The Rainbow Connection: 1917 – 1919

I have his helmet.

Grandad’s old army helmet, and a photo of him as a young man.

The doughboy he went over the top / Because he had no place to stop…Hinky, Dinky, Par le voo.”Mademoiselle from Armentieres

I am the third owner of the helmet shown in the photo above: the fourth, if you count the US Army. The second turned it into a plant holder. The first chose to bring it back home with him from the Great War.

I don’t know why Grandad decided to keep his helmet. Sadly, I never thought to ask. So far as I know, it – and his memories, and the after effects of being caught in a poison gas attack – are all he brought back to Michigan.

He wasn’t originally from Detroit, but a little place in Tennessee. Grandfather began life as a poor farm boy. His heart remained in the fields and creek – or “crick”, as he called it – he played, and worked in. It was Grandad who taught me that crows are smart: they know the difference between a man who walks into a patch of farmland with a stick, and one who’s carrying a gun.

I imagine Grandad grew up knowing how to use a rifle, or more likely a shotgun: to shoot varmits, or a rabbit or perhaps even a squirrel for the pot. After he moved up north for work, along with so many other immigrants from the American south, he never fired a gun again, except under Army orders.

The photo shows him in his WW1 army uniform: presumably, the uniform of the 42nd Infantry, aka the “Rainbow Division”. I own a copy, not the original photo, so can’t tell whether the patch is that of the 42nd. It also shows him as I never saw him: with a full head of hair. Many years later, Grandmother told me he used to have “beautiful chestnut hair”, but he was vain about it, and “brushed it out”.

An original explanation for baldness, if ever there was.

How he came to be part of the 42ndD is one of the few things I know about his war service. The story goes that, knowing the draft was going, Grandad decided to enlist back home in Tennessee, so he could at least fight alongside lads he grew up with. I suspect he was chagrined when, quite the contrary, he ended up in the 42nd: a division made up of men from 26 different states.

He must have made friends in the 42D. When I was a child, his helmet saw service again: on my head, as I marched around my grandparents’ basement, under his orders. He told me stories about the war, the kind suitable for a small girl: about the French, for example, and their “silly moustaches”.

Years later, when I was in my teens, I rode my bike over to see him. He was in his usual chair, but it was as though I was visiting a different man.

“All my buddies were killed,” he said. “I saw them die.”

I hope you’re with your Army pals now, Grandad. I hope you found peace.



About Sheila N

Enough about me. Art by Tom Brown.
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