My Papa served in World War I as a teenager. Oakley George Baker was born in Louisiana in 1899, son of poor farmers, left school in the third grade, joined the Army for a year, was married, raised a family, worked for many years for selling cables and drilling tools to oil companies, and died in 1968.
I knew Papa as the retired man who chewed on cigars (he wasn’t allowed to smoke) and put fresh peaches on the Raisin Bran he served me for breakfast. Since my own father was in the Air Force, I never lived close to Papa, and knew him only from occasional visits. I was too young to know that I should have asked for his stories, so pretty much everything I know comes from my own father.
Papa lied about his age and joined the Army in December 1917, when he was barely 17. According to his discharge papers, he was assigned to “Headquarters 34th Balloon Company, Langley Field, 19th Company”. The front of the paper states he was discharged on December 12, 1918, but the list of engagements on the back included the comments “Served in France, Left US 10/20/18, (illegible – perhaps ‘rtn’) US 3/20/19.
Everything is written by hand, in fading fountain pen. The scribe crammed all of my grandfather’s training and various assignments into four lines, so the crowding and unfamiliar abbreviations make it difficult to decipher to someone not conversant with regiments of that time. He did not see any action. His discharge pay, paid in full, was $107.60. When i look at his signature, I can see my father’s handwriting.
According to Dad, my grandfather worked as a salesman, selling the high-tech (for that time) equipment to oil company engineers and managers all over the U.S. Aware of his lack of education and humble beginnings, he read voraciously, so that he could feel comfortable with the his college-educated customers. When I visited, the small bookshelf was lined with 1950’s era copies of Emily Post‘s books on business place etiquette (which I read cover-to-cover when I was ten years old). This was a time when businessmen wore a suit and tie and a hat, made appointments by letter, and had to handle business expenses by cash receipt.
Sometimes I wish I could talk to Papa. What was it like growing up as a ‘dirt farmer’ without running water or power in your home? What exactly does a Laborer in a Army Ballon Company actually do? What experiences did you have in your short tour of France? What was it like working in the oil field in the 1950s, and what was it like traveling by car all over the U.S. for business? He died of a heart attack (his second). Today, he would have received a bypass or shunt, and probably lived longer. He didn’t live to see Neil Armstrong on the moon, but I wonder what he thought of the Mercury and Apollo missions.
My two sons have a close relationship with my father, who share his love of history and like to hear his stories. Sharing family stories is a great way to build a sense of place, of belonging, of connecting with your own history and understanding where you fit into the world. Your family history may not be very interesting, or be filled with important people, but understanding where you came from, and what hardships or triumphs your ancestors may have faced, can be a binding, and perhaps comforting, part of your personal narrative.
- Picture of forgotten WWI vet tells a thousand words for historian (theglobeandmail.com)
- Overhaul for war museum (independent.co.uk)
- Letters to the President #1115: ‘The last WWI vet’ (ac360.blogs.cnn.com)
- Knights of the air: Canadian fighter pilots in the First World War by Stephen Bashow (crufc.ca)
- ‘Humorous’ German cartoons of life on the frontline in World War I are unearthed (and no, they’re not funny) (dailymail.co.uk)