“The helplessness I felt when the bombs exploded, and mustard gas crept like ground fog into our trenches is hard to describe,” my Great-Uncle Leo said as we painted his barn red. After I dropped out of college, I became eligible for the draft, and I did odd jobs for him, such as whitewashing the front porch and sifting pebbles out of stream mud from his creek. My mother told me stories about the Dwyer family farm.
As a boy, Uncle Leo hated farm work and enlisted in the army at the beginning of the Great War. He swore that he’d never return to the farm. After the war, Leo came home hungry to work the land, surprising the entire family. The war changed him, but he refused to speak about it or leave the family farm. His brother ran the business, and Leo tended the crops and livestock. Perhaps he talked to me because I was neither a hawkish war junkie nor an anti-war advocate.
I liked him even though I knew about his post-war escapades. Those spring nights, he ran across freshly plowed fields. What phantoms did he chase, leaping over furrows with his pitchfork carried like a bayonet? At first, his wife, Aunt Iris, checked on him when he worked inside the barn. She dreaded coming across him hanging from the hay loft. The citizens of the small farming town he belonged to said the war made him crazy.
They laughed at him for not driving to town for business, church, or community picnics. When his children attended school, the students teased them by calling their dad the mad mick, an ethnic slur. These memories were still a source of pain for his daughter Martha. She and her husband recently took over the farm. They wanted him to retire, and when I received my draft notice, my family decided to throw me a going away party on the Saturday before my report date.
That day, the creak of the windmill broke the barn’s silence while he cleaned the tractor’s carburetor. I asked about his war. “Killing isn’t what you think it is,” he said softly like a cow mooing. “Living within the battlefield made us afraid. The trenches were always full of water two to five inches deep. It was amazing how fast the rats swam.” Pausing to reset a float, he said, “The hippies are right. War’s evil. Damn evil.” He meant it and knew what he meant.
Later, I joined the men sitting in wicker chairs. They shared a pint of Old Grandad and talked about Vietnam. Uncle Leo walked among the shadows of chestnut trees. His shoulders sloped forward as if he were pulling a heavy wagon. I went into the kitchen. There, women sat around the table peeling potatoes and shelling peas. The house smelled of rain. Out of the dishrack, I lifted a white mug. “Uncle wants a cup,” I said, pouring coffee from the Drip-O-Later.
After I repeated what Uncle said to me, his daughter, Martha, replied, “See, how the war affected his mind.” The cooking paused. A kettle boiled over. The following year, my great uncle died, and I thought how strange it was to survive the trenches of France, and in the end, a short trench became his grave. Still, they buried him on his farm, where he lived a shell-shocked life. Now, I am a survivor and ask who remembers the soldiers lying in graves with their shadows.
Joseph D. Milosch has four books of prose and poetry. A Walk with Breast Cancer was selected for a San Diego City Library Local Poet Award. His book Homeplate Was the Heart & Other Stories was nominated for the American Book Award and the Eric Hoffer, Best Small Press Publication award.