He never made it to Berzy. Hell, he never even made it to Ploisy.
He went lights-out somewhere just beyond the Paris-Soissons Road, while the air rained bullets and his company—the survivors, anyway—rolled on through the German line, shooting and yelling and swearing and falling, and disappeared into the smoke and dust and fading evening light of a hot July day.
He took his last look at them, at their sweat-stained, khaki-clad backs and their tin hats, as the shadows began to lengthen across the wheat, as the pup-pup-pup of the machine guns rose to a ghastly cacophony, as the rolling barrage he was chasing raced farther out of reach, like a carrot on a stick, and as a single machine-gun bullet pierced his blouse just above his left pelvic brim, bounced off his spine, rattled through his intestines, and then exited above his right hip.
And it was then, as he would tell some insurance clerk in 1919, he fell unconscious in the wheat, as his “unit”—to which he’d belonged for just a month—stepped over him and continued its advance down the sloping, deadly vale into the village of Ploisy, and slightly beyond.
He would awake hours later to the sound of—what? “Intermittent machine gun fire,” one report says. To the sounds of a blubbering confession, my father would tell me many years later, as another from his company who lay paralyzed, too, there in the wheat poured out to the Old Man his confessions to having performed every kind of criminal perversion, rape and murder and God knows what.
In the morning, as the sounds of battle rose steadily with the sun, John Nelson had been roughly kicked by an Algerian stretcher-bearer searching for life among the brown clumps of young Americans in the wheat, and he had groaned, and achieved his random salvation on, and his escape from, that terrible battlefield, the one just south of Soissons, where the tide of war was turning in the Allies’ favor even as he was being hustled to the back lines.
He was carried to a field station in a cave at Missy-aux-Bois, and then trucked to Field Hospital No. 12, in the village of Pierrefonds-les-Bains, where blood-spattered, exhausted surgeons plied their scalpels and bone saws in an old hotel and, before the battle was done, on tables spilled into the streets.
Once he had been patched together, there ensued an odyssey through hospitals in France as well as the United States, and on April 1, 1919, the army deemed him okay, and handed him $60 and an honorable discharge, and a swift kick out of the gates of Camp Grant.
He returned to his $32-a-week job as a painter in Chicago, to which he’d first traveled in 1911, after leaving Sweden and hopping the Lusitania from England to the gates at Ellis Island. And he would live long enough to send his own son into another, second, world war, and to wear lime-green pants with white shoes and to watch men walk on the moon, and to have six grandchildren, of which I was the last.
But in all the days I knew him, he never talked about them, never mentioned his fellow Swede, Swanson, whose body wasn’t found until 1933, just a collection of bare bones by then, wrapped in burlap and scattered with three unknowns in a shallow grave in Berzy-le-Sec.
He never mentioned the Norwegian, Eidsvik, whose body went home by boat though the fjords in 1922, nor did he talk of Ralph Pol or Orville Ballard, or any of those with whom he had crossed the Paris-Soissons Road that day and who had also lived—Baucaro and Bronston and Vedral, the tough Bohemian sergeant. He talked a little about that day over the years, but words weren’t his currency, and so he had left us with the happy ending, and no beginning or middle, and kept the seamy part, the details of that day, to himself.
On the day he turned one hundred years old I surprised him, and found the ancient doughboy daydreaming in his tiny cell at the retirement home. He was stretched out on his bed, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling when I walked in. He had never weighed more than 150 pounds, and he was shrunken now with great age, his body a tiny island in the sea of his bed, and lost as well in the blue wool sweater he always wore, no matter the season.
His senses were shot, his eyesight blurred with cataracts, but his mind was still sharp, and he knew someone was there. He startled and sat up as if he’d been caught doing something wrong, and directed me with a wave of his hand to a chair, on which sat a box full of cards and letters. “Read them to me,” he said.
There were cards from the few old Swedes back in Chicago who hadn’t yet faded away, some from old neighbors, some from God knows who, and it struck me for the first time that he’d lived a whole life I knew little of, though I’d known him thirty-six years by then.
All of those names, all of those unknown well-wishers, added up to a map of where he’d been, touchstones gathered over a century, remnants of his small immigrant drama, people who’d somehow been touched by him enough to remember a birthday and buy a card and walk it down to the post office and acknowledge an old man imprisoned by time, and by his memories.
And now that I know some of the story, more than he ever let on, I wonder what it was he’d been thinking of when I walked into his room, just a few hours before the little party, with coffee, and cake, and balloons, and all the family, even his wife of seventy years, Karin, who was mostly confined to a separate, darker wing of the home since a series of strokes had taken most of her memory.
I wonder now if he’d been thinking of them, the others, the ones who hadn’t ever figured in his short, sweet story of near death and salvation on a foreign battlefield long ago; I wonder if he was conjuring the faces of the other boys and all that he saw at the Paris-Soissons Road, images caught from the corner of the eye while running headlong to oblivion: the dead ones, the wounded, the dying horses, and perhaps a broken, smoldering tank.
And I wonder if he was retracing his last few steps, going over his tracks in the wheat, following a wave of khaki soldiers stretched out from north to south in front of him, some stumbling, some toppling, some staggering back with hands to their throats, others on their knees, bleeding.
I wonder now if his one hundred years had been condensed into those few terrifying snapshots, images he’d tamped down over the years into his subconscious, demons let loose like a creeping barrage only in moments of weakness, of which I believe he had very few, though I know now that he had some.
I wonder if he was thinking of these things that day, of the other boys, of Misiewicz and Ballard and Cole, and of the great turn that had been made in his fate, and of how strange and wonderful it had been that he had made it through. I wonder if he was thinking of these things, but of course now I’ll never know.
My outfit started advancing on July 18 and moved forward several miles in the first two days. About six o’clock on the 19th I was struck by machine gun fire from our flank, was knocked unconscious and did not come to until about midnight. Was picked up by stretcher bearers in the morning and taken to a first-aid station.
What was left of John Nelson’s division, the 1st, was home and parading in Washington on the day he told the above brief story of woe and near disaster to a clerk with the department of war-risk insurance.
Broken, and still hobbling on that day in 1919, he’d come to seek recompense for having crossed the Paris-Soissons Road and seen the things he saw, and for having spent that long night in the wheat among the dead and dying. It wasn’t until after he died that I found the record, and it struck me how little the story had changed, how so very little had been added to it, in the seventy-five years he’d had to tell it, again and again.
He had never shown much weakness, even for life, always displaying just the tough crust developed in another century, another millennium, enveloping layers that had their start in childhood, on a small farm in southern Sweden, where he was born on March 15, 1892, the sixth of eleven children sired by Nils Jonsson, who in maddening Scandinavian symmetry was the son of Jon Nilsson, who was the son of Nils Jonsson, who was the son of yet another Jon Nilsson, the son of a Nils whose last name is lost to history, all of whom had labored on a small patch of ground called Kangsleboda, outside of the flyspeck village of Langhult.
This had gone on for generations, at least since 1735, when John Nelson’s great-great-grandfather and namesake had been born at Langhult. All I know of this Jon Nilsson was that he lived to be eighty years old and that when he died in 1815 he had amassed a fortune consisting of twenty-four clay pots, no cash, no silver, fourteen animals, a smattering of copper, brass, and iron tools, and two books—one, no doubt, being a Bible.
The local church records say that it all went to his wife, Ingeborg, and his son Nils and daughter Sophia. “Widow to keep all except husband’s clothes that now belong to the folks to auction off,” his will said, and someone had added the note: “Sophia is lame. She cannot take care of herself. Nils has decided to take care of her and her property as well as he can. If not some other relative to do so.”
Hard times hadn’t softened much by the time Kangsleboda was passed to Nils Jonsson, my great-grandfather, in the 1870s. He had by then married Ingrid Kristin Bengtsdotter, who was the daughter of Bengt Jonsson, who of course was the son of Jon Bengtsson, son of Bengt Jonsson.
The couple’s firstborn, Pelle August, arrived in 1876, and lived just two years. Bengt—who else?—followed, as did Pelle Johan, Axel, Amanda, Olivia, Jon, Carl Olaf, Viktor, Ernest, and lastly Sven Alfred, spit out when the well-worn Ingrid was forty-six years old and Nils was fifty-three.
At the age of twelve, Jon Nilsson’s parents obtained an apprenticeship for him with a local painter, and so he began his life’s work, and it was while engaged as a house painter that he saw his first automobile, a rare, shared memory which always brought a guffaw and the line, “I nearly fell off my ladder.”
By nineteen a journeyman painter, and with his older brother Axel already having left for America to lumberjack in the Northwest, Jon Nilsson decided it was time to seek his own fortune. He sailed for London and then for the United States, and walked up the dock at Ellis Island on May 5, 1911.
And before too long, and for peculiarly American reasons, Jon Nilsson became John Nelson, alien resident of the United States of America. He traveled first to Chicago, where there was a friend of a friend with whom to stay, and at some point, in 1914 or so, he moved to Denver and hung flocked wallpaper in saloons and boarding houses for fifty cents an hour.
But when he heard he could earn an extra nickel an hour back in Chicago, he returned to the Windy City—which is where the draft caught up with him in October 1917. And so it was that he became a doughboy—and it was from such origins that so many doughboys came—and was trained at Camp Grant, in northern Illinois, and then shipped to France, and patriotically took his bullet, and was left for dead, as a battle raged over and beyond him, on the second day of the Allied offensive that turned the tide of the war.
He was taciturn, almost silent, a five foot eight inch tower of measured indifference, and as a child I feared him as much as I wondered at the few relics that suggested his story—the army-surplus grenade on the mantel we all wanted to believe had come from his war; the Purple Heart hanging in his den over a picture of Lady Liberty and a kneeling doughboy I was certain was him; and the queer, circular dog tags, with his ridiculously simple name and the numbers 2061839 etched in the silver.
And for many years it was those few things, and his few words about Soissons, that seemed the sum of his great, long-ago adventure.
But I know now there was much more to the story than he’d ever let on, that it loomed in his consciousness throughout each year, throughout all of his many years, and that it was most certainly there every July 19, when Karin would arrange for someone else to watch the kids, and she and her husband would take the day to be alone, to go for a drive in the country, maybe to picnic, maybe sit by a river and just be, just breathe, watch the clouds, and listen to the humming mosquitoes, no words of that day spoken, and none needed.
I didn’t know that they did this until I was in my midtwenties, when my grandmother casually mentioned it in a note of thanks for a book on the First World War I’d sent to John Nelson, and it struck me as so odd, yet so pure, such a lifting of a veil.
And I was stunned, and pleased, somehow, to discover that John Nelson kept a rite, a personal Easter—and I was just as happy to find that the heart of a sentimentalist beat somewhere deep down beneath that hard crust.
And thinking now of that small anniversary he kept, that second birthday, I like to think he kept it as well for the others, that maybe he said a few words to himself those July nineteenths when he rose, and thought of a face, or half a name, and of what had happened as they crossed the Paris-Soissons Road. I like to think that keeping July nineteenth sacred was as much for them as it was for himself, but of course I’ll never know.
John Nelson lived to be one hundred and one, dying on a cold December day in 1993, with no stretcher bearers around to save him this time, not even a pallbearer to lift his frail form and lay him down to the sound of taps. Instead they shipped his body to Chicago, where he was buried without ceremony.
When he died, I inherited his dog tags. His story, as well, passed to me. It was mine to do with as I wished, to improve upon and maybe finish, or to just let alone. But for reasons I still can hardly articulate, the image of him there in the wheat has haunted my own life, as it certainly haunted his.
Though as a child I’d repeated his tale by rote to anyone who would listen, and often on hot, restless nights when sleep wouldn’t come thought of him lying there, it took years, and my own ascent into manhood, and the birth of my own children, to finally grasp the import of the story, and how it had shadowed his seemingly endless days afterward, and how my family’s otherwise banal immigrant saga had been interrupted, and almost curtailed, at a place called Soissons.
But it wasn’t until he died and let go his ownership of the experience that I felt free to pursue the story. And it was while pursuing it that I stumbled upon the names of the others, and realized I had perhaps stumbled upon the rest of his story, and some of the things he would not, or could not, articulate about what had happened to him there, in the wheat, on that hot July day.
The names had come from a museum, and were there on a muster roll for Company D of the 28th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, dated August 1, 1918. The Old Man was there, listed as “Missing since recent operations,” but his was just one of scores and scores of names who’d gone missing, and the roll, with its names typed so neatly in black ink on white paper, said more about that day, and the next few days, than the Old Man had ever been able.
Livick, Maine, Meyers, Michaud, Manitu, Misiewicz, Moore, McIntyre, Miller, Nichyporek, Nonortovage, Olencak, Orlich, Pate, Person, and Pol had all gone missing, and their names filled just half a page on the roll. There were others—Pringle and Robbins and Rothbart, Adams and Ayer and Ballard and Baucaro—all lying out there in the wheat somewhere. The ink was bold and seemed fresh, and for a minute I thought they might be there still; but I caught myself, and reconsidered, and realized all the time that had passed, and I knew that they must have all passed on, as had the Old Man.
I wondered, though, who among them had known him, and who among them had perhaps seen him there, seen him fall that day, and maybe even stepped over his body as Company D pushed on to Ploisy. I wondered who, if any, among them might be able to finally tell me what had happened that day, and on the days before and the days that were to come, in that long-ago war.
I wondered about these doughboys, and what to do with their war, and with them, those other boys who were sent off to save the world and who did that, for a while, until their sons and nephews had to go back to finish a fight that began in a storm of shells at Cantigny and petered out at the gates of Sedan when the world said, finally, Enough; that’s enough for now.
And it was while perusing the list of names that I resolved to finish his story if I could, and find them, the others, who perhaps still lay in the wheat at Soissons, or in the hills of the Argonne where they died in the mud and the rain, or at Cantigny, where their young bodies were pummeled and pounded deep into the earth. I resolved to find what remained of Company D, for him, and for them, and for myself, as well, and complete a story begun on a hot July day so long ago, when young men raced across open fields toward machine guns and disappeared into history.
Excerpted from The Remains of Company D by James Carl Nelson.
Copyright © 2009 by James Carl Nelson.
Published in October 2009 by St. Martin’s Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.