The last American veteran of World War I died this week, and yes, it is the end of an era. It didn’t seem that long ago that the World War I vets were a big part of our state. There was always a group of them riding in the Veterans Day parades, and they stood outside the grocery stores the days before Veterans Day or Memorial Day, handing out red paper poppies. I learned that I was supposed to give them a dollar for their gift, and they always acted so grateful for the donation.
Grandpa Henry was a World War I vet. It was hard to get him to talk about it. Grandma would interrupt him, saying “Shush, Henry. No one wants to hear about that.”
But, I did. And, when I was alone with him, when I’d go to the barn and help him milk cows, or ride the tractor down the hill to the fields to mend fence, or mow a field to make hay in the summer, I’d ask him.
It was hard to get him started. He was German, and was drafted into the Kaiser’s army when he was sixteen. His folks had thirteen kids and a big farm near the Danish border, and there wasn’t much room for him around the farm.
He was a foot soldier and was sent off to the eastern front to fight the Czar’s army. He fought in a battle or two, and then got captured. He’d get quiet when he got to this part of the story, and he’d look far away, his eyes glazing over a bit. It must have been an awful experience, especially for a young farmer turned soldier.
I could never get him to talk about the Kaiser’s Army much, or what it was like being a prisoner of war. About the only thing he would say is that he only ate potatoes for months on end. Nothing but potatoes.
At the end of the war, he finally made it back home. Germany was a mess, and there were no jobs waiting for him, even at the family farm. His parents were getting older and his oldest brother was taking over the farm. Back then, the oldest son inherited the farm and the other kids had to go somewhere else to make a living.
So, Grandpa came to America. He’d met some American soldiers after the war, and he always admired the Americans. They fed him, and they respected his bravery, fighting the Russians and being a prisoner of war.
When he got to America, he looked for a job. And, the only thing he knew except soldiering, was being a dairy farmer. Somehow, he ended up in the little town where my grandma lived, and came to work for her. He was the “hired hand”, and lived in the basement of the old farm house, the one Great Grandpa had built back in the 1890s.
Well, after my real grandpa died, Grandma married Grandpa Henry. My mom was twelve when they married, and she adored Henry. He was kind, and sweet, and was the best farmer the family farm had ever had. They raised Jerseys, and always got a good price for their milk at the little cheese factory in town.
Grandpa Henry was the only grandpa I knew. I always liked going to the barn with him. He taught me how to give a little hay to the cows, and some molasses, too. I always had to run my finger under the molasses keg tap, and taste the sulfurous, bittersweet taste of the dark molasses. We’d give each cow a little scoop of grain, and then a half cup of molasses once in a while.
I’m not sure why we did that, maybe it was some kind of vitamins or minerals to help them make richer milk. But the cows loved it, and scooped up the grain and molasses with their big pink tongues.
Grandpa loved his cows, and each cow had their own name and their own stantion. When they came into the barn, each cow would know where their place was, and in what order they’d be milked. Back then, before milking parlors, you brought the milking machine to the cow, and then, when the machine was done, you poured the rich, creamy milk into a big stainless steel pail. When two pails were full, you carried them back to the milking shed, and Grandpa Henry would heft the pails up high above his shoulder and pour the milk into the cooler.
The cooler had spring water flowing through its stainless steel pipes, and it cooled the milk down to nearly freezing, so you could fill up the milk cans. Every morning, after the morning milking, Grandpa would load the cans into his pickup and take them to the creamery.
He loved going to the creamery every morning. It was his only time away from the farm, and he could gossip a bit with the other farmers, and enjoy the trip into town.
One Christmas Eve, when I was about sixteen, I was helping Grandpa milk the cows. When we were done, he took me over to the neighbor’s barn. We were going to go see Emery. I’d never been there, even though the neighbor was a cousin of my grandma’s and they’d been neighbors forever. Emery gave us a big grin as we walked into his barn. The winter light was just fading, and we needed to get home for the big dinner.
Emery went over behind a big wooden post in his barn and pulled out a fifth of whiskey. Grinning ear to ear, he pulled off the top and took a swig, and passed it to Grandpa Henry.
Grandma was always death on drinking, and never would let alcohol in the house, so my mouth was wide open with amazement when Emery handed Grandpa the bottle and he took a big swig. He handed it to me and told me I could have a swig, too. So, I did.
“Now, don’t you tell Grandma,” he said, as we were walking back to the house. “She’d skin us both alive.”
And, she would have, too.
Years later, Grandma and Grandpa sold their farm and moved into town. They were getting too old to farm, and Grandpa was tired. He would walk around town and make his rounds, visiting the barber shop and the grocery store, visiting with some of his friends who’d also moved into town.
A few days before he died, we were talking a bit, and I reminded him of that Christmas Eve when we took a swig of whiskey with Emery. He grinned, his face lighting up with the good memories of his neighbor and sneaking a drink on Christmas Eve.
“Emery and me, we did that every Christmas Eve. That was just our little secret.”
After he died, my son wanted his hat. He’d always worn that hat around town, and I guess my son had good memories of seeing my Grandpa wearing his hat.
And, every Christmas Eve, I have a snort of whiskey, and remember that brave soldier in the Kaiser’s Army.