Veterans Day – formerly known as Armistice Day until we realized peace would ever elude us -- seems a good time to tell my Great-Uncle Murf’s story. This November day of observance first began to honor the veterans of his war, World War I. And he was the archetypical American soldier. A Kentucky farm boy who’d never been more than a hundred miles from home, drafted but willing and patriotic, he did his duty without glory, without complaint.
Though World War I did not officially end until June 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the fighting ceased in 1918 “in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month.” The “war to end all wars” was over -- the world exhaled and began to dance in celebration.
Except Uncle Murf. In a hospital somewhere in France, he lay waiting to die. He’d been gassed.
World War I, called our first “modern” war, introduced chemical warfare to mankind. Alas, a modern battlefield death proved to be no less ghastly than the old-fashioned kind. Gas was a slow, excruciating killer that took five weeks or longer to claim its victims. Giant blisters formed on the skin, inside the throat and lungs, in the gentalia, and in the stomach where they caused hemorrhaging and vomiting. Severe headaches, a sensation of choking, respiratory ills like pneumonia, and blindness were typical. Those who did not die were scarred for life, subject to severe, recurring respiratory ailments, especially tuberculosis.
By divine providence, Uncle Murf survived. Still very ill, he was discharged on April 9, 1919, and sent home to Owen County. He was granted a military disability pension “for life” which the United States Army doctors told him would not be very long.
He would live until 1989, two weeks shy of 96. To the Army’s credit, they continued to pay his disability check for the intervening seventy years. Late in his life, they even gave him an unexpected raise because someone noticed that he was drawing less than the lawful minimum.
In the decade or two after the war he was often sick for long stretches. Over time, though, his respiratory ailments receded, until he was bothered by no more than the occasional cold. Until the end of his life, however, he remained bone thin, a six feet tall arrangement of sharp angles.
Today, somebody would write a book about his rehabilitation, call it The Murphy Plan to Reclaim Health or something. Uncle Murf, the original “Quiet Man,” simply lit in doing what had to be done on the farm to survive, working any day he could walk. He kept at it until he was about 90, hoisting tobacco upward into barn tiers, plowing, baling hay, whatever needed to be done. He probably would have kept on if his son had not insisted they sell the farm. By then, he agreed, figuring he’d done well enough for a man with a seventh grade education. He reminded himself that he’d bought a new Buick whenever he needed one, owned a brick house, owed a dollar to no one.
By the time I knew Uncle Murf, he was in his fifties, a kind fixture at all our holidays who made the best brown sugar fudge in the world. He was in his eighties before I had sense enough to ask him about his experience in the Great War. I could never get him to talk about his being gassed, though, or what it felt like to be drafted off an Owen County farm and shipped to Europe which might as well have been the moon, I suspect, in 1917. All he would share were a few bits and pieces that amused him.
He would laugh out loud remembering their orders to put gas masks on their cavalry horses before they put them on themselves. The foolishness of saving horses before men sill seemed ridiculous to him a lifetime later.
He remembered that J. A. Lee gave a silver dollar to him and every Owen soldier who left for the war from the Sparta train station. The largesse of that gift resonated through the decades to a frugal man like Uncle Murf.
And he told me about a pretty girl he’d courted briefly who tried to kiss him good-bye at the train station. “But I’d heard she’d gotten engaged to another man, and I wasn’t about to get mixed up with her again.” He chuckled, remembering her.
That was all I could ever pull from him about the war. Whether it was all he would let himself remember, or all he thought I should hear, I cannot say.
I do think that “seeing Par-ree” when he was twenty-five, as the song predicted, made him more adventuresome than my grandfather who was too old for the war. All I know is that he and Aunt Bessie would climb into the Buick every few years to visit exotic places like Florida or California or Canada while the rest of the family were stay-at-home sorts.
And he had a peculiar temper, the out of nowhere kind that takes you by surprise. He was a quiet man, more prone to listening than talking, a steward in the Methodist Church, generous, sober and ethical to a fault. But those who knew him well knew not to push him. The family joked that his red hair was the source of his temper. Now, I wonder if it could have been related to his experiences in the war.
On one occasion, Uncle Murf’s temper landed him in court charged with attempted murder after he shot an unarmed man. In fairness to Uncle Murf, the other man was two times larger than he was, and had a reputation for being a bit of a bully. After several weeks of politely asking the man to remove his property from a house and lot Uncle Murf had purchased, he gave the man an ultimatum. The deadline passed. The stuff was still there. And so Uncle Murf pulled out a gun and shot the fellow. Fortunately for everyone, the man did not die.
Amazingly, the jury acquitted Uncle Murf. He was a man of fine character, after all, and a veteran who should have already been dead.
Copyright © November 2015 Georgia Green Stamper