There was a big, two-storied house in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania which we’d pass by each summer on the drive to grandma and grandpa’s house down the road in Mahaffey. Mom would drive slowly by the house, which was near enough to the street that the several men sitting on the porch could easily be seen. I watched them so deeply on the slow drive by that I can still see them now, fifty years later.
They were about the age then that I am now: 61. They sat on the porch, gulping with upwardly stretched necks like baby birds raise their beaks in the hope or knowledge that food will soon be gotten. The men gulped for..air? words? thoughts? sustenance? I don’t know. Their eyes strained in the same twistedness as their lips. Some drooled. Their shoulders and arms twisted against themselves in uncontrolled rotations and I remember my ten year old’s gasp when I realized the men were tied with towels to the chairs in which they sat.
There was a woman, a nurse with a white-winged nurse’s hat, who sat at one end of the porch watching the men. I guess she was there every day attending them in their constant moving. I could see the noises they all seemed to be making even though I couldn’t hear them: groaning noises pushed from red throats; unformed words caught in whatever blockages of brain or muscle stopped the thoughts behind the noise.
Somewhere during one the years we drove by them I learned why these men were the way they were. Maybe it was grandma who told me (it sounds like her words): “They were gassed in the war.”
Later still, I learned it was the later-outlawed mustard gas, used in World War One, and I learned that there were thousands and thousands of these men in Europe, and North America, twisting daily in muscle-wrenching ballets, the fortunate ones with nurses in winged hats, but many more alone in upstairs bedrooms or gray-walled hallways.
Veterans of the “war to end all wars,” as that war was called, for awhile.
Veterans. Thank you. Sorry we were so very, very wrong about yours being the last one..