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Soldier's Son

Soldier's Son

Ben W. McClelland
Copyright Date: 2004
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    Soldier's Son
    Book Description:

    In December 1944 First Lieutenant Ewing R. "Pete" McClelland was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. Soon afterwards in an Allied air attack on the German POW camp where he was held, he was killed.

    Back home in Pennsylvania, his young widow and three small children survived him. Too young to have lasting recollections, Ben W. McClelland, the soldier's son who was just beyond infancy, became one of the war's fatherless innocents for whom the memories of others would form the paternal image.

    As the boy evolved into manhood, he reflected on how strange it was to grow up without this parent. In this narrative, a work of analysis as well as an odyssey into family heritage, the son undertakes a compelling search to find this man he could not remember. Through sentiment and nostalgia he depicts the innocence of childhood and recalls the many people who furnished impressions of his father.

    Old photographs, intimate letters, and interviews with the memory keepers and the storytellers in his extended family were resources from which the author recreated a time and a place and a person. This reconstruction resurrects a father vital in life and passion, a man chronicled in humorous family tales, realized among vivid small-town characters, and seen against the contrast of social changes of the1960s.

    The search for his father consumed most of a lifetime. As Ben W. McClelland was approaching the age of sixty, he had recovered this lost, never-before-realized identity. But to complete the circle of his quest, he undertook one thing more, the emotional pilgrimage to his father's grave in Europe.

    Although many other memoirs detail the experience of the soldier on the fronts of battle, this one brings an understanding of his sacrifice in wartime, of the resounding meaning of his death for his country and for his family, and of a son's profound yearning for answers that fulfill.

    Ben W. McClelland is a professor of English and holder of the Schillig Chair of English Composition at the University of Mississippi.

    Check the author's website.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-052-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-X)
    (pp. XI-2)
  4. 1 KILLED IN ACTION Masontown, Pennsylvania December 24, 1944–January 25, 1945
    (pp. 3-5)

    On Christmas Eve of 1944, Mom received a telegram reporting tersely that Dad had been missing in action since the seventeenth, the second day of the Battle of the Bulge. Try though she might, she could get no further information from the government about his fate. With a toddler and twin infants, Mom observed the holidays filled with dread and distress. Following weeks of worry, she returned on the first day of the winter term to continue teaching her second-grade class. For her, staying busy with her pupils’ reading, spelling, mathematics, and penmanship was preferable to sitting at home waiting...

  5. 2 “DAD, IT’S BENNY” The American Military Cemetery at Margraten, The Netherlands August 2000
    (pp. 6-7)

    More than fifty-five years after Mom received that second telegram, here I stand. Across acres of grass, white marble crosses fan out in curved rows, looking from above like so many gull wings arcing silently over the sea. In the center of these 8,302 crosses stands one. I turn into Plot J, step deliberately to the middle of Row 3, stop and peer intently at Grave 8. It hits hard now. Trembling, I look through tears—and through the memory of a gold star, of mothballs, and of parentheses—to a single cross: Dad’s.

    Finally, with this pilgrimage, I am...

  6. 3 WHERE I(T) STARTED Masontown, Pennsylvania
    (pp. 8-23)

    Located about seventy miles south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River, this southwestern Pennsylvania town has a long history. Area mounds reveal the presence of ancient inhabitants who antedated by thousands of years the native tribes that were established when the first Europeans arrived in the area. Area place-names refer to old Indian settlements and battles of the French and Indian War in our colonial history. George Washington, John Mason, Albert Gallatin, and Edward Braddock all trafficked here. In the early 1900s the burgeoning coal industry turned Masontown into a boomtown with several large mines dug into the surrounding hillsides,...

  7. 4 THE MEMORIAL DAY PARADE AND CEREMONY Masontown, Pennsylvania May 1948
    (pp. 24-29)

    We watched the Memorial Day parade from our screened-in, second-story porch, shouting and waving to neighbors lining the street and to friends marching in the parade. The region’s high school bands, Scout troops, and men in uniforms marched, carrying banners. New convertibles and old, shined-up roadsters puttered slowly by, bedecked with crepe paper, pretty girls, and dignitaries. Youngsters rode bicycles with red, white, and blue streamers trailing from the handlebars and woven between the spokes. Firemen clung to the sides and the back of their newest truck, as the driver revved up the engine, flashed its lights, and blew its...

  8. 5 THE WAR HONOR ROLL Masontown, Pennsylvania September 1949
    (pp. 30-34)

    Surely we had walked past the War Honor Roll before, my twin sister and I, but I hadn’t paid attention to it. Set on the southwest corner of our schoolyard, facing the intersection of Washington and Church streets, the monument was erected out of the same yellow brick as our school building. A wide paved walkway led several yards from the corner of the sidewalk up to the monument and the flagpole. Our church stood directly across the street; our home on Main Street was just two blocks away.

    Jackie Belch, Ronnie Smith, Johnny Schultz, and I were neighborhood pals...

  9. 6 TALKING LIKE CROCKY Masontown, Pennsylvania June 1953
    (pp. 35-49)

    At the end of my fourth-grade year, Mom gave up teaching to take a new job as postmaster. The evening she came home from her first day at work, I was waiting atop the twenty-second step, the head of the stairs. From the window in her bedroom I had watched Mom park her dark blue 1950 Plymouth, a four-door sedan. Then I ran to the steps and perched behind the woven, wrought-iron gate. I had been folding and refolding my new yellow-and-green, plastic Valvoline cap, the one shaped like a soldier’s cloth cap. The red grease rag still draped out...

  10. 7 FAMILY HERITAGE PERSONIFIED Masontown, Pennsylvania Throughout the 1900s
    (pp. 50-76)

    Mom helped us kids shape our early perceptions of our relatives. For instance, she considered Aunt Sally an ancestor worshipper. Aunt Sally was fond of telling about her family line that led back to John Minor, who established Greene County—where Aunt Sally lived all of her life—naming it after the Revolutionary War great, General Nathaniel Greene. While Uncle Lloyd, Mom’s oldest brother, shared this keen passion for genealogy with his wife, Mom wouldn’t think of criticizing him. She deeply respected him and thought that his love of lineage didn’t seem so racially engrossed as our aunt’s did. Uncle...

  11. 8 “GET SOME BLACK-SEEDED SIMPSON FOR US TO SOW, BENNY” Harbison Avenue Masontown, Pennsylvania
    (pp. 77-107)

    Those who engage in joyous love often must endure its shocking loss. The ones affected most powerfully by both experiences are the innocent, generous souls, those of tender heart and deep passion. In our family my dad’s mother was such a figure. A striking young woman from a prominent family, she gradually lost her way in the world, and then eventually lost her health. Through it all she clung to a steadfast faith in God.

    We kids never knew why she became progressively unable to read the compass points, why she lost her mental sharpness. My brother seemed to have...

  12. 9 A CABIN OF FAMILY STORIES Lake o’ the Woods, West Virginia 1946–1954
    (pp. 108-130)

    We stopped going to the cabin at the lake nearly fifty years ago. And it’s been about forty years since I last saw it. Well, glimpsed it. It looked small—puny, really—viewed from the four-seater when my brother made a flyover on our way to visit Cousin Tommy Dick. Years later, on a lark, somebody drove up the mountain again, but couldn’t locate it. Yet the cabin still lives within us all, the locus of a significant period in our family’s history. We keep it alive—as we have all our valuable moments—through storytelling.

    I don’t remember anything...

  13. 10 THE ONE WHO CALLED ME BOLO Masontown, Pennsylvania
    (pp. 131-148)

    I remember Uncle Tom as the quintessential performer, not just at the cabin, but in public. Once when I was a youngster of five or six, I went to see Uncle Tom and his fellow Rotarians put on a minstrel show for charity at the Liberty Theater uptown. Before the show, someone took me down into the dressing room under the stage. I’m sure my eyes were as wide as saucers when I entered the narrow room with its bank of bright lights above mirrors that ran along the entire wall. Men were seated in front of the mirrors at...

  14. 11 “LET’S GO TO THE CIRCUS!” Masontown, Pennsylvania Summer 1949–Winter 1950
    (pp. 149-153)

    When the circus came to town, it set up in the lot next to the fire hall, about two blocks away on Washington Street. In those days, although it served as a parking lot for Friday-night bingo games, it was not so much a lot as just a dusty field with scruffy tufts of grass sticking up between the stones. Since there was no fence, telephone poles lay around the circumference, permitting traffic to enter and exit only in designated areas. Every day that the circus was in town we enjoyed watching the elephants walk through the alley past our...

  15. 12 A MOMENT’S RICHES Masontown, Pennsylvania April 1953
    (pp. 154-161)

    One Saturday morning a hard shaft of late April sun pierced through the TV glare in the living room at 201, luring us out onto the second-floor porch. The gray floorboards, the outdoor furniture, and the aluminum screens lay under a heavy winter sifting of black dust from the passing coal trucks. But the promise of spring drew us away fromSky Kingto a game of chase around the chaise lounge and the glider.

    “Get in here before you look like you belong on the other side of the tracks with the Dotsons,” Grandma barked. “June’s coming to clean...

  16. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  17. 13 POP Masontown, Pennsylvania December 1954
    (pp. 162-205)

    We kids loved to hear stories about Mom’s childhood, so we always encouraged her to tell us some, like the first time she saw one of the old town characters. Once when she was a little girl going for a walk uptown with Pop, she spotted Ephraim Walters III, whose family’s story was tied in with the region’s pioneer history, his great-grandfather having been kidnapped and raised by the local Indian chiefs Yougashaw and Cornstalk. No matter what romantic history might be in this man’s past, it was his present visage that undid Mom. Taking his customary walk from his...

  18. 14 “MASONTOWN OFFICER KILLED IN GERMANY” Masontown, Pennsylvania December 1954
    (pp. 206-221)

    In Pop’s drawer I found a yellowed newspaper clipping. The five-inch-high picture showed my dad in his formal dress uniform. The headline read, “Masontown Officer Killed in Germany.” I leaned on the freshly made bed and started to read the article out loud.

    “Read it to yourself. I already read it.” Pete fingered the pearl sides of a penknife.

    First Lieutenant Ewing R. McClelland, one of Masontown’s best known men, was killed in action in Germany, December 23, the War Department has notified his widow, Mrs. Marianna Wright McClelland, teacher in the Masontown borough schools.

    Leaving for overseas in October,...

  19. 15 FIRST LOVE Masontown, Pennsylvania 1958–1961
    (pp. 222-234)

    I found myself in the middle of a difficult adolescence. Is there any other kind? Like all teenagers, I assume, I felt so different from the adults in my family. Having been a teacher’s pet and having identified with adult authority, this sense of estrangement was new and uncomfortable. I looked more to Pete and Mary Jane—although we had developed into such different individuals with separate sets of friends and interests. My classmate Ronnie Smith and I took late-night drives and philosophized, as well as we could, about what we were experiencing. The entertainment world exploded with diversions that...

  20. 16 “SPEAK THE SPEECH, I PRAY THEE, TRIPPINGLY ON THY TONGUE” Masontown, Pennsylvania Fall 1960
    (pp. 235-242)

    Just before my senior year, 1960–1961, my hometown high school merged with several smaller ones and the one in Pt. Marion, a nearby rival town, to form a new school. The new building was located between the two towns at Friendship Hill on land donated by Albert Gallatin’s estate. I was elected the first student government president and, therefore, was designated to deliver a speech in mid-April on behalf of the consolidated student body at the dedication of the new school building.

    My speech at the dedication ceremony was a stirring success. Applause echoed off the shiny, hardwood floor...

  21. 17 IF YOU VALUE FREEDOM, SEEK JUSTICE Masontown, Pennsylvania
    (pp. 243-258)

    It reads like any carefully composed, respectful letter of sympathy. But it was an unusual letter, written by a reticent young man who never mailed it to the surviving widow. Following Uncle Ben’s death, his former law partner, John Remington, wrote a letter of sympathy to Aunt Frankie. In this very long epistle, Mr. Remington summed up the qualities of the man he knew so well and revered so much. For unexplained reasons, he never mailed the letter until after Aunt Frankie’s death, when he sent it to her and Uncle Ben’s daughter, my cousin Deb. I saw it when...

  22. 18 GRANDMA WRIGHT Bloomington, Indiana March 16, 1966
    (pp. 259-271)

    Mom called and told me that Grandma had died after being hospitalized for four days.

    “Four days! Why didn’t you tell me?” I shouted.

    “Grandma said not to. She didn’t want you to worry. Listen, Ben, when we first admitted her, it was just for a foot infection. They found a needle in her heel; it had broken off below the eye. The doctor said he thought it had been there for a long time and something just irritated it recently.”

    “Well, what did she die of?”

    “A stroke.”

    “I’ll be home by dinner tomorrow.”

    In late October of 1943,...

  23. 19 SPLIT OVER THE VIETNAM WAR Masontown, Pennsylvania July 1970
    (pp. 272-276)

    In the mid-sixties, when my brother was living in San Francisco, he visited an army recruiter. Pete had a commercial pilot’s license and Uncle Sam wanted pilots for the war in Southeast Asia. The recruiter told Pete that with his commercial license, he would probably be assigned to fly twin Beeches at Fort Ord in California and never even leave the States. Pete wrote to Uncle Ben, telling him that he was thinking of signing up. Immediately, Uncle Ben dashed off a pencilled note on a sheet of paper from a legal pad: “Do not enlist. This is not a...

  24. 20 ANOTHER PARADE, ANOTHER WAR MEMORIAL Bloomington, Indiana July 1970
    (pp. 277-280)

    I replayed the recent family fight in my mind as I walked across campus. The rally began where all of Indiana University’s political activities originated, in the fabled Dunn Meadow. Set down from the roadway, the meadow is a large grassy, rectangular commons, bounded by an embankment around two sides, the sprawling and exquisite student union building on the third side and a deep woods on the fourth. From a Quaker I accepted a white armband bearing a black-stenciled peace symbol. I made my way through the crowd to see what I could learn from the speakers who trod to...

  25. 21 LEARNING MORE ABOUT MOM AND DAD Masontown, Pennsylvania
    (pp. 281-297)

    While the intensity of my need to know more about my dad and his end ebbed and flowed with the vicissitudes of my life, it never totally abated. My first period of real study about the war itself came at about age sixteen, when somehow the burden I felt to be a good son for my dad and my desire to know more about him coalesced. Each night, after doing all of my homework, after eating dinner, and after listening to a Pirates ball-game or watchingThe Ed Sullivan ShoworThe Lawrence Welk ShoworKraft Television Theater, I...

  26. 22 PILGRIMAGE Utrecht, en route to Margraten, The Netherlands August 2000
    (pp. 298-305)

    In piecing together my dad’s story, I now make an important journey, as my brother did before me, a pilgrimage to Europe to visit my dad’s grave at the American Military Cemetery near Margraten, The Netherlands.

    My wife, my niece, a good friend, and I board the train at two in the afternoon. We pass out of this college town with its medieval heritage. We sip Cokes, eat snacks, and talk easily. But the journey, a long-awaited pilgrimage, is at the back of my mind.

    I see those parentheses, that gold star. I smell those mothballs.

    Amsterdam is just down...

  27. 23 REACHING A MILESTONE Oxford, Mississippi
    (pp. 306-308)

    Since returning from Europe, I have been trying to take in all that transpired in that brief visit. Standing before him in his grave made the loss more palpable. Now I can say that I’ve been there with him. I saw the memorial to him. I acknowledged his sacrifice for me, indeed for all of us for whom he died. The pilgrimage enabled me to grieve, to begin healing, and to gain another view on my dad's identity—as well as a better grasp on mine. It also motivated me to learn more about his life and his death. On...

  28. EPILOGUE Oxford, Mississippi
    (pp. 309-310)

    What does recalling the scenes and people of my life mean to me now? As a person out of the Wright-McClelland heritage who is facing an entirely different world from that of my mom and dad, and our forebears, I choose to understand certain things from this history.

    I feel the loss of that heritage, of that culture, of that world and its time; and I feel the loss of the individual family members who raised me. They are all gone now, as gone as my dad always was to me.

    On the other hand, in composing this recollection of...