World War II surprised most Americans, who, in those days, paid less attention to the rest of the world than they do today. In our town, World War I was a dissolving memory, kept alive by the sale of paper poppies and the sight of a few leftover casualties who crept along Main Street, dragging a limp leg or nursing a curled arm. I knew only two.
Finley Kemp was a hunchback whose spine had been crushed by a spent shell that struck him as he ran across a smoking field in France. By day he was a real-estate agent in a dying market; by night one of the several town drunks.
Our next-door neighbor, Gale Henneberg, sat on his front porch, rocking furiously, gasping for air to support his increasingly fragile life. His lungs had been blistered by mustard gas. One day I asked him how it had felt. “Wonderful,” he rasped, “wonderful,” and his laugh turned into a coughing fit.
These two were among the odds and ends of an increasingly irrelevant past. Our hearts went out to them, not so much for the service they’d rendered as for the high visibility of their suffering.
However, like other towns, we celebrated Armistice Day each November 11 by holding a ceremony, ours at Five Points. In order to swell an ever-dwindling crowd of adults, children from the three elementary schools were hauled downtown in...