SOMBER THOUGHTS - SERIES 2 no.3
γλυκύ δ᾽ἀπείρῳ πόλεμος. (Pindar) Dulce bellum inexpertis. (Erasmus) War is sweet to those who have not experienced it.
I remember the first time I ever saw the 40 and 8s out in public. It was in Asbury Park, NJ but I have no idea why they were out in the street doing their 40 and 8 celebrations unless maybe it was around the fourth of July which is definitely a possibility. They were in something that looked like an undersized box-car or maybe a cattle car with slats that was being pulled along the street by a pickup truck and the men inside were either celebrating in a boisterous way or else they were just in a rage unless it was some kind of combination of both these things. I also think beer was involved but I was a bit too young to notice that sort of thing which I might have thought it was some kind of soda in a bottle.
Well, I thought their behavior was a bit unruly, to say the least, so when he came down to spend the weekend with us I asked Uncle Eddie a.k.a. Big Eddie a.k.a. my father why the box car said 40 and 8 and he replied La Société Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux which was pretty good because my father didn’t really know how to speak French and neither did I so I had to ask him what it meant and he told me.
Uncle Eddie picked up a lot of bits and pieces of knowledge that he was not shy about dropping into the conversation when he thought it would work and if you were persuaded that he was quite erudite or had some kind of expertise he didn’t go out of his way to disabuse you of any such a notion, not that I would actually know of anyone else who might try to get away with the same kind of thing.
If you asked him directly he would come out with the unvarnished truth of the matter in question but one time my mother got mad at him because he evidently went too far with his supposed expertise on geology and somebody called the question on him and my mother was embarrassed. I was not there.
My father’s willingness to have you believe he knew more than he really knew was maybe just a tiny bit of an evasion of the truth although he didn’t mean any harm and I guess he maybe thought what difference does it make if people think I’m more educated than I really am because I’m not doing this so I can take advantage of anybody. It didn’t really bother me when I was a child because I thought he really was smarter than a lot of the other fathers at school and I was maybe right about that, but then how much experience did I really have?
My father never came close to ever being in a war although he did enroll in ROTC at Ohio State. He was in the cavalry so he got to ride horses. I liked to wear his hat whenever I could but don’t ask me whatever happened to it. He knew his stuff on 40 men and 8 horses because it was at the time an active veteran’s organization that wanted its members to engage in charitable activities and also to have fun because they felt that being in a war was mostly not fun at all but they didn’t mind having people cheering for them when the parade went by. Maybe it was a way for them to get even with the people who sent them away to suffer and get injured and watch their friends dying.
The whole thing puzzled me frankly. I had already seen pictures of people riding in cattle cars because they were in those Life Magazine photo albums about what the Nazis did to Jews; those people were being taken away to be slaughtered – I knew that. The idea of riding around in a cattle car just for the fun of it didn’t make any sense to me based on the background knowledge I had at the time, but it was another war I suppose or a different historical context. Actually the 40 and 8 guys who rode in the 40 and 8 boxcars were also being taken away to be slaughtered in the trenches and so were the horses but it was a long time before I understood that with any degree of clarity. Yes I know perfectly well it’s not Remembrance Day, but I’m not sure I need some kind of a special occasion to help you remember what really happens when you send “our brave men and women” off to a war, which is no fun for the soldiers or for anybody else who gets in the way. I wonder if Prime Minister Harper ever gave any thought to this when he was still Prime Minister Harper.