Several years ago I found myself in a second-hand bookstore in Independence, Missouri. A small, storefront kind of place on the town square, within shouting distance of Harry Truman's home. I wasn't looking for anything in particular. A used bookstore just seemed the right place to be in a town with as much history as this.
In between the shelves and stacks of books, shoved against a faded brown wall, I saw a couple of bins of old photographs. I'm fascinated by those old black and white shots. They carry an innate power that transcends the decades, as though the people and places still exist in some other realm. I flipped through one bin, stopping occasionally to examine a face or a building. Then I noticed that the other bin held some panoramic photos. The long kind, taken with a special camera. I took more time to look at these.
That's when the line of doughboys stopped me, held my attention. Here was a picture of a company of American soldiers about to embark for Europe and the bloodletting of World War One. The date on the photo was August 18, 1917. America was entering the war, about a year before it ended. I bought it.
When I got home, I framed the picture. It hangs on the wall in my office, where it's been for the past 15 or 20 years. I remember the date. It's today. A special day for me. Today the picture carries more meaning than ever, because I have just finished reading a new history of WWI. "To End All Wars" by Adam Hochschild. Powerful stuff, beautifully written, important.
One of the poets to write of the War was Siegfried Sassoon, who served valiantly in the British army. Here is the final stanza of his poem "The Troops":
"...And through some mooned Valhalla there will pass
Battalions and battalions, scarred from hell;
The unreturning army that was youth;
The legions who have suffered and are dust."
And I wonder how many of those beautiful young men from Company A, 1st NY Infantry, at Utica, NY, all smartly uniformed and fit and ready to fight, I wonder just how many came home, sound of body and mind. That company of men all in a row on that special day. August 18. My birthday.