To impart realism in idiosyncratic detail, authors Willa Cather and Ernest Hemingway drew on real people for their enduring World War I characters. In her book One of Ours, Cather took letters from a soldier-cousin to impart real-to-life traits on characters Claude and David who fought the Germans in France. Of course, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is in-part based on his own tour of Italy during that same war and his love of character/nurse Catherine Barkley.
So as I read these classics over the summer I thought a lot about my own grandfather, Bill Royle, and my husband’s grandfather, Curtis Williams, who were young volunteer soldiers overseas far from their US homes fighting the Kaiser in France.
Since yesterday was Ancestor Appreciation Day, (I know, there’s a holiday for everything!) they’ve slipped back in my consciousness.
As with the characters in these prize-winning books, Bill and Curtis (who we have no reason to believe ever met, however they joined within two weeks of each other in 1917) came from rural America – Nevada and Minnesota – and like Claude in Cather’s classic, viewed the war as a way to break away from their quiet lives and see other parts of the world. Akin to Hemingway’s Frederic Henry, my grandfather worked on the field of battle in the ambulance corps. While Grandpa Curt, a rough fellow who didn’t garner much love later from his three sons, mirrored Hemingway in that he did actually meet his future wife, Marjorie, in France while she was a Red Cross worker.
It was the first modern war: my mother remembers that her dad’s uniform and gas mask hung in the back closet of her childhood home for years, a silent reminder of his past. Back in the 1970s my gramps gave an oral history about his life and extolled in great detail his times with family, at various occupations, described friends he had made and lost in his 89 years, but when it came to the war, he outlined just minute facts then summed up, “That’s all I have to say about that.” No amount of asking could make him share his experience. Family lore has it that the dents on his helmet are from bullets and that he had to have killed a couple Germans. One story he did tell was that he made the effort to see his English relatives, but they turned him away thinking he was there for their food. Fifty years later, that was still a raw report.
My grandpa –in-law, on the other hand, had a raucous experience from the time he left Minnesota with his comrades, carousing from ship to shore in Scotland and continuing on to France. His memoir passed through the family details many riotous and unruly times which ultimately had him near-court martialed for leaving his unit that was brought over to clear forests for fighting. He definitely had the Hemingwayesque, brash attitude that he could obliterate the war through binges of alcohol and sex. Somehow the young Curtis seemed to believe in the transformative power of love and viewed Marjorie as his own Catherine, someone who could save him from his past.
Both young men were born after the taming of the American frontier and brought their American restlessness to a frontier far bloodier. They never met Hemingway or Cather and their stories will never be fully told. We don’t know and never will, what they saw, smelled, felt, experienced, only that each man became stoic in his own way and crawled into the bottle a fair amount, perhaps to help themselves forget. The connection between literature and life helps us to know the interior lives of those we love. “Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together.”— Willa Cather (One of Ours)