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POISON ON TWO FRONTS, II; Morality Tale of World War I Days Here & Abroad

October 15, 2017       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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(Part II, Continued) Pvt. Hank Iverson, serving in France in World War I, is recalling his last year in high school before joining the 128th Ambulance Company, Michigan National Guard.)

We didn't talk about it then; in fact, I couldn't bring myself to tell Marie the prophylactic had failed until several weeks later. By then my conscience had kept me awake nights and affected my performance at basketball practice. Once the ball I tried to catch went right through my hands and hit me in the face. The fact that I wasn't going to make the first team this year was the least of my worries.

After class just before Christmas vacation, I finally summoned up the courage to tell her, well, actually ask her: "Marie, are you all right, I mean, are you sick or anything?" That he might know the reason for her stomach cramps and nausea that it might be related to that night of passion in the basement, on the old couch, terrified her. "You used, you know, the rubber -- didn't you?" I had to tell the truth, that our attempts at pleasure without consequence had been a horrible failure.

It was when she told her father and mother that the full impact hit them. "You may be, what!? Pregnant?" her father's voice rose and cracked. "Marie, you couldn't have; what have I told you all these years?" her mother pleading to hear that the sickening news was a horrible joke or, better yet, a mistake. "We can take care of this, at least Doctor Howley can," Stanley Scoville, with all the authority he displayed as president of the Meridian County Bank and Trust, said hopefully. "How far gone -- I mean -- when did this happen? This didn't happen last summer, did it? On the porch after the county fair?" "No, Papa; it was the end of the season -- we were so excited about winning the last football game -- couldn't help ourselves."

Much more over six weeks would be a problem, thought Scoville even as his wife Sarah was counting weeks on her fingers. He looked over his wire-rimmed glasses and spoke as if appealing to the Almighty: "Let's see, the last game was November 4th, just before the election, and now it's December 19th -- we may be able to get this done. I know Doctor Howley has done it before, although some of the people from church don't like it much. But we can't worry about that, now."

The portly round-faced banker began pacing the living room and rambled as if trying to convince himself he was right: "This is too important for your futures -- college and a career and you're too young. Besides, how would you support a child? -- times are tough. A job in the plant wouldn't bring ten bucks a week -- not near enough to support you two, and a child."

Hank's dad was just a plant worker at the Woodland Chemical Company; he had taken a little Chemistry in high school and had been trained to handle bromine production on the job. The pay was better than working in a lumber mill or a mine, but barely enough to support a family. Their house was rented and his mom, Penelope "Penny" Iverson, took in washing from the families who were well off but not wealthy enough to have servants.

Still driving the horses pulling the ambulance, I snapped out of my reverie when we began to see dead American soldiers; there had always been lots of German dead. "We Yanks seem to have gotten the worst of it in this sector," said Steve laconically from the ambulance seat next to me.

However, we saw one unfortunate Boche who had met an American more adept with the bayonet than he. His pickelhauben had been knocked from his head and the Yank's downward strike had split his skull and cleaved him down almost to his waist.

Two of our boys were killed and Sergeant Smith lost an arm when a shell burst near them. I began to wonder "who is next?"

It seemed the war was turning our way when we saw lots of surrendering Germans heading for the rear of our lines; soon there were so many they didn't need guards; signs were erected to point the way and they stumbled on "sans chaperones," as the French would say.

I couldn't get home out of my mind. A chagrined and somber Marie told me how she had gone with her mother to see Doctor Howley; it was uncomfortable with her legs spread in the iron stirrups, with the aging, sour-faced nurse staring her tut-tut, but the procedure was mercifully brief. Howley said it was only a D&C, simple, effective. "No more details, please, Marie," I said.

Mid-May, when caps and gowns were being handed out, I got another shock. "A letter came for you, dear," my mother cooed knowingly. It wasn't really a letter -- it was a notice from the local Draft Board, part of U.S. Selective Service System. It read simply: "Relative to orders from Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War, you are ordered to report to Fort Wayne, Detroit, for a physical examination and processing for conscription in the U.S. Army. Transportation will be provided via the Detroit and Mackinac railroad leaving Brinewell Center station June 13, 1918. Please check in with the officer at the station no later than 6:30 a.m." It was signed Harmon T. Wagner, Judge, Meridian County Circuit Court, Chairman Draft Board No. 7.

I thought: Scoville strikes again; Scoville and Judge Wagner were neighbors and pals. I worried to myself: "This could be a dangerous for me -- the Army, Europe, bombs, guns, tanks . . . Germans . . . Then I told myself it's probably not that bad: Just act like you're fielding a punt and the whole opposing team is bearing down on you."

There was no use resisting the draft: the local War Board sent police into the streets, poolrooms, cigar stores, soft drink parlors and even to the dance floor of the Wenonah Beach Casino where young men were described as 'tripping the light fantastic' with female dance partners.

Men in custody were taken to city hall where their cases were considered individually. The newspaper proclaimed: "The men who comprise the War Board in this city are determined that Bay City shall not harbor any slackers and that the work or fight regulation must be strictly observed to the letter."

So-called 'war loafers,' described as men ages 18-60 and physically fit to perform manual labor and not continually employed in a lawful occupation, business, trade, calling or profession and not making reasonable effort to procure employment or who has refused labor for compensation shall be deemed a 'war loafer' subject upon conviction to a $100 fine and possibly six months in jail additional.

So, I was "in the Army now, and not behind the plow," as the words to a popular song went.

When the train got to Detroit, after a clanking and rattling daylong trip through the budding green Michigan countryside, I was one of a dozen young men who were marched through the granite caverns of downtown Detroit to Fort Wayne. Lines of shirtless recruits were run through like an assembly line of faceless medics in white coats, teeth, eyes, ears, and rectums checked and given shots for typhoid, tetanus and what all.

I was surprised, and damned happy, to hear a doctor tell me my right knee, injured in football, would keep me out of the infantry. I could return home for several months, giving time for it to heal, and return for a re-examination in the fall. Or, I could join the National Guard at Big Harbor and be part of the 128th Ambulance Company, 32nd Division.

With the second option, the unit would not move out for France until September. In the meantime I could attend Thursday night training; as an ambulance driver, the knee problem would not keep me out of the combat zones.

My father arranged for me to be a lab helper in the plant -- the summer job would put a few dollars in my pocket and keep me busy until it was time to put on the uniform.

Graduation was over, caps and gowns were returned and the farm boys freed from school by graduation had started planting when the circus came to town in the early spring. That was when I met the Chief and my education took on new dimensions.

I was walking with Dr. Harding out of the circus tent when we heard the shouting. We squinted into the sunlight to see what was happening. A gang was hassling a tall dark-skinned man, pushing and hitting as he ducked away. Lightning fast the Doc grabbed the biggest of the bullies and shoved him, saying sternly: "Stop, you idiots, we can't have that kind of stuff in Brinewell." They ignored Harding and kept beating the darkie, cutting off his escape everywhere he tried to run.

"String up the damn nigger, we don't need his kind here," I heard a guy with a hunting shirt say. --Yeah, yeah, let?s hang him high -- lynch him like they do down South." Then Doc Harding cried: Hey, that's the Chief, everybody knows him. He's an Indian, Sam Eagles. Works in the plant."

"Damn Indian, hey, hang him anyway," growled a red-faced bruiser I had seen quite often loitering downtown. Dr. Harding drew his old Army revolver and the gang backed away. "Sumbitch!" one of them snarled, but they didn't want to mess with a guy with a gu.

My friend Dr. Burt Harding, a dentist, a tall sandy-haired Spanish-American War veteran, was a vigilante, one of the business people on Main Street who were armed to prevent crime -- especially the robbery of the bank where the big chemical company payroll came in on the train every two weeks. Bobby Abrams, Steve Mason and me, all football players at the high school and in pretty good shape, moved in to help the Doc. But the gun had stopped the gang and they backed away fast. They ducked around the corner of the tent and disappeared.

(To be continued) ###

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
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