Edith Wilson’s Box :: Over There

Al Billings

I caught a vicious flu in the spring of 1982, compounded by the fact that I was on the road with a country band working its way toward Indianapolis. I checked into the emergency room in a hospital in Fort Wayne, where a kindly doctor explained that the particular virus I’d contracted could persist for weeks. Consequently, I could join the band on stage some nights, and on others I was reduced to lying on my bed and staring at the ceiling.

We’d taken up residence in a seedy motel. I’d leave the door open at night and let the moist, mid-western air flow over me, a moist blanket of fog keeping me company. The motel manager, Harry, was eighty-five years old, and thoroughly bored with his job, but his son owned it, and Harry felt compelled to keep up his end of the business.

He ducked in early one evening and asked me how I was feeling. He’d heard about this flu, and he’d stop by and chat now and then and ask if I needed anything. Harry was, in fact, bored to tears with his job, and dying to talk. “You mind if I sit down and visit you?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, “come on in” “You mind if I get my tobacco and whiskey? If my daughter finds the stuff she’ll take it away from me.” I told him to make himself at home.

He was a gentle old man, pink-skinned, chubby, short of breath, and mysteriously delicate, as though he’d have had a difficult time cracking an egg without upsetting the chicken who’d laid it.

Harry swallowed a shot of whiskey and began giving me the history of Wayne County, the Indian battles, the Civil War, and the birth of modern times. He was acutely intelligent and a powerful narrator.

I asked him if he’d been in the army, and he had indeed, fighting in World War One, at first narrating the thrill of being a young man landing on the continent and marching into combat with his buddies, innocent, naive, and, like all young warriors, confident that whatever happened, he’d somehow survive.

But the war turned black with canon fire and machine guns, Harry watching his closest friends blown to bits. The Germans began gassing Harry’s regiment, leaving thousands of men permanently short of breath.

I asked, “Is that why you have a hard time breathing, Harry?” “Yea,” he said. “Mustard gas. I can’t breathe worth a shit.”

Harry slipped out of my motel room and came back with a small silver box in his hand. “Here,” he said, “Take a look at this.” I opened it, there to discover needles, thread, buttons, scissors, pencils, paper, military buttons and an assortment of other items. The box was beautiful, and as I picked up each item, Harry would furnish me with another bit of information. He seemed deeply conflicted, as though he wanted to both shut that box and keep it open forever.

When Harry’s regiment was preparing to ship out, Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith, made an appearance before his regiment, and she presented one of those little boxes to each young soldier, each with her name engraved on it. I kept staring at this tiny container filled with memories long since swallowed by history until the flu reclaimed my attention and I yielded to its persuasive power, and left Harry and his memories to his own devices.

November 20, 2013 7:49 pm

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