Art Lee: ‘That man’ inadvertently taught the importance of Armistice Day
"That man had more discipline in his little finger than the rest of the entire faculty combined." So said the main speaker -- the county attorney -- at the all-school reunion banquet. There were multiple nodding heads among the listeners as they ...
“That man had more discipline in his little finger than the rest of the entire faculty combined.”
So said the main speaker - the county attorney - at the all-school reunion banquet.
There were multiple nodding heads among the listeners as they quietly affirmed the attorney’s statement.
They remembered well. “That man” was the high school principal - and their history and Latin teacher whom they remembered with extraordinary fondness - that man who ran the the town’s senior high school with an iron hand for 28 years, but a firm hand that never once touched a guilty student in anger.
Just one cold look from those penetrating eyes staring at you over the rim of his glasses could not only stop any extracurricular action but, some said, “make your blood curdle.”
Then it was quickly added, and all agreed, that he was always fair and honest; indeed, he was the quintessence of integrity.
When “That man” retired, the school closed; it consolidated with the neighboring town.
The speaker observed that “That man” seldom showed his emotions in school; he was Mr. Stone-Face, Mr. No-Nonsense, Mr. Discipline, but then a former student raised his hand before adding that there was one exception - a one-day, one-minute exception only, and that exception occurred on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, or Armistice Day, as “That man” always called it.
The audience again nodded and mumbled agreement. They knew; they remembered.
ROUTINE MORNING DISRUPTED
They remembered that each school day began with an all-school assembly gathering prior to “That man’s” dismissal order for all to go off to classes, and at that brief gathering he would also give any school announcements and at times note a special day in the nation, be it Washington’s Birthday or Mothers Day.
All this was ho-hum routine and humdrum stuff all year long, except for that one day, Nov. 11.
That added comment served as a reminder to the county attorney who then strayed from his prepared remarks to recall personally what happened when he was a senior on that special date and day:
After the routine school announcements, “That man” continued by quietly simply stating in casual tones the basic news about that day being an important event in history because it was the day that World War I ended.
Then he stopped And waited.
Students also stopped daydreaming and looked up. They knew what he was thinking about. Just that brief reference to WW I did it.
Almost instantly, it changed him. Amazing.
His next sentence that had started as a routine statement about the war soon found his words coming haltingly.
More silence, more waiting, more thinking, wondering.
Uncharacteristically, students witnessed their usually unruffled principal who was almost stammering before his unclear words trailed off into near gibberish - and then silence again.
He couldn’t talk.
He seemed to have lost it.
Extraordinary moment for everyone in the room. At that point, his face had become flushed, the tears in his eyes glistened before a couple of big drops ran down his cheeks.
Out came his handkerchief; then followed a loud nasal blow and the difficult effort of his trying to end the uncomfortable situation by saying the one closing word that would send students off to classes; a word he usually barked loudly and forcefully was at that moment almost inaudible: “Dismissed.”
The assembly room was totally silent. Several students had their own hankies out and were wiping away their own tears.
And all the students knew why “That man” was so filled with emotion on this one day.
They knew he was in the U.S. Army; they knew he was in the infantry and stationed in the front trenches bordering No-Man’s-Land in northern France on Nov. 11, 1918.
His emotions about the war for him was not only understandable but they affected all in the room; so strong as to be palpable.
More silence, more waiting.
Finally, silently, one by one, students rose from their seats and quietly moved off to their various classrooms.
It was over, sort of, but not only for that day.
An unplanned lesson had been inadvertently “preached.”
The message would stick. Years later, for the hundreds of students who were once there in that annual all-school Assembly Room on Nov. 11, Veterans Day took on a special meaning for them too, only because of “That man.”
AN EXPLANATION, OF SORTS
“That man” was, of course, my father - A.O. Lee (A for Arthur, O. for Ophelius).
Although everyone addressed him as Mister, behind his back everyone referred to him as simply A.O.
He was the only child of Lars and Julia Lee. Lars was a Norwegian immigrant, arriving at age 18 and he migrated to Decorah, Iowa where already lived his three older brothers and one sister.
After Lars’ failed farming attempt at homesteading in North Dakota (he could not stand the alkali water there), he returned to the Decorah area and bought a small farm north of town, living among fellow immigrant farmers.
He spoke only Norwegian and read only Norwegian; when he died at age 87 he knew at most a dozen words in English.
Lars would meet and would later married a young neighbor woman, Julia Dahlen (she was born in 1866, just one year after the Civil War ended; but she could and did speak English).
They had only one child, A.O. Lee.
A dozen years later, Lars and Julia shocked their little lutefisk ghetto by doing something almost unheard of at the time: They sent their son to high school!? Actually to Prep School, the “high school” run by Luther College in Decorah.
First four years of Prep School and then four more years at Luther College. (He played on the Luther basketball team; he was 5 feet 7 inches tall).
He once made the town newspaper when an article told about this young man who one afternoon walked from his farm home 12 miles to town, played a basketball game, and afterward walked back home again.
He graduated in 1917 and took his first teaching job in a small North Dakota town but he was not allowed to even finish the school year. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in April of 1918, sent for basic training in Oklahoma, then sent via troop ship to France, arriving in August to join his infantry comrades in the fighting of those final last months of the war.
The slow slogging of combat - and cold rainy weather - found Cpl. Lee living in a long and deep trench adjoining No-Man’s-Land, the enemy just a couple hundred yards away.
The intense combat there found him saddened almost daily by the ongoing deaths of his new-found friends, but the terminology for being killed was not uttered; instead, for the word “killed,” the soldiers had substituted the phrase “gone West.”
Poison gas - mustard gas - found too many comrades who “had gone West.”
It’s no surprise to state that he did not/would not talk about his war experiences to anyone, including his own family members - until both got much older. (My mother would say that when he first got back home, he would sometimes wake up at night screaming and shouting orders and warnings to non-existence “comrades/ghosts” in their bedroom.)
But he was most willing to say that the happiest day in his life was Nov. 11, 1918.
He was assigned as a “runner” to run up and down the trenches with orders.
And his message on that morning of Nov. 11 was to shout over and over again: “CEASE FIRE AT 11:00. ARMISTICE! THE WAR IS OVER! THE WAR IS OVER!”
When A.O. returned home, he was allowed to keep his complete Army uniform and his gas-mask - and his Army boots. (For years afterward, they all hung on a wall in his garage and when the time came years later for him and his wife to move to another dwelling, the question became: Who wants ‘em? Turns out one of his granddaughter wanted them.)
What he did not want in his home after the war were any hand-gun or rifles, and even in later life, he avoided going into enclosed indoor swimming pools because the smell of chlorine brought back horrible memories of the poison gas he experienced in the trenches.
“That man” passed away in 1983, just a couple of months before his 90th birthday, but in a real sense he still lives on, most notably “seen” whenever there is an all-school reunion.