IT IS a poignant letter. Alive, and...


IT IS a poignant letter. Alive, and very moving. I've had it for some time -- it was written to my genial, lovely father by a school chum with whom he trekked through France during World War I.

Descriptions of several hellish nights of July 1918 comprise the letter, and then Roy concludes, "Now Chunky, I don't know whether or not you will appreciate this review as I remember it after 53 years, but I feel that it is a few days to remember, not for its sadness or horror but rather for its contribution to a cherished friendship."

Occasionally I pick up that letter; it reads a bit like an office memo, and I realize now that this is what is so touching. There is a great sweetness in the infrequent deep friendships men form with each other, a detached intimacy, which, if it is spoken of at all, is done in a sort of businesslike way, never trying to cloak clumsiness -- it's far too unselfconscious, far too empowering for that -- but simply the facts put down. There. No wallowing about it. And it nearly brings a tear.

Then there is the small black notebook I found that Chunky had kept throughout the war: jottings taken down in the painstaking precision of the engineering student's script. Not so methodical or precise during the gas attacks, though, or the time everyone tried to help Gerwig when he fell at the steps of the dugout during that artillery barrage, or when there was a direct hit on Cassidy's gun and so just the two of them were left in the powder hole with Dwyer . . . on and on, a mesmeric whirlwind, as though Alice were racing from the Queen, and I -- never destined really to comprehend -- were trying to keep up.

First of the Rainbow Division to land in France, Nov. 1, 1917, wil ride to next town on side of Pierce-Arrow trucks -- hailing and cold . . . one hour's rest for dinner which consisted of burned beans and coffee . . . ruins caused by war here . . . shocked at Pott's death. First battle -- indescribable feeling but not at all scared . . . washing in the little stream . . . rumors of trenches again hard on morale. Blankford killed . . . one night's relief, we had oatmeal and entertainment.

Gas attacks very severe . . . ordered to ride horseback as courier . . . trench fever knocked out quite a large no. of our men, we were not relieved as per schedule last Friday from the trenches and it became one wild night -- had to take out guns ourselves during gas and stay up all night . . . hike back to camp most horrible scenes I ever saw of wholesale slaughter of both men and animals . . . just about "foolish" for want of sleep . . . Up to that time I never knew how completely a man could be exhausted and how much reserve energy could be generated from will power alone . . .

It is impossible to picture my affable father caught up in suc chaos. The absurdity of his riding a horse (he called it "Poison"), having never been near one, let alone taking some message someplace on the animal, is unimaginable. No time to be baffled, to wonder how this whole mad mess ever could have gotten started. But that was the Unknown Soldier in him -- in all of them. In spite of the incalculable confusion and carnage, their brave plainness and constancy and pluck finally got them through.

Many Roys and Chunkys have reminisced about days of war and themselves as seasoned warriors, hardly grown, shoved into maturity's responsibility. Having witnessed the unthinkable, just as adroitly they turned back to the civil manners of "after the war," but never quite absorbed the aberration of its tumult. Well, certainly, the conversation probably starts out with the familiar -- how they carried the heavy bombs along the trench to the mortar, getting the powder charges ready, hollering at each other through the hated gas masks -- but gradually that is supplanted by something else.

The same resource that overcame that intense period is at work setting up an interest in higher ideas, the joys of love, education, fun, the contentment of honorable lives. And the war is relegated to the natural drift of those events that help everyone broaden and ripen, and rather than being a crutch of some sort, it becomes "a contribution to a cherished friendship."

I have become so grateful to him. Oh, I know, that sounds so old-fashioned. But it's not like pride in some exceptional talent, or somebody's unique gift to society that is enjoyable to rave about, letting the enthusiasm bask, linger -- and maybe grow stale. No, it is gratitude for the very unprepossessing bigness of him, the capacity to love, the soft shyness that left much about his activities unrevealed until well after he was gone, like the discovery of an ancient work of art, profoundly appreciated even if no one knows who the artist was.

It makes for a quieter, more enduring tribute -- very much like George Eliot's characterization of a man, in "Clerical Life," someone just like Chunky:

In the love of a brave and faithful man there is always a strain o maternal tenderness; he gives out again those beams of protecting fondness which were shed on him as he lay on his mother's knee.

Eleanor Lee Wells is a Baltimore writer. Her father, Ralph Norris Wells, died in 1976.

HD 'Brave and faithful man'

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