October 30, 1917
The last few nerve-wracking missions had been followed by a week of advanced training including new cryptography techniques, self-defence with Captain Samson, and how to scale a wall!
When Captain Smithwick surprised me by giving me a day off, I couldn’t be happier. My body ached and my mind was ready to do anything but think about the war.
I decided to take my lunch in a beautiful cafe just down the cobbled street from my hotel. It had a wonderful outside courtyard in the rear of the building where one could sit and feel the sunshine on one’s face while eating the best Blanquette de Veau (creamy veal stew).
Two American soldiers wearing olive green uniforms differing slightly from the khaki worn by British soldiers, claimed a table next to mine. One had his left foot bandaged and was walking on crutches, while the other had an arm in a sling. American troops had finally joined the war effort back in June, and were already nicknamed ‘doughboys’ by the British, but no one knew why exactly. Many were already put into battle in the trenches, and these two had had a taste of German bullets. The one with the crutches had a Bostonian accent and this filled me with a sense of homesickness such as I had never felt before.
By the time I’d finished my stew, the man with his arm in a cast picked up his cap and left his companion with the injured foot behind.
I decided to go talk to him.
“Bonjour monsieur,” I said pleasantly. Then changing to English with a French accent I continued, “I could not help noticing that you are American, yes?”
“That’s correct, ma’am.” The soldier was clean shaven with closely cropped dark brown hair and thoughtful dark brown eyes.
“My name is Antionette Lafleur.” I extended my hand. “Is it possible you are from the Boston area?”
“Right again!” His eyebrows went up and he cocked his head. “My accent gave it away, huh?” He motioned to the abandoned chair. “Please, join me.”
“Thank you.” I took the chair, balancing on the edge of the seat as I didn’t want to give the man the impression that I planned to stay long. “I spent some time in Boston a few years ago and still have friends there.”
“I’m Jim Mathers. I bet you want to catch up on some news about Boston, huh?” He pronounced it Bwahston.
“Is that all right, Officer Mathers? This war makes it so hard to get any information like that.“
“I can’t think of a better way to spend a warm afternoon, drinkin’ strong coffee and shootin’ the breeze with a pretty little thing like you.” He chuckled. “It sure beats sittin’ in some muddy trench gettin’ shot at.” He pointed at his bandaged foot.
“Is it bad?” I asked.
“Naw, I’ll be okay. The Germans will likely have another crack at me in a month or so.”
I nodded. Officer Mathers was most certainly correct about that.
“Did you grow up in Boston?” I asked
“Born and raised.”
“It is a beautiful city, is it not?” I said. “The Boston Common, the Public Market, the Harbor….”
“Don’t forget Fenway Park!” he added, pronouncing the word pahk.
“Yes, I have been there!” In fact, Daniel had taken me there on one of our very first outings. “How did the Red Sox do this year?” I asked.
Officer Mathers shook his head. “They’re second in the American league with a record of ninety wins and sixty-two losses, but they didn’t make the World Series. Not that I could’ve been there to see it anyways.” He stared off into the distance. “The food is good here, but what I wouldn’t give now for a Fenway Park hot dog.”
“Oh, me too.” I clasped my hands together. “What kind of work did you do?”
"After I finished school, I worked down at the shipyards like a lot of fellas my age. But the last two years I worked in steel manufacturin’. Yep, Hartigan Steelworks.”
“You worked for George Hartigan?” I tried to make my absolute amazement seem like only mild curiosity, but it wasn’t easy. This man had worked for my father!
“Yes, up until I left for training.” He gave me a sly look. “Don’t tell me you know him.”
“Just by reputation,” I said quickly. “I mean he was in the newspaper from time to time.”
Officer Mathers took a sip of coffee, then said, “It was a good job workin’ there. Workin’ conditions were better than most places like that from what I’ve seen.”
I let out a breath of relief. I didn’t know what I would’ve done if the soldier had spoken unkindly of my father.
"Too bad about his poor health."
My stomach sunk as I processed what he said. Gapping, I snapped my jaw tight. "What do you mean?" I finally asked.
Officer Mathers shrugged. "Dunno. Just heard he was sickly. Didn't see him around as much as usual before I got called up. But that don't mean nothin'. Folks get sick now and again."
Surely any ill health father might've suffered wasn't serious. Louisa would've written me a letter informing me otherwise. I could picture Father at his desk in our Boston brownstone, his busy brows furrowed as he studied his ledgers. Not only did he have a vibrant personality and a never-give up attitude, he was as strong as an ox. I smiled as I remembered him. He wasn't the type to be stopped by a silly cold or flu.
We spent another half hour talking about life in Boston, and I had to think quickly to make up a story about spending a summer there visiting relatives in South Medford.
t was a balm to my soul just to talk about familiar things, no matter how mundane, that were far away from this war. In this quiet French village, with no heavy artillery booming in the distance, no trenches filled with tired young men, and no field hospitals filled with the bloodied and dying, I could pretend I was simply on a European holiday.
If only I could see Daniel again soon, my life would be full.