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Greetings from Afar

The Last of the Boys in Blue

It was November 11th, 1968, and even though it sounds trite and overused, I actually do remember it just as if it were yesterday. I was standing in my grandfather’s living room tapping my foot and being impatient while the old man finished putting on his old uniform, the one that he’d lovingly preserved for over 70 years. I know for a fact that next door, Sherry, my girlfriend and soon to be fianc?e, was doing the same thing while Papa Pete, her grandfather, was doing exactly the same thing, and two houses farther down Bobby Adkinson was doing the same thing while his grandfather did the same thing. I had the biggest car – a 1956 Pontiac Coupe that we all called “Old Matilda” — so when they all called each other and said they were ready, I’d make stops along the way and pick all of them up and take them to the High School football field where everything was getting organized – it was a bit crowded, but it was no bother for any of us. Then, us kids had standing orders to “vanish” until it was time to meet them back at the same place about two hours later. It was Veteran’s Day, they all called it Armistice Day still, and they were going to be in the parade. There were nine of them altogether; nine old men who had marched off together to “hang the Dons” way back in 1898. They were the last of the boys in blue”.

Now if you think I’m exaggerating that, think again. Those nine old men, all of them almost 90 and one or two a bit older, were the last men in our county – and some of the last men in the entire country — who fought under arms for the United States wearing what they called “dirty-shirt blue” of the “Old Army.” Our little town only had a population of around 500 the year the United States went to war with Spain. Out of those 500 souls, 31 of them marched off to follow the drums when Mr. McKinley called. That’s almost 1/5 of the total population.  Five of those never returned. This parade marked the 70th anniversary of that occasion.

The historians don’t pay much attention to the War with Spain now. They make jokes about it at best, or call it American Imperialism at worst, but to us it was far more than “that splendid little war”. It was our grandparent’s war — the one where they marched off to defend the country that they loved. Those 31 men who went to war represented a full 25% of the adult male population of our town, and all but three of those who were in the right age bracket to go. The three who stayed behind were what they called back then “invalids” and would have gone if they could have.

By the fall of 1968, there were only nine of them left, but they were all in fair health and intended to march as a unit, just like they’d done every year since we’d started having parades, the full two miles of the parade route and twice around the town square. They were tough men and always had been. When they started organizing the parade the Veterans of World War One (most of our grandfathers were that too) had offered to let them march as part of their formation because there were so few of them. They refused. They made up their own little formation, three columns of three, dwarfed in between the VWWI, VFW formations, our marching band and the marching bands from three other, smaller towns in our county. They were there, on their own, representing “their army” and “their war”.

I was allegedly a member of the band and so was Sherry, I was on the football team too, so I was exempted from the band for the duration of football season. (Wish I’d been exempted from football. We got beat like a drum that year and only won two games the whole season.) Both of us were exempted from that parade because of Papa and Papa Pete being in the parade and being some of the oldest members. I remember we stood in front of the bank on the town square and watched them pass — nine old men in blue.

We didn’t know about it in advance. They’d kept all of us grandkids and great-grandkids who were in the band from knowing it but when our grandparents came onto the square, and began to approach of the review stand, the band stopped in the middle of the march they were playing, went quiet for just a moment, then with only the drums, flutes and piccolos, began to play “The Girl I Left Behind Me”… the “unofficial” marching song of the “Old Army”.  The other three bands took the cue and joined them.

You should have seen those old men. I swear it was like some kind of magic. All of a sudden they didn’t look so old any more. They were a little straighter, a little taller and for the life of me, the nine of them suddenly looked like a regiment passing in review. That little knot of kids, me and Sherry included, standing there in front of the bank had never been so proud of our grandparents in our lives. For just a fleeting instant, most of us boys saw ourselves in those ranks. We saw ourselves in the faces of the men who had gone before us and given us the name that we bore. I know that the girls all saw our grandmothers, many of them long gone, standing there beside them as they waved handkerchiefs and threw flowers from the bank’s sidewalk planter into the path of the parade. The people in the bank didn’t care. They were standing there with us waving and cheering like everyone else. You just don’t see that kind of thing any more.

That was the last year they marched. We didn’t know it then though. Four of them passed away in the next year and two of them just got too feeble to march that far. The next year, the five survivors rode the parade route in an open car. The next year it was only three of them. Mr. Adkinson died in 1969. Papa Pete died in 1976. Mr. Adams and Mr. Harrison and Mr. Wheeler all passed on in 1979. My Papa left us on in 1982 — he was just a few weeks short of 101 years old and — he was the last man in our county to be one of the “boys in blue.” I’m proud as hell of him still.

I guess you just start thinking about things like this at some times, for some reasons. Usually it’s around Armistice — I mean “Veteran’s Day.” It’s hard to believe that my grandfather actually knew men who had fought in America’s Civil War. He actually met General Wesley Merritt, General “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, General Fitzhugh Lee and General Nelson Miles. In a thirty-odd year military career he became acquainted with several with other prominent figures of that time. He was in the “Insurrection” in the  Philippines the year after the fighting stopped in Cuba, then went to China in 1900 with General Adna Chaffee to relieve the Siege of Peking.  Papa was a professional soldier – a “regular”. The last time he saw “action” was in the First World War. A man could stay in service until he was 62 years old back then no matter how many years he had served. The professional army was small then and most of the officer’s corps knew one another, or at least knew of one another. Every doctor in the tiny, fledgling Army Medical Corps knew each other. It wasn’t a massive anonymous pollygot like it is today.

You know the funny thing about the Philippine Insurrection and the War with Spain is that so many people who had served in the U.S. Civil War wound up back in Uniform from both sides. Aside from Wesley Merritt, there was Adna Chaffee, Nelson Miles, Fitzhugh Lee, Joe Wheeler, Arthur MacArthur and I don’t know how many others. Then you’ve got a load of what, on the surface, would appear to be “rich boy” political officers like Teddy Roosevelt and John Astor who turned out to not only be “adequate”, but to be damned fine soldiers who were loved by their troops. Both Roosevelt and Astor paid for most of the equipment for their units out of their own pockets? It’s a fact. They had nothing but the best available at the time on top of that. The “Roughriders” were fully equipped with Krag Jorgensen rifles when they were in extremely short supply in the Regular Army and Astor’s battery had the most modern Hotchkiss guns available. Both units also had the first model Colt and Maxim machineguns instead of the standard 1889 Gatling. I strongly suspect that there would have been a far different scenario for the First World War had TR won the election of 1912 and Astor survived the Titanic. It is very rare that one finds that combination of money, brains and guts, mixed in with a big dose of real and honest patriotism, in two individuals of the same generation in public life. As I said, the professional army was small then. Almost all of he officers knew, or knew of each other. For years Papa got cards and letters form some of them and their families. I’ve still got letters and cards that Papa received from some of them on holidays… names like Leonard Wood and John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. Fifteen years or so after the “Insurrection” he made the acquaintance of a haberdasher turned army captain from Independence Missouri named Harry S. Truman. There are more stories associated with that particular friendship. Lots more.  You see, it’s not “ancient history” to me I was privileged to know men who were there and part of it all. I grew knowing them.

They’re all gone now. All of them have been gone now for almst 30 years. But, they’re not “dead”. There’s a saying in the country that I live in now that “the only true form of immortality that any of us can hope to have is the amount of time that we live on in the hearts and memories of those who love us and remain behind.” Sherry’s gone now. She was taken far too soon. I don’t know about the rest of my childhood friends — the rest of the grandchildren of the “boys in blue”, some of them are gone now too, but I hope they remembered as long as they lived and I hope that they passed the stories of their grandparents along to their children and others. I know that as long as I live they will live also. As long as I am able, I will keep their memory alive in the hearts and minds of my children, my grandchildren and all that I can reach. One day, maybe, we will all be truly “dead”, but as long as I draw breath, “the last of the boys in blue” will live also.

Footnote:

My grandfather’s war changed the face of the world forever. It transformed the United States from an insular and isolated second-rate  nation into a global power thaat was recognized in leading the free world as the champion of democracy. It built up a beacon light that has cast it’s beam for generation into the darkness of tyrany. The children of these brave men fought in World War Two and Korea. Their grandchildre fought in Vietnam. Their great-grandchildren are today in the desert of the MIddle East, ‘soldiering on’ as the generations of  their families did  before them.

But — when the veterans of the Spanish-American War, Philippine War and Boxer Rebellion came home, there were no ‘flags flying’, no GI Bill, no veteran’s benefits and no veteran’s hospitals. There was no Veteran’s Administration, no disabled veteran’s pensions and no other benefits of any kind. ‘Their’ war was damned in the press as ‘that splendid little war’ and then doubly damned by history as ‘Jingoism’ and ‘US Imperialism’. Some even  laughed — and  still do — at the fact that more of them died from disease, while still in training, than from bullets. When it was all over, these men went home quiety and without fanfare, and those who could rebuilt their lives and went on with them without notice. In spite of the ‘warm’ welcome andd ‘gratitude’ of their government, ten years after they had all finally returned, all of them who were pofessional military, still young enough to be accepted and still in good health rose up and answered their country’s call again for the First World War — fully believing that it was truly the ‘war to end all wars’. After the blood-soaked, gas-filled trenches of Frannce, they came marching home once again. This time, they were treated somewhat better — but not much. By this time, the ‘boys in blue’ who were now the ‘men in kakhi’ didn’t expect anything from anyone. They did what they did — just as they always had — out of love for their country.

‘Armistice Day’, which we now call ‘Veteran’s Day’ originally celebrated the end of ‘that war’ — the ‘Great War’. We celebrate that still today. No one remembers the last of the Boys in Blue who served faithfully and well, some of them long enough to finallly be recognized  for a single time out of a total of four that they risked their lives for the sake of their country. By the time that happened, the vast majority of them were already long dead. There is not a single monument or memorial in the United States on the national level in honor of the sacrifices made by these men To compound insult with injury, very few records were kept on the men and women who served between the end of the American Civil War and end of the First World War. Even as late as the 1970s, when a handful of them were still with us, not even a tombstone was to be had from the US government in gratutide and thanks for their sacrifices unless the families of the deceased could provide their own ‘absolute proof’ of service during a time of war’. It is an interesting side-note to mention that the only existing  monument to these men and women ever erected by any government is in Havana Cuba, where it is still lovingly and carefuly maintained in memory of those who came in 1898 and helped Cuba gain it’s independence from Spain.

© 2006/09 by Dr. J. Lee Choron; all rights reserved unless specified in writing.