The Last Letter: A Reflection on a Soldier’s Letter from WWI

Soldier WWIToday I haven’t been feeling well, so I’ve had the heating pad, pencil and notebook, and research in bed with me today. My Master’s Thesis deals in part with Mitchell Reid’s book, “The Vacant Chair,” and how hand-written letters become a replacement for that vacant chair within the domestic sphere. One of my readings today was a small booklet, not more than 90 pages, of fragments of letters that a young nineteen year old French lad, who had been studying in school to become a missionary, wrote home. {The book was published in 1917 and reprinted in English in 1918. The title is “For France and the Faith.”}

Alfred Evgene Casalis merged his role as a man of faith and as a volunteer soldier, his ideals ardently expressed in his letters home. He believed it to be his duty for country and for his fellow man to stand along side of those who fought at the front, even though he was a pacifist, not only to defend his country but to minister to his fellow comrades.

He took part in the First Battle of Ypres in May 1915, and it is his last letter which touched me:

May 8th

Since Thursday evening I have been back in the trenches, knowing that the big attack is near at hand. And since that time my life has been one tense and anxious watching for the coming hour. But I am at peace, I fear nothing. I shall be able to do my duty with the aid of God.

The bombardment is becoming more and more violent. Today, particularly, the artillery is firing without a stop and one can hear only the noise of the shells. They whistle through the air, on a level with the trench, like a great heart-rending sob. Then they explode over yonder with a dry crash, and everything flies – earth, wood, and iron. Finally come the shell splinters, reaching up to where we are and falling on all sides. And to think that it is scarcely the fiftieth part of the artillery surrounding us which is firing! What will it be like when all belch forth at once? Therefore I am hopeful. The attack can not fail to succeed. There will be some wounded, some killed, but we shall go forward and far—–

This letter was incomplete. A footnote made at the very end noted “The letter was unfinished and was found in the pocket of the capote when he was buried.” 

Sent back to his mother and father, the last letter found its way home as a material reminder of its author in the visual image of the vacant chair at the dinner table. Alfred’s life was cut short, his last hours filled with the sounds of guns and death. Within the exploration of my thesis, I discuss how families during the early twentieth century coped with the lost of a loved one during WWI, especially if they could not even perform the ritual of normal grieving and burial. How important were those letters to the family?  In the case of Alfred, the Major of his company, wrote his parents that his body was not recovered, it was learned later that he was placed “in a common grave dug on the battlefield near the place where he fell.” It is not a wonder then, that his family published this small booklet of certain parts of Alfred’s letters. These were the last material memories they had of him, a symbolic representation of their son, which they wished to share with the rest of the world. This is how they finalized the grieving for the son who would not come home to fill his vacant chair.

Reflections of a Graduate Student – Year One.

imagesCA20KNSZWell the first year of graduate studies are completed. I have discovered quite a few things about graduate school. I will list my top ten as follows:

1. Having the department head as your Historiography professor the first semester is scary, especially when he looks at you during seminar with a look that says: “Why are you here?”

2. My office is in the basement and I see no sunlight for a good part of the day. I’m happy summer is here.

3. Students, whose papers you grade, feel like you are out to get them, when in fact, you are only trying to help, and they look at you with a look that says: “Why are you here?”

4. Grading 80 finals in two days is torture, especially when they are all essays and answer the same 5 questions. I applaud the professors who do this for 4 classes at the end of the semester.

5. Your “Statement of Purpose” really doesn’t have a purpose for getting you into the Masters’ programs. They don’t even look at that until you apply to Phd school.

6. You can change your thesis at least a hundred times before you get something cohesive.

7. I have lost weight hoofing from the commuter parking area at the very back of Clemson with my numerous bags of books. If you don’t phone the meter maid at the campus police that you’re dropping off books before you park your car in BFE, you will get a ticket if she sees you doing it, and will give you a look that says: “Why are you here?”

8.  There’s never enough research.

9. Russian literature is actually pretty fascinating.

10. Writing a 25-30 page research paper becomes second nature. I remember when I used to whine about 10 pages.

Any way, summer is here, so I’ll be posting a bit more. Lots of great things happening this year. Happy writing!

Searching for Primary Documents – The obsession with World War I

all-quiet-on-the-western-front-2As I begin the task of constructing my Master’s Thesis, I have found myself occupied with the search for World War I primary documents. I was happy to find a collection of 88 letters and assorted other materials from Ohio. Waiting to get them in the mail is hard: I’m impatient sometimes. Putting together the chapters and researching is going to be a great joy. This subject is near and dear to my heart.

Memory and commemoration of those who served and died in war, and the ways that people on the home front dealt with healing and piecing together their lives during this period is particularly interesting to me. The type of trauma associated with this war appears to be entirely different from any other war before it. This is what I’m discussing in my thesis. If anyone out there has a collection of letters from either the first or second war, and would be willing to let this graduate student have a moment with studying them, I would love to hear from you. I’m on a quest to discover something that’s never been discovered before. Guess that’s why I’m so obsessed with letters and memory.

A Reflection on 2012: And the World didn’t End!

100_2286I don’t know if you are like me, but I always reflect upon the year as it’s closing. I think I do this to see what I’ve learned, how I’ve behaved (did I do it badly?), how I’ve helped or assisted others, and is there a possiblity to grow in some aspect of my life. 2012 seems to have been a year of change for me. I’ve discovered things about myself, saw things about my relationship with Kevin in a new light, figured out that my path was destined to go a course I had no control over, and finally understood why people cling to material objects instead of each other.

I find it ironic that many people thought 2012 was the end of the world.  I watched the shows on History Channel which claimed this year, on 12/21/12, doomsday would happend.  It reminded me of periods in history when there were many predictions about the world ending, and yet all that happened was a change in the course of human events.  The world has been here for many millions of years, humans here for about 450,000 years and while the sun may be throwing out some mega solar storms, the human race is in no fear of being wiped from this planet.

2012 is a year of closing.  Our little solar system has revolved around our orbit of the center of the galaxy in it’s approx 26,000 year cycle.  The stars are now back to where they were in the sky 26,000 years ago, and we’ve entered into a new phase of human evolution…hopefully.  There seems to be a marked balance of people who have become aware of this and those who have not.  I would label it a fight between darkness and light, evil and good…you get the picture.  I can see it in their eyes sometimes.  There is either a hint of joy or the darkness of oppression.  I feel sad for those of the latter.

Lucky and I sat together the other day on the bed.  He looking at me and me looking at him.  (This was after our big Christmas dinner in which Kevin’s daughter Carleigh would have said we had food babies).  He and I made a pact that since the world didn’t end, we would venture out together to enjoy walks in the mountains like we used to do before I started back to school.  I also told myself that this next year, 2013, would be a year in which my life would not belong to me.  It would belong to others.  2013 is a year in which I will become a servent of others: my students, my children, my parents, my friends, those I know and those I don’t know.  I will strive to be a giver and not a taker.  Make changes for the betterment of the world and it’s people, and cling not to material things, but to those I love.

I’m glad the world didn’t end, because I’ve got a whole lot of living left to do.

Cats and Spiders: History of Native American Totem Animals

Lucky and Nanners – Best Buds

I don’t know if it’s because of a full moon approaching or we’re nearing the cosmic alignment with the center of the universe, but lately I’ve been having some weird dreams which involve, much to my horror, spiders, with an occasion cat thrown in just to mix it up.  Seeing that I have been inducted by association into the Henderson Comanche Grey Mountain clan, (my boyfriend’s family) it made me think about the history of Native American belief in spirit animals.

Native Americans took great stock in spirit animals, believing them to be totem animals.  A totem could be the symbol of a tribe, clan, family or individual.  Indian tradition connects individuals with at least nine different animals which accompany one through life.  It was believed that these different animal guides come in and out of our lives depending on the direction we are headed in, and the tasks that need to be completed along the journey.  These totem animals are with you for life both in the physical and spiritual world and while animal guides may change throughout your life time, it is the one totem animal that acts as the main guardian spirit.

Well, I have dreamed off and on about several types of animals during my lifetime and they always seem to be leading me somewhere in my dreams, but my one totem animal is differently the cat.  Sometimes the spider drops in on occasion both in the dream world and the physical world.  When the big hairy mountain spiders (they look like baby tarantulas) suddenly spring into the middle of the kitchen floor, I can’t kill them.   I just sweep them gently into a dustpan and herd them out the door.

I was curious to find out what my dream animals meant, so I did a little research and found the following:

Bear:  Industrious, instinctive, healing, power, sovereignty, guardian of the world, watcher, courage, will power, self-preservation, introspection, and great strength.  (Dreamed a lot of the bear three years ago during a tough moment in my life)

Cat: Guardianship. detachment, sensuality, mystery, magic and independence. (always have dreams about cats)

Snake: Impulsive, shrewdness, rebirth, transformation, initiation and wisdom.  (I dreamed a lot about the snake when I moved up to the mountains)

Tiger: Strength, valor, power and energy. (I’ve had several dreams about riding on the back of a tiger and it usually happens during some stress or family problem)

Wolf: Loyalty, perseverance, success, intuition and spirit.  (I had a dream a couple of months ago that a black wolf was fighting my cat in my dream.  The cat was in front of me protecting me from the wolf).

And of course the Spider: Balance, wisdom, creativity, communication.

For fun reading this summer if you like history, I recommend “The Great Cat Massacre.”  This is on my list.  Early 1700s in French history.

What’s wrong with kids today? Disrespect and Video games!

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending two days a week in one of  the local middle schools here in the area.  This participation with teacher observation and teaching some lessons is part of my practicum experience as I get certified.  While my goal is to obtain my PhD and teach at the college level, I still want to see what is happening with students coming up through the school system, and who will be there in college just about the time I am starting out as Dr. Connie Wallace.

To the say the least, it’s been a very interesting, enlightening and enjoyable experience.  I had to chuckle over the past two semesters, because I’m hearing a familiar phrase from many of the teachers whose classrooms I’ve had the opportunity to join and observe.  “What’s wrong with kids today?  There’s no respect anymore!”  There has been some suggestion that maybe video games, technology, texting, cell phones, etc. has contributed to the downfall of our students’ behaviors.

I chuckle because as a history student, this phrase has popped up in each and every generation throughout known time.  “What’s wrong with kids today?”

Generations following their parents will always hear this familiar phrase because things are forever changing.  Nothing ever stays the same.  Those that realize this are wise.  In the 1950s, it was the beatnik movement and rock-n-roll, in the 1960s, it was anti-war movements and free love, in the 1970s platform shoes and ….polyester, in the 1980s it was big hair and punk, in the 1990s it was the home computer and video games, in the early 2000s it was cellphones and 3-D, and now, we are moving into an education system in which technology must be utilized because our children are smarter than what we give them credit for.  Toddlers are using interaction with smart boards, video games and computers, and once older will probably be able to program anything given the opportunity.

The only problem I am seeing with KIDS TODAY is the vast canyon that spreads before teachers and their students.  Those academic individuals that have been teaching for a while, are not integrating technology to their benefit.  They still want to do things the old way, and it only leads to classroom management problems – not because students are bad, but because they are not being challenged enough.  The government doesn’t get it either.  They think testing students to standards is the answer and that’s not it either.  Our students are going to be so tested out that they won’t want to come to school, and then we’ll end up being an illiterate nation.  In coping with this vast canyon between the generations, we need to develop teaching methods to hone into the skills our children have developed that we don’t have.  It’s not disrespect or video games, only the advancement of technology and our need to keep up with it.

The History of Valentine’s Day

As a Historian and Writer, I’m forever asking questions.  Today is no exception.  I was curious about this lover’s holiday and wanted to know just how it got its start.  Of course it didn’t surprise me that it’s roots go back to Late Antiquity.  (Dr. Matthew Byron, our expert professor on Roman and Late Antiquity history here at Young Harris College would be so proud of me for using knowledge I learned in his class).

Saint Valentine began his career as the Bishop of Terni, in a providence outside of Rome.  He lived during a time when the Christian religion was still very new and persecution of those practicing the religion was in its heyday, as the elites and government of Rome viewed them as rebellious to civil law.  Defiantly the Bishop married Christian couples when it was forbidden and aided Christians in any way possible.  The Emperor Claudius Gothicus, also known as Marcus Aurelius Valerius Claudius Augustus or Claudius II, had Valentinus arrested and imprisoned.  (Valens was a very popular name at that time and it means ‘worthy, strong, powerful’)  The emperor took a liking to the priest for a while, until Valentinus tried to convert him to Christianity.  This signed his death warrant and after being beaten and tortured, they finally behead the poor man.

Saint Valentinus became associated with lovers because he had stuck his neck out to marry people during a dangerous time in Roman history.  February 14th was the day first established by Pope Gelasius in 496AD after Constantine’s reign, to celebrate Valentinus as a martyr of the faith.  (It was deleted from the Roman Calendar of Saints in 1969 by Pope Paul VI.)

The theme was not really adopted until the middle ages when Geoffrey Chaucer began his writing career.  Best known for “The Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer was instrumental in sling-shoting the association of Saint Valentine with love and affection,.  Of course in today’s world it has the same marketing presence that Christmas and Easter carry, and we humans feel forced to spend lots of money on candy hearts and chocolate.  (I’m not totally against that! Especially if the box come with Flowers)

So, thanks for sitting through my brief history lesson on Valentine’s Day.  Hope everyone gets lots of flowers and chocolate.