Biff America: Gum and gratitude (column)
George Holtz had most of his leg blown off.
The headline in his local paper read, “GEORGE HOLTZ SUFFERED LOSS OF HIS LEFT LIMB—Will be crippled for life as a result of the cruel war.”
He languished in a French hospital for four months before being shipped stateside for further healing and to be fitted with a ‘cork leg.’
The good news was he had plenty of chewing gum.
I stumbled upon excerpts of an article from a small town Iowa newspaper from the early 1900s. The story reported on the plight of a local boy from Edgewood, Iowa, who went off to fight in World War I.
George Holtz was one of millions who was killed or maimed in that conflict. Over the summer I read a few books about the “War to end all wars.” By most accounts, that war was a perfect storm of arrogance, pride and incompetence of the European and British aristocracy and could have been avoided.
So, depending on whom and what you believe, the suffering was preventable.
After his injury, George wrote to his mother, “Dearest Mother, I have been wounded by being hit by a high explosive in the calf of the leg … it was found necessary to amputate to save my life … the amputation was just above the knee. Now don’t let this worry you, as I’m coming out of it alright and consider myself pretty fortunate and I believe that you will too once you hear the whole story.”
The Jerrys began shelling … sending over stuff as big as barracks bags. We were ordered into a French abri (shelter) for protection and were quite safe … then, without warning, a shell landed right in the doorway and I, being only five feet away, received the benefit of the explosion,” George continued.
Let me stop here for a moment to say what a beautiful turn of phrase that was — “and I, being only five feet away, received the benefit of the explosion.”
It is worthy to note at the time George wrote that he had a limited education. George, being from a small farming town in the early 1900s, probably quit school as soon he was old enough to work on the farm. He was born in 1895 and the war began in 1914, so I’m guessing he enlisted at the age of 19 or 20. I do know, after returning to his hometown minus an appendage, he finally graduated high school at age 30. So he wrote that beautiful letter with only a grammar school education.
George’s letter to his mum continues by describing his evacuation to a hospital, his surgery, amputation and the fact that he was being cared for by American nurses and surgeons. He mentioned that a French priest had visited him and he had made his confession and received the Sacrament of Communion.
I can only attempt to imagine George’s suffering and uncertainty as he contemplated his life ahead while alone, in pain, in a strange land. Despite all that, this solider managed to find something to be grateful for. Included in his first letter home was the acknowledgement of a gift from his sister: “I received the chewing gum sister Bertha sent me.”
A week later George asked a nurse to write that same sister (my guess he was in too much pain to write himself). He asked the nurse to inform his sister Bertha of his injury and current condition and included in the letter written by the nurse was, “he asked that I tell you he has received the gum you sent and to thank you very much.”
George returned home to Edgewood, Iowa, with his cork leg and lived into his 90s. He supplemented his pension by playing in various local dance bands, one being ‘George Holtz and the Treble Clef Serenaders.’ From what I gathered, he lived a good life, was cherished in the community of Edgewood, Iowa, and loved by his friends and family.
Pretty much, all I know about him I have included in this column. But I will go out on a limb (no pun intended) and guess George was one who sees the glass half full. How else can you explain that through the pain and while facing the prospect of a life with only 3/4 of his appendages functioning he was still able to be grateful for chewing gum.
According to Meister Eckhart “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘Thank you’, that would suffice.”
In even the most gifted lives there will be tragedies of happenstance or genetics affecting ourselves or those we love. But, in those same lives, there will be many gifts and magic moments. Lucky is the man/woman who is able to balance the catastrophes with recognition and appreciation of the good times and blessings — and chewing gum….
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul.” is available at local shops and bookstores or Shop.holpublications.com/products/biff-america-mind-body-soul.
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