By Mary Popham (Contributor)
Reading personal letters and diaries brings an expectancy of secrets revealed. Something private that you, the lone reader, discovers. Employing her grandfather’s journals, letters from home, and her own sublime poems, the author Nana Lampton recreates a personal account of a critical time in America’s history. She writes of one year in the life of John Mason Houghland at Fort Riley, Kansas, while he trained U. S. Cavalry troops, then artillerymen, for WWI, in 1917. She intersperses her poetic text with pictures, worn, grainy—perfect to render the impressions of the times.
Aunt Cordelia writes to John Mason:
You are training first generation boys.
Teach them to go forward as Americans,
with respect and common sense. One of them
could be President one day. Try not to lose him.
Context reveals. In 1919 Harry S. Truman, trained at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas. “Funston’s main purpose was to train soldiers drafted in Midwestern states to fight overseas.”
What was it like in the barracks? The young captain’s journal entry from May 31st tells of a watchmaker from Carrolton, Missouri who gets a letter from his girl every day; a young fat lawyer who sleeps at every opportunity; a cigarette fiend who apologizes every night for not bringing his pajamas. The thoughtful man who trains them concludes the young man probably never owned sleepwear, or even a toothbrush. Later descriptions of the nights: mumbling, snores in different keys, shouts of “savagery at nothing.”
A particular instruction brings horror to the men: “If you have difficulty in withdrawing the bayonet, discharge the piece; or place your foot on the man and twist the blade slightly.” John Mason says, “I expect nothing but unpleasantness—which is as war should be.” Yet he still finds beauty. Granddaughter Nana interprets how he must have felt one hundred years ago as he realizes the same majesty in nature that now impresses her.
Would you look at that sunrise over the edge of the earth,
carmine with the full moon opposite, going down to China?
… If I weren’t training here
for war, I wouldn’t have been witness to this morning sky.
Destiny brought me. I am not a warlike man.
In “Loose Meditation,” John Mason’s granddaughter reads between the lines. While in such lovely, bucolic surroundings the captain evaluates his life and the circumstances that bring him to this plain filled with crows, hawks, running streams: “This is where they fought the Red Man. What a shame.” He thinks of other wars, cities torn up, and horses stolen. “They grow boys every twenty years for war.” He visualizes the West Point exercises, the heads of state when war threatens, those who begin the wars for medals and glory. He surmises that the general “[F]earing the sight of death in trenches, he never goes to see.” Acting out his part in the war training, he muses: “Is there a shelter for my heart?” Copies of his hand-written letters in the Appendix show that he found it in his soon-to-be-wife, Sara. “It is a strangely beautiful thing this finding the one of whom you have dreamed . . .”
Adding richness and depth to her book, Nana Lampton uses other poems and references from Aaron Burr to Cezanne, from Guy Davenport to Barbara Tuchman. Her message finds much resonance in quotes from the Latin poet and philosopher, Lucretius, translated by A. E. Stallings, who lived in the 1st century BCE. Speaking to the foolish race of mortals he says, “What groans you purchased for yourselves, what grievous injury/ For us, what tears you fashioned for the children yet to be!” It all lends to the idea that the war game, even the simulated warfare of training and drilling has always been an unsatisfying, and unreasonable response to what life should hold for all men in all times and lands.
Lampton’s lovely work is encapsulated in her poem, “Dust,” whose opening line gives the title of her book. Its essence is of memory, reminiscence, prayer, and resolve that the duties of war are upon the captain, and he will see it through. However, the seemingly useless, monotonous training exercises that will take them into war must not completely cover his soul. He must remember his childhood, keep himself clean, recall and anticipate beauty to keep his sanity: “abundant splashing from fountains in Renaissance Rome . . . apple trees and red rose bushes.”
Title: Wash the Dust from My Eyes: A Year in the Life of John Mason
Author: Nana Lamptom
Publisher: Accents Publishing (January 15, 2016)
Mary Popham holds an MFA from Spalding University. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays and book reviews have appeared in the Courier-Journal; LEO; New Southerner; Appalachian Heritage; and The Louisville Review. Her novel Back Home in Landing Run was published by MotesBooks.