It is September 12, 1918, and the War to End All Wars, the Great War, World War I – that smoking, muddy cauldron of attrition – is still vaporizing 11 million military and seven million civilian lives, erasing thousands of villages and towns, redrawing the political maps of Europe and the Middle East. In France, Gen. John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force are launching their first attack as an independent army, against the strategically important German salient at St. Mihiel. After four years of bitter, mile-here and mile-there pushing and tugging between entrenched battle lines, no one dares believe the war can end in less than another four years.
Across the United States, queues of men form at local draft boards on this third national registration day held under the Selective Service Act of 1917, which was amended earlier in 1918 to require that all males from ages 18 to 45 register their availability for military service. Until that amendment, the maximum registration age was 30; Washington fears how many bodies it needs to win the war.
What conversations, thoughts and prayers float and drift among the men in those lines? Some likely grumble about taking time off from work without pay to register. Others may discuss news of the war and their odds of being called to serve. Some talk of the fall hunting season, and others arrange to debrief on the day later at some local saloon. Many, no doubt, talk of the World Series just concluded yesterday with the Boston Red Sox defeating the Chicago Cubs, four games to two, behind the phenomenal pitching of one George Herman “Babe” Ruth. Many simply keep their peace, inch through the process, then go on with their day.
Among the throng shuffling past the dutiful eyes of the Genesee County draft board in Batavia, N.Y., is a tall, slender man of 34, his wan face regarding the elders on the board through wire-rimmed spectacles. He has walked the mile or so from his home, or perhaps hopped a trolley for part of the route, while his wife stays at home with their four children, ages 10, 9, 4 and 3.
He is Herbert Lee Nott – a pious man and most likely among the quiet ones. He doesn’t hunt, nor does he drink, nor is he a baseball fan. I know these things because of stories my father – that 10-year-old – tells me decades later.
Grandpa Nott and I never knew each other. Or, I should say, he never had an inkling of me; at least I know something of him. The only images I have of him are a small handful of photos, including his wedding photo – he sitting handsomely and straight, age 21 or 22 and in white tie, next to my equally lean and beautiful grandmother – which my father kept on his highboy dresser as long as he lived. In another, he poses with the hint of a smile on his face in a Salvation Army uniform – one of several occupations my father told me Grandpa had in his life.
Finally arriving at the head of the line, Grandpa answers some questions, then receives and signs two copies of a small registration card. His own copy will eventually go lost, but the government’s copy will surface on the National Archives website almost 100 years later, providing us a tiny window on his short life.
History tells us about the nation-wide registration day, and weather records say it was a seasonably cool, autumnal Thursday. I already suspected he was tall and slender and that his hair was black, but the draft card confirms so and gives me just a little more: His eyes were hazel.
Hazel. I am seeing my grandfather in color for the very first time. Now I start to fill in the flesh tones, extrapolating from the color of his children, whom I knew so well.
And there, at the bottom of the draft card, is the only sample of my grandfather’s handwriting that I have ever seen: His signature. I study it, and I come back to it again and again. I imagine his slender fingers grasping the pen and the stoop of his shoulders as he bends to sign the card.
This – the evidence of his hand moving across the card – is the closest contact I have ever had with my grandfather. That is the hand that might have held mine for a walk around his yard, that might have tousled my hair or threaded fishing line through a hook for me. It was indeed the hand that held my father’s hand, which later held mine.
The card also summons a profound ache that Grandpa must have borne, perhaps with a small dose of shame. Squeezed into the box labeled “Occupation” are the words, “Not working, have been sick.”
That simple phrase shreds an assumption I had never challenged, that Grandpa worked almost until the end. I return to that line again and again as well.
In 1918 America, how does a man who cannot work support his wife and four children and pay his medical bills? They probably scratched by through the charity of his extended family, but at what cost to his pride? Now I imagine Grandpa thinking, as the queue inches along, “Maybe they’ll draft me – at least it would provide some income. And if I were to catch a German bullet, at least that would be quicker and more heroic than what’s ahead of me.”
As it turns out, most of the men registering on September 12, 1918, will not be drafted. In a few weeks, the Western allies and Germany will sign an armistice ending all military action on November 11. But Herbert Lee Nott’s battle does not end yet; in two years, he will die quietly, his loss noted only by his young family.
Why? That answer is on the other side of the card, where the draft board is instructed to identify conditions affecting the registrant’s fitness for service. In that space appears the single word that has echoed through our family for generations and shall for generations to come: “Diabetes.”
One year after he dies, two research physicians in Toronto – Drs. Banting and Best – will discover how to synthesize insulin for treatment of diabetics. The research fight against diabetes continues on today.
And that is just one reason why I ride in the American Diabetes Association’s Tour de Cure. If you’d like to support the ADA’s ongoing battle, simply click here to make your donation.