THE old Greek, Galen, who invented pharmacy and dabbled in primitive psychiatry, contended that the best way to soothe madmen, and sometimes even cure them, was to persuade or constrain them to sit outdoors, in pleasant places, contemplating lovely landscapes, preferably near murmuring waters.
Apparently, if he was right, I was the exception that proved his rule, for the precise opposite was about to happen in my case for a second time in surroundings curiously similar to the first---though it wasn't a park bench this time, nor was there any lake.
It was a fine June Sunday morning, 1915, in Atlanta, and I lolled in a wicker chair on the front lawn, waiting for Ed Malone, George Nicholson and Stuart Abbot to come in Ed's big Cadillac and pick me up on the way to golf. The murmuring of water came from the hose held by "dat ole nigger Jake" who was sprinkling the flower-beds. It was a peaceful, beautiful, bright Sunday morning, and I felt so good I was hoping I might break a ninety, which I seldom did. If my friends had driven up on the instant as I lolled there feeling good and finishing an after-breakfast cigarette, I'd have joined them with alacrity---but they weren't due for another quarter of an hour---and I sat there "outdoors, in a pleasant place, contemplating a lovely landscape," for we now lived on North Boulevard which was all trees and sweeping lawns--listening idly to the "murmuring water," as Jake sprayed the grass.
We'd be having a good golf game---and also a lot of fun, since we were all "wild" Rotarians, who sang as loudly as the hundred other prominent business and professional men of Atlanta, some elderly and solemn, some bald and pot-bellied, but all of whom lifted their voices at weekly luncheons to proclaim harmoniously,
|"I'm a little prairie flower,
I grow wilder every hour.
Nobody cares to cultivate me
Ed, as I've said, was the Capital City Tobacco company, a prince of successful young business men, gay, debonair, generous, loyal to his friends and smart as a steel-trap. George Nicholson was a high-powered road machinery sales manager, swaggering, shouting, noisy, quarrelsome sometimes, but sweet as honey underneath, and simple as a baby. He was vaguely related to my aunt from Hawkinsville. Stuart Abbot was a brilliant little bunny, rabbit-faced, who had become president of the big local Ford assembly plant at less than thirty years of age and sometimes seemed to be wondering how he'd got there. We were all young---I was the youngest---and were as devoted to one another as D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers. I love them in memory after more than twenty years, and best remember Ed who used to sing when he topped his drive, to the melancholy tune of an Old Baptist hymn:
"Oh why can't I drive
Hallelujah, Thine the glory,
They'd be along now soon in the Cadillac. It was a bright, beautiful, June morning. I lolled idly on the lawn, lighted another cigarette, with my mind pleasantly empty and at peace. Then, like a dark cloud out of nowhere---and it was as if I'd suddenly learned that someone I loved best on earth was going to die, for I loved all three of them---I suddenly knew that I wished they were not coming.
There it was, and I knew that because it had come out of something deeper and darker than reasoned thought, and because it was unreasonable, it couldn't be reasoned away. On the contrary, reasoning about it made it immediately worse, and made me very miserable. For these three friends were among those I loved best, and the enjoyment I had with them in work and play was the quintessence of all enjoyment I could ever hope to have in the "world" they exemplified at its best, and what it added up to-despite my deep affection for them, and for Katie, was the miserable answer to the question the tramp had asked himself on the park bench in Lausanne.
If I wished they were not coming that morning, it meant I wished I had never come to Atlanta.
It made me sick---literally sick. I went into the house, and into the downstairs bathroom, and vomited my breakfast. I felt like a Judas. I felt like a rat. I was a rat, a sleek rat caught in a bright, clean, shiny trap---a gilded, commodious, comfortable trap---but just the same it was a trap and I was a rat, a dirty rat, dirtier than the tramp had ever been---for I was already wondering before I'd washed the vomit from my mouth how I was going to be able to gnaw, break or trick my way out.
I heard Ed's car stop out front. He honked the horn. I went out to them.
Ed said, "You're looking pale around the gills, Bill, what's the matter?"
I said, "Nothing serious. My stomach just turned over. I just catted my breakfast, and I guess I'm going to have to take a dose of something and lie down for a while . . . "
"You weren't on a bat last night, were you?"
"No . . . just something got stuck in my craw that I guess I couldn't digest . . . Maybe I'll come out this afternoon and join you for the nine holes after lunch . . . "
As they drove away, I thought I might---but I never played golf again in Atlanta.
After pondering my trapped-rat problems for a week, I went to Mr. Edmondson's office, asked to see him privately, and said, "Mr. John, I have to go to war."
He looked up undisturbed, from the pile of papers on his desk, and said:
"What war, William? War about what? Who's been cutting in on you? Agency wars never get you anywhere."
I said, "No, Mr. John. I wanted to tell you before I told Fred or Katie that I've volunteered to go over and join the French. I want to get things straightened out this week and leave Monday night for New York."
He stared at me, his jaw dropped, and he said:
"Why, William, you've gone crazy!"
Mr. John's reaction was what any good American businessman's or father-in-law's would then have been---early 1915 normal. The war in Europe had been going on for nine or ten months, but there was no indication yet that it would ever be a "world" war, or America's war, or for that matter any of our business. The sinking of the Lusitania, the waves of hysterical Hun-hatred, the suppression of all German music, including Bach, the turning of sauerkraut into liberty cabbage to make the world safe for democracy, were all in the unforeseen future. President Wilson had publicly deplored the action of such few, scattering, misguided American youth as had volunteered, while most of their families and the general public felt pretty much the same about it. Some of the boys in the recently formed Lafayette Escadrille were already heroes, and America of course was proud of them, but still considered that the Americans, mostly youngsters, who had joined the squadron, the Foreign Legion or the American Ambulance Field Service (which had nothing to do with the American Red Cross but was a unit in the French Army), were adventurers, freaks---or at best young, misguided idealists. Nearly all these youths were from New England, the Atlantic seaboard, the big universities. From Atlanta and the whole Deep South had gone, up to the then summer of 1915, only one volunteer, so far as I knew Kiffin Rockwell, who became one of the Escadrille's early aces, and was later killed in action. For that matter, in the whole United States, looking back to the early summer of 1915, there was no case, or at least none of which there was any general knowledge, of any man who had walked out on a wife, partner, an established business, to join a foreign army fighting in a foreign land.
This may help explain why Fred was at first incredulous, then angry, then broke down emotionally, pleading. And why, that night when I told Katie, she lay face downward in her bed to sob and weep through long, dark hours as if her heart were breaking---while I lay dry-eyed but miserable---as unhappy as were they. Another thing that may help explain why they took it so hard is that for all my eccentricity I'd been a good young partner and a good young husband. In tangling their lives with mine, I had perhaps made their lives more pleasant for a season (Fred's certainly more prosperous), and while I was selfish of course, being utterly, wrongly selfish, their reproaches ended too by having a definitely---albeit legitimate and righteous selfish tinge.
If this were a novel, I might do pages of dialogue here, for I can never forget what we said, but I can't bear to write it. The dialogues always ended:
". . . but, Bill (this was Fred), or Willie (this was Katie), you can't do this to me."
They used identically the same words, and I replied identically to both, "I wish to God I didn't have to."
When Fred got it through his head that I was really going and was never coming back to be his partner regardless of whether I got hurt or killed over there or not, he became cooler and began talking "business." An agency such as we'd built up, he pointed out, was based entirely on goodwill . . . that is the good-will of clients . . . and on "personality." When I walked out on him, I'd be taking half of it away, and further crippling the business by taking out my spot of original capital at a time
As he talked on, uncomfortably, and not too clearly but with his face set in defensive, worried lines, like a possessive 'possum on the laden limb of a persimmon tree, I interrupted and said,
"Jesus, Fred, do you think I'm expecting you to pay me for running out on you? Do you think I want to sell you anything?"
He said, "Of course, Bill. That's the way such things are done, though as I've said---"
I interrupted, "Fred, I suppose you think I'm a skunk, but I'm not that kind of a skunk . . . and as for the five thousand dollars I put in, it was Mr. Edmondson's money to begin with, and I've got to leave Katie something to live on. I don't have to draw it out now. You can talk to Mr. John about that."
Fred said, "That's mighty fine of you, Bill." We straightened things out the best we could, and when we said good-by I walked out of his worried life forever.
Monday night at the railroad station, Katie gave me the wettest, warmest kisses she'd ever given me, cried a little instead of a lot, dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief, smiled, and said,
"Willie, I think I understand some of it ... I guess you can't help it. God bless you, and maybe some day you'll come back to me."
I said, "Katie, I think you understand a lot, and I hope you know it's not you I'm running away from."
We were in the train, the conductor outside was calling all-aboard, the porter was saying Katie would have to hurry, and as she started down the aisle with me following to see her off the platform, she turned and said:
"Willie, do you really mean that?"
I said, "Of course I mean it, Katie!"
She said on the steps, "Then maybe I'll be seeing you sooner than you think!"
I hadn't the faintest idea what she meant. Probably all she meant was that she might come up to New York to see me off on the boat. I hoped she would. I'd told Katie the truth when I said I wasn't running away from her. It was not from any of them I was running away. They were all all right. I was a dog running in circles----running away from myself.
WHITNEY WARREN, architect of the Grand Central Station which (to me) resembles Nero's ramps for ramping lions, and who himself resembled busts of nobler Roman Emperors, was in those days America's most powerful and outstanding Francophile. He was godfather to the Lafayette Escadrille, to the American Field Service----godfather to all young Americans who wanted to join either---and these two organizations were the only channels through which Americans could reach the front, in uniform. There was always, of course, the Foreign Legion, but it had up to then never fought on European soil, and the war was centered then in Europe, with all the hopes of France and all the biggest newspaper headlines revolving round one word --Verdun.
I'd gone to see Mr. Warren, by appointment, immediately on arrival in New York. He helped me all he could, and was practical about it. If I wanted to learn to fly, to sign up for the Escadrille, he said the first step would be to have my eyes examined. I went that same morning, and the verdict was thumbs down. My eyes were all right except that they weren't "mates," and that needn't interfere with my driving an ambulance, so I signed up with the Field Service, and sailed.
Three weeks later I was over there in uniform, at the Field Service headquarters in Neuilly, ready to take the test for a military chauffeur's license. It wasn't my eyes that nearly wrecked my chances and the battered Ford. It was a flock of swans swimming majestically on the glassy surface of a little lake in the Bois de Boulogne, and they nearly wrecked everything, without emerging from the water or so much as disturbing its placid surface. The French sous-officier who gave me the test was a bright, hair-trigger little neurasthenic who'd been shot through the shoulder, leaving his right arm crippled, in the battle of the Marne, and was now having the time of his life seeing the sights of Paris, apparently for the first time, which filled him with a childish enthusiasm and delight. As we rounded a curve in the Bois, he suddenly grabbed me with his good arm, and shrieked, embracing me as if I'd been a long-lost brother, or his ornithologically-inclined maiden aunt:
"Oh, monsieur, voyez les cygnes! Qu'ils sont jolis! Qu'ils sont beaux . . . Ahhh! . . . Merde alors . . ."
The Ford had gone in the ditch and all but turned over. A passing camion stopped and pulled us out. The front axle was bent and we wobbled back toward Neuilly. Emerging from the park we stopped at a bistro where the sous-officier offered me a vermouth-cassis.
"Nous ne dirons rien de ça, n'est-ce pas, monsieur?" said he after some reflection, as we sipped our pink apéritifs, and continued more explicitly and still in French, that there was no need to give ourselves the pain of mentioning the swans.
"How are you going to explain the bent axle?" I asked.
"Trust me for that, monsieur," he replied. "I assure you there will be no necessity to speak of those sacred swans."
Next morning when I reported to Piatt Andrew, Inspector-General of the Field Service, he was cordial. "I've put you down," he said, "for Section VIII which will be leaving for the front soon. Sergeant Cardon, who gave you the test yesterday, reports that if it hadn't been for your presence of mind and quick action when that taxi cut across you, there'd have been a bad smash-up."
Before we convoyed out of Paris for the front---mostly boys from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, officered by a French captain and cooked for by corporals but with an American Adjoint-Commandant named Austin Mason who later distinguished himself---I had a cablegram from Katie. She was coming over. She was coming over as a volunteer nurse, to help nurse wounded soldiers in the big American Hospital, sponsored by Mrs. Willie K. Vanderbilt, right there in Neuilly where I'd been quartered. We'd be seeing each other if all went well when I came back to Paris on leave.
There's no accounting for the odd things those of us who saw something of that first world war best remember after more than twenty years. They are generally not the big things, the mass happenings, the battles and panoramas, but incidents, frequently trivial and seldom of any significance save that they give occasional clues to the character of the rememberer. "He was in it, and that's the sort of thing he remembers, so he must be the sort of fellow who remembers things of that sort." So I'll try to confine myself honestly to the incidents which stick sharpest in my memory for reasons which are not always clear.
In general terms . . . and I shall drop generalities after this one paragraph . . . what those of us who were in the ambulance for any length of time should and do remember best is wounded men we transported. We generally picked them up at postes de secours, first-aid stations,---dugouts in the second-line trenches or near the light field batteries. The big guns were far behind us and when casualties occurred back there, the wounded were evacuated still further to the rear by the huge truck ambulances driven by the French. Our Fords could go over shell-pitted roads and torn terrain the heavy trucks could not negotiate, so that we had the excitement, and honor, of working always as close up to the fighting as any vehicles could get. We had our own occasional casualties, worked a good deal of the time under shellfire, occasionally in gas, sometimes in range of German rifle and machine-gun bullets, but the risks we ran were nothing compared with those of the men who were doing the fighting. And the hardships we underwent, if they could be called so, were less than nothing, by that same comparison. We might go twenty-four hours, or thirty-six, without sitting down to eat, but when we did sit down the food was hot, well-cooked and plentiful. We might go even longer without lying down to sleep, but when we did lie down, we had dry blankets, stretchers as good as cots to spread them on, and generally shelter. Not so those others. They were the ones. The real ones. The only ones. We were intensely aware of this difference. Some of the more sensitive Field Service men were so acutely aware of it that when awarded the Croix de Guerre they refrained from wearing it. "Those others"---more realistic--were less sensitive to this difference than we. The point, as they saw it, was that we didn't have to be there at all. Sometimes we got hurt, sometimes we got killed (though rarely), and in consequence they accepted us as comrades-in-arms though we bore none.
Even the gravely wounded, the grands blessés, if they were able to see and speak, would frequently express this feeling as we slid them in on the stretchers . . . would mumble something about "jolies petites bagnoles américaines" in which they were about to be jolted, often in agony, and sometimes for their last ride. Their eyes would always light up a little, these grands blessés, if they were conscious and could open them at all, no matter into what they were being loaded, or by whom. For the Verdun front was a bad sector, a desperate spot during most of 1915-16, and the wounded who had no chance of recovery were not evacuated. So that when a man, no matter how badly shot, or gassed, or mangled, was lifted on his stretcher and slid into an ambulance, it meant, and he knew it, that he was one who might survive.
Others, seemingly less badly wounded, would lift their heads, saying, "When's it going to be my turn?" and always the doctor, if one were there, or the stretcher-carrier, or one of us, would answer, "La prochaine fois, mon vieux," but always they knew there would be no next time. And always the light would die in their eyes.
Some of the faces of the wounded men who were never loaded in our little Fords are among the sharpest burrs that cling to the memory---tapestry whose larger scenes fade with the years.
Of all the hundreds who did ride in my own "jolie petite bagnole" there are only a few who stand out. Routine becomes routine, no matter how exciting or how harrowing.
One I still see---and hear whenever screech-owls sit among my oaks---is a tall, fair-haired captain of infantry whom I picked up one afternoon at a dugout in the communicating trenches between Fleury and Tavannes, a few miles east of the citadel. The sleeve had been cut from his coat, his arm was bandaged, his breast was covered with medals . . . the Légion d'Honneur which meant distinguished service, the Croix de Guerre with palms which meant bravery under fire, and the Médaille Militaire which meant that at some previous time while doing something that passed the ordinary bounds of the heroic, he had been severely wounded. This time the wound seemed slight. He stood smoking a cigarette outside the dugout entrance as the stretcher cases were loaded, and then climbed into the seat beside me. He offered me a cigarette and seemed to be viewing the landscape. When we hit the torn asphalt road and the car began to jolt, he began screeching like a screech-owl. He didn't moan, or groan, or swear, or sob. He simply sat and screeched, like an owl on the limb of a tree, or like a shrill steam whistle. When out of breath, he'd pause, and fill his lungs, and begin screeching again. "Voilà un colibri," (a hummingbird) yelled the driver of a munition truck as it passed us, waving with a grin. Colibri was the common designation at the front for wounded men who thrashed about, shrieked or screeched. It carried no reproach, and no great sympathy either. The seriously wounded seldom made any sounds louder than low groans. They might suffer agonies afterward, but the shock of severe injury acts for a time as nature's own anesthetic. My hummingbird stopped screeching presently long enough to say in tones as casual as if he were asking for a cigarette:
"I don't suppose you've cocaine and a needle, have you?"
I hadn't, and he explained in the same casual tones, as if describing at second-hand the symptoms of somebody else's neuralgia, that he'd been clipped in the elbow by a machine-gun bullet-hit in the "funny bone." It hadn't even shattered the joint. He could still bend his elbow, but said he:
"Sacred name of a pig of a Good God, it's something you can't believe! I was shot through the lung, and that was bad sometimes in the hospital, but you just lie and close your eyes, and it passes. This is different. It's like being tickled with red-hot needles. It doesn't help any to yowl like that. I just can't help it."
He began screeching again. I can't seem to explain in writing it . . . though this was the essence of it . . . how casual both the conversation and the screeching were. Presently he had another thought, and said:
"I'm sorry . . . your ears . . . you'll forgive me I hope."
I looked at his medals and assured him there was nothing to forgive. Presently he grinned, fumbled for a cigarette, lighted it, and said:
'Monsieur, you can laugh if you wish."
I said, "Well, maybe if you don't mind, I will . . . those high notes . . ." and tried to explain to him what a screech owl was, since I didn't know the name for it in French. We both laughed. I sobered and said, "Mon Capitaine, it's really pretty bad, isn't it?" He said, "Yes, monsieur, it's idiotic, but it is."
Another bird of different feather was an angry corporal, potted a second time with shrapnel after he'd been once wounded, and under circumstances which he denounced as inouï, unheard of. I'd picked him up one morning before sunrise in the fortress-tunnel at Tavannes. He was a stretcher case, one of his legs smashed up, dosed with morphine. He was drowsy, swathed in blankets, and merely grunted when we slid him in the car. Dawn broke as we descended, and as we came to the top of a long, low ridge which the road followed for half a mile before sliding down again behind the hills, a shrapnel shell exploded in the air, some hundred feet or more ahead of us. It was nothing to be disturbed about---probably a short or defective fuse in a shell intended to bother our field batteries down below in the wheatfield. But when another popped close behind us, and a third exploded overhead, I knew somebody was potting at us point-blank as you pot at the cast-iron ducks which come up, just as we had on this ridge, to slide along iron ridges in shooting galleries. Shrapnel, like all artillery fire, was usually indirect, fired by mathematics at invisible group-targets. To be shot at personally with a cannon was something that rarely happened. The shells kept popping in the air as we scooted along the ridge, several exploding within fifty or seventy-five feet twice spattered the car with shell-splinters and pellets before we reached the shelter of an intervening hill and dropped down out of sight into the valley.
I heard a commotion, an angry stream of obscene argot in the car, stopped it, got out, opened the flaps behind.
The wounded corporal was sitting up on his stretcher, in a furious rage. He tore the evacuation tag, his "ticket," from the buttonhole of his tunic, waved it savagely, and then threw it in my face.
"Merde!" he said, and "Merde alors. It is inouï! To be shot again after I was evacuated! To be shot in an ambulance! I tell you it's unheard of! I will complain to my colonel!"
A shrapnel bullet, coming in through the flimsy side of the car, then deadened by the blankets in which he lay muffled, was stuck just beneath the skin of his thigh. It was a bloody bruise rather than a wound. I pressed it out with my fingers and swabbed the spot with dakin, while he said "Merde alors, and "Merde." I agreed with him that it was inouï, but he cursed me ... and his colonel . . . all the way down to the next dressing station.
Another blessé--- whom I wish with my whole heart I could forget---was a somber, dumb, mad-eyed peasant boy who had been shot through the guts. It was summer, hot, his belly was tightly bandaged, he continually plucked at his blanket and pushed it off as we were loading him. At a first-aid station beneath a clump of trees where I stopped to pick up two more stretchers, he pleaded with me, begging to be lifted out and helped to squat behind one of the trees. Whenever I read stock phrases written by stay-at-home cows about "human cattle led to slaughter," I see that boy's dark, glazed, animal, dumb eyes. The sergeant in charge of the wounded laid on stretchers there, heard his pleading, looked at the boy, felt his pulse, pulled back an eyelid, and said,
"Pourquoi pas? He should never have been evacuated anyway. He should never have been jolted about like this. He's going to die anyway."
We lifted him out and carried him behind a tree, and helped him squat. A flood of bloody excrement spilled on the ground, and while we were holding him he slumped, sank sidewise in the mess, and died---a hero of Verdun.
I remember that boy painfully but impersonally, as one remembers a symbolic figure in a tragic play. I wouldn't know him if I met him on the Day of Judgment, nor be out of countenance if he recalled that I'd carted him to the spot where he so sloppily shed his mortal coils. There was another wounded man, however, whom I hope definitely not to meet when Gabriel blows his horn. It was an older man whose face I never saw, since his whole head and face were swathed. I know he was older only because of his hands and the gray hair that showed through the crude bandaging. I loaded him one night at Cabaret Rouge, on a last trip when I was supposed to be going down empty, relieved by two other cars that had come up. It had been one of the bad times, gas, shelling, attack and counterattack, and was now calmer, but all of us had lost two nights' sleep, were keeping awake on coffee and red wine. He was my only passenger, and it may have been because I never saw his face that when I reached the dressing station and our camp, I lined the car up in the darkness, and stumbled to my cot. Later I awoke, and broke into cold-sweat, remembering. I looked at my watch. Two hours had passed. I went out to the car. The man was dead. I awakened a doctor in the dressing station, awakened the commandant, and told them. They were grave. The cadaver, they called it the maccabée, was taken in and laid on a table. The doctor examined it, whispered to Commandant Paroissien, who finally turned to me and said:
"The doctor will report that he died en route. The doctor believes he did. The doctor knows and has convinced me that if he hadn't died en route he would have surely died within a few hours, and that he probably never regained consciousness. So it is a thing we'd all best forget."
I said, "Thank you, mon commandant," saluted and went back to my cot.
Physical fatigue, too much coffee, nervous tension, lack of sleep, keep a man supersensitive and on his toes up to a certain point, after which he slumps. One night some months later, unable to sleep when the chance came to close my eyes, I had a queer, seemingly mystical premonition, so vivid and circumstantial that it seemed an objective event which had already happened. I saw my car smashed, in a shell-hole beside a charred, blasted tree, with a stone bastion in the background, and myself lying dead in the wreckage. I lay awake with my eyes closed, and saw it happening that same morning, before dawn, when I was to go up to help evacuate the dugout in Bellevue woods. When this came to me with all its force of seeming certainty, I was lying on straw and blankets, with a half-dozen other drivers, all asleep, some snoring. The rest were out on duty. The only man awake was the French orderly who would be calling us as our turns came on the written schedule. I'd lain down at ten o'clock, and was to go up to Bellevue at A.M. I was sad, but not awfully afraid to meet it---wondering, of course, whether it was going to hurt very much or not---and wondering too whether I was really sorry or not that it was going to happen. I'd realized long since, of course---Freud was already coming a little into fashion---that I was an "escapist" ... had read and pondered all the solemn womb-and-grave twaddle . . . lay asking myself whether it wasn't perhaps precisely what I'd come for---or rather pretending to ask myself. For I knew perfectly well I had no deliberate "rendez-vous with death" ... was neither heroic nor suicidal. I kept wondering whether it would hurt much. I saw myself lying up there smashed, dead as a doornail, and doubted that it would hurt much. I'd been clouted on the head with a heavy bottle one night in a brawl on the Marseilles waterfront, and it hadn't hurt at all. It had come from behind, and I hadn't known anything had hit me until I woke up with a gendarme prodding me with his foot and another pouring water over my face from a wooden bucket. More recently there'd been a German kid named Hecht whom we'd pulled out from under a wrecked car. He hadn't known anything about it either. He'd lain there, with his face uncontorted as if asleep, with a gash in the side of his head, a piece of the engine sticking out of his side, an assortment of broken bolts and metal splinters imbedded in other parts of his anatomy. No, I didn't think it would hurt much ---and it was almost a relief to know it would happen that way. All soldiers and workers who have seen anything hope it will happen to them with that sort of sudden total violence if it must happen at all. I had and still have, and think I know why, a sickening, specific fear of bullets. The first wounded man I'd ever seen, long before the war, was a young Negro shot with a pistol, in a cotton field, in the summertime, near Augusta. We'd got there an hour after the call had come. He lay writhing, screaming, naked to the waist in the hot sunshine, his eyeballs rolling, with a tiny, pink, puckered hole in his distended belly. "It would be doing the poor nigger a favor," one of the cops had said, "to put one through his head." He was a long time dying. So that while my fear of shrapnel, bombing, gas, was the normal fear common to all unheroic souls, the zing of a rifle or machine-gun bullet filled me with a different sort of abject fear that was sickening. Bombardments were like thunderstorms, or earthquakes, impersonal. Little bullets were personal, in a horrible way. I was glad it was going to happen to me, in a manner of speaking, impersonally.
I looked at my watch. It was two o'clock. I pulled on my boots, found my coat, tin hat, lighted a cigarette and went across the road to where the orderly's light burned. He was reading a torn copy of La Vie Parisienne.
I said, "I go up at three, don't I?"
He said, "You've got nearly an hour yet."
I told him I didn't feel sleepy, and that there were a couple of letters I'd forgotten to write. I sat down and wrote them---one to my mother and one to Katie, who had come over and was having her own little tragedies and comedies, nursing wounded soldiers back in Neuilly. The letters weren't mushy or "noble." Both were short and said nothing whatever about my "premonition"---just warm baboon-words I hoped they'd be glad to remember. I poured some coffee from the big pot that stood always there, ate a sizable hunk of bread smeared with sticky jam, lighted another cigarette, checked the gas and tires, put water in the radiator, and started for Bellevue.
Nothing whatever happened. No shell fell within a mile of me that night. I drove back down, loaded, before dawn, and felt like a fool when I sat eating a hearty early breakfast with some of the other drivers. I thought to myself, Well, that was the prize mystical premonition to put an end to all mystical premonitions so far as this individual idiot is concerned. I enjoyed my breakfast, was glad I was still alive, yet felt somehow that fate had made a monkey of me---that I'd been sold. Maybe fate itself is fallible. Maybe fate sometimes foreordains events so clearly that they shine to the supersensitive through the "slit in time"---and then forgets all about it! Maybe that's what happens when oracles and premonitions let you down. Maybe fate is forgetful. Since that night I've never trusted premonitions though I still sometimes have them, and though on a few rare occasions they have seemed to come startlingly true.
When I went into Paris a little later, en permission, to spend five days' leave with Katie, who lived outside the Hospital, around the corner in the Rue Edouard Nortier with Madame Betz-Charpentier, Katie said one night when we were lying in bed talking,
"Willie, I've wanted to ask you something about a note you wrote me, a month or so ago. It made me happy, the things you said were sweet ... but there was something queer about it ... it wasn't like the letters you usually write."
I said, "Have you still got it?"
She said, "I don't know. I may have."
She switched on the light, and found it. I read it curiously as she looked over my shoulder. It was commonplace, yet there was something queer about it. It was as if I'd called somebody on a telephone apropos of nothing and said, "You're fine ... you're a good person . . . one of the best I know."
Commandant Paroissien had a typewriter we carted everywhere. I'd begun pounding out on it from time to time---first with no particular objective, and then continuing at his request---a sort of "diary" of the outfit. Paroissien's original idea was merely to have it mimeographed as a souvenir for all of us, when the war was over. But after he'd read the part which dealt with our work in the Verdun sector he took it along with him one day when he went on leave and left it in Paris with Piatt Andrew. Andrew got excited about it, went to see the French War Office, obtained the necessary permission, and a week or so later, on one of his inspection visits to the front, told me he'd sent it off to the Atlantic Monthly. Within a month I had a telegram from him saying the manuscript had been accepted, was to be published as "Diary Section Eight" in three installments, and that they wanted more.
I'd never had a line in any magazine, much less the Atlantic, and this was the first outside encouragement that I might perhaps eventually write something better than sensational "feature" stories for the dailies. It would be a sort of recognition---the first I'd ever had. Presently I received a long, considerate, almost apologetic letter---not from Piatt Andrew or the Atlantic but from Lee Higginson & Company of Boston, financial representatives of the Field Service. They had withdrawn the diary with the permission of the editors and were publishing it privately. It was to be mailed out as a free booklet to help raise funds.
So I'd run away from ballyhooing operatic circuses, Geraldine Farrar's geese, Lew Adler's haberdashery and Coca-Cola, to ballyhoo the American Ambulance Field Service in France!
I hated it, hated ballyhoo, and above all hated myself for the way I felt about it. I was hurt, sore, disappointed---and resentful. It was a mucker's attitude, and I knew it. So I covered it up surfacely, wrote a letter saying how glad I was to help so great a cause, and went about my job, doing it the best I could and trying to forget my selfish disappointment.
The diary was published in Boston, as a neat little book bound in horizon blue, "for private distribution only" with an appeal for funds. It helped raise a lot of money. It was prefaced by a blanket Croix dc Guerre citation in which the French Sixth Army Corps to which we were attached said we had distinguished ourselves on various occasions traversant la nappe de gaz toxique sous un feu intense sans aucun répit, and I imagine this helped more than the diary itself did. I felt better after I saw the book---its stiff board covers consoled me a little---but to be realistic about the whole episode, it was an unlucky break for an unknown would-be writer, and more than twenty years would pass before I ever saw my name on the cover of the Atlantic.
It was one of the few bad breaks I've ever had as a writer. I've generally had better luck than I deserve.
In due time, over there, I became an officer of sorts, saw the Crown Prince's last mass attack on the Verdun sector, saw the line hold one night when it could not have held if they had come on as we all believed they would . . . . And no matter how dubious had been my motivation for enlisting, nor how undistinguished had been my service, I can still feel a glow in being able to say to myself, I too was at Verdun.
A man may be incapable of doing anything that is true or good or beautiful, yet believe in what is true and good and beautiful with all his heart. And if he be one who cherishes, even though in vain, the hope that he may some day express a thing that is true or good or beautiful, it is possible that he may be always unconsciously, and sometimes blindly, seeking those things---even in mud and blood and shadows. War itself is black and ugly. But muddy, bloody men in war are sometimes beautiful. Farmer boys, grocery clerks, bookkeepers, former pants-pressers, soda-jerkers, yes, and street-corner loafers, who were never any good in civil life, can laugh and fight and live or die---beautifully. It is a thing few stay-at-home pacifists understand. I am glad I saw it.
It is the only adventure I have ever had that was not disappointing---the only job I never ran away from.
When it came my turn to be carted out instead of carting others, it came in a way that was neither black and ugly, nor "beautiful," nor even dignified. It was about as dull as catching influenza. Phosgene and mustard gas hadn't then been invented. It was chlorine, which stinks like a fumigated, disinfected backhouse. It was like having an attack of asthma in a backhouse. The actual setting, indeed, was not dissimilar. I was playing cards with a couple of Frenchmen, by blanket-covered lantern light in a cowshed. The gas attack was accompanied by a barrage which tore up everything behind us and held us stuck there. My mask, the old-fashioned kind with stuffed, chemical-soaked wadding, presently went back on me. They were never much good anyway, except against lachrymogene. It was disagreeable, as I imagine gasping under an oxygen-tent might be if you had pneumonia, but that was about all there was to it. I felt the way a codfish seems to feel when it's flopping in the bottom of a boat, and then quieted down the way a codfish does when its eyes begin to get glassy. I was carted out in a mule-wagon. Some kind of a "pocket" formed a while later and they had to cut a hole, which whistled, in my pleura. It was many a long month before I could smoke again---and being deprived of cigarettes seemed worse to me than any of the rest of it.
The first world war was over. It had not made the world any safer for democracy, or from future wars. But it had affected---eternally for many since it put an end to them---some millions of microscopic private lives, each one of which was, for the man who lived it, the center round which the macrocosmic universe revolved. It hadn't helped the world or the universe, but it had helped me to escape for a time into something bigger than myself. Now I was thrown back on myself again, wondering what traps I might avoid, what traps I might be caught in. I had no job, no wish to have a job, no money. As Grandpa'd said, no Seabrook ever had any money for very long.
I'd come back to America in uniform, with a little piece of red-green ribbon. It had meanwhile become America's war, and now Mr. Edmondson didn't say, "William, you were crazy." He gave Katie and me a farm in DeKalb County, where I tried for a while to pretend I was a gentleman farmer with literary aspirations. I had seen the battle of Verdun. I had been gassed, but not too badly. I had turned thirty, which depressed me a little. I was tired.