HERE was a boy once upon a time born in Nebraska. He was born on the edge of a cornfield, where the corn and the prairie met, in a little sod house plastered inside with cotton sheeting, and with its one room divided into two by folding doors of the same material. He was sorry to be born, and cried about it, as many another Nebraska baby has done before and since. The wind rustled among the corn leaves to still the baby’s crying and his father came in from the plow at noon, clothed in brown overalls, and carried the baby up and down in his great sunburnt arms while the little mother prepared the dinner with her own hands and placed it upon the pine table. They were very happy living all by themselves in the little sod house where the great sea of prairie grass rolled its waves all day long about them as though it would swallow up their little island home. And the baby’s cries were hushed every day in its big sunburnt father’s arms before he went out to the cornfield and the breaking-plow, while the little mother worked in the little island home and watched through its single window the horses’ ears as they went up and down all day long through the long waves of prairie grass and the rustling corn leaves.
The prairie mice burrowed holes in the walls of the sod house and the rattlesnakes burrowed after the mice and occasionally got through onto the floor where the baby crept as he grew older, but that never harmed the baby nor daunted the little mother nor hindered the big sunburnt father from going to and fro through the rustling corn leaves and the tall prairie grass.
So the baby grew to be boy and pattered with bare feet in the paths that had been made through the tall prairie grass and played in the shade of the struggling young trees that were growing all around the sod house that now had a little frame addition in front. For playmates the boy had the grasshoppers and the ground squirrels, and Old Shep, the family dog, and the calf that was picketed by a short rope near the edge of the cornfield and the great waves that rolled across where the prairie grass used to grow, but where now grew a wheat field, and the sky and the clouds and the quail that ran along the ranks of rustling corn. The boy thought that the whole world was one great prairie with cornfields and waving grass and a clear sky and freedom every where. He thought so because that was the world he lived in and he had never visited any other worlds.
There came a time very shortly for him to start on a visit to other ones. It came one April morning when the little mother fastened a new straw hat to his waist by a cord and started him with a little tin pail in his hand across the sea of prairie grass and wheat fields to another little sod island a mile away. The straw hat sailed safely over the sea and found in the little island at the end of the voyage a fairy in a gingham apron and a white collar. The fairy had a wand and with the wand she pushed ajar the gateway to the other worlds. There was the world of words,—such a lot of people lived in it and you had to know them all by their faces the moment you met them. There was the world of numbers which was a very hard, exacting world to visit in—everything had to he so straight and prim and precise. And there was the world of history. Best of all the boy liked that. In it was General Washington crossing the Delaware and Napoleon upon the Alps, and Nelson breaking through the French line, and Paul Revere riding away through the night to Concord, and General Grant at the Wilderness, and over it all a halo. Many an hour did the boy steal away from the other worlds to live in this one. Many a time did he storm the heights of Quebec with Wolfe, or charge down Lundy’s lane with Scott. War and patriotism! Liberty and martial glory! Now and forever one and inseparable.
So thinking and living and dreaming the boy grew to be a youth. The clear Nebraska sky and the pure Nebraska air and the homely Nebraska corn bread and milk had done their part. He was straight and sturdy and strong as one of the tall trees that threw their shadow about the spot where once stood the little sod house and the struggling young saplings. He was strong and sturdy and straight as they because like them he had grown up and out of Nebraska soil and the roots of his being struck down deep therein. The big sunburnt father and the little quiet mother and the fairy with the wand and the white collar had done their part. He was truthful and generous and loving because he had grown up in an atmosphere of kindness and love and truth. His heart throbbed with sympathy for the oppressed and suffering everywhere and the blood beat against his brain in hot indignation at the story of cruelty or selfishness or wrong. His soul longed for the opportunity to throw itself into the conflict for freedom and human rights. Alas! there was no such opportunity. The nation was droning along like a lazy plow-boy following the corn plow on a July afternoon. There was no bugle call to the field of glory and patriotism. There was likely to be none. There was no field for valor except the cornfield and there were no weapons for daring save the hoe and the pitchfork.
Across the brown prairie land there came one winter time a far-off cry of distress.—so far-off it seemed to be from a distant planet. The prairie land heard the cry and wished that planets were nearer to one another or that some genius had solved the problem of crossing interstellar space. The cry came nearer and blended with it the cry of one Nebraska woman’s voice. Then it was silent again, but the prairie land woke up. It wasn’t so far to neighboring planets after all.
And then there came a new sound. It was the sound of a bugle! At last! Not far-off now, but near at hand. It came over the hills one morning in corn planting time and blew so shrill in the boy’s ear that it startled him. “Liberty and glory—war and patriotism”—it cried. “Liberty and glory—war and patriotism”—the old song that had slumbered so long in the boy’s bosom. After that there was no music in the blackbird’s senseless chatter or the patter of April rain on the dead cornstalks. “Liberty and glory—war and patriotism” at every turning in the field. The team was in the field the next day, but the sunburnt father was behind it. The boy was at the recruiting office. He passed the examination. He held up his hand and took the oath to support the constitution and obey his superior officers. He was mustered in. "Liberty and glory—war and patriotism” rang in his ears when the drill sergeant took him out in a squad just like him and chased them up and down across a muddy field, and halted and right-about-faced them and put them through the manual of arms at a rattling pace and at length turned them over to the company commander who column-righted and column-lefted them and deployed them as skirmishers and shut them up again like a lady’s fan and finally sent them muddy and breathless to camp.
The boy understood that this was all preliminary to the glory and liberty and patriotism that lay beyond. He heard of schemings and wire-pullings and heart-burnings over commissions and soft places. He had none of them. He rejoiced to stand guard in the rain and sweep the company streets and dig slop holes and do disagreeable duty. It was part of the discipline of the soldier. It was preparation for the great work further beyond. "War and patriotism—liberty and glory—one and inseparable,” was the watchword that answered every challenge of doubt or distrust or suspicion on the picket line of his heart.
So then the marchings and counter marchings having been done and the commissions all made out, and the griefs all aired and the political pulls all packed away for future use, and the agents for all the different transportation lines awarded contracts, and the orders come from Washington, the regiment moved. The big sunburnt father and the little quiet mother had come down to witness the event and with them a descendant in apostolic succession of the fairy with the wand and white collar. And tears glistened in the eyes of all three like the rain drops on the prairie grass as the boy’s company marched down to the train and waved its handkerchiefs and campaign hats until the windows disappeared in a cloud of dust.
The glistening tears disappeared but the cloud of dust stayed. All day and all night and another day they travelled with it, through a maze of villages and farms and forests and waving flags and gaily dressed girls and cake and pie and sandwiches. “Liberty and glory—war and patriotism’’—surely the path to them was pleasant.
The camp at last. A medley of mules and ambulances and equipage and tents. Thousands upon thousands of men and miles upon miles of tented streets. Another thousand of men and another mile of street. There was brush to chop and ground to clear and tents to put up and drains to dig. The soft clay was very different from the sandy loam of Nebraska. The hot southern rain fell in torrents and the hotter southern sun came out and cooked the decaying vegetation until, as the boy remarked, they had “steam soup” every day for dinner. "Liberty and glory—war and patriotism”—the boy kept saying every day to himself as he tramped through the mud or stood guard rainy nights and watched the ghosts of Miasma rise from the cesspools and mouldering foliage about him.
One thing the boy began to notice now that he was a thousand miles from home that he had never thought of before—that was the difference between an officer and a private. He had never supposed there was any particular difference before—no more difference than there was between the precinct assessor and the men who elected him to assess. Now he was suddenly made conscious in direct intrusive ways that there was a very great difference—one that he was constantly reminded of for fear he might forget it. It was not that the regiment was turned out on parade in the rain for the mere gratification of headquarters. It was not that they had better food there than in the company’s mess. The boy cared for neither of these things. It was despotism and class distinction. The boy was born into the world of freedom and fraternity. He had enlisted to fight in their cause. He was willing to obey orders, to endure hardships, but he was not prepared to pay homage to any one but Almighty God. And somehow, percolating from division headquarters all the way down to the tent at the head of the company street was the idea of worship of shoulder straps.
The hot days of summer grew hotter and sickness stalked into camp. The water was unfit to drink. The seepage and sewerage of fifty thousand men soaked the soil and steamed up beneath the summer sun. The parades and grand reviews went on although some of the men were grown so weak they could not stand in line. The food grew poor in quality and the hospitals were so overcrowded that the sick were uncared for in them. Out in the mountains the water was clear and the air was pure. The boy used to think sometimes it was strange that the regiment was not moved out there. Then he reflected that being only a private, he was not expected to think. “Liberty and glory—war and patriotism” —he wondered whether he was serving them. Not being entitled to talk he could only wonder and go on doing duty and digging water closet vaults and watching his company drop away until there were scarcely enough of them well to stand guard duty.
He felt like dropping out himself, but clear grit and fear of the hospital held him up until the news came first of the great victories and then of peace. Then wornout nature tired of mounting guard and the enemy rushed in. ‘A bad case of typhoid,” said the doctor, as he was taken to the hospital. Then in his delirium a new light broke upon his mind. It was no longer “war and patriotism” that he murmured as he tossed in fever. He seemed at last to see war in its true nature— a destroying despotism crushing out all the nobler sentiments of the human heart. A waste of human life and energy—a breeder of selfishness—a companion of corruption and jobbery—a nightmare of intrigue and folly and crime. In his fever he saw the graves of his comrades who died in fevered camps, he saw the millions of money wasted in transportation contracts, in purchases of ships, in useless bombardments, and with these he saw the home on the prairie where careful economy had ruled since he was born. He saw the district school house whose doors were open only four or five months in the year because the money would keep them open no longer.
He saw all these and knew even in his fever that out of their economy and self-denial must be paid all the waste and extravagance of war. No wonder he called "peace—home—mother” continually with burning lips.
And they came. The little quiet mother from the far-off Nebraska home who had not been out of the state since he was born, was there in the hospital, at his side, with food, and nursing, and love that knew no obstacles.
Home again. Back from the hospital and fever camp.
Back to God’s country—where the air is pure and the water is clear, and the corn leaves rustle and the big sunburnt father can lift him and carry him into the house as he used to carry the baby at the noon time so many years ago. Where the fairy with the white collar stands waiting with swimming eyes and outstretched hand: back to life, and home, and hope. And never more to repeat "liberty and glory—war and patriotism—one and inseparable,” but always so long as life shall last, “freedom, brotherhood, peace.”
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