Monday, May 25, 2015

One soldier's life, long forgotten

(NOTE: The following post originally ran on May 28, 2012, and I bring it back three years later as my little nod to Memorial Day, one of the lower profile if more profound American holidays. Enjoy your day.)

Every Memorial Day, I think of Merwin Brewer.

There probably aren't many people who think of Merwin Brewer on Memorial Day anymore, or on any other day, for that matter. He has been dead for nearly a century.

Merwin Brewer was an American soldier who died on the Western Front at the tail end of World War I. His official address was listed as Cleveland, Ohio, but he was born in my hometown of Wickliffe, Ohio. Our local American Legion post is partially named after him (Brewer-Tarasco).

The annual Memorial Day parade is a big deal here in Wickliffe. It's one of the better parades around, with two marching bands, lots of candy, and 45 minutes or so of entertainment for anyone willing to stand and watch the whole thing.

Every year, the American Legion used to have a group of local kids walk in the parade carrying signs with the names of Wickliffe natives who died in war. And every year at the front of this group was a young person holding a sign emblazoned with Merwin Brewer's name.

The 30 seconds or so it takes for that sign to pass by us is the only time the Memorial Day parade turns truly somber for me. This is partly because, as I've mentioned before, I have a morbid fascination with the First World War and the way millions of young men were killed during it. No war is good, but this one was particularly tragic.

According to this web page, Merwin Brewer died on November 13, 1918, from earlier wounds sustained in combat. That was two days after the war in Europe had ended. No one wants to be the last man killed in a war that’s already over, but Merwin was one of those who fell just short of making it through alive.

Merwin served in the Argonne and in Flanders, both the scenes of brutal, bloody fighting. I often wonder exactly how he died. Probably from a shrapnel wound. Artillery was the #1 killer in the war, and countless soldiers succumbed to infections and internal injuries suffered when they were hit by flying hunks of metal from exploding artillery shells.

His story doesn't sound particularly distinctive. His life ended the same way millions of others ended, probably in some military hospital. But Merwin Brewer is as real to me as any one of my family and friends, because he was born in the same place I was born. He was a real person whose death, now long forgotten, probably brought unimaginable grief and sorrow to his family back in Ohio.

He was only 23 years old. Just a baby. "Virgins with rifles," that's what Sting called the soldiers of the First World War.

I'm as guilty as anyone of treating Memorial Day as a festive day off from work instead of a time for reflection. But while I'm eating my grilled hamburger later today or lounging outside with my family, I promise I'll spend at least another couple of minutes thinking about Merwin Brewer.

It seems like the least I can do.