It isn’t unusual for me to spend an exasperating amount of time trying to remember where I put the book I was just reading a short time before. On the other hand, I can with no problem remember specific details of events that happened 75 years ago or more. One particular episode comes flooding back each year when autumn deepens and I remember the Carolina maneuvers when the Army began reinventing itself from a tiny, poverty-stricken force into a world-class juggernaut, desperately trying to prepare for a war that was sure to come.
With oddly un-army-like thoughtfulness, top leaders decided that the Red Army and the Blue Army, the two large organizations into which the force was divided, would maneuver against each other across vast swaths of the two Carolinas for five days each week and then have the weekends off. They would move back into the miles of pup tents covering former cotton fields. For two days, they would clean up, rest, relax, and get to know the local citizenry. Which is how some of them wandered to our farmhouse from time to time. I remember especially a Sunday dinner in November.
My dad had asked a first sergeant to send several soldiers to eat with us. They arrived looking amazingly well turned out, considering that they were living in pup tents. They would have walked a couple of miles down the main gravel road, then down a mile-long trail through the woods to our small, ramshackle farmhouse. It must have been a case of extreme culture shock for them. Primitive surroundings, no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and dinner cooked on a small wood-fired stove. But they ate heartily and expressed great pleasure with the meal. Then they settled down for a long visit.
I admired everything about these young men who came from the Northeast and spoke in unfamiliar accents, and so rapidly I had trouble understanding them. Their highly polished russet low-quarter shoes and their olive drab uniforms so impressed me that I still consider that the “real” uniform of the U.S. Army. And their personalities so impressed me that I remember them well to this day.
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Joe Riggi was extremely quiet, almost sad. He would write later. James Cunningham was tall and talkative. Joseph J. Moran was handsome, dignified, speaking infrequently but well, seeming to be the leader of the group. Earl Eppler, a cook, was short, stocky, and quite young, his Pennsylvania Dutch heritage clearly indicated in the way he spoke. He would come back for other visits, as would Jimmy Cunningham. Rudolph Piccarelli was slender, funny, and quite talkative, talking of home and his family, couching everything in terms designed to entertain.
The afternoon passed pleasantly, and then our guests departed. In less than a month, Pearl Harbor would be attacked, we would declare war on Japan, and Germany would declare war on us. The world was descending into madness, and these young men would be absorbed into the mass of others like themselves who were going out to save it.
Over the course of the war years, we would see many other soldiers, but only my close relatives, many of whom also fought, would seem so much a part of us. We would reminisce about that day, laugh as we quoted Rudy Piccarelli, remind each other how likeable they all were, feel sad that they would never again share Sunday dinner with us, and be glad we’d known them.
To a large degree, life depends on memories. Some cheer us, some are sad, and some help to make us who we are. Some are to be held close and treasured. Like the memory of a long-ago Sunday dinner.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”