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Coffin: 1917

 From a wall in my Montpelier home, the kindly oval-framed faces of two great-grandparents and their two sons have watched me down the years.

John and Julia Wright raised two boys on their South Pomfret farm. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Addison (known as Addie) said he had to enlist. But his parents said no, he was vital to the farm. Addie took to walking the hills, and one night didn’t come home. He was found in a barn on Tom White Hill where he’d shot himself.

Leslie then said he was going to war, and his parents didn’t try to stop him. The night before the tall and handsome lad went away, a big party was held in the hayfield.

Family and friends gathered around a bonfire as Leslie and his girlfriend Lena, from a nearby farm, were the center of attention. As always with that family there was music, and much laughter. But as night deepened on the old hill farm, smiles turned to sadness.

Leslie departed next morning, for basic training at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. Six weeks later he was dead, of the Spanish influenza that swept the world and hit army camps especially hard.

My mother well remembered her uncles, the sadness of Addie’s death, Leslie’s farewell party, and the sad funerals.

Seventy five years after 1917, I visited the home of Lena Luce, now 90, once Leslie’s girl. After his death she had married another local fellow, and now she was widowed after a 60 year marriage.

I wanted to know more about Leslie, but she was reluctant to say much. Yes, he had been a good fellow, and so set on going to war.
After an hour, little information gained, I thanked Lena. She said it had been nice to see me, and thanks for stopping by.

As I reached for the door, she said, “Howard, do you know why he died?”

I stopped. “I thought it was the Spanish flu,” I said.

“It was,” she said. “but he was a Vermont farm boy and he didn’t know how to be sick.”

Oh yes, on a small Vermont hill farm, every morning there were chores, regardless of how you felt. No going to the doctor, at home or at Fort Devens.

I treasure the old flag I possess that came home from Camp Devens on Leslie’s coffin, stars and stripes now much faded.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the Civil War.
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