It hung right behind the stacks of hay in the stables part of our weathered garage:
Dad’s World War I doughboy uniform.
It was awesome. In my mind, mythical. Like Dad. I especially think about him on Veterans Day.
I discovered his uniform when I was about 8 years old. By then, it had to be about 50 years old. Even though it was covered in a clear plastic tarp and had to weather Oklahoma’s notorious summers and winters, it held its color.
Over the left lapel were bars of faded service ribbons. Above the uniform, hung his steel-bowl helmet.
Hanging from the front of his uniform was a canvas bag.
The bag really caught my eye.
About this time, I was into my G.I. Joe, army-man phase. To me, the canvas bag looked a lot like the packs that came with my G.I. Joe sets.
It was so cool that I wore it to school as a backpack. It could easily hold my books or my lunch. I proudly carried that “backpack” everywhere.
I had no idea what it really was.
Dad’s gear wasn’t all he had to remember the war. He also had a thick picture book that was given to soldiers after the war. As I skimmed through the book, I was fascinated by the battlefield photos. One photo really got my attention. It was of a soldier who was running in the open battlefield, clutching his throat. Hanging around his neck was a canvas bag like my backpack.
Curious, I asked Dad what had happened.
Dad usually looked more than happy to answer my questions. This time, he took a more serious tone. He told me that the soldier in this photo had not gotten to his gas mask in time. He had failed to pull it from his bag and had probably died from the mustard gas attack.
Dad looked a little glassy-eyed and said those attacks were bad. I don’t remember the exact words, of course, but I believe the conversation then went this way:
Me: “And you used this bag for your mask?”
Dad: “Uh-huh. Saved me many times.”
I don’t know how long it took me, but I do recall emptying my “backpack” of its contents and taking the bag back to where the uniform hung and putting it back where it belonged.
I wasn’t worried about remnants of mustard gas or anything like that.
I just knew it deserved better than being a little boy’s make-believe Army pack.