My Grandfather’s Draft Card

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.

EPSON MFP imageGrandpa 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.

EPSON MFP imageAnd 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.

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The Annoying Friend That Always Rides With Me

friends-argueIt was impossible to be anything less than giddy about riding through Sonoma wine country on a sunny day, and when one is giddy, one tends to ignore one’s limitations. Here’s mine.

A little over 12 years ago, I made a bad jump from a sailboat onto a dock and sheared off the plateau of my right tibia – doc-speak for totally messing up my right knee. By anyone’s measure, I’ve recovered very well from it. I’m a little knock-kneed, as the surgeons had a hell of a time trying to get everything back in place and aligned properly, but I can do just about anything with that leg except run for any distance. I’m also beating the doctor’s forecast; he told me to expect that I’d require a knee replacement after 8-10 years, and happily I haven’t gotten there yet, nor do I hope to for another few years.

One of my sons asked, shortly after the accident, whether I was going to give up sailing. “No,” I said, “I’m going to give up jumping.” But I wouldn’t trust that leg on a pitching foredeck anymore, so I did give up crewing in competitive sailing.

I bicycle partly because this is the only form of sustained, intense exercise that the bum knee will tolerate. Most of the time. I rationalize that bicycling is excellent for the knee, to keep it mobilized and more arthritis-free than it would be otherwise. Even bicycling can test it at times, though – such as when I’m racing giddily up and down hills and around vineyards in Sonoma County, outdoors for the first time since early December. Climbing is especially stressful on it, of course, or rising from the saddle to accelerate or to relieve the sit-bones for a couple of minutes. There were some steep hills in Sonoma.

April 3 ride

One of my favorite outdoor routes. It *can* be easy, except when I annoy my friend.

After our return, the weather and roads around Rochester were favorable enough that I worked in two more outdoor rides before cold winds and rain drove me back inside, and by then my knock-knee friend was thoroughly pissed at me. He told me I should have taken it easier on those first couple of outdoor rides back here in Rochester. He bitched with every step up or down a stair and nagged me whenever I’d rise from a chair or climb out of bed in the morning. I tried plying him with ibuprofen, thinking that he’d quiet down a little if he were stoned, but the only way I finally shut him up was just to stay off the bike for a few days and let him lay around like the fatass he is.

There's nothing like a pleasant ride along an icy Erie Canal to irritate my friend

There’s nothing like a pleasant ride along an icy Erie Canal to irritate my friend

Clearly, I need to be more considerate of him if I’m going to fool him into riding 100 kilometers with me in the Rochester Tour de Cure coming up on June 13. This week, he let me climb back on the trainer downstairs for a couple of decent spins, and so far, no complaints.

Today and tomorrow, I’m going to bundle up and sneak out for more outdoor riding, hoping he won’t notice, if I keep him warm enough. Stay tuned.

Oh, and there’s one other thing that makes him happier: when a friend donates money to the American Diabetes Association in support of our ride in the Tour de Cure. If you click here and make a donation, he’ll be ever so much happier…. Thank you!

This Way to The 2015 Rochester Tour de Cure

Just a quick post here, inviting you to read more on my personal Tour de Cure page about why I ride in support of the American Diabetes Association and its important work – and to make a donation, of course.  Then, if you wish, you can follow my bicycling blog, Wheels on The White Line, for updates on my progress toward riding my age in years at the Rochester Tour de Cure on June 13.

Better yet, you can join me on the ride to stop diabetes, whether here in Rochester or at a Tour de Cure closer to you.  If you’re in Rochester and would like to ride (the distances start at a very doable 3.5 miles, so you needn’t be a cycling jock!), you may click on “Join My Team” on my Tour de Cure page.  If you live anywhere else in the United States, just go here on the ADA’s site to locate a Tour de Cure near you.

See you along the white line!

No Fatbikes For Me: Meet The Bike Desk

After finishing the 2014 Tour de Cure last June and notching a few 40-45 mile rides later in the year, I signed up early for the 2015 Tour and vowed to ride my age in miles – the tour’s 62.5 mile route, also known as a “metric century” because it’s 100 kilometers. But during a bitterly cold and long Western New York winter, how would I continue conditioning for longer rides or even maintain the conditioning I worked so hard to develop last year? I’m neither wealthy nor crazy enough to buy a “fat bike” and continue riding outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures.

IMG_3608-EditMeet my bike desk. You may have heard of the treadmill desks that are somewhat in vogue these days. In vogue, that is, if you have $2,000-4,000 available to buy one and a work environment (including your boss) that permits you to use it. It’s a simple premise: take a desk that can raise or lower to a height that fits you, and place a treadmill where your chair would go, then proceed to do your work while walking at a pace that suits you – phone calls, reading, computer work or most any other desk work. After all, sitting is the new smoking.

I’m fortunate, in more ways than one, that my job allows me to work from home, and the treadmill desk mini-wave set me thinking about bicycling indoors, but I’ve not discovered anything similar done with bikes, and I wouldn’t spend that kind of money on such a device anyway. So I mounted my Trex FX 7.2 bike on a CycleOps fluid trainer in our basement, placed a music stand in front of it and, after some shopping around, acquired a mobile laptop cart that raises its work surface to 47” – just about the right height to place my laptop at hand while sitting on the Trek and large enough to hold my portable extension phone. Voila: a bike desk.IMG_3617-Edit

Sounds great, right? And it is, but the trainer makes a very audible, whirring white noise when I’m pedaling at speed (frankly so do I – and no one likes talking to a “breather”), so I have to slow down considerably when I’m on the phone. Handling email is fine, or reviewing documents, but it’s not a very effective mode for anything that requires profound thought.

You’d think, then, that I’d be logging some long miles in the basement.  Since January 1, I’ve pedaled 350 miles down there, and that’s not bad, but I’m behind on my own goal for the year. As a baseline, my odometers tell me I rode 2,400 miles in 2014, and I resolved to boost that to 3,600 this year. Crunch all of this, and with 25 percent of 2015 behind us, I’ve ridden only 10 percent of my goal. Ugh.

One challenge, of course, is that cycling indoors can be deadly boring, but there are iPads and e-readers, music and televisions to fight the boredom. The real problem is that cycling on a trainer is more physically and mentally grueling, mile-for-mile, than riding outdoors. Out on the roads and trails, there are hills and valleys and corners to negotiate, which means changes of pace and posture that provide physical relief. On the trainer, there is nothing but resistance, and sitting on a stationary bicycle seat (even a well-fitting one) for even an hour is literally a pain in the ass. That’s the physical part – and the mental part is the voice of your body demanding that you get off and take a damned break.

But, I soldier on. Countless bicyclists have gone this way before me, so I know to vary the pace on the trainer, kicking up the resistance and rising off the saddle periodically to provide my sit bones some relief. An interesting soundtrack helps. And – bike desk or not – I can’t really get a good workout and do my job at the same time.

Thankfully, spring is coming to Rochester. Soon. I know it is. I just know it is, and when it arrives, I look forward to boosting the weekly mileage up over 100 and getting on track against the goal. The Rochester Tour de Cure, on June 13, will be just the first waypoint on the journey.