War is never pretty, and yet somehow, I had a picture in my head of the time my grandfather, George Byer spent in World War I that made it seem very benign. I never pictured him being in any danger. You see, my grandfather was a cook in the Army during the war, and somehow I pictured him working in a safe place where the war was a very distant reality, and not something to be faced or dealt with. The cooks in World War I didn’t even get a gun, so they must not be in danger…right? Wrong…very wrong!! The men on the front couldn’t drive home to the safety zone every night after work, like I had pictured in my head. The kitchen was very close to the front. In Grandpa’s case, that kitchen was a commandeered kitchen in the lowest floor of a French castle. As far as anyone knows, the residents of the castle still lived there, although I’m not sure how their meals were handled. Perhaps, their own cooks were allowed a little time in the kitchen, or maybe their meals were served along with the men in the Army. I don’t suppose we will know the full answer to that question in this lifetime.
For a very long time…until just a few months ago, in fact, I carried the impression in my head that Grandpa’s job was really uneventful, other than the pressure of getting the meals to a large group of hungry men on time. Then, I came across a picture that I had seen several times over the past five years, but this time I was also looking at the list my aunts had made about what the pictures were about. In that moment, my idea of my grandfather’s service was changed forever. On the list they had written, that the man on the right, or the man in uniform, was Grandpa. The second picture was tagged with, “Castle in France. Owner of castle died in Daddy’s kitchen” and “cooks, who worked under Daddy.” I was instantly intrigued. I spoke to my aunt, Sandy Pattan about it, and found out that indeed, the kitchen was commandeered for the Army’s use, and the owner had been wounded and ran into the kitchen for help. Grandpa tried to save him, but the wounds were too bad, and the owner died right there. The man’s injuries told me that the front was not far from the castle. I suppose you might think I was reaching a little on that thought, but you would be wrong, because as I talked with Aunt Sandy, she told me something else that really clarified the danger my grandfather lived with every day of his time in the service.
It was another day in the castle kitchen, the men were working on the next meal. Suddenly an American soldier ran in and told the cooks to run for the woods. It seemed strange to me that running would be the order they would receive, but remember that Aunt Sandy told me that the cooks had no guns. If they stayed in the castle, they would be sitting ducks, because cooks or not, they were in the American Army, and that made them enemies of the Germans. The reason the men were told to run for the woods…the Germans were coming and they couldn’t stop them. The soldier didn’t have to tell the cooks twice. They dropped everything and ran. One of the cooks, while running into the woods, stepped on a dead man. The man had been dead a few days, because the cook’s foot went right into the man’s chest. Aunt Sandy told me that the smell was so bad and so permanent that when they couldn’t get the smell out of the man’s clothes, they had to be burned. I had no idea of the things Grandpa saw, nor of the danger he faced. It gave me a whole new picture of Grandpa Byer’s time in World War I. And I came to clearly realize that no job in the service is less dangerous than another…and least not on the front. It’s no wonder that most men don’t want to talk about the war.
Whenever life gets too hectic, I find myself wanting a place of solace, so I can get out of running mode, and into relaxing mode. Many of us don’t realize that our lives are even hectic. We just think it’s normal, and maybe it is, but normal can be very hectic. My Uncle Bill understood how I feel, because he felt the same way too…and he was a kid!! We mistakenly assume that kids can’t have a hectic life, or that things weren’t hectic in days gone by, when life was supposed to be so much more simple. Maybe things were simple back then, but that did not make things easier back then. What takes us minutes to do these days, probably took them hours, making it necessary to cram more things into a working day than we do today. And yet, with our modern inventions, our lives today are always making us rush from this place to that place…always in a hurry.
It’s no wonder that I, like my Uncle Bill, enjoy getting out into nature to hike the trails. When you are out on the trail, you can only go so fast, and it’s harder to rush yourself. The beauty of nature around you draws your attention away from the pressing things in your life, and you find yourself drinking in the smells of the trees and flowers, the singing of the birds, the sound of the breeze through the trees, the beauty of the scenes around you, and the feel of the air on your face. It is the place I want to be and the things I want to be doing. When Bob and I are out on the trail, being one with nature, it is such a beautiful time. And in our hectic lives, we need those breaks to recharge our systems. The trails are perfect for that.
Uncle Bill loved to be out in the woods of Wisconsin and Minnesota, mostly around Holyoke, Minnesota. He talks about going to his private place in the center of a shaded area, to sit on a log, listen to the birds, watch the squirrels, and “even” read a book. I have to wonder if Uncle Bill maybe didn’t like reading very much at that time. It wouldn’t be something so unusual for a boy. Most of them seem to busy with other things to consider reading as an important pass time. Nevertheless, whatever solace we each find in nature is probably unique to each of us. No two people are the same, and no two people have the same stresses, so each finds solace in different things or in different ways, even in the same place.
In years gone by, when it wasn’t as easy to get to your job site as it is today, many people lived as near their work as possible, especially when their work was out in the woods. Jobs in the cities and towns don’t require long drives, but when you travel on a horse, and work from sunrise to sunset; it’s nice to be close to home. Working in the logging industry, like my grandparents did, living in the woods was just part of the job.
I’m told that their little cabin in the woods was near International Falls, Minnesota, where their daughter, my Aunt Laura was born. I would imagine that the winters were very cold there, and the best thing for anyone who could was to stay indoors, but them I seriously doubt that my grandmother was a woman who was afraid of a little but of cold and snow. Still, the cold and snow would really make it hard to work out in the woods…nevertheless, that was the job that had to be done. Maybe that was another good reason to live near your work. You could get home to the nice warm house sooner, and maybe even be able to go home for lunch.
When I look at these pictures, it reminds me of the “Little House on the Prairie” books. Everywhere you look seems to be a new adventure. I can imagine how the Ingalls girls felt living there…the adventures they must have had…the adventures my Aunt Laura must have had there, playing with the children of the other logging families that lived in the woods too. I’m sure there was an abundance of forest animals to see and be in awe of. I love photographing the animals…when I happen to be in the right place at the right time. The pictures can be amazing. I can imagine all the beauty all around the little cabin in the woods.
As we head into summer, many people start making plans to go camping. Bob and I like hiking a lot, but we really don’t go camping…strange I suppose, especially considering the fact that my parents took my sisters and me camping every summer of our childhood. And, I liked camping then, but Bob and I like the comforts of a motel room, and we get our nature fix when we go hiking. I know lots of people would laugh at that idea, but to each his own, I say. Things change and people change, and that isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a different thing than before. I still love to sit around the campfire at night, just enjoying the warmth and beauty of the flames, but it sometimes gets pretty cold at night, and in the early morning, and standing around a campfire in my coat wishing I was warmer, isn’t my idea of fun.
Still, the memories of the days when we went camping are fond ones. We used to sit around the campfire until midnight or later, and then sleep in the next morning. We woke up to the smell of the campfire and coffee brewing. It was a smell that sure could make you hungry, and then you still had to wait until breakfast was cooked before you could eat. The pine trees gave off a scent all their own too, and to this day, the scent of real pine trees, reminds me of camping…and of being out in the fresh air. Memories…like echoes of my past.
I don’t miss camping so much, but I miss those days in my childhood…days when we were all together, with no one missing. I think that was what made camping fun. Being out in the woods, but always knowing that my dad was there to keep us safe. Being outside at night, but knowing that Dad would keep the fire going, to keep the bears away. It was such a special time in our lives, and I don’t think I could feel the same about it now. And yet, I don’t think I will always be able to see, in my mind’s eye, those memories…the echoes of my past.