When I was a kid everyone called the place “Soldiers & Sailors.” It was an imposing stone edifice on Park Avenue that probably had another name, but inscribed quite clearly right over the doorway were those very two words: ‘Soldiers’ and ‘Sailors,’ so that was how we referred to it.
You walked right past it going from the Madison Theater to the Ohio Theater, so all of us scurrying from matinee to matinee became very familiar with the front of that building every weekend.
It had a dark portal of arching stonework that looked like an illustration from Dante’s Inferno, situated at the top of an ancient stairway of stone so worn and shaped by eons of weather, it clearly led to another—much older—dimension.
No one I knew had ever ventured up those stairs. It would have been a convenient place to sit while we were waiting for our Mom to drive by and pick us up, but no one ever sat down on those steps. It seemed like intruding on sacred turf.
You see, there were these big windows in the front of the building that looked down over the sidewalk, and seated in the windows was a row of old men who watched the world from behind the glass. We saw them peering down on us with inscrutable faces, like we were on the inside of the TV screen and they were watching a show that was not very amusing.
We were passing by; they were passing time. And apparently, time had indeed passed: decades passed, and whole generations passed.
Someone told me they were soldiers and sailors who had fought in the Civil War. This was the 1960s and the Civil War had been done with for 100 years, so it shouldn’t have seemed likely; but those guys looked decidedly elderly to me, and I was 13. The whole concept of aging at 13 is pretty relative.
One day an old guy came down those stairs while I was standing there waiting for my Mom, and he glanced up the street like he was also waiting for a ride. We stood there waiting together.
He seemed friendly enough, so I asked him if he fought in the Civil War.
He laughed so hard, so loud, so suddenly, he blasted a fine spray of spit all over me; which was nothing but hilarious to me. We laughed until he was in tears, and by the time we both could breathe again, we were old friends.
The War to End All Wars
His name was Avner, and I’m sure he told me his last name but it didn’t stick. Avner was the one who told me all about the First World War.
He called it The Great War, and explained that it was the War to End All Wars. As I said though, it was the 1960s and I was seeing American boys doing war in Viet Nam every night on the news, so obviously somebody mislabeled that 1918 page in history, or else somebody didn’t do their job right.
There was quite a bit of war talk when I was young, and a lot of it was all about how nobody wanted to go there voluntarily; so I asked Avner if he had been drafted into the Great War.
He explained that in 1917 the war was like a weird contagious fever that swept through the city: it was all anyone talked about; and every man who could march wanted to be a part of it. He said if you were out of school and under the age of 25, it was embarrassing to be seen on the street because people wondered why you had not gone to war.
He had a friend, a classmate, whose family name was Kaiser, and they actually had their name legally changed in 1917 because everyone was sneering at them like they were cousins of “The Kaiser” Wilhelm. That’s how all-consuming the war was in Mansfield.
So no, Avner was not drafted: he enlisted because that is what everybody expected of him. He went to boot camp in Chillicothe at Camp Sherman, and shipped overseas with the American Expeditionary Forces.
Lessons of History
I got to have three conversations with Avi that summer. He seemed amazed that someone under the age of 90 was interested in his story. We walked over to The Dog House to sit at a table, eat fries and talk about The War.
There are many things he told me that I will never forget and, in a lot of ways, he shaped the way I regard people in our town. He told me that Avner was his given name, his true name, his Jewish name; but people in Mansfield knew him as Mike or Mark or something like that because he took a more American-sounding label in school so that he would fit in.
He was the one who explained to me that in Mansfield in the first decades of the 20th century, Jews were not particularly well received, except by anyone who had been to war; because no matter what your heritage or your religion or your race or language: if you shouldered a rifle or cleaned a latrine or peeled a potato in service of your country, you were man enough to be a brother to veterans.
The Mansfield Part of the Story
This is the story I set out to tell today. Of all his tales of the trenches, of rats and cooties; of bombs and gas attacks; of airplanes and balloons and crows on the battlefield; this is the one that lodges in my mind and still makes me proud.
Avner was transferred out of his unit, and relegated and re-commissioned and shuffled all over the board in Europe during his term of war service, until he totally lost track of his schoolmate companions who enlisted with him. “I had seen no one from Mansfield in months,” he said, “and after so much blood and horror I was homesick for a friendly face. Then one day I entered a camp near the French front.”
“I saw a wheeled field army kitchen cooking breakfast, and when I went to get chow I noticed it had a panel on the side with some words printed in bold lettering. It said, ‘Made by the Eclipse Stove Co., Mansfield, Ohio, U.S.A.”
“It brought home very near to me.”
I used to look for Avner in the window whenever we went down Park Avenue West past Soldiers & Sailors, and even from the bus I could see him there, seated with his comrades. They sat in tall-backed chairs, and on a day when any chair was vacant, it looked like a grave stone marking the spot in that window of time.
Gradually those headstones began to outnumber the veterans, and then those chairs sat empty for a few years, fading in the sunlight until somebody took them out of the window. For me, that marked the real end of WW1.