Pappy and I: A Mini-memoir


John Cawlfield
By John Cawlfield

The Battle of the Argonne Forest was the last major offensive of World War I. Considered the largest battle in United States military history, 1.2 million American soldiers took part. One of those soldiers was Christopher D. Cawlfield. He was a machine gun operator for the American Expeditionary Forces. He would also become my grandfather thirty-five years later. I knew him as Pappy.

Four weeks prior to shipping out to France, he was a nineteen-year-old private first class who went AWOL. When he returned, he was thrown into the brig. After being asked the reason for being AWOL, his commanding officer released him and said, “I wouldn’t give you a plug nickel for a soldier who didn’t put family first.” He was busted to buck private and sent overseas.

Pappy in his 
WWI uniform
Pappy never talked about his experiences in France, except once. We were in his shop, a rectangular building behind his house in Ash Grove, Missouri. The south wall was lined with wood work benches. Tools lay scattered about. Light was provided by a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Along the north wall was a potbelly stove and old tool chests. The floor was dirt and the place smelled of oil and wood smoke. I was fascinated by one object sitting on one of the work benches. It was an old artillery shell fashioned into a lamp. Welded to
the top of the shell were two narrow bands of metal curving upward. Each was attached to a World War I helmet that served as a lampshade.

Two wars
When I asked about the lamp, he said, “I made it to remind me of the day I was feeding ammunition into a .50 caliber machine gun being fired by one of my buddies. I felt something hit my helmet. Ducking down into the trench, I took it off. There was a two-inch groove, just above the center of my forehead. A bullet had struck it and ricocheted off.” He paused, ran a finger along the front of the helmet and with a faraway look said, “That helmet saved my life.”

Another nineteen-year-old Cawlfield faced a different war. It was February 2, 1972. The location was an attic apartment on Walnut Street just north of the Southwest Missouri State College campus. Later that year, the college would become a university. Seven college buddies huddled around a thirteen-inch black-and-white television set. I was one of those young men. We were gathered for a reason. The 1972 Military Draft Lottery was drawing birthdays for 1953.

Beer was the preferred beverage that night, even though we were all under age. We figured if we could go to war, we could drink beer. It was a difficult time to be nineteen. The Vietnam War was unpopular and considered unwinnable. We were all scared and we knew for certain, if our number was below eighty, we would be going to war. I drank another beer.

Pappy becomes an option
As I sat, nervously listening to the birthdays and numbers being drawn, I pondered my options. My first was to join the Missouri National Guard Military Police. My second was Pappy. On a Sunday, two weeks before the lottery, Pappy and I sat alone on his front porch swing, as was our habit. I was his only grandson and he was my only surviving grandfather. We would swing back and forth slowly and he would cut off a chew. I would drink Dr. Pepper. The conversation would be about anything, including cars, girls, the weather, his garden, and occasionally the war in Vietnam. This particular day, he was quiet. Suddenly he said, “What are you going to do if you have a low number?”

I shrugged and mumbled, “I don’t know.”

“I’m serious, what are you going to do?”

“I’ve got an option, my buddy's a military policeman in the Missouri National Guard.”

He nodded, leaned over the edge of the porch, and spit tobacco juice. He was silent again for a long time. “Don’t want you in the military.”

“Not an option if my number’s low.”

He nodded again. This was the man who taught me how to fish, fry bacon, grow tomatoes, and, by example, be passionate about family. He was my hero and mentor. After a long pause, he continued, “I have an option for you.”

I stared at him. “What?”

“If you have a low number, I’ll pay your way to Canada.”

At first I thought he was kidding, so I kept staring at him. He wasn’t kidding. I really don’t remember the conversation after that.

The drawing
The first number drawn of our group waiting in the apartment was my best friend’s. It was in the low 300’s. One of my high school buddies drew the number seven. He quietly left the gathering and the next day joined the Navy. The rest of my friends in the room drew numbers above 135.

My birthday was the last one of our group to be drawn. When they announced June 23, my heart stopped and I held my breath. Number 212. I’m not sure when I remembered to breathe again, but I was safe. I would continue to attend college and my life would go on, uninterrupted.

The question of serving our country never came up. It was a different time for our nation. A time of a hated, meaningless war, a deceitful president, and a populace who regarded our returning veterans with disdain.

Pappy didn’t want his grandson going off to another silly war. He was prepared to make sure I had a future. One more example of his passion for family.

I graduated from college, married, and raised two boys. I am glad that before Pappy passed away, he got to meet his two great-grandsons. 

Thank you Pappy. I still miss you after all these years.

John Cawlfield is treasurer of Springfield Writers’ Guild (Missouri) and writes short stories and novels under the name J.C. Fields. His debut novel is The Fugitive’s Trail. He may be reached at www.jcfieldsbooks.com

Photos courtesy John Cawlfield.

Send me your mini-memoir of 500 to 1,000 words and it could be published here. See submission guidelines.

5 comments:

  1. Excellent, well-written story.

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  2. Touching account of a tender time. I admire the way you report the beginning of the Canada conversation, then let us know your mind was blown and you forgot the rest. That rings 100% true to me.

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  3. Thank you for writing this. I will share it with others in my memoir circles.

    My boyfriend (who would later become my husband) was caught up in the mess of draft issues in the mid-60s. It was a painful time for young men. My husband was a thinking man with an engaged heart and decided to enlist instead of getting drafted because if he enlisted he'd have some choices in how to serve. He chose to serve as a medic and help put people back together rather than kill people. Like you said, veterans were treated with disdain. It was such a sad time for all of us. Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights.

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  4. Has www.jcfieldsbooks.com moved? His website at that address was fantastic! I loved reading his short stories there, the site was really easy to use.

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    1. John closed his site and is developing a new one. When I have his new site address I will post it here.

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