Authors: Terry Deary
I never left the state of Kansas until I joined the army. In fact, I'd hardly ever left our farm.
âThat Great War is nothing to do with us,' Ma used to say. âYou stay out of it, Joe.'
Our farm was a patch of dirt. Dad did the ploughing and sowing â I never liked horses, and they didn't like me. Ma kept the old tractor running and the pick-up truck that got us to Great Bend â every time I touched a machine, it broke. I minded the pigs and chickens, and the pigeons. Maybe you wouldn't think of farming pigeons.
But Ma sold them to Mr Lamarr at his White Dove restaurant in Great Bend to be made into pigeon pie. We needed the money, but I felt bad about the pigeons.
I liked to train my birds to fly back home. Some days I'd run ten miles across the range, then tie a message to the bird's leg and set it free. Those little messages got back to our farm long before I did.
From time to time Ma came back from Great Bend with a newspaper. After dark we'd sit round the oil lamp and read about the Great War over in Europe.
âLooks like America's going to send men across to fight,' Pa said one night in the lamplight.
âWell, they ain't taking my little Joe,' Ma said.
âHe has to be eighteen to fight. Joe's only sixteen.'
âHe looks eighteen,' Ma argued. âIf the army send men out to look for soldiers you hide in the barn, you hear, Joe?'
Then one day in the spring of 1917 Ma came home wild as a mountain lion. âSome low-down crook of a farmer over in Dry Walnut Creek is selling Mr Lamarr pigeons for half what we charge. I had to take even less. We'll hardly afford to eat this
month,' she sobbed, and tears ran down her thin, sun-stained cheeks. âAll because of this farmer Muller.'
âMuller?' Pa said. âSounds German to me.'
âExactly!' Ma shouted. âAnd we're at war with the Germans!'
I tried to remind her: âYou said the Great War is nothing to do with us.'
She wasn't listening. âIt'd serve them right if I sent our Joe to fight them. They'd be beaten inside a week.'
I tried again. âYou said I was too young.'
âI'll drive you in to Great Bend tomorrow. You can sign up for the US Army there.'
âBut you saidâ¦'
Ma wasn't listening.
We drove into the town the next day and saw a line of men outside the door of the Town Hall. Ma pushed me out of the pickup truck. I joined the line and shuffled along with the rest till I got to the desk.
âName?' the man in a khaki uniform asked.
âJoe. Joe Clay.'
The man rubbed his tired eyes. âWe don't take men as young as sixteen. You reckon you mean eighteen?'
âI suppose,' I said. It was a lie. We both knew it.
âI'll put down eighteen,' he said. âNow put your mark here.'
âI can write my name,' I said proudly.
âThat'll come in useful when you're digging trenches,' he muttered. âHere is a rail pass. Report to Kansas City troop depot a week today and they'll train you up.' He reached out to shake my hand quickly. âWelcome to the army, son,' he said, then shouted, âNext!'
And that was how I came to fight in the Great War. All because Ma got in a temper over a few pigeons.
I can't complain. Pigeons got me into the war, but it was a pigeon that got me out of it alive.
I went off to Camp Lewis in Washington for training.
First we learned to march. The sergeant said I was the worst marcher he'd ever seen.
Then we tried shooting. My shooting was worse than my marching. When they gave me a rifle everybody hid.
They tried me in the cook house but my porridge was so lumpy the sergeant said it could kill more men than a German machine gun, and my bacon was harder than a bullet.
By the spring of 1918 the army reckoned we were ready to go across the seas to fight the German army. The colonel sent for me. âTrooper Clay,' he said with a sad shake of his white-haired head. âWhat am I going to do with you?'
âSend me to France to fight, sir?'
âYou can't shoot straight, you can't march straight, and you can't look after the horses or the trucks.'
âWe could sent you over to France and tie you to a post. The riflemen could use you for target practice.'
âYes, sir,' I muttered. My boots were too big and the wool uniform itched and made me sweat. I felt as miserable as a whipped puppy.
âTell me, Trooper Clay, is there anything you are good at? Any single thing?'
âI can run ten miles in an hour,' I said.
The colonel looked happier. âThat's good. The men in battle need to send messages quickly. Telephone wires get cut or snapped so then they use runners.'
âI could do that,' I said.
âIt's a dangerous job,' he said.
My mouth went dry. âDangerous?'
âThe men in the battle may want supplies. Or they may want to tell our heavy gunners where the enemy troops are, so they can drop shells on them. Now, Trooper Clay, what do the Germans think of that?'
âThey don't want the big guns dropping shells on them, sir?'
âExactly,' the colonel said. âSo your enemy will do all they can to stop the messengers getting through. They send snipers to pick them off. Know what a sniper is?'
âA lone sharp-shooter with a rifle,' I said.
âYou'll be trying to run five miles with a message and the sniper will be trying to shoot you. Or they may call up the German Air Force to attack you with planes carrying machine guns. A dangerous job.' The colonel rubbed his hands together. âTrooper Clay, I'll have you posted to a troop of messengers in France.'
âThank you sir,' I said. But I don't know why I said that.
It took eight days to cross the Atlantic Ocean. We landed in a place so green and peaceful I couldn't believe there was a war going on. I was used to the endless flat and dusty plains of Kansas. This was a land of fresh rain, rolling green hills and little fields with sheep and cows.
I said, âFrance sure is a great place.'
The sergeant sneered at me. âWe're in England, you dummy.'
The men heard him and laughed. After that no one called me Joe any more â they all called me Dummy.
We spent a couple of weeks in England doing more training. No one was faster than me down the lanes and over the green fields. âIt'll be harder when you get to France,' the sergeant warned me. âRunning in trenches and ditches to stay out of sight, running in darkness or wearing a gas mask.'