Thursday, June 14, 2018
I was a boy in the 1950s, forty years after Armistice Day, when the carnage of the First World War ended. I knew very little about the death of my great uncle in the August of 1918, but I knew he'd been killed in the Great War. I also knew my parents had better attend Decoration Day rallies in the cemetery south of town. If we didn't, my Grandma, a woman with a jolly sense of humor otherwise, would go on a tear of silence. That doughboy who didn't return was her brother, her only sibling.
But his image in my mind was indistinct. When I was ten, what I knew of "the war to end all wars" was a man who walked up the street toward town to pick up his mail. Whenever I saw him, I couldn't help noticing because he jerked and stumbled, shook madly. I don't know that I ever saw him fall, but his impossible gate made him memorable. I still see him.
My dad explained the man's erratic walk as "shell shock," a phrase that handily delivers its own definition. My dad told me the man was a soldier during the First World War. On some battlefield somewhere, he said, he came too close to artillery shells.
Shell shock is a catch-all term for a variety of physical maladies--loss of hearing, loss of sight, loss of coordination--effects especially evident, long ago, in World War I vets. Experts consider it a form of PTSD; but such lingering physical handicaps--the man from town who stumbled up the sidewalk had left the war behind a half-century before--were unique to what happened in those deadly trenches.
In England, early in the war military officials were wary of the term. Some soldiers, after all, seemed incapable of returning to the front even though they showed no scars, no bleeding war wounds. "Shell shock" seemed just another excuse for sheer cowardice.
It took little more than a year for the Brits saw to see many thousand evidences of emotional wounds. To believe "the boys" were posing became impossible.
In the trenches, men often referred to the cause as "windage," a peculiar emotional wound created by the physical concussion of enemy shells that showed in effects totally unrelated to flesh wounds, a phenomenon they thought understandable from the way an explosive kills fish in a pond.
Last weekend, I listened to man, dressed like a doughboy, who stood behind tables he'd set up in one of the barracks at Ft. Snelling. On those tables, he displayed a range of tools and devices U. S. medical units have used from the Civil War to Afghanistan.
There on the table sat this striking composition: a gas mask from the trenches of France in 1917, alongside skeins of pink and yellow yarn, the lion lying down with the lamb.
"Shell shock" was a psychological problem, he said, that at times could be controlled by finding means by which a vet could "forget" his problem, getting him to think about something else and thereby divert his absorbed attention from whatever battlefield trauma wouldn't stop playing in his mind.
Knitting, he said, was used and found to be especially curative. Knitting.
The image in my imagination was striking--a room full of shaky battle veterans like my uncle, men who'd been killing Huns, a circle of them sitting around on wicker chairs or rockers, in silence, a skein of yarn on their laps, knitting needles twirling in their hands. Therapy. Getting healed.
The lion lies down with the lamb.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:58 AM