The First World War might have been fought by the ancient Greeks for all it is remembered by most Americans. And yet only nine decades have passed since this paroxysm of military malpractice was burned into the souls of a generation like a magnesium flare eating through tender flesh. The lives of young men were spent with feckless contempt, the mind-numbing waste excused with the ridiculous huckster's lie that this would be the war to end all wars.
Fourth of July smells like Black Cat firecrackers and tastes like fried chicken raised on earthworms and kitchen scraps, or so at least it seems in that cherry bomb-sized kernel of sharp boyhood memory that bounces around inside my untidy brain. World War I doughboys sat around the rough plank table in Atlantic City, Wyo., where our Independence Day meal was served, nursing nasty Roi-Tan cigars and icy tall-boy bottles of Miller High-Life. They were quartz-hard and serious men, not philosophically opposed to laughing, but with a living tendril of raw nerve still snaking back into the bloody trenches of France and the Great Depression that soon followed. The posing, posturing patriotism of politicians was of no more consequence to them than the latest fashions in Vogue magazine.
These men, Pete Facinelli for one and my almost equally curmudgeonly right-wing Granduncle George Bell for another, would no more talk of wartime exploits than prance down Main Street wearing one of the aforementioned frilly frocks. This reticence was particularly noticeable since they weren't otherwise shy about storytelling. Pete, especially, was always quick with a tale of his life in the mines.
In an episode worthy of the demythologizing HBO Western series "Deadwood," he once told of how a foreman with a grudge against a prominent Chinese offered him a dollar to cut off the man's queue, the lifelong pigtail that assured traditional Chinese a place in heaven. Pete had never possessed a whole dollar, and agreed to the mission only once it was explained to him that a dollar consisted of 20 nickels. Although cultural sensitivity was, in all fairness, never one of the strongest of Pete's many good traits, he had no idea what serious business this was: Writing in 1876, a western missionary noted "the man who deliberately cuts off another's queue, loses his own and his head with it in consequence." Pete barely escaped with his throat intact, but got his dollar.
When it came to war, Pete and his peers seemed to have no use at all for stories, implicitly believing in the ancient Chinese adage that "Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know." But although their uncomplaining heroism was deeply admirable, it's likely the stoicism and agreed-upon amnesia that followed World War I contributed to the subsequent horrors of World War II. The Great War's estimated 16.3 million deaths became just a downpayment toward the 62 million killed from 1939 to 1945. Arguably, the World War II generation has done a better job preserving our collective memory of the crushing personal cost of war.
Patriotism isn't - or at least shouldn't be - a simple-minded matter of waving the flag and calling down God's wrath upon whomever the sitting president has decided is our enemy. Real American patriotism consists of getting up and going to work, caring for family and leaving everyone else the hell alone. Far too many voters are easily fooled by politicians quick to prostitute the memory of the honorable and sacred dead in the service of corporate greed. Being mighty isn't what makes America great; America is great only because its people are. We need a lot fewer smart weapons and a lot more smart leaders, a lot more firecrackers and a lot less swagger.
Pete and his marvelous wife, Pluma, a giantess in spirit even more than in body, virtually lived in their vast vegetable garden in the summer. Pluma's famous cucumbers, source of at least 10,000 Mason jars of pickles, spread out across the hot black soil like a lover's hands. Biting into a charcoal-broiled cheeseburger crisscrossed by crisp dills, this July 4 I'll think of Pete and Pluma, and their quiet lives of integrity, strength and courage. Patriots.
Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco and is editor of the Chinook Observer.