On Emily Wolahan:
Emily Wolahan is the author of the poetry collection HINGE. Her poetry has appeared in Boston Review, Georgia Review, DIAGRAM, Oversound, and many other publications. Her essay “The Drawn Word/The Disappearing Act” is anthologized in Among Margins. Other essays appear in The New Inquiry and Quarterly Conversation. She has served as Senior Editor at Two Lines Press and and is Founding Editor at Jerry Magazine. She won the The Georgia Review’s Loraine Williams Poetry Prize and Arts & Letters’ Unclassifiable Contest. She has been an Affiliate Artist at the Headlands Center for the Arts and received fellowships from the the Vermont Studio Center. She currently lives in San Francisco.
The Direct Account of Frank Thomas
The Direct Account of Frank Thomas appeared in Issue 34
“It’s funny about wars, they ought to be different by they are not.”
“But how intolerable bright the morning is where we who are alive and remain,
walk lifted up, carried forward by an effective word.”
“There’s no war without hard work.”
—Private Frank Thomas,
US Army, 10th Engineers Battalion, 1917
“I miss you, Frank. Come home.”
—Clarissa Mae Thomas, wife, 1917
Built a camp of tents on a sandy plain amid alfalfa-timothy—Pontnex-les-forges.
Put roof on barracks as it rained. Got wet again cleaning out drain ditches. Trenched officer’s tents. Cleared away fallen trees and debris to build a road to the corrals. Grubbed at pine stumps.
Peachy and me put at carpenter’s work. At sawmill, got some boards, fixed my bunk. Shelf and drawer in lower parts so I can keep things dry. We cut the deck of cards for places.
Pump finished today and made writing board. Sharpened tools. V-troughs, tent floors, ironing boards, and water troughs for the horses.
Fixed up the tool boxes, put together a barber chair. A floor in the officer’s tent, two-board walls, and a door. To my bed, added a clothes rack and shelf.
Down to the mill for boards, three francs. Ten bricks for a franc from Squad 2. Swiped five more and a length of pipe. All this for our new store shed.
Worked the bakery, mostly alone. After the bakery, started on wooden pump. After pump, a writing board for Tom Lommason. Pump needs an extension and valve. Also boards for walling the well at mill-site. Bakers wanted an oven shovel, cooks a stew-paddle.
Called it a day’s work.
Drilled with Company B and wrote to Mae. Back when I’d joined up, we’d killed time at Fort Douglas, write letters, rest.
Before Pontenx, we cleaned up, slept, shaved, wrote letters. Made medals. Drills and the remainder of the day to fill.
If we saw a US flag, the boys would cheer it.
This night is calm, no moon. Camp cleaned up, barracks scrubbed, boys at the Y writing letters. A card to Clarissa Mae, one to her father.
Each one says the same thing—a silhouette of the day imagined, the local lace strung together.
All that space between.
Mail today—a letter from Mother, Dad, Joe, Albert. None from Mae. Got Mother’s package of sugar and Postum, mailed to Washington DC, found me in Pontenx, France—a long time getting here. Many of the boys are worried. Chinwhiskers II says we’re going to the front soon—all they talk about the last few days, this latest line. Wrote Mae a letter—number eighteen, number nineteen. Lieutenant Sanford, Company mail censor, says, “Thomas writes the most legible letters of any man in the Company.” Got two letters from Mae, December 17–23. Finished one I started yesterday. To my wife-woman—
Friday on mill—cold and disagreeable. Spent noon-hour putting up rafter-trusses, laying sheet iron roofing. Floored tool-house, braced mill, built lumber car for yarding lumber. Took an hour off but Peachy and Captain real peeved. More work at mill. Store, supply room, Lieutenant Allen’s office. Window in and finished Allen’s desk. Ordered to build a balloon butterfly catcher for Captain Marbleheart.
Sanders and I on oil house, then hung meat house door. Weighs six hundred pounds, some time hanging it. Bennett had me fix the meat house for a prison—cold storage plan. Deserter Gillis of 503 Service Battalion sleeps there tonight. Sanders tried to saw off his thumb—only got half. I filed saws, ground chisels, hand axe. Marbleheart handed out another bouquet on the log haul. Been doing most the work myself. Fixed pile driver, used adze, ever the log haul.
Meat house letter shed
rifle boxes Meat
lumber for meat block
Dodged work and managed to keep out of it with no trouble.
Made sleeping bag out of my shelter half.
maybe sunshine tomorrow.
Last August, reported to Forest Services. Mr. Kneipp said no chance for me and Tom to get out of it. Enlistment papers for 10th Engineers made out. Wired Mae.
Reported to Fort Douglas but sent away until morning.
Instead, went to the Wilson and the Lodge with Tom, Laverne Rae, and her sister.
Salt Lake is a good city but not for me and Mae, maybe. Too many temples. Back up the mountain, sun blazing and fresh trout for dinner—I could call that a temple.
Returned to Fort Douglas where I was passed through by doctor—physically fit—ready to be shipped out.
Tried to get leave and go home to see Mae and Mother before I left for France but could not, so wrote letters home.
Been writing letters last two months since surveying the Sevier, grazing reconnaissance. Keeping lupine out of reach of cattle. Writing letters, getting mail whenever someone went to Sevey’s ranch. Surveying Kanab Creek, kept track of coyote.
Until it was time to enlist. Wrote a letter home all about it.
In Salt Lake City, issued travel rations, got second shot in the arm. Beat it downtown to collect lots of mail for Tom Lomasson and me. Been with Lomasson since Podunk Creek. We’ll stick together if we can. Left on berth in tourist car 1495. Some rough night.
SALT LAKE CITY
HOT COFFEE ON TRAIN IN JERSEY CITY TERMINAL SHEDS OF PENNSYLVANIA LINES.
Crossed Hudson River on steam ferry and embarked on RMS Carpathia.
In dock all day.
Sea breezes very cold.
Much seaweed in water off Nova Scotia—gulls and fish plentiful. Lots of fish smacks and larger vessels.
Cape Sable lighthouse about eight o’clock. Low, spruce-covered shores.
Dropped anchor in Bedford Bay Harbor full of jelly fish, small bowl-shaped, lace-like affairs—fringe around the edges. Drew a picture of them in my letter to Mae.
They make the water look thick.
Days warm, nights cold.
Passed a fleet of chasers today
—small and common to look at—
dangerous to Hun-ducks.
Stuck at bay and people eating rotten meat. Our destroyer now coming, now here, escort. Still—stuck at bay—drilling, washing clothes, learning two-arm semaphore code. Stuck seeking out our double-tank life raft lowered off davits B6. Failed every boat drill. We cross soon. Sticks float by moving faster than us—
Wilson died last night—ptomaine poisoning off meat. Struck by the silent force of capture.
No one knew code before we were stuck. Now it’s the only way we can talk.
The problem with crossing isn’t the ships we can see. Destroyer first, then a line of transport, us at the head.
Struck dumb, ordered to cross, stacks steaming up.
Long days so nights can’t compare.
Still, we go into town to see other people living, differently
from how I expected. No lights.
Low-lit signs read Open beside a dark doorway.
In the pub, as many women as men there. On the street, a pretty girl threw her arms around my neck, said Oh man, let’s. Let’s! Pushed her thin red belt into mine.
There are no headlights and no roads cross each other—
they go above or below.
Road beds kept in excellent condition.
Left Glasgow over Caledonian Railroad to Carlisle and on to Birmingham. Many women working.
Residences are named, have small yards brimming with flowers, ivy, shrub.
Bought a bag of apples, three and a half dollars. Rode on top of the street car—one penny, a soldier’s fare. Morning’s march
—garden, sun, garden.
Holly hedges, an American Mountain Ash.
Branches of old trees along the drive meet above us.
The petals off a hanging flower spell Idaho.
Marched down the Southampton docks, waited a while. Fell out, a chance to look around. Saw Eustace in dry dock, hole blown in her aft the smokestack, starboard side. Submarine. They loaded us on a double-stack, side-wheel French boat, La Margueritte. Packed in. Waited some more. Put on submarine guard with ten others. An Endfield rifle to share, plus fifty rounds.
Instructions: obey officer’s orders. In the dark, we crossed. Landed in Havre by early morning. Sent to wait. Rest camp No. 2, horse sheds, cobblestone floors. Clean, not uncomfortable.
Train in from the North, boys from the trenches laid out.
Rain fell hard.
Boarded 3rd class coach. Sat up all night.
Hard bread and canned meat for dinner, coffee twice. Train headed south. Arrangements for second night were two men in hat racks, two on each bench seat, two on floor. Drew a place on one of the benches—changed later with Erwin for a hat rack. Landed in Nevers to go downtown in morning with Erwin and Boatwright. Saw St. Cyr and found a Y. Met Tom Lommason at Y so stayed in town for a good French meal, 3 francs. The French shake hands only once and often across very narrow streets.
Traveled all day. Was fifteen kilometers from capital. Then turned south. Issued trenched tents and ticks. Filled those with hay. Turned rifles in—thirty to entire company—kept belts. This means we do not go to the front. Rumor is we go to the Spanish border on one of France’s slow trains. A small place stuck in the pines, on a flat and sandy plain.
- ST. FEYER,
LA JONCHERE, LIMOGES,
LAFARGE, BUSSIERE-GALANT, THIVIERS,
CHANCELADE, PERIQUEUX, RAZAC,
NEUVIS, MUSSIDAN, LAMPIESTIERE,
COUTRAS, LIBOURNE, BORDEAUX,
Built a camp of tents on a sandy plain amid alfalfa-timothy. Pontenx among the pines.
Trenched officers’ tents.
Grubbed at pine stumps.
Put at carpenter’s work, put at the mill:
build barracks, build a bakery.
Twelve bricks for a franc from Squad 3.
Build a camp of tents
on a sandy plain amid alfalfa-timothy.
Lavender and brome.
The pines planted in a row grown tall, lumber for the effort.
All day to set up a few tents.
Lines like they’d been done be a cross-eyed man.
Officers have no idea, yet remain in charge of all.
Speared logs, fished deadheads and sinkers out of reserve log pond. Once dry, good lumber. Learned several new ways of doing things less well from Lieutenant Burlow. Pulled a lot of lake bottom out of pond. Water-plant root masses, mud clinging to them, suspended under surface of lake. Hard to drag logs over, had to be taken out. Gas launch and two-prong hook did the business. Underneath the root mass, lake bottom was clean sand.
Three hydro-aeroplanes came down, took a spin on lake, returned to camp near Arcachon—finishing school for pilots, American and French. Men there go direct to the front. Loaded lumber. Waited two hours to get hair cut.
We walk. Four across, steps out of time. Trucks on roads are US Army. Farmers pass on foot in sack-cloth shoes. Soil grainy and packed, small white stones speckled, catch low light. Fields fallow, grown up with toadflax and something looks like wintergreen.
Forests planted in rows, makes a straight border between woods and the slight rise of a back dune. Bay of Gascogne.
Beach debris—a long American tallow candle, rolled in sand. Timber spars, planks, hatches. Lifebelt with strings snapped, ARTISAN lettered on the chest.
Flat bright grey sky branches. The sea, dank earth, proof at our feet. Pick it up, boys, keep looking. Cargo, crates, a good shoe, a sack of potatoes the farmer needs. Boot-print patterns ornate as field mice—
This is a very long day to me. Started another dock but busted my shin with adze—clear to the bone. Laid up for a while, lots of mail. No. 7 letter from Mae, plus two from Mother. Finished letter No. 31 to Mae. Doc made shin sore by dressing again, put me on wounded-in-action report. Had to stick around camp—still a crip. Read papers, magazine, cleaned up. March 9 Star-Mirror came. Wrote Dad since it rained hard all day. Signed pay roll. Pretty much disgusted with this country and “Tin Engineers.” At physical inspection, Doc put a new bandage on my cut. Papers very optimistic.
USS Tuscania disaster. A possibility Oscar Munson was on the boat. Papers say ship when down on same sea we crossed, standing guard with a rifle shared between two. That’s where the horizon breaks exposing the sky. Proof the sea and sky are not the same,
just look it in the dark.
The horizon breaks pushing the sea out one way, sky another. Like a movie starting up after the theater went dark.
The horizon breaks on a sea with no ship on it.
The horizon breaks and breaks. The sea is more likable when it seems granite.
In the pines, we continue to wait, hear about explosive devices that push a person through the air—an 18-pounder or 60-pounder.
Light might flash at a distance.
We lose track of how far.
There’s an explosion. A pattern that’s held for years.
Boys came in today—French Louis had seen the gas, tried to describe its color. Said, makes you lie down when you should rise.
We feel the compulsive force of machinery.
We use it. Where’s the next line of work coming from? We build in the valley, construct what aids the effort. Meat house, hay shed, barn, oil house. Our bodies construct the regular guard.
Nothing can defeat us, we think. Our bodies, throat-filled tongues. We watch, machines groan. Nothing can fill our heads, we think. In our bodies are spine ladders, a transportation. We move, we think. Nothing can receive us.
Oscar Munson and I went across the lake to the other camps. Visit the remainder “Palousers.” Nothing could destroy us. Munson told stories of the Tuscania shipwreck. Many killed by one lifeboat dropping on another loaded below. In our bodies, leaden kidneys wait to drop out. Livers shriveled. Muscles drawn tight. Nothing can betray us, we think.
Last night the sun reflected light across Kanab Creek. Close in, along the margin, a fisherman stood, silhouetted against the darkening waters, reeds, rushes. He’s welcome to them. Sunlight blew out wheat stalks as far as Paradise Ridge, rolling light in growth. We have to take the bad with the good. My wife beside me, dusk grey walls, white plastered ceiling. I want that. Where golden paths are slits of light under curtains, innocent as innocent.
We take the road they lead us down. Nothing to say in return. Go into town to spend some money.
Follow the local road and walk the shoulder. Saw a pretty French girl in a little grocery buying jelly. Followed the straight line back to camp.
Still on the mill. Not friends with enough non-coms to land the good jobs. I think of Sheriff Campbell of Moscow, Idaho, never drafted, still home.
Roads are built and put to immediate use.
The lumber we cut is taken out by road. Up to the little stream impassable since the bridge was bombed. Really is a little stream for such fuss.
Return to Pontenx after leave. Inventory found my fortune consists of twenty francs. Some drafted 503 Engineers pretended they were volunteers who had enlisted. We put a crimp in their game on the train home. They were a good bunch the rest of the way. Go to Pontenx-les-forges, a long walk back to camp. Good cold, some bum and blue.
Saw a girl in St. Eulalie looked just like Bessie Kesler. Dressed better than the other girls. Stared for a bit, thought it was her. Stopped at Forest Guard’s place and bought three bottles of white wine de cette année. Saw a pretty French girl in a grocery store buying jelly, looked just like Clarissa Mae. Could have sworn her brother Walter was serving in that group of medics we met headed to Spain. I stared a bit, thought it was him, but I know he’s back home. Letter from Walter, Nov. 9.
Handmade lace to send home. It’s all the same color in Mimizan. Wrote eight pages to Mae last night. Paulson tried to burn the tent up, using Mac’s new writing desk—got candle too close. Lace is clean and white. A dresser scarf, eight doilies. Gave Bascom Brown 5 francs for Flag of Our Union penny—1863. Tied up bundle to send home. Indignation Party.
Long time we’ve been going.
Empty like air with a few snowflakes drifting down.
How some appear with weight and others roll down the air like the side of a gentle hill.
Sun comes out, air mostly empty. Nothing feels right.
Lots of powder burnt at aviation camp
north of us. Bomb practice.
Long time been working Landes Forest—every tree in a row.
Spoons stacked in a drawer.
Think of a forest and I’m up near Sevier. Trout for dinner. Air filling up with snow too light to land but landing anyway.
Dec. 19 STAR-MIRROR. Dec. 4 STAR-MIRROR
Jan 22 STAR-MIRROR and there is not a bit of news of the war in it.
Also Jan 9-12-14-17 STAR-MIRROR.
Jan. 18 STAR-MIRROR,
Jan. 10 Inter-Mountain Ranger,
Jan. 3, 17, Feb 7 Washington Office Newsletter.
June 21-25-29-30-31, Feb. 1-2-5-8-9-11-13 STAR-MIRROR.
Also March 7-8-18 STAR-MIRROR.
March 30 Literary Digest and a couple of STAR-MIRROR.
A Nov. 14 STAR-MIRROR.
Feb. 6-7 S.M., Feb. 26-27-28 + Mar. 1 S.M.
March 9 Literary Digest, a bundle of The Argonauts from Walt and a S.M.
Three S.M.’s today and one Lit. Digest.
Drew in S.M.s May 17-18
No mail except Nov. 19 S.M.
Potage three times a day and a cord of wood on each foot. They leave these when they go inside and wear an inner moccasin. Saw French man today—no legs, body on a rocker, a grind-organ, wagon, donkey and four children. His two girls danced in costume on high stilts. Everyone used to be on stilts here before the marshland was planted in pines. Shepherds could see their sheep. Now stilts used for dancing, grandma’s starched lace perched on small heads. A land of sheep, stilts, bog. Customs that stretch through time with needlework to match.
Found life preservers and one life boat the BRITTIA. Also the SWINDON. Beaches washing stuff up every day. Pretty shells, brass lamp hoods, timber, spars, hutches. The Atlantic looks terrible from here. Beaches on the bay of Gascogne. Breakers coming in and wreckage strung along shore. Packed and unpacked my haver-sac, barely made it back to camp. Felt like the tail end of creation, if creation delivered itself piece by piece out of the waters. What comes to me—the remainder.
Raining and we are still working in the water. Lake has risen a foot last three days—that with a good-sized outlet. Stopped raining but lake still rising.
Captain Bedard keeps ruining the work we do. Tore up with incompetence what took two days to build. Got boat started and it has no power—good engine but toy propeller. Took thirty-three minutes to haul empty brail boom across lake, one hour ten minutes for next. Before, took fifteen minutes most.
Five hours for a boom with 1,500 logs halfway across the lake with a good wind.
There’s the joke propellor and then there’s what we’re dragging.
Tried boat out again this morning, busted shaft connection. Fixed her up so could pull raft of logs out of swamp in the east end of lake against a very strong headwind. Working better considering it’s a truck engine, not marine. Captain Bedard said, of course it’s a marine engine. There’s an anchor, isn’t there?
Hard luck with the boat last night. No boom of logs in, so had to break into reserves. All big logs, had hands full loading them on haul car—only ten inches water over car bunkers, when should be 2 feet—makes heavy work. Shallow because of hurry when they put it in, now losing time—may have to shut mill.
More of the tropical effect. Or il fait chaud. Cold foggy nights and very hot days. Some of the sick men are getting well. Spanish fever we have in our camp much lighter and mild in form than in any of the other camps, according to Lieutenant Medic. Still, advised not to visit Mimizan-les-bains. Over in the 20th Camps, several men have died. Others go out of their heads, some bleed at the mouth, nose, and ears. Some develop pneumonia. All cough and complain of sore lungs. Bad stuff—good to stay away from. Still hot.
Mill shut down at noon. Put a dam across lower end, used the big steam pump on it—a Big Jake. Work and more of it. Griswold held on to mail yesterday—too lazy to distribute it Sunday. Lied when I asked him about it.
Tom Lomasson transferred to St. Nazaire, presumably for dock construction. Hope it’s not permanent as we said we’d stay together. Mais, c’est la guerre.
New job now: general repair man—carpenter and utility—around the mill. Beats working pond anyway. Building a sawdust conveyor for the bolter mill.
Built a camp of tents—when? A while ago now. On a sandy plain amid alfalfa-timothy. Landes Forest, Pontenx les forges. Pontenx among the pines.
My fortune consists of 20 francs, sending most of my pay home.
Letters from Clarissa Mae, numbers 5–7 are my favorites.
They read like they’re written yesterday.
There’s the mill and the pond, the lumber dragged out.
Planes out of the aviation camp.
Hard luck for those sent forward.
New boys sent to us since so many camps quarantined.
They work the mill and the pond—count the rows of pines.
More rain, more work on friction, more work on our shanty this evening. Finished papering it with tar paper and Shelley, Frazier, and I moved in. Captain Eldredge ordered I put in his store—made one hurry-up job of it. Got the same spread he had last winter, store box and all. Finished our friction today and put it in this evening at supper hour. Greasy job. Sun shining, rain over. Have a prison camp at Aureilhan now. Converted the carpenter shop into quarters, built a stockade around it and sent eight incorrigibles down from Pontenx. Serving out sentences of hard labor doing work we’ve done ever since our mill got going. Good joke on us.
Thirteen men died of Spanish Influenza in the 20th camps. Captain sends them out to work as soon as they are able to wiggle. Men often work with high fevers until they break. Some go out of their minds, malaria fever, and on top of that contract pneumonia.
Wrote wifie letter No. 16.
Trucks from Bordeaux brought eight letters, one from Mae.
Wrote wife-woman No. 17.
Two letters from Mae, December 17-23.
Wrote Mae No. 20.
Letter from wife today, Dec. 28. Got letter No. 4 from Mae.
Wrote her letter No. 22.
Finished Mae’s letter No. 23.
Wrote letter No. 24.
Letter No. 25.
Got letter No. 5 from my woman today.
Wrote letter No. 27.
Got No. 11 letter from Mae, Feb. 13.
Wrote Mae No. 30.
Got No. 9. Got No. 13, March 4. Got No. 7, January 27 from Mae.
Wrote Mae No. 33.
St. Patrick’s Day card from Mae, letter No. 15.
Wrote No. 34.
Got letter, package, Feb. 21.
She’s changing. I see it in each letter. Doesn’t write, Your wifie anymore. Busy with her own days, her own signs of spring. Here, the wheat’s up and headed out, cherry and plum trees in bloom. That big oleander. Woods full of cuckoos, a few swallows that may have nested them. That cuckoo cry sounds good enough, but swallows sing like they lost everything.
Beacoup de travaille—the same old line. Gear wheel on sawdust conveyor broke. Took us an hour to put in a new one. Fixed up tools into good shape. Rained hard. Worked on bumping. Turn-down blocks were set on the carriage while trying out the mill. Put in conveyor for the bolter. We don’t have enough tools. Our captain tried to hog tools back at the start, now we don’t have enough. Department of Supplies handing him back one.
More women than men, and all French in black. A fine old church and nice altar. Will never forget figure of Jeanne d’Arc nor old man in red who marched up and down the aisles. They passed bread after communion. Noisy service. Four miles back to camp—a clean cold night.
Slept four hours on a tick without single blanket—colder than thunder. Got our coffee, prunes and beans and left plenty early next morning. Rode down to Midi Station on street cars, found we had a day’s wait. Cathedral in Bordeaux has mummies preserved in arsenate of lime for 400 years. Only a narrow vein of the mineral in catacombs. Some corpses missing feet—out of bounds.
Read that the ship that took us over—RMS Carpathia—was torpedoed off Irish Coast, US bound. Hit three times and took two hours to sink.
Started day standing reveille. Court marshall proceedings and order of execution of Claude Wilson, Company B, Service Battalion—Base Station No. 2. Hanged by the neck until dead this morning in Bordeaux. Raped a French girl. Better off without these men.
Returned to Pontenx among the pines, sawed out all my wood but did not get on to the paper on account of saw breaking. Hit me across the right ear and I thought for a minute the whole blamed ear was cut off. But it was not. Got No. 44 letter from Mae. Blue. Wasn’t for me she could love another. Al Taylor—or is it my imagination?
Started a new friction this morning—so far nearly all my time keeping up the frictions. Invented one to last four to six weeks, not seven to ten days—gives some relief.
All kids like fairytales but us lumberjacks may not be as simple as we seem. What is your real value? “Every man has a certain chemical value, a professional value. Most important are character and service.” Chaplain Williams is a fine fellow, but the more I hear him talk, the more I think his real purpose is not religious salvation, rather balm to soothe our injuries, kid us along. Make each unit believe it’s the most important in the service. Maybe we are like children—free, great-hearted, and hardworking. $9.50 per 200 lbs.
Cleared up today—sunshine with us. Peachy’s well is running 900 gallons per day—picked up from 300 yesterday. Fine cold artesian well but lots of sand coming up. He’s running round like a kid with new rubber boots.
Finished friction today. Our artesian well is now running about 1800 gallons per day and Captain Peachy in all his glory.
Did not work last night. Did not eat a bite of anything from Thursday noon until Saturday noon—very unusual for me. Got all ready for inspection this PM. Never had one. This has happened a number of times. Good way to get all tents cleaned up and camp in order. We did stand muster, though. I wished it was mustering out and we were given discharge papers. Holding down ossifer’s shanty this eve. Everyone is gone and I’m here by my lonesome spending the evening writing letters.
Wrote Frank Hartman, Sgt., 644 Aero Squadron, A.E.F, and ——