I was at the elementary school today, and there was a ceremony honoring veterans. To see the elderly men so handsome in their uniforms immediately brought to mind two of my favorite books. When the fifth graders – whittled down to half the class; this was one of the classes who had presented the ceremony so lots of parents took children home early – came for library class, I read these passages, with a little introduction, out loud. Maybe you’ll recognize the books:
They shot some more. Then the head Legionnaire threw up his arm. ‘Troopers, hold your fire! It’s pretty nearly eleven o’clock.’
Silence fell. Some in the crowd took out their watches to make sure. It was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the moment when the armistice of the Great War had been signed in 1918. We all turned to face east as people did, toward France.
I turned to see a back view of Grandma. Her left hand was outstretched, holding the paddle upright in the burgoo. Her right hand must have been over her heart. Her old hat was pulling low and pinned tight, and her hair was escaping. I never saw her shoulders straighter.
I then told the students that when I saw the veterans, I imagine them as young men, like the man who narrates this passage:
The years went by, and Mary Alice and I grew up, slower than we wanted to, faster than we realized. Another war came, World War II, and I wanted to get in it. The war looked like my chance to realize my old dream of flying. My soul began to swoop as it had all those years ago at the country fair when I’d had my first ride in Barnie Buchanan’s biplane. I only hoped the war would last long enough to make a flier out of me, and so it did.
I joined up at Fort Sheridan for the Army Air Corps. But before I could go to flight school, I had to do basic training down at Camp Leonard Wood.
On the night we were shipping out from Dearborn Station, it occurred to me that the troop train would pass through Grandma’s town, sometime in the night. I sent her a telegram. She never did have a phone. A telegram might give her a turn, but I just wanted to tell her the train would be going through town, though it wouldn’t stop.
In the way of troop trains, we left an hour late and sat on the siding outside Joliet for another hour. You don’t get any sleep on a troop train. Our car was blue with smoke and noisy with a floating craps game. I sat through the long night, propped at the window.
Then I knew we were getting to Grandma’s town. It was sound asleep in the hour before dawn. We slowed past the depot, and now we were coming to Grandma’s, the last house in town. It was lit up like a jack-o’-lantern. Every window upstairs and down blazed, though she always turned out the light when she left a room. Now we were rolling past, and there was Grandma herself.
She stood at her door, large as life – larger, framed against the light from her front room. Grandma was there, watching through the watches of the night for the train to pass through. She couldn’t know what car I was in, but her hand was up, and she was waving – waving big at all the cars, hoping I’d see.
And I waved back. I waved long after the window filled with darkness and long distance.
Peck, R. (2000). A year down yonder. New York: Dial Books, p. 46.
Peck, R. (1998). A long way from Chicago. New York: Dial Books, pp. 147-8.