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Not Quite Over, Over There

June 2024
2min read

The November rain came steadily down, cold, persistent, promising snow, as it had for days. The last fallen leaves of autumn floated down the streets, carried along by the steady streams flowing toward the stormsewer gratings. Some people thought the rain was caused by the firing of the guns in Europe, where the Great War had gone on for more than four years. Others said, no, there had been many other Novembers with rain like this, at the beginning of winter.

In northern France the armies—German and Austrian on one side; French and British, and lately American, on the other—had dug miles of trenches, facing each other across the torn and ravaged strips of earth known as no man’s land. From time to time men from one army or the other would climb on crude ladders from the trenches, going “over the top” to try to take the positions held by their opponents. They advanced through no man’s land, in the face of rifle and machine-gun fire, artillery and mortar shells, and, if weather and wind were favorable, poisonous gases.

In America children ran up to each other, threateningly, shouting, “Are you for Kaiser Bill, or are you for Uncle Sam?” Grown people bought Liberty bonds and complained about the high cost of living. People ate “Liberty Cabbage,” instead of sauerkraut, and children got “Liberty Measles,” the German variety being out of fashion.

Out of the November rain a boy of twelve or so years crashed through the front door of one of the big houses, shouting, “School’s out! The war’s over!” In his hand he carried a newspaper, with great black headlines covering half the page.

His mother cried, “Let me see that!” She grabbed the paper, read the lead story, and ran to the telephone, to call neighbors and friends. Turning back to her son, she said, “Raymond, get the flag out of the hall closet and put it up on the front porch. Charles can help you.” So Raymond and Charles took the flag, carefully unrolled it, and inserted the staff in a bracket on one of the pillars of the front porch. It hung limply in the rain.

Charles, who was five years old, went back in the house and put on his cap and his sweater and his coat and his mittens and his red rubber overshoes. From his room he got an old brass school bell, with a black wooden handle, which was loose. He took the bell out on the porch and sat down on the wooden steps leading down to the sidewalk. He was close to the flag, and the overhang of the porch protected him from the rain. He sat there for a long time, ringing the bell, with the flag overhead. People passing by waved to him, and he answered with an extra ring of his bell.

Later that day the news came that it was a false armistice after all. The Allied generals had decided that the fighting would go on until the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, for the sake of symmetry and symbolism.

I grew up, and as a man, I did not remember the real armistice, two days after the false one; but I never forgot sitting on the steps, ringing my bell in the cold November rain.

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