The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The First World War and Other Fireside Tales

By Grace Cash © 1989

Issue: January, 1989

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

We were living at Papa's Place when World War I broke out, the French and Germans fighting each other, and each country lining up its Allies, as we did to play Town Ball. There was fear in every home in the United States, the people were dreading the time when our own American young men might have to "go across the water" and help England and France, our Allies, fight the Germans and the Axis powers.

President Woodrow Wilson was constantly spoken of at meal time, or around the hearth, or in the fields. Mule and cow traders talked about whether the president would keep the United States out of the war. A British steamship, The Lusitania, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine off Ireland on May 7, 1915. There were but a few survivors of the 1250 passengers aboard, which included 179 Americans. The angry talk about Germany grew very severe. After repeated peace-efforts, the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1916.

Troop ships loaded with soldiers who had barely more than basics in warfare sailed from the New York harbor, plowing through the cold Atlantic Ocean, heading for France. The ships were taking the boys "over there" to fight Kaiser Bill (Emperor William II) and win the war for democracy. The war didn't end in 1916, as the people hoped it would. In 1917, I was two years old, but I remember the lowered tones when my elders talked about the possibility of fathers with children being called up for military service.

My grandfather, a tall, stout, red-faced man who claimed Irish descent, walked down the hill, a short stretch on the red rutted road that separated the two farmhouses. He was terribly upset by the way the war was going, our soldiers getting killed by the thousands, and no end to the war in sight. Our men dying on French soil multiplied his anger a hundred fold. I remember Grandpa saying, "America has to fight all of England's wars." England and France were the same to everybody. The lesser allied nations were important and appreciated, adding just that much more support, but they were not as well known as England, which most of us claimed as our ancestral land. France was still well-remembered for her efforts to help win the Revolutionary War, or "George Washington's War."

Soon after Grandpa's visit, Papa went to town and bought Mama an aluminum dish pan filled with bowls, plates, cups and saucers - thick unadorned dish ware. He joked with Mama about the purchase as preparation for him going to France and fighting in the war. The war ended the next year, on November 11, 1918. Papa hadn't been called up by the draft board, and by now there was a fifth child, named Lillian. She had blond hair and blue eyes, a noted resemblance to the Miller-Deaton kinfolks; a sturdy fair-skinned family of German heritage, not that anybody mentioned Grandma (Miller) Deaton being "kin to the German Millers."

The war's aftermath brought in its wake an influenza epidemic, attributed to the soldiers' return from foreign lands. Entire families were wiped out, and coffins were lined up in homes and at church funerals. A lot of the deaths occurred because there was no one left to care for their sick patients, after all members of the family came down with influenza. Neighbors were too terrified of catching the disease to go about the houses and offer help, and there were no rural telephones to call the doctor.

Mixed with the concern about influenza, and its heavy toll of lives, there was a great deal of talk about Flanders Fields, where thousands of American soldiers had been killed, and left in graves where they fell. The French and Belgian people planted poppies on the soldiers' graves in tribute for their service in the war.

I had seen red poppies growing in Grandma Cash's flower beds - planted thick on each side of the walkway to the farmhouse. The wind blew the poppies, turning the red petals inside out, and whether blowing or standing still, the petals remind me of fresh red blood shed on foreign soil. We memorized a poem by John McCrae, and recited it, trying not to miss a word of the stanzas that began:

"In Flanders Field the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row...."

We heard tales that grew directly from the Great War, such as that of the soldier who sailed overseas on a troop ship. The ship sank but he survived. His hair turned gray overnight, due to the shipwreck. Some soldiers had returned, crippled in mind as a result of poison gas the Germans had used in combat, and the Veterans' Hospitals were filled with the sick and wounded.

Mama listened worriedly to it all, yet the relief she felt when Spring came and she could plant okra, squash, beans, pepper, turnips and tomatoes was clearly written on her face. She didn't forget the war and those who paid a costly price for freedom, nor did she forget the Gold Star mothers whose sons had died on the battlefield. She had two sons of her own, coming on - who knew - for the next war?

But now there was Spring on Papa's Place. The land was red and as hard-baked as clay, so that rigorous cultivation was required to produce crops that reached maturity. The sun seemed to shine brighter on this small farm than anywhere else. At night the stars hovered close, and they shone so brightly that we could count them when they fell, torn away from the parent-canopy. Any separation from the family-group seemed to me a pitiful thing.

Sometimes talk about the war, and sad tales about whole families who had died in the influenza epidemic, turned to other tales, equally as fearful to the ears of children. Tenant farmers who move from one farm to another inherit ghosts, if the ghost chose to stay on at the house; yet the ghost sometimes disappear after having been seen only one time. This happened in Grandpa Cash's white house where we lived from 1922-1924.

What our grandparents saw long before we moved to the white house, was spoken of in whispers, but never solved. After their nine sons and daughters married, and moved to homes of their own, Grandpa and Grandma remained in the white house a few more years before he started moving himself, and renting his farm to other farmers. While they were living there alone, in that old comfortable house, they slept in the fire room, facing onto the front porch, only a short walkway from the narrow dirt road. The bed was near a front window, where thin white curtains partly draped the four-paneled window glass. One night after they had gone to bed - located near the front window - two women passed through the room, and went on out through the bolted door, without even touching the thumb-bolt, or the door knob. It was winter time, and my grandparents had left a big fire blazing in the wide fireplace when they went to bed. The lighted oil lamp on the mantel had been blown out, but the crackling, blazing logs furnished enough light to see clearly every object in the room. Both my grandparents saw the two women, and they told it with equal amazement.

The two middle-aged women were dressed in identical coarse red-and-black cotton checked dresses, the skirts long and full, typical of the "knockabout" dresses farm women wore in the 1920's. Their black straight hair was drawn severely back and knotted at the nape of the neck. They glanced at the bed, as one might, going through a sick room where one's presence is a hindrance, and wanting to get out as quickly as possible.

In 1922 we moved to the white house - long after the women passed through the hearth-room - but no resident ghost showed themselves. But at one tenant house where we later lived, ghost appeared frequently, and at all times they were women. They came - these restless women - wearing long, old-fashioned white dresses, rambling stealthily through the house at night, and in the daytime. Several family members saw them, tiptoeing on feet that seemed to whisper of the past. It was as though they were attending a wake for their dead. The white-clothed ghosts may have been looking for loved ones, dead and gone long before we moved there.

At another house where we lived, Mama heard a step on the porch an night - nothing more, no other sound, just one step. It was raining, and the night was dark. That winter Papa worked in the woods, hiring out to a neighbor for a dollar a day, cutting down trees. He wore an old woolen overcoat and a woolen muffler around his neck, and a wool hat, trying to ward off flu and tonsillitis. He hung his overcoat on a nail on the porch when he came in from work, and it would dry in the night and be fresh for wearing to the woods the next day.

The morning after Mama heard the harshly pronounced step on the porch, she went out on the porch, and the coat was gone. Some family members believed a traveler from the highway, running below our house, stole the coat. Yet he couldn't have seen it from the highway, in the darkness of the night. Besides the intruder would have had to make several steps on the porch before he reached the coat. It was Papa's coat and not a hand-down from a former tenant. Yet that one strange step - then silence - indicates that a ghost had come back to get a coat - his coat, not Papa's - which he had hung on that same nail when he occupied the house.