Christmas?

His family always attended the “Yankee cemetery.” The old rebs and their unrepentant kin never failed making big noises at Confederate plots. Listening to them, one might’ve been convinced the South never should’ve lost to the Northern interlopers. According to the louder, more fervid, less unreconstructed rebs, blacks should’ve remained bent in states of firmer subjugation if not still enslaved.

Ceremonies at the plots of fallen Union soldiers were always solemn. Mourners at these never failed maintaining their gratitude.

Woodrow Wilson and John “Black Jack” Pershing led a whole coterie of American officials and officers who made sure black troops never forgot they were “niggers.” Not for a moment. Years later, Jenkins wondered why any oath was given at the induction.

The Constitution blacks were to defend neglected them.

Everything, every gesture, no matter how trivial from stateside training until arriving in France was geared to reminding black troops of their inferiority; to keeping them under heel until it seeped into the collective involuntary subconscious.

Mules had more value than their black drovers.

So bless the French. The poulis recognized the fighting spirit Anglo Americans wasted on racial pique. The French Army requested and speedily got black American troops detached to them. Doubtlessly American high command saw blacks as a “problem” they didn’t mind fobbing on their hosts. Rather than have the Americans continue performing menial tasks, the French merged them with their units. The French let blacks fight.

And fight they did.

What black American soldier didn’t feel pride wearing French light blue uniforms and Adrian helmets? Blacks wearing the U.S. Army field green, the Brodie atop it protecting skulls from shrapnel, never drew much white doughboy respect. Even the Tommies grudged the blacks that.

Plenty has been made of the AEF’s tardy arrival into the Great War. As if somehow the Old World’s ills should’ve stretched across the Atlantic and sickened the New. Perhaps if the old orders and their vassals hadn’t been so focused on maintaining status and privilege at the expense of denying progress, of delaying the 20th century, they might’ve discovered disorder leading into irrevocable change festered in the New World as well.

Mexico was an obvious example. The revolution there presaged the upheavals birthed by Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination would throughout Europe. Of course the omens were ignored because it was only Mexicans killing other Mexicans. Much in the same manner civilized cultured Europeans would later perform upon themselves with greater gusto and proficiency.

Even in the United States, far more immature then than it appears today – hard to believe, eh? – real progressives, dedicated radicals vexed Gilded Age order here in one of the earliest attempts to move the nation towards its stated goal of a “more perfect union.”

There. The American Dream in a nutshell. Not a chicken in every pot. Not imposing one dominating faith upon diverse congregations. Nor trampling individuals under unlimited and boundless pursuit of acquiring untold unimaginable wealth. That last seldom delivered true satisfaction anyway.

A more perfect union. The Founders created an abstraction which continues making Americans strive. That’s the goal. Yet there is no prize. The American nature is restless. Americans should never be content. Once they are, they’ll become what Colonists and subsequent waves of immigrants have sought to escape.

That which they intentionally abandoned.

Americans chasing after perfection. They strive for a goal never to be achieved.

Maybe during lulls Jenkins daydreamed of postwar life. If he didn’t, he ought have. In France, there was clear delineation between past and present. Valor. Honor. Decency. Morality. All that succumbed to industrial slaughter whose byproduct became brutish survival.

Who knew? As a boy, maybe Jenkins heard or read about Civil War battles conducted in noble fashion. Certainly men were killed. But they died valiantly. These deaths were not in vain. In death, they would inspire. Being dead, though, how would that happen?

British war poets of the Great War got it right. The carnage they sat among provided ample material through which questioning the existence of that God fellow. All for nothing were countless Sundays imbued with His infallibility and omnipotence driven into each and every worshipper. And when faith mattered most, the alleged Almighty had left them in the lurch.

All that adhering to His Word, all that off-key hymnal singing, all that deferring of sin for virtue – okay, better sinning later – well, when they absolutely needed Him, He’d flaked. It was as if He left mankind to its own devices. Talk about seeing the Great War as an extreme example of free will. Confounded, confused, British war poets booted every illusion and scribed every disappointment they could about life absent His hand.

Disappointment. Not disillusionment. That must wait for the survivors to determine what had been gained through what had been lost.

Jenkins was not a poet. Observant? An observer? Yes. Possessing steady penmanship? Indeed he noted plenty and composed. Best of all, he wrote with a neat hand.

His were recollections of a soldier who years later in soft spots compiled, recompiled, what the hell, filtered impressions and events. Automatic gunfire, artillery bombardment, the increasing likelihood of being strafed from above as well as blasted by bombs dropped from the same enemy’s biplanes, threat of bayonet charges – none of these conducive to collecting one’s wits and writing.

Even Hemingway couldn’t have conjured that. Martha Gellhorn, though …

(To be continued)