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LOST THING   MAY 2009 – NO. 33

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War Journal

by Nick Kolakowski

In journals, the tiny scraps of life

They should have crumbled to rust and dust. The things my great-grandfather carried through World War I, I mean. But they had been tossed in a white canvas sack and submerged among the bric-a-brac of my grandmother's dark, cool closet and thus forgotten by time. What use does time have, anyway, for a collection of straight razors with brightly colored handles, a blank stack of French postcards, a scratchy-wool Army cap, and a journal?

I had use for them, certainly; I wanted to broaden my knowledge of the man, which was so miniscule as to be nonexistent. Three generations' worth of years will wash away the color and detail of anyone's life, leaving gray photographs in dusty frames and little else. The process only accelerates when someone dies relatively young, as my great-grandfather did, from pneumonia caught during a late night's tending to a sick farm-horse, in the depths of the Great Depression.

Before I saw the contents of the canvas sack, those circumstances of his end were basically all I knew of him. That, and that he had served in what they once called The Great War, where a chemical gas attack on the Front had scoured his lungs and perhaps made him vulnerable to that final illness. The old photographs show a man slight-statured but obviously strong, in that way of farmers, with swept-back blond hair and the slightest suggestion of a wry smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.

His journal is maybe two inches by four, with a hundred or so onionskin-thin pages squeezed between soft, stained leather covers; the format forced him to be a man of few words, jotting each day's entry in terse haiku. Before that, though, comes the flyleaf with his personal information:

Name:  Harry Burgott

Size of hat:  7 ¼

Size of collar:  15

Size of shirt:  15 ½

Shoes:  8 ½

Make of my watch:  Swiss

Make of my automobile:  Doerland

Number of my telephone:  1114 Fud

My height is:  5 ft. 10 in.

The front pages are devoted to charts:  parcel post rules, table of weights and measures, surveyor's measures, rates of postage, and a census of cities; Google being 90 years away. Then start the daily entries, on January 1, 1918:

Tuesday, January 1, 1918
At Phila.
One big time

Saturday, January 5, 1918
Re-exam base hospital

Monday, January 14, 1918
At Phila.
Went to show
Slept at y.m. and ate at the homestead

Friday, January 18, 1918

Sunday, January 20, 1918
Left camp
Bright and clear
92 left

Monday, January 21, 1918
Transport No. 16

The entries raise more questions for me than they settle. Was the recording of each day's weather a farmer's practice, or a more fundamental meticulousness? Why no mention the friends he must have made, or the leaders he may have hated?

The crossing on the transport ship was rough (the entry for Wednesday, January 30, 1918:  Rain/Sick/Spewed. That was typical). Then comes France:

Saturday, February 9, 1918
Arrived at Salles-du-Chus at morning and unloaded guarded prov
Had beans, tack and wine
Cool and cloudy

Saturday, April 6, 1918
Transfer for front
Left Selle-chin-cher
Partly cloudy

Monday, April 8, 1918
Arrived at camp and took truck

Tuesday, April 9, 1918
Heard big guns

Thursday, April 11, 1918
Drilled and had a ball game and moved toward front

Monday, April 15, 1918
Did guard in front-line trenches

Tuesday, April 16, 1918
First shot
In dugout and hearing shrapnel

Wednesday April 17 1918
Occasional shelling is all

Thursday, April 18, 1918
One lad
Fingers shot out

Friday, April 19, 1918
Occasional shelling on western front

Saturday, April 20, 1918
Few shots were exchanged

Sunday, April 21, 1918
Went out and put up barbed wire in no man's land

Monday, April 22, 1918
Nothing important but artillery duels

Tuesday, April 23, 1918
Got hit by shrapnel

Wednesday, April 24, 1918
Went to hospital at Toul

Thursday, April 25, 1918
Slept and read
Light diet

Friday, April 26, 1918
Played checkers and read

Saturday, April 27, 1918

Boredom finally punched through a taciturn nature that had deflected even artillery shells; that last entry he wrote in all-caps, with jagged letters. And there it ends.

I finished transcribing his entries into my MacBook on March 1, 2009, 6:54 a.m., late-winter ice ticking on thin bedroom windows. After five hours of typing I still knew nothing about the larger circumstances of his life, beyond those recorded days that could have belonged to any soldier of that era.

But as I stepped into the living room of the old house, rubbing at a face puffed by insomnia, I lowered my hands to see Burgott staring back at me from the faded photograph on a side-table. At that moment I felt I understood a little better the laconic, rugged spirit behind that half-smile. I felt that maybe the tiniest scrap of his life had been yanked back from time.

A few hours later, back in New York, I logged into Gmail and saw the frantic emails from a half-dozen colleagues and editors, screeching through cyberspace about deadlines, layouts, the magazine world and thus "Life As We Knew It" imploding upon itself. Same old stuff. Ordinarily, reading those missives, my heart would have sped; I would have busily started adding my own turbulence to the data-slipstream. In this instance, though, I sat back in my chair and stared out the window at Brooklyn. Cloudy. Mist.

I closed my MacBook.

My lips made a self-conscious attempt at aping that long-ago grin. Think wry, I told myself. Occasional shelling is all.

When you read entries about stringing barbed wire in muddy No Man's Land, it sort of puts your own franticness in the right perspective.

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Articles in this Issue

Mud, by Jane Ciabattari
Breaking Apart the Family, by Stan Rose
War Journal, by Nick Kolakowski
The Hippie Apocalypse, by Rob Kirkpatrick
Geography, by Kyle Boelte
Dendrology, by Kreg Abshire
Philosophy, by Simon Critchley
April 2009


Nick Kolakowski is an editor and freelance writer living in New York. He is currently the technology editor at eWeek.com but has written for The Washington Post, AARP The Magazine, Sound & Vision, Trader Monthly and several other publications.

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