Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Reflections on 11/11/11: The ignominious final salute to an ancient uniform...

By Jim Heffernan
WWI campaign hat
 Veterans Day 2011, or, as everyone has noticed, 11/11/11. The first Veterans Day – marking the armistice among the World War I belligerents – was signed on 11/11/18, but has often been referred to as 11/11/11, with the final eleven connoting 11 o’clock in the morning, the official time when everybody was supposed to stop shooting.

The observance used to be called Armistice Day until that name became obsolete with subsequent wars.

My father was in the U.S. Army during World War I, a training sergeant stationed at a base in California. Finally, when his unit was going be sent overseas, the men boarded a cross-country train in San Francisco. While they encamped at Camp Kilmer, N.J., before boarding ships to the front in France, along came 11/11/18 and the unit was kept stateside.

All of this took place long before I was born. But after mustering out the service and returning to Duluth, he kept his uniform, first when he joined his mother and father in their home, and later in their own home when he and my mother married. By the time I came along, the uniform hung on a wooden hanger in the basement of my childhood home in what we called the oil room. That was the room containing the big tank for oil to fuel our furnace.

Why he hung it in the dark and greasy oil room, I don’t know. It just hung on the wall there, year after year, deteriorating – the tunic, jodhpur style pants that laced at the bottom, and what we have come to regard as a “Smoky Bear” hat.

After the folks died many years ago and the old homestead was sold, I took the World War I uniform with me to my own home and hung it in my garage for about 20 years, where it became more and more moth-eaten, and then brought it with me to our next home and into that home’s garage – for another 15 years.

Finally, in our most recent move to a condominium, I decided I’d better get rid of what had become a valueless antique, unless you value artifacts of history. I brought it to the Veterans’ Hall at the Duluth Depot but they didn’t want it. Nor did they want my own Class A (dress) uniform from my Army/National Guard/Reserve days, nor an “Eisenhower” style wool uniform my brother had worn when he served in the early ‘50s. Too many uniforms in their collection, we were told.

The World War I outfit was in bad shape; little wonder they didn’t want that. The Duluth Playhouse gladly added my uniform and my brother’s to its collection, but I took the moth-eaten old uniform back home again.

WWI sergeant stripes
Finally, knowing there was nothing I could do with it, I tore off the sergeant’s strips on the sleeves, saved the ancient buttons, and stuffed the rest of the uniform my father had so proudly worn some 90 years earlier in the garbage can, an ignominious end to a piece of cloth representing so much American history.

On garbage day, I made a point to watch as the truck hoisted the plastic can into the air, making me think of a snappy salute, and dumped the uniform into its refuse-laden box. I watched as the truck pulled away, thinking of the old dad who so proudly wore that uniform.

I often think of him and his uniform on Veterans Day, my most reflective moment devoted to the holiday.

Oh, and I kept the Smoky Bear hat. Maybe one of these Veterans Days I’ll  dig it out of its box in the garage and wear it. But not this year. 


Pattymae said...

Jim.... that story brought tears to my eyes! How hard that must have been to throw that uniform away. My dad was in the Navy in WWII and all we have left of it are some medals, a diary (a copy of which we sent to the WWII museum in Washington) and some pictures he took. His uniform got burned up in a house fire in the
I DO appreciate your blogs on FB!
Pat McClure

Jim Heffernan said...

Hi, Pat... Thanks for writing (and reading). It's kind of an anomaly hat my father would have been in WW I, and not WW II. The parents of most folks in my generation served in the Second World War. The reason for my connection to the first war is that my father was quite old when I was born in 1939 -- 47. Could've been my grandfather. Thanks again for sharing your story and reading the blog. - Jim

Marlene said...

Great story,as usual, Jim. Happy 11/11/11, Veteran's Day!!!