Today, and 100 Years Ago . . .

Legos are great! But so is history.

I learned a little more than a year ago, much to my surprise, that my then eight-year-old grandson is a history buff. Not your ordinary kind of kid who’s interested in the 60s or 70s, mind you, but the passionate “I want to know everything about World War I” kind.

His parents reported that he was mesmerized by National Geographic specials, read everything he could digest about events leading up to that war, learned about Archduke Ferdinand, asked questions that college graduates have never considered, and retained facts and information that most of us have long forgotten — if we learned them in the first place.

After all, WWI is “ancient history” even for members of my generation. And when I was young, even though I grew up as an “Army brat,” my interests were seldom about history.

But this child — now 10 and growing wiser every day, has recently enlarged his sphere of interest to include other wars, other places, other times. (In addition to a fascination with critters and snakes, Legos, spaceships, rockets, archeology and myriad other subjects, including video games and dance steps.) Pretty normal, all of it — except maybe the history part.

Listening to the ancestors . . .

When I heard of this young boy’s interest, I saw an opportunity. As the current matriarch of a family with a long history of military service, I have become the holder of a trust — I have in my possession the relics of service — pictures, histories, uniform patches and insignia, artifacts of wars fought long ago and far away by members of the family whose names I barely know. Truth is, I was excited about the prospect of passing on the stories and the objects to a child who may learn from them and hold them dear.

Last year I was consumed for several weeks with opening boxes, examining old letters, cataloging and organizing items that would be appropriate for a child, one with a burning desire to learn about why we went to war a little over a century ago.

When I mentioned that he had ancestors who fought in the Great War and asked if he was interested in pictures and objects from those times, the answer was a quick, “YES, Yes, Yes, yes,” true to his exuberant nature.

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So, last year, for his birthday, along with Legos and trinkets, he was gifted with a World War I mess kit and utensils, some photos and letters, and a promise of more to come.

That was just the beginning.

Stories of all kinds . . .

When the brothers of my grandparents put on the uniform and shipped out to Europe,  I know that they and their families were worried. Both returned. Their stories are very different, but both were changed by the experience. Now I am consumed by the task of piecing together some of those experiences, honored by the attempt to tell their stories through their own words and pictures.

Another of the ancestors drafted for that war had recently emigrated from Sweden to the United States. It was 1917; he served in some of the major battles in France and Belgium. In 1918, in conjunction with his discharge papers from the U.S. Army, he earned his citizenship. He was so proud!

None of those men spoke about the war. But they saved scraps of paper, blackened buttons from their uniforms, foreign currency and coins, a few photos. There are letters to family members written during training, and quick messages of safe arrivals. There are notes scribbled during long marches and quick bivouacs  to give a glimpse of the hardships. There are censored letters and a few postcards; some from the young lieutenant who found himself a student at the Sorbonne following the armistice!

All that history belongs to me — and to my grandson. So the service ribbons and dogtags, faded unit patches and wrinkled pay stubs, penciled notes, dented canteens, and small silk flags of the allied nations will one day be his to treasure — or to dispose of. French and Belgian posters pulled from their kiosks and stored in a trunk for the better part of 70 years will one day be his as well. They are framed now and hang on my wall as a reminder of all that happened then. The war that ended 100 years ago changed the lives of individuals as well as the course of history.

A century has passed . . .

This is the appropriate year to remember the Great War. We traditionally celebrate centennials — and even though the century that has passed has not yet brought peace to the world, it is still a laudable goal.

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This weekend my husband and I will take our grandson on a quick road trip — to the National World War I Memorial and Museum in Kansas City. We think he’s old enough now. He is looking forward to one last summer adventure before school begins. When we asked if he’d like to come with us, his response was an enthusiastic “YES, Yes, yes!”

We actually haven’t told him yet that there’s a Legoland Discovery Center nearby in Kansas City. I think we’ll make time for it as well.

For our part, we will view it all in a fresh new way — through 10-year-old eyes. Before the weekend is over, I expect he’ll be teaching us. I look forward to sharing with him more of the family stories. I have written about some of them before. I now have another reason to write more fully about those men and their experiences.

 

Note: This is a very personal project. With my grandson’s interest came a renewed fascination with the lives and stories of those men in my family who served in the armed forces during this country’s wars. A book, based on their own writings and memorabilia, is in progress, partly as a response to my grandson’s plea several years ago: “Grammie, would you write me a book someday?” That’s a request I could not refuse. I hope you, my readers, will also find interesting some of the stories I will post here, Off Main.

About Adrienne Cohen

Freelance writer specializing in travel, home design and decor, healthy food, lifestyles and urban agriculture.
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