When Johnny Comes Home Again From The Great War

There is a national debt that we owe which is more valuable than money.  This weekend we celebrate with reverence, sorrow and gratitude, the sacrifice of all those who answered the call to defend our country, our values, our freedom.

This year, I dedicate the American-Conservative’s annual publication of this remembrance to Col. Walter McTernan, ret., my friend from my school years in New York.  Keep your head down in Kabul, Walt.

This Memorial Day is also a centennial year of The Great War.  The war to end all wars began one hundred years ago in 1914 and while America did not  enter it until 1917, millions of troops throughout the world had by that time had already died.

For more insight on our grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’  sacrifices for freedom, I recommend reading Greg Krenzelok’s excellent website The Army Veterinary Service During The Great War, WWI.  But first read my tale of our doughboys’ last night home before leaving forever.

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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.”

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Harold Eugene Karlsson arrived in Brooklyn from Norrkoping Sweden in 1905 to live with Mama Jensen after his family died of consumption, so prevalent around the world before the advent of modern antibiotics.  In 1918 his adopted country called him and he went to Sougy, France with the 318th Field Remount Squadron of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps.  Remount squadrons cleared the battlefields of dead and wounded horses and mules, bringing back those that they could to the hospitals to be treated or putting down those that were too badly injured to be saved.   A gas attack savaged his lungs but he survived to be discharged in 1919.

In 1918, Alice Augusta Cecilia Trybom arrived at Ellis Island from Norrkoping Sweden on her way to Manhattan to help her brother raise his children.  Two people from Norrkoping meeting in Brooklyn, what were the chances of that?  They married and had two children but it was a short marriage.  Harold’s weakened lungs could not take the strain and he developed tuberculosis.  The Army sent him to Invalid Hospital No. 7 in Tupper Lake, NY where he died in March 1931.

Alice went on to live a long life as a widow, raising her two children on her own.  In her little box of mementos was her Gold Star flag and this clipping from the New York Daily News on Decoration Day 1931:

Gold Star Mother

She sat before the radio, a mother bent and gray,

Tuned in on soldiers on parade-‘twas Decoration Day.

To old to make the pilgrimage to hallowed graves afar,

She dreamed her boy was with her in her little golden star.

 

The eager young announcer told his listeners with pride:

“There goes the gallant G.A.R.!”  The old lady sighed.

She heard again her father’s voice, “Don’t cry, I won’t be long.”

How trim he looked, and youthful too.  Alas, he had been wrong.

 

Once more the young announcer’s voice, “Here comes another crew!”

The boys who taught the Spanish King the Yankee Doodle Doo!”

Her faded eyes lit up once more, “Oh, I’ll come home again” –

It was her husband’s last goodbye, ere sailing on the Maine.

 

Excitement made her heart beat fast – a new note thrilled the air!

A note of Youth that mingled with the strains of “Over there!”

“Oh mother, mother, I’ll come home,” her son was whispering low,

And though she smiled, her heart was lead.  He was the third to go.

 

She sat before the radio, yet in a world apart;

One golden star upon her breast, but THREE within her heart!

Each one had promised to return – she smiled in gentle way –

For lo! They’ve kept their promise on each Decoration Day!

 

God bless all of the fallen.  Remember, what you have, you owe to them.

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

 

To our readers in China, who make up so much of The American-Conservative’s audience, do not give up.  Your bravery in Tiananmen Square in 1989 opened the way to the free market economic system that is now revolutionizing your country.  You may not have achieved all of the freedoms that you hoped for in that spring but you opened the door to the winds of change.  Remember that the American Revolution did not begin in 1776 nor did it end in 1783.  There were years of protests that led up to our Declaration of Independence and years of unsettled politics before the American Constitution was written.  Do not despair.  The great Chinese people will get the freedom that they are richly due.

Harold Carlson (r), with unknown comrade

Harold Carlson (r), with unknown comrade

 

Harold Carlson

Harold Carlson

 

 

 

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