Part of our Goodwill Series
Interesting theme for the People Development Network: goodwill, coincidental timing for me personally, after having spent the last five years of my career for the organization Goodwill, now, to spend some time thinking about acts of goodwill. I thought of a small act of goodwill that still impacts my family three generations later. It’s 1918. The world is engaged in a great war…
He was exhausted. Just nine short months ago he stood at the train depot in Grand Rapids, Wisconsin. A young man of 19, ready to join the war and give the Kaizer his due. Now he crouched in a trench surrounded by the smell of death just outside Soisson, France. Mortar fire exploded around him. He had already held too many friends as they died. The Germans had taken the city. The Americans were there to take it back.
That afternoon, like so many others the last few weeks, over what passed for a meal, he reached in his knapsack and pulled out a small envelope. Inside the envelope was a book. A handwritten book. A book written by his sweet Mary, the girl back home. In the book were pictures of friends, family and familiar places. His hands shook as he turned the pages remembering secrets shared with his beloved. What’s that? Orders from Command? Advance on the city? Quickly, he kissed the book, slide it carefully back in its envelope and tucked it in his knapsack.
Over the next few days the fighting was intense. The Germans were falling back. This city was ours! With hardly a moment’s rest they took control, pushing the front lines. All this fighting, all this death for a few hundred meters of gain. Finally, a moment of respite. He reached inside his knapsack longing to stare at her face. But wait…where is it? Desperately, he dumped his knapsack on the ground. The meager supplies scattered in the mud. No envelope. No book.
A year later, the war was over, the soldiers mustered out and returned home. The postman walks his route. He delivers a lone letter, addressed to young Mary, the school teacher, postmarked New York. Mary was curious. Since her Hal returned six weeks ago from defeating Germany, she rarely received a post. She tore open the envelope to find a letter…and a book…a handwritten book…a book lost somewhere along the front, near Soisson, France. Tears streamed down her cheeks, she could hardly call Hal’s name. Thinking something was horribly wrong, Hal raced to her side. Seeing the book, her took her in his arms and held her tight.
Eighty five years later, I sat just off the main square of Soisson, waiting. Waiting until my mother would be awake back in the states. Finally, it would be 7AM back home. My dad answered. Hi dad, can I talk to mom? Hello? Hi, mom, can you guess where I am? No….where are you? Mom, I am sitting at a restaurant in Soisson. Like her mother 85 years prior, she started to cry. She could hardly call my dad’s name. Gene, Jeff is in Soisson. Soisson? What’s he doing in Soisson? The book, Gene, the book. Dad’s book from the war.
Dad got on the other phone as I told them about my excursion. I had been traveling back and forth to France for the last several years for my job. This trip required that I stay over a weekend. So, rather than being a tourist around Paris, I rented a car and headed north. I had heard the story of the book for years. My grandfather was a Doughboy in World War I, The Great War. My grandmother had sent him the handmade scrapbook to help get him (and her) through the time apart. Somewhere in battle he lost the book. A Sergeant Doss from New York found the book and carried it all the way home with him. Within days after arriving back in the states he sent it to my grandmother stating “I can write about only hoping to get an answer some time in the future pertaining to young man as I don’t know whether he got through this awful worlds (sic) war.” I wanted to follow in his steps.
So, after getting lost trying to leave Charles DeGaulle Airport, getting stuck while a peloton from a local bike race had the road closed
, dropping my cell phone (and my safety net) in the middle of a highway while crossing to a military cemetery and having it hit by a motorcyclist, I was finally in Soisson. I wandered throughout the city. It was a beautiful summer day, a group of men were playing Pétanque in the park, women bustled in and out of the shops. No one gave notice to American snapping photos of the monuments. That afternoon I stood at the Oise-Aisne American Memorial, among its 6,000 crosses, so many crosses. So many names. So many stories.
Later, after getting lost again. Later, back at my hotel. Later, after learning “Ne pas retirer le disque du lecteur” on the dashboard of my rental car meant there was a Nav system (NOW they tell me!). I thought about that young couple, about their love, about their sacrifice. I thought about the thousands of men, the thousands of women who sacrifice. I thought of Sargeant Doss and his small act of kindness, his small act of good will; bending down to pick up a small book; carrying that book throughout the remainder of the fighting; bringing it with him back to the states; and more than a year after picking it up, mailing to someone he knew would treasure it.