Memorial Day Remembrances

2017 is the centennial of America’s entry into WWI.  Three years after the start of that war, France and Great Britain were dying.  There had been mutinies in both armies.  Inept generals and politicians had caused the wholesale slaughter of a full generation of young men.

The German side was not any better off.  Starvation was rampant among the civilians back home.  Bolsheviks were inciting worker riots in the cities.  Meanwhile the two armies were stalemated on the Western Front…and young men were being killed by the millions.

Woodrow Wilson was an isolationist.  He was a progressive, racist[1], intellectual, having been the head of Princeton University before becoming governor of New Jersey.  Wilson did not want America in the war.  He was convinced that he could negotiate a peace accord among the warring European nations.  Germany, however, was being starved by an effective British naval blockade.  Meanwhile, Great Britain was being supplied by American merchant ships.  The German’s strategy was to starve Britain by sinking the cargo ships coming from America.  The public outcry about the loss of American lives eventually forced Wilson to seek a declaration of war against the axis powers.  Now it was time for young American men to go to war.

Harold Carlson was a young immigrant from Sweden.  He had come to American about ten years earlier, after his parents died of tuberculosis, a common killer of crowded industrial cities in both Europe and America.  He lived with his aunt, uncle and several cousins. Harold was a drayman for a living.  Draymen transported goods by horse drawn wagons.  The draft board noted his occupation as teamster.  In the days when teamster meant working with a team of horse, Harold was drafted into the Veterinary Corps and assigned to the 318th Field Remount Squadron.

We forget how dependent the army was on animals.  Nowadays, we think of war dogs, sniffing for IEDs, but before mechanization, horses pulled artillery, delivered ammunition and hauled supplies to the battlefront.  They were as much a target for the enemy soldiers as the troops were and they suffered heavy casualties.

Remount squadrons were tasked with clearing the dead horses from the battlefield, bringing wounded horses to the veterinary hospitals for treatment and replacing animal casualties with fresh horses.  Remount soldiers may not have been in the trenches but they were very much line soldiers in the war.[2]

It was on one of these trips to the front lines that Harold was gassed.  Poison gas was a new and terrifying weapon first used against the French in the second battle of Ypres, in 1915.  Thousands of troops were blinded or choked to death from gaseous clouds fired from enemy artillery.

Although injured, Harold survived to return home.  He lived long enough to marry Alice Tryborn and have two children, a son Harold and a daughter Dagny.  But life for Harold would not be full.  He died in 1931 from tuberculosis, caused by his weakened lungs.  He was thirty-eight years old.  Young Harold had just turned six two weeks before his father died.  Dagny was only three.

Harold Eugen Carlson is buried in Cypress Hills Veteran’s Cemetery.  He was my grandfather.


Evil does not end and so, neither does war.  Once again, Americans were called to fight for the survival of freedom and the liberation of the oppressed.  The next generation was called to serve.  It was young Harold’s turn.

Harold Carlson was a ‘selected volunteer’.  It was a term used during WWII and it meant that you were drafted but you got to choose the branch of the service that you would enter.  Harold chose the navy.

He was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Center where he was trained as gunner for PT boats.  His orders were to report to Great Britain to serve on a PT boat patrolling the English Channel but fate intervened.  It seemed that Harold had a unique and valuable skill…he could type.

Shortly before shipping out to Europe, Harold received a change in orders.  He was reassigned to Staten Island New York to serve as a yeoman.  As a young man with a war-widowed mother, he was even allowed to go home to Brooklyn on the weekends to stay with her.

Meanwhile, his younger sister Dagny was training in the Cadet Nurse Corps at Long Island College Hospital.  In her dormitory was another girl from Brooklyn, Anne Sciortino.  They soon became friends and Dagny suggested to Anne that she might like to meet her brother, who was in the navy and stationed nearby.

They liked each other – a lot.  They married in 1949.  Anne died in 2009 and Harold in 2012, two more of the Greatest Generation, who have now faded into history

They were my parents.


Several years ago, I was in McSorley’s Alehouse, in Manhattan.  Here is my story of The Lads.  If you can read this without choking up and having a tear come to your eye, you don’t understand what it means to be an American in a free country.

In lower Manhattan, where the tenements used to stream with people striving to earn the American dream, stands an old ale house.

McSorley’s Ale House is the last of the haunts of the young men of the turn of the twentieth century that still stands.  McSorley’s still has the look and feel of what life was like nearly one hundred years ago, down to the sawdust on the floors and two taps on the bar; one for pale ale and one for dark.  It is still the only thing you can buy there other than a plastic, souvenir ashtray.

You look around the place and see a setting that is almost untouched in time.  Yes, there are electric lights now but McSorley’s has never taken down the old gas lights, their long pipes with the globe fixtures on the ends still crisscross the ceiling.  The last time I was there, the bartender was a young Irish lass, which in itself is one of McSorley’s few concessions to modern times.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s that women were allowed into the ale house and at the time, there was only one toilet.  The bartender would walk women patrons with his hands clapped over their ears to prevent them from hearing any unseemly sounds while shouting “gents out of the loo.  Lady coming in!”

I sat on an ancient stool at the bar and ordered a dark ale.  A gas pipe hung low over the bar.  As I looked up at it I was mesmerized by the long row of chicken wishbones draped on it with strands of dust that were so long that it could have been Spanish moss if this was bayou country.  My curiosity got the better of me as I pointed up to the sight and asked the bartender what this was.

“Don’t touch it.” She said firmly to me.

“No ma’am” I assured her, “but could you tell me what this is?”

“It belongs to the lads.  Don’t touch it.”  Again I assured her that I wouldn’t touch anything but tell me, please, the story of the lads.

A melancholy came over her.  She was a young woman but her soul was old and her heart belonged to that time nearly a hundred years ago when America was getting ready to go to war.  “During the Great War, the lads of the lower east side and the Bowery would come here for a farewell meal with their friends and to toast each other for their deeds of bravery that they would surely do in France.  At the end of the night, before they left, the lads would hang the wishbones over the gas pipes for luck.  When they returned from the war they came back in here and took their wishbones home.”

“The wishbones that you see belong to the lads who have not come back yet.  We keep them here for the lads and nobody will touch them until the lads come home to take them back.”


Remember the Honored Dead


[1] ‘Negroes’ (the commonly used 19th to early 20th century term) were making headway in American society.  One major path to economic success was the Federal civil service and the US military, which were both integrated.  After taking office, Wilson quickly segregated them, cutting off a major avenue of opportunity for African-Americans.

[2] For an excellent account of the remount squadrons and Veterinary Corps, see Greg Krenzelok’s website The Army  Veterinary Service During The Great War, WWI.


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