On the mantle in my house is a photograph of my Grandfather. Though black and grey, he wears Marine Corps dress blues. His time of service came between the Korean War and Vietnam. He claims he lucked out. Beside his photograph is a cousin in dress blues. A cousin, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan. My father detested war, violence, guns, etc. and through childhood I didn’t grasp his position. War. Blood red shaded on emerald grass, smoke blocking out scents of flowers, and tank engines cough over death screams. Bones crunch beneath the treads. I awake from the dream, an adult, enraptured.
I often walk miles through town. The same sights cross my vision and I don’t offer a second glance. A recognizable face smiles. The person waves and I mouth "hello." My text tone dings and I scrabble in a jeans pocket and curse. A reminder to pick up a prescription, but what catches my eye is the date; November eleventh. Veterans Day now, formerly Armistice Day.
Most times I’ll catch a documentary or read memoirs about World War Two and the American Civil War. The First World War rarely crosses my mind. The conflict is shrouded beneath history. I find numerous folks don’t bat an eye at the timeframe between 1914-18. Is it a problem? No, of course not. People die, life goes on. A whole generation dies and the earth spins.
I smirk and shake my head while I observe film from the trenches, recently coloured. French soldiers in blue dig a home through puddles. Germans, stahlhelms strapped around their chins, ignore the cameraman while pressed against trench walls. No sounds. Cameras didn’t capture sound then. I watch in dead silence. I hear as much as those faces on camera hear now and I crack open a beer.
The lines carved into the Earth zigzag across charred farmland, decayed lily fields, and through dilapidated villages. Homes are converted to hospitals, manors to officer’s quarters, barns to infantry barracks. He lies awake at night, straw for a bed, and recalls New York, Paris, London, Istanbul, or Berlin. Maybe Vienna or Moscow. I lean back in the chair and wonder if it matters? Will his death matter? What’s the death toll, 10 million plus? For what? I speak to myself in a firm tone that those depicted in these films died for nothing. A couple monarchs drew lines on a map, got angry one cousin had a larger fleet or land mass. A family feud cost 10 million lives and earned the title War to End all Wars. Flip to CNN. Headline: Combat in Kabul Intensifies. I shrug, sip beer, and click the television off.
One morning I babble aloud about the First World War. The details spill out my mouth like vomit. I can’t help it. The magnitude of the entire ordeal overwhelms my consciousness. Dad’s death doesn’t hurt as bad. Depression subsides in the face of those in the coloured film. In class eyes roll and smirks form. I don’t blame anyone. I stray from the original statement or question and drone about limbs, gas, melted lungs, ten million people dead as a result of a family feud. Shellshock.
“Maybe you should watch something happier,” someone suggested, I can’t remember who.
They might be right. Standing at work, staring at the World War One subsection in history might be unhealthy. A couple days after the eleventh I realize I don’t care and grab the book Storm and Steel by Ernst Junger. Hours after shift I lay in bed reading like a malnourished soldier might eat. Junger’s words illustrate the combat. In my head I see from a German soldier’s eyes. I grip the frigid wet mud on the trench rim, hear the officer’s whistle screech over artillery blasts, and fall over a corpse to land among shredded innards. Human flesh sizzles somewhere close. Incinerating flesh is a smell I’ve known in life. Reading Junger’s description went along the lines of an invisible hand puncturing my skull and pulling the memory to the forefront. At the end of Chapter Five I dog ear a page and set the book down. I dig through pillows and clothes on the surface of my cluttered mattress. Finding it, I throw open the internet and punch into google: "Art from first world war."
“Do you think you’re going too deep into this stuff?” a lover asked one night.
I waved her off and returned to Junger. Yet, her question clung. On a drive to class I conclude the takeaway to be luck. Lucky I live in the present, uninterrupted. No draft or conscription. The worst part of the day is the intersection of Bryn Mawr Avenue and Sproul Road. Even that has a beauty. The colours of autumn; red, orange, yellow, and so on paint the roadside trees. No interruptions. I close both eyes and flush out the artillery, barking machine guns, and scent of seared flesh. A horn honks, I smile and place a hand on Storm of Steel laying on the passenger seat.
Keith Fallows received his B.A. in English from Neumann University in Aston, PA in December 2016. He now attends the M.F.A. program at Rosemont College in Bryn Mawr, PA. Being an avid reader and writer, Keith has recently taken an interest in ekphrastic work and often writes at night.
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