Monday, June 28, 2010

Waiting for the last man -- and longer

Yes, it is the real thing. The uniform, I mean, but, I guess, I mean the bottle of wine, too. The uniform is mine, and dates from the U.S. Army of 1917. It has been in places like New York, California, Ireland, England, Belgium and France. It has crossed the Atlantic Ocean by ship, and America, England and Belgium by train. The wine is of more recent origin, having been purchased in 1934. It -- the wine, that is -- once was the property of a group of men who had fought in France during World War I and returned to their homes in Minnesota. Now, it is mine, in a sense. It still belongs to them but, through fate and accident of birth, I am entrusted with caring for it at this moment in time.

Our war to end all wars

At least one person noticed a subtle difference about the bottle in the center foreground of the photograph that accompanied the piece ("Pleasing memories & a drink to worship") two days ago in which I wrote about my developing taste for Benedictine. She sent me a note asking about it.
The bottle appears to be a bit older than the others in the photo -- vintage, as people say when talking of antiques or wine.

Yes, it is old, I suppose, by some standards. This particular bottle was purchased in 1934 by a group of veterans of World War I who belonged to the American Legion.

The American Legion was born in the aftermath of World War I by returning veterans of that "war to end all wars" as a means to maintain the camaraderie established through the common experience of being soldiers fighting in a war far away from home on foreign shores. The next paragraph comes from the organization itself:

"A group of twenty officers who served in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France in World War I is credited with planning the Legion. AEF Headquarters asked these officers to suggest ideas on how to improve troop morale. One officer, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., proposed an organization of veterans. In 1919, this group formed a temporary committee and selected several hundred officers who had the confidence and respect of the whole army. When the first organization meeting took place in Paris in March, 1919, about 1,000 officers and enlisted men attended. The meeting, known as the Paris Caucus, adopted a temporary constitution and the name The American Legion. The Legion held a second organizing caucus in St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1919."

There probably is not a historian who can say with accuracy when the first "last man's club" was organized among veterans of wars. I know they existed among a few units which fought in the American Civil War. But, there almost certainly were such groups of men among Roman Legionnaires, Viking raiders and the remnants of Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Russia.

In any event, by the early 1930s, American Legion clubs existed in cities and towns and villages across the United States. Some of them began their own versions of a "last man's club."

Some of these clubs obtained a bottle of expensive Scotch or a bottle of imported French wine. The concept was that this bottle would be held in trust until only one man remained alive among the members of the respective "last man's clubs." The bottle would become the property of that last survivor, who would open it and then drink a toast to his departed comrades.

In 1934, in my tiny, country village, the World War I veterans of the American Legion post bought a bottle of ordinary, inexpensive, American wine. No fabulous Scotch or imported French wine for these men who, at this time, were living in the midst of the "Great Depression" and were second- or third-generation descendants of Norwegian and German immigrants.

Well, I now have that bottle of wine in my possession. This container of "pleasant and refreshing Virginette Special Wine," bottled in the far away state of Ohio, was not opened by the last surviving member of World War I veterans in my home town. I have no idea why he did not open it. I did not even know the bottle existed until three or four years ago.

When the last man died, the bottle was kept by his widow. When she died, it moved along to her son. When he died, it came to me.

I doubt this bottle will ever be opened -- at least, not by me. My belief is that it still belongs to a group of American warriors whose era has come and gone. All that remains of them is one old bottle of wine, now held in perpetuity by me -- by a man who carries their blood and treasures their memory.

by E. Wyndham Tennant
(Ramparts, Ypres, July 1916)

I too remember distant golden days
When even my soul was young; I see the sand
Whirl in a blinding pillar towards the band
Of orange sky-line 'neath a turquoise blaze -
Some burnt-out sky spread o'er a glistening land)
- And slim brown jargoning men in blue and gold,
I know it all so well, I understand

The ecstasy of worship ages-old.
Hear the first truth: The great far-seeing soul
Is ever in the humblest husk; I see
How each succeeding section takes its toll
In fading cycles of old memory.
And each new life the next life shall control
Until perfection reach eternity.


abhas@numismatology said...

wow nice blog hope u would like to visit mine also

Fram Actual said...

Greetings, abhas ....

Thanks, for the visit and the comment.

I will be sure to take a look at your page. I am an amateur collector of coins, and particularly appreciate old watches and jewelry, as well. They are a means to touch the past and provide a connection for me to actual people who have come and gone before my time.

I hope you stop by again in the future.

Anonymous said...

I would like to exchange links with your site
Is this possible?

Something special ....