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The Word From Whitney


Harry Buschman

“I need something special for Armistice Day. It’s comin’ up Friday y’know. Something patriotic ... inspiring ... y’know what I mean. If you can get the old man to open up we could get some great copy.”

That’s the last thing the special features editor said to me just as he handed me the address. “Take it easy on the old bird, he’s 104.”

Mr. Whitney no longer ate at meal times. Instead, he was fed. He slept and relieved himself whenever his family felt it was time he should. He was apprehensive at the approach of night. He could not see well in the dark, and the disturbing noises he heard in his youth kept him awake at night.

A great grandson slept in the bedroom with him. Not for protection or emergencies, but because the young man’s presence was a stimulus to the old man’s failing heart. If he were not there his family felt the old man’s heart might cease to function.

His 104th birthday last week was noted by his family but not celebrated. No mention of his advanced age was discussed in this house. Nothing was said about the future either – time was not discussed. The present was limited to the brief span of a moment or two, it was all there was.

Newsday sent me to interview him for a human interest article on the early years of the twentieth century. He was one of the few living men that had fought in the first World War. He had received wounds in the Battle of the Somme only three weeks before the armistice.

I looked at him sitting at his living room window, staring out with half closed eyes and I wondered why had they put him at the window? He didn't seem aware of what or who was passing by. I did not think of him as a living man. Asleep? Perhaps, but more likely dead or in some kind of unresponsive, catatonic state which rendered him unaware of anything outside himself. I wondered why he tolerated such a poor quality of life ... could it be better than the hereafter ... or maybe he was too far gone to make a decision of his own one way or the other.

A woman leaning on a cane stood next to him – his unmarried daughter Samantha, I was told. A woman in her eighties. She wiped his mouth with a silk handkerchief from time to time, and when she did so, the old man would seem to waken – his eyes would flutter a bit and he'd try to turn his head and look at her. "There, there," she'd say, then he'd drift away again to wherever he had been a moment before.

I told his elderly daughter I came from the paper about an interview for Sunday's magazine section. "They were obviously not aware of his delicate health," I said. "Perhaps I should tell them it's out of the question ..."

"He's perfectly capable of answering your silly questions," the old lady looked sternly at me. "He remembers everything – but you have to bend your head over, young man. You may not understand him."

"Does he really remember the beginning of World War I?"

"Of course he does. Ask him. You do remember, don't you, father?"

"Do you remember the beginning of the first world war Mr. Whitney?"

As far as I could see there was no reaction to our question so I asked it again slowly and distinctly, moving my lips as though I were talking to a deaf man. His daughter lost patience with me ... "He's already answered your silly question young man. Aren't you paying attention? Goodness, you're really not cut out for this kind of work, are you?"

"I didn't hear him ... it’s hard to know what he’s thinking isn’t it?"

"The war began with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne ... everybody knows that."

"Yes, I knew that."

"Then why did you ask it? He cannot waste his time sitting here answering questions you know the answers to, can you dear ...." she turned to him and wiped the corners of his mouth again ... and again he looked up as though he had been awakened from a deep sleep.

I looked at my notes again and noticed there was one question the editor told me to be sure and get an answer to. It was about the details of the battle in which Mr. Whitney was wounded just three weeks before the armistice.

"May I ask one more question?"

"If you must," she answered coldly. "But be brief, he needs his rest, poor dear."

I brought my face close to his and mouthed the words slowly and distinctly, “Do you remember the battle of the Somme, Mr Whitney?”

The old woman thumped the floor loudly with her cane. "That's enough," she cried. "How would you expect the poor man to answer a stupid question like that?

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the old man's eyes flutter and he turned his head towards his daughter. He stiffened violently in his chair. His legs shot out before him violently, jointless from hip to ankle. His daughter held his shoulders back in his chair, otherwise he may have gotten to his feet. It would be unthinkable to see the old man stand.

All the while his lips moved spasmodically and he mumbled in an incoherent and violent manner. It was apparent ... to me at least ... that if left alone he might eventually say something important.

Perhaps there was something in my last question to him – something that triggered him off. Was it possible there was anything he could add to the mountain of literature already written about the war and its final battles and its effect on the lives of that long dead generation?

The old woman glared at me as though I had somehow been the cause of it all. “You ... you ...” she tried to think of something dreadful to call me and then both of us noticed the old man had raised his arm and pointed at me with an accusing finger.

It was the first time I heard his voice and I dare say his daughter hadn’t heard it for a long time either. I expected it to be papery thin but it was surprisingly robust coming from a man his age. His eyes grew wide and seemed to stare at something that was happening far off and long ago, and while his daughter restrained him he said quite clearly ... “Mouquet Farm finally fell to the 11th Division, and we went on to Courcelette. It had rained and the weather was still warm for late October, there was the smell of the dead and the scent of phosgene and cordite in the air.”

He shook himself free of his daughter’s restraint and stared at me ... his eyes were in focus now, “I was with the British then. A corporal. The first day we gained a total of two miles and left a trail of 420,000 dead men in the mud behind us. You know what that figures out to be young man ... no of course you don’t. Well tell this to your newspaper ... for every inch we gained we left a dead man.”

I took his words down in Gregg, and I reminded him that the Somme offensive had been a great victory ... “It brought the war to a close Mr. Whitney ... the Germans surrendered.”

“The men behind us ... ask them about the victory, not me!” He was looking into space again. Something behind me. Something I couldn’t see. His daughter wiped his mouth again while looking at me anxiously.

“What have you done to him? He never talks ... look at the poor soul! There will be no further questions, do you understand?”

I had no further questions. The answer he gave to the one I asked shocked me into silence. It was a thought that had seethed inside him a lifetime. “I’ll let myself out, Ma’am,” I muttered as I backed away from the old man. “I’m really very sorry to have been so much trouble,” I added, “but the paper ... you see ... they were hoping for something uplifting ... patriotic, you know. Something for Armistice Day. It’s this Friday you know.”

She didn’t answer me. Her attention was riveted on her father. She wiped the corners of his mouth with her handkerchief and smoothed a few filaments of gray hair that had become mussed during his outburst.


“How’ja make out with old man Whitney?”

“Nothing we can use, boss ... there isn’t much he remembers.”

©Harry Buschman 2008

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