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Even horses wore gas masks on the Western Front in World War I. (Ypres Peace Monument Photo)

POISON ON TWO FRONTS: Dramatization of World War I Days Here and Abroad

October 13, 2017       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article begins a short series dramatizing the days of World War I, the centennial of which is currently being celebrated. Some parts of the tale may be recognizable since they are drawn from real events that occurred in this area.)

It was a cool fall night in 1917; light breezes blew across the "Glad Hand City" where millionaires by the dozens had sprung up in the half century since the Civil War. Timber -- Green Gold, they called it -- had brought in more than the real stuff from California in the same period.

"Give us your money, big shot," the more aggressive of the criminals had shouted when they were less than a dozen feet behind Col. Harvey Parkhurst, halfway through his nightly constitutional. The formally-clad lumber baron wheeled, wielding his silver-knobbed cane, whipping it toward the pair bent on felonious behavior. "I'll give you something!" the white-haired aristocrat shouted. Shots screamed through the misty air at the corner of Central and Evergreen.

Col. Parkhurst, Harvard graduate and president of the American Lumberman's Association, grabbed his chest and hollered for help.

Two young shooters, one stocky and sandy-haired, the other slim with black hair, were seen running south on Evergreen. They had come away in panic, empty handed.

A stumbling Parkhurst was helped to the office of Dr. Percy Willard, downstairs below a great Queen Anne mansion on the corner. Two bullets had pierced Parkhurst's right lung; bleeding was profuse. Parkhurst had reeled out into the busy street as cars dodged and honked, avoiding the mortally-wounded aristocrat and wanting to go about their business. Finally, two husky male passersby stopped their truck and helped Parkhurst.

Dr. Willard could do little, Parkhurst was bleeding internally and wheezing, his breathing irretrievably compromised.

Dr. Willard eased the wounded man into his car and took him to St. Joseph's Hospital near the river only two miles away.

There was no trace of the criminals. Parkhurst died before he could even give police a description of his assailants.

One of the guilty men, an orphan and itinerant farm worker entranced by guns, joined the 128th Ambulance Company, Michigan National Guard and was sent to France. The other thug faded into the poorer section of the city. Nearly a year passed and the United States had finally joined the war in Europe. Before long Americans were among the wounded being picked up by horse-drawn ambulances.

All around the battlefield, in waves and ruts and clumps of brown mud, bodies were strewn everywhere, men and horses, in macabre positions, some of the quadrupeds frozen in death with legs pointing to the sky.

What once were men now appeared shapeless lumps like Saturday's wet wash, indistinguishable from the helmeted, armed, powerful, running, dangerous beings they had been when overcome by the greenish-yellow clouds of mustard gas and turned to inanimate mush.

From the manure colored mud, a metallic sky soared heavenward above a pink horizon into cloudless infinity.

It was 1918. The U.S. was at war with Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany overseas and with pro-German Americans at home.

Somehow Private Hank Iverson got into it on both fronts.

Iverson, a graduate of Brinewell Center High School, lab assistant at Woodland Chemical Company, was now a member of the 128th Ambulance Company, Medical Corps, Michigan National Guard.

How I ended up on a battlefield in France; good title for a book, Hank mused as he reined the team of horses pulling the U.S. Army ambulance away from the Western Front. He did not know the private helping with the wounded except that his first name was Steve and he was from Big Harbor, the coastal town not far from Brinewell Center. Steve was about 20 and had a strange last name, Polish he thought.

In the back of the wooden vehicle, that Hank thought looked remarkably like farmer Battles' milk delivery wagon, were six wounded soldiers, writhing and moaning, rags wrapped around their heads. Helmets rattled on the floor, their Enfield rifles had long since been abandoned on the field. Actually, the men stacked on stretchers in the back were blinded in a German poison gas attack; their injuries and pain were worse than gunshot or artillery wounds, confirmed by their piteous cries and moans. But in a way they were the lucky ones; they had lived.

We finally reached our dressing station in an old schoolhouse and unloaded our grateful cargo; we were camped in the basement, officers on one side, enlisted on the other. The smell of cooking horsemeat permeated the schoolhouse.

This was northern France -- Fontenoy and Chateau Thierry country, famous for champagne. Soaring fairy-tale castles dating to the time of Joan of Arc damaged by bombing early in the war stood crumbling, unoccupied. Whole villages had been leveled -- by Allied artillery fire I was told. The horses were skittish and were nervously pawing the ground. Our food was mainly stale black bread, sour turnips, and horsemeat, which made us skittish, too, especially since we had to look at the rear end of our meal source every day. Sometimes the mess sergeant negotiated a scrawny chicken from a farmer for a welcome change of menu.

"Why do we not have the motorized vehicles yet? The British and French have them," he complained to himself, then loudly: "And why do we not have poison gas to fight back with?" Steve heard me, from the back, and replied: "Because the god-damn plutocrats are trying to figure out how to make more money before they deliver it."

We will soon have gas masks, Colonel Ahearn had told the men of his unit, the 128th Ambulance Company, Michigan National Guard. "In the meantime, all we can do is hope the gassed men recover without too many deaths and that the Boche don't drive the Allies right off the Western Front," he lamented. "The war could be over soon if that happens, and we will all be speaking German and dancing to the Kaiser's tune, if we live through it."

Little did I know that the barrels of mustard oil we had made in the Woodland Chemical factory at Brinewell were still sitting in a warehouse on the Gunpowder Reservation in Maryland.

As he negotiated the ambulance bouncing crazily over the ruts -- unavoidably causing more anguish to the injured men in back toward the field hospital in the rear of the American lines -- Pvt. Iverson's mind also drifted back to his home, Brinewell Center, in the middle of the Michigan woods, and to last year -- his senior year, in high school.

Rosemarie Scoville was blonde, blue-eyed, short and vivacious, and one of BC's top students, lots smarter than me. She was valedictorian while I was in the back row of the graduating class. She lived in one of the big houses on Maple Lane and I was from Paddy Hollow across the tracks. But I had a couple of block BC letters in football and wearing the letter sweater may be why she fell for me. Silly, isn't it, but in love as in war, whatever works..."

It had been a great football season with six wins, one loss, and a tie; we defeated the Normal School even though the college boys outweighed us more than 20 pounds per man. We traveled sixty miles downstate and played the Flint Deaf Mutes, winning 28-0 although the Mutes put up a scrappy game. We tied the Pleasantville Indian School 7-7. The only blot on our record was Saginaw Eastern that went away with a 6-2 victory.

After the last football game of the 1917 season, Rosemarie and I had gone laughing and celebrating to her home, the frosty air, the drums from the band still pounding at the field, the end of the season -- all causing exhilaration -- and excitement, maybe too much excitement. In the darkened basement, with the Victrola scratching "After You've Gone," we had gone -- "all the way" as we young people called it. Other words to the song . . . "and left me cryin" -- were now haunting both of us.

I had used "protection," as it was called those days, but the Three Little Pigz condoms (triple-tested, guaranteed five years) I got from my friend Jake who had been to Europe with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, had deteriorated with the vigorous activity and in fact had offered no protection at all. They were five or six months old and the ring they formed in my wallet was noticeable. But I didn't have the courage to tell her the Little Pigz had gone AWOL.

All I remembered -- cared to recall -- was the sweet smell of her fuzzy angora sweater, and the lavender, and the feel of the softness of flesh and her compliant moaning until our mutual release. The faintly pungent female odor that clung to my hands reminded me of her as I skipped home in the cold. It was nothing I had ever experienced before and it had been, well, so different it was glorious. But in the back of my mind was a guilty feeling about doing something very wrong. But I dismissed it with the thought: "we're not married to other people, we're single, so it's not as bad as adultery, is it?"

Marie was a rebel for that time, a believer in birth control, controversial though it was. She admired Katharine McCormick, of the wealthy International Harvester family, and her protégé Margaret Sanger -- even read Birth Control Review when she could find it. It sure wasn't in the Meridian County Library. Contraception had been outlawed since the Comstock Law of 1873 and so were condoms -- so her rebellion included wanting to test how condoms worked. Of course, so did I. Well, we found out; sometimes they didn't work. Sanger's husband had been jailed for promoting use of condoms but he never said they often broke.

(To be continued)

###

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October 12, 2017
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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at carraroe@aol.com)

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