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ADELAIDE Independent Monthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Mensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 




 


 

 

 

 

 

A LOST VIOLIN, A LAST LETTER HOME
By Mike Dillon

 

 

 

 

The spoils of war is our knowledge of the world.
— Wislaw Szymborska

In 2013, a few months before her death by cancer, my 87-year-old mother, a beautiful, stoic woman who loved to swim the cold waters of Puget Sound, held back tears as she handed me a browned, brittle piece of paper. I had seen the paper once before, shortly after my grandfather died.

With a strange, out-of-body feeling of fulfilling a part in a story written a long time ago, I accepted the last letter home from my grandfather’s brother Melvin, the uncle my mother never knew. Dated June 26, 1918, it was posted from Le Cendre, France.

Melvin’s epistle was one of hundreds of thousands posted by American boys from the Great War. The day after Congress declared war on Germany, my great uncle and his little brother, my grandfather, joined up in their hometown of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to keep the world safe for democracy. They were 18 and 17, respectively. My grandfather fudged his age, an easy thing to pull off in those feverishly patriotic days.

He returned home alone.

“The war is beginning to look pretty good now & I suppose we will be up on the front one of these days to help with the finishing touches, at least we hope so,” Melvin wrote with his fountain pen in a tidy, backward-leaning script.

In September 1918, before moving up the line for the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Melvin left the violin he brought from home with a pretty, dark-haired young woman in a village in eastern France. In October, as their unit crossed a field toward the German positions, a shell fragment killed my great uncle as my grandfather jogged beside him.

The violin remained — remains — unclaimed.

November 11, 2018 marks the centenary of the final hour of the final day of the final month of World War I, a catastrophe that took perhaps 18 million military and civilian lives — 110,000 of them American — over “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans,” as Otto von Bismarck had prophesied. The politicians will have their day on the podiums, their rhetoric drifting over the killing fields and military cemeteries of France as they remember “The War to End All Wars” — which laid the seedbed for an even greater inferno.

My mother said my grandfather, a man averse to self-disclosure, spoke just once about how his big brother died and the story of his violin. It came out of the blue one day as he drove her home from high school. He chose his words carefully, she said, like an assayer   weighing nuggets of gold. This would have been in the early 1940s, in the middle of World War II.

My grandfather, tall as Lincoln, gaunt as a blackthorn cane, lived until 79 and is buried in Seattle beside his second wife. Once, at a family gathering in the 1950s, I shyly watched from the margins as his eyes drifted from the conversation to stare off into the ether. The conversation continued without him, accompanied by the ice tinkling in a half-dozen highballs. Watching him — maybe I was 8 — I felt like one of God’s spies. Over the years, I spotted those psychic excursions a few more times. That was a normal part of the household scene, my mother confided after he was dead: He’d disappear into himself and return, slowly, as the world continued around him.

I first read Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” in a schoolbook anthology when I was 10 or 11. As Nick Adams’s fished and camped in Upper Michigan, I was right there looking over his shoulder. “Big Two-Hearted River” is the last story in Hemingway’s first full-scale book, “In Our Time,” published in 1925. The story mentioned neither war nor trauma; those who had read the preceding stories from that collection knew Nick had suffered both. I had no way of knowing that, yet I sensed something was off with him, especially when Nick came to the swamp he refused to enter — “in the half light, the fishing would be tragic.” Whether baiting a hook, pitching his tent or cooking flapjacks, Nick did everything just so. So intentionally right, in fact, that his skilled acts became a kind of ritual to keep some mysterious, inner tide of fear at bay — Huck Finn back from a world war.

My grandfather was a reader. I don’t know if he read Hemingway but he would have understood Nick Adams. His brother Melvin never made it far enough to look back in anger or anguish.

Melvin, like many of his doomed comrades, lived his last months in a patriotic, pre-battle glow, like the soldiery of Europe in August 1914, marching off into the maw of mechanized warfare accompanied by the resounding cheers the Western Front would render brutally ironic.

“I had a wonderful trip last evening to the top of the Plateau de Gergovie,” Melvin’s letter continues. ”When we got to the top we could see for many miles — ranges of mountains and the many wonderful picturesque villages.” The area, and views, near Le Cendre in the Massif Central is now a big selling point for the local tourist board.

After noting he had enclosed some “characteristic French embroidery,” Melvin writes: “We have been having some wonderful moonlight nights lately and they sure make me homesick.” The wonders of the Internet confirm the moon was full on June 24, two days earlier.

“We could even see uncultivated lands & forests which is a rarity in this country, as all of the lands are cultivated and all yielding some of the richest crops I have ever seen.”

The voice of agrarian, American innocence pushes on: “It is too bad tho the way the old people have to work to get their crops in. The American soldiers help them some and they appreciated it very much but never-the-less they have almost more than they can take care of. If the crops in the states are anything like those over here the war is practically ended for they say wheat will win the war.”
Melvin closes: “Write to us soon.”

“They say wheat will win the war” — an innocence that can only be betrayed.

Melvin’s script fills both sides of his stationary. Once finished, he folded the paper four times with origami-like precision, terminating in a half-fold. The artful creases, the fastidious, left-ward-leaning penmanship, the fact that he turned the stationary horizontally to accommodate the march of his long sentences, registers an unconventional sensibility. The kind of sensibility, in fact, that might carry a violin into war.

On November 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice, the Coeur d’Alene Evening Press carried this front-page headline, top-left: “Melvin Petersen Reported Dead.”

Several soldiers in Melvin’s sector had written home to their Coeur d’Alene families reporting the news.            
                                                                            
One Captain Ed Powell wrote to his wife: “No doubt you have heard of the death of Melvin Petersen. He was killed by a shell splinter. It was certainly a sad event to me, Pete was a cheerful boy, full of courage.”

The story noted Melvin’s father, Joe Petersen, “a prominent real estate man in this city,” held out hope. Months before he’d been notified his son had been seriously wounded, which proved false.

“Melvin Petersen was one of the two brothers, Melvin and Loren, who gave up their studies in the Coeur d’Alene high school to go overseas with company C. They were prominent in high school activities and popular in this city,” the story continued.

On Saturday, November 9 edition, two days before the Armistice, the Evening Press carried this front-page headline: “The Death of Melvin Petersen.” This time the paper ran a photo of Melvin: a dark-haired, square jawed image of All American young manhood in uniform.

From the newspaper: “The two brothers were more than brothers — they were talented musicians, athletes and foremost in all school activities, they gave up a promising future and entered the service of their country.

“In France, the boys were inseparable, being together as much as military orders would permit.”     
                                                                                                      
A few years after the war, Melvin’s body was shipped home for reburial, as were the bodies of some 46,000 other American soldiers. He lies in Coeur d’Alene’s Forest Cemetery beside his parents.

And Melvin’s violin?  A violin is not something blithely tossed on the trash heap.

I like to think it’s passed through several generations of a French family, accompanied by the story of the nice American boy who left it behind for safekeeping. The pretty, dark-haired, young French woman, now dead, would likely be someone’s well-remembered grandmother. Someone about my age — 67.

I also permit myself to dream a little. Or a lot. It’s possible Melvin’s violin is still played, bow lowering to strings to touch the present tense. The odds are not impossible.

I keep a framed copy of Vermeer’s “View of Delft” on the wall of my study. Now and then I stop what I’m doing and gaze at the handful of people gathered there on the foreshore of the River Shie, the spired city and stained-glass sky beyond them, as they go about their business towards forgotten graves, unaware as sparrows.

The day is so transparent and clear Vermeer’s painting seems a tender, posthumous vision, as if the artist had just been told he had three days to live. And so he gives us the world as it is, and all that it ever could be —the beautiful, shimmering world all of us must vacate.

I realize, now, when Melvin’s letter passed between us, my dying mother and I glimpsed ourselves gazing down upon a story we just happened to be in — larger, more resonant than the story of our own mere lives. Life was there before us, clear and whole, as we see it in “View of Delft. For one brief moment, the dancers caught sight of the dance.

Melvin’s letter will be handed over to my oldest son, now 34, when the time comes.

 

 

About the Authors:

Mike Dillon

Mike Dillon lives in Indianola, Washington, a small town on Puget
Sound northwest of Seattle. He is the author of four books of poetry
and three books of haiku. Several of his haiku were included in "Haiku
in English: The First Hundred Years," from W.W. Norton (2013).
“Departures,” a book of poetry and prose about the forced removal of
Bainbridge Island’s Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor will be
published by Unsolicited Press in April 2019.

 

 

 







 

 

 

     
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