The Great War’s end: a grand­mother re­mem­bers

Gulf Times - - AMERICAS - By Toni Rein­hold, Reuters

Ju­bi­lant New York­ers took to the streets when the Great War ended at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, my late grand­mother’s ninth birth­day.

The gritty Brook­lyn wa­ter­front neigh­bour­hood where she lived cel­e­brated might­ily, but a grim legacy of the war went on to take an even dead­lier toll.

“Peo­ple filled the streets. It was so ex­cit­ing, even though I wasn’t ex­actly sure what was hap­pen­ing,” Marie Starace re­called years later.

“They were laugh­ing, cry­ing, and singing. Some men fired guns into the air.

“A woman fell to her knees in the street with her hands to­gether as if she was pray­ing. She was cry­ing so hard that look­ing at her made me cry, too.”

De­spite the pas­sage of time, my grand­mother’s eyes filled with tears as she de­scribed the scene.

Later in life, dur­ing many tea­soaked sto­ry­telling ses­sions with me about her life, Ar­mistice Day re­mained a vivid mem­ory for my grand­mother.

The ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties had been an­tic­i­pated for days.

There had even been an inac­cu­rate re­port of an ar­mistice on No­vem­ber 7. It fi­nally came to pass on No­vem­ber 11, a date the ad­ven­tur­ous lit­tle girl, who was mostly called Mary, was sure to re­mem­ber.

A mul­ti­tude headed to the 14th Reg­i­ment Ar­mory on 8th Av­enue in Brook­lyn, she told me, and my grand­mother made the long walk from the docks with them.

To this day a bronze of a “dough­boy,” as sol­diers in the Amer­i­can Ex­pe­di­tionary Forces were known, stands there in the name of the “Men of the 14th In­fantry who were en­gaged in the World War 1917-1918.” The sculp­ture was do­nated by fam­i­lies who lost loved ones in the war.

The crowds swelled and marched on to where sol­diers were gath­er­ing near Prospect Park at the Sol­diers and Sailors Me­mo­rial Arch, ded­i­cated to those who fought to de­fend the union in the US Civil War.

The sight of the sol­diers brought the throng to fever pitch.

“Sol­diers were al­ready march­ing by the time I got to the park. When I saw the pa­rade, I thought they were cel­e­brat­ing my birth­day!”

She marched with them, she said, fondly re­call­ing a sol­dier who gave her a nickel.

It was a pre­cious gift, good for a small sack of flour or some ap­ples in a neigh­bor­hood where fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing her own, scraped at times to make ends meet, hard times made harder by the war.

On the steps of a house not far from where she lived, my grand­mother saw a young man sit­ting qui­etly by him­self.

“I won­dered why he seemed so sad,” she re­mem­bered.

She asked her mother, my great-grand­mother, about him.

“Mamma said, ‘Leave him alone, Mary. He’s shell-shocked’.”

The suf­fer­ing and de­pri­va­tion the war wrought hung heavy over Europe and the United States like so much can­non-fire smoke as peo­ple strug­gled to re­store equi­lib­rium to a shat­tered world.

Sol­diers re­turned home bro­ken, with men­tal and phys­i­cal wounds, some with lungs burned raw by mus­tard gas, oth­ers with the Span­ish flu, called La Grippe in Europe and ‘The Grippe’ in Brook­lyn.

The war to end all wars claimed some 17mn lives.

The pan­demic killed at least 50mn world­wide, about 675,000 in the United States, the US Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion es­ti­mated in its 100th-year com­mem­o­ra­tion of the flu pan­demic.

For the daugh­ter of ship’s pi­lot Sal­va­tore Starace and An­to­nia Es­pos­ito, ‘the grippe’ was an­other in­deli­ble child­hood mem­ory.

New York City’s Health Depart­ment strug­gled to con­tain the dis­ease, quar­an­tin­ing stricken house­holds and re­strict­ing pub­lic gath­er­ings.

My grand­mother re­counted bod­ies be­ing put on ice in­side horse-drawn trucks as morgues filled up.

Hospi­tal staffs were de­pleted by the flu, and my grand­mother told of men who had been medics in the Army pitch­ing in.

Her ma­ter­nal un­cle, Alexan­der Es­pos­ito, who served with the US Army, was one of them.

“Un­cle Al­lie vol­un­teered to help at the hospi­tal be­cause he had some med­i­cal train­ing,” she told me. “Mamma was wor­ried that he would get the flu and die.”

In Brook­lyn alone in 1918, 4,514 peo­ple died from in­fluenza from a pop­u­la­tion of 1,798,513, ac­cord­ing to al­manacs pub­lished in 1918 and 1920 by the Brook­lyn Daily Ea­gle news­pa­per.

Un­til she died in 1996, when­ever my grand­mother saw me go­ing out with an open coat, she warned: “But­ton up or you’ll get the grippe.”

By many writ­ten and pho­to­graphic ac­counts New York City threw cau­tion to the wind on Ar­mistice Day. “I never saw any­thing like that day,” she told me.

A No­vem­ber 11, 1918, Na­tional Ar­chives photo of a crowd in Times Square hold­ing up copies of news­pa­pers with a head­line about the sign­ing of the Ar­mistice to end World War I.

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