One thing all mothers eventually learn is how fast time goes and how quickly children grow up. For Irma Bray, my great-great grandmother, it seemed like only yesterday when she held her baby Frank’s tiny hands as he toddled along, taking his first steps. Then, in what felt like a flash, he stood before her, a strapping young twenty two-year old man in his khaki uniform, ready to go off to war.
In the previous year of 1917, the United States had entered into the First World War; and, with its entry, a number of brave young men were called on to serve their country. Frank, being one of those men, enlisted in September for an undeclared period of emergency. For a time, it looked like his service wasn’t to be needed, as he was discharged almost as soon as he was inducted under the guise that he had been erroneously added due to a typographical error. A certificate in his receipt stated as much, offering hope to his nerve-wracked mother that he would be one of the lucky ones spared from duty.
But, that luck would not remain. The following March, Frank was once again called for service. This time, there wouldn’t be any typographical errors or Irish luck that would save him. The Army, destined to win the war, pulled out all the stops in 1918, calling anyone and everyone who could and would fit the bill of service. At a height of 5’11”, with strong shoulders and a trim build, a strapping young lad like Frank was just the sort that they needed to muscle Kaiser Wilhelm’s forces.
By the middle of March, he was set up as part of Company A of the 114th Infantry, serving in the 29th Division. Letters sent home showed his training migration path followed from Camp Travis in San Antonio to Camp Gordon in De Kalb; and, from there, he went on to Camp McClellan in Alabama before sailing out to the frontlines of European war. Once his division landed in France, as part of the American Expeditionary Forces, they would come to serve and fight in one of the final campaigns before the end of the war – the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
Over the course of his months in France, Frank saw both ends of world’s spectrum - the fierceness of German gunfire and the drudgery of life in the trenches. In the time between battles, he often thought of home and all of the things that were going on without him. He imagined what his family was doing, and often wished on his lucky penny that he would return to their embrace one day.
But, on the morning of October 12, 1918, as he struggled to take his last breath, Frank would realize that his greatest wish would remain unfulfilled. Rapid machine gun fire had belted across the landscape, leaving the hillside pock-marked and cavernous, as the battle of Bois-d’Ormont raged on. Caught in the crossfire, Frank was one of the many whose bodies had been picked off by German snipers who had patiently hidden in the forest nearby. Shot several times, one bullet piercing a lung, Frank fell to the ground while still holding his gun in hand. His compatriot, Eddie Richard - a man who had fought alongside him and carried his ammunition - cradled Frank’s head in his lap as he gurgled blood and gasped his last deep sighs of French air. And then, just like that, Frank was no more.
A telegram came on November 19th to his parent’s home. Since the war had already ended by that time, Irma was hopeful that it was news of her son’s safety and his impending homecoming. Instead, it was a notice of deep regret from his commander. He had been killed in action on October twelfth, it said. And all she could think about was the fact that, for a month, there had been a gaping hole in her heart, where Frank once lived, and she had been none the wiser.
Like any inquisitive mother, those few words on the telegram did little to console her. Rather, they tormented her. She had so many questions and wanted so many more answers. Primarily, she wanted to know what his final moments included. She wanted to know the details so that she could imagine herself there with him, cradling him in spirit, as he lay dying. She wanted to hold his hands one last time. To bury him under the old oak tree where her family had, just three years before, buried his sister, Laura. And, ultimately, she wanted closure.
Within a year of waiting, she would get some of those answers from his friend, Eddie. He wrote a letter to her with a stirring account of Frank’s last moments on Earth; and, despite coarse wording and clumsy descriptions, she was finally able to picture the things a mother should never have to know. And then all that was left for her closure to be complete was the procurement of Frank’s body.
Following the end of the war, France had disallowed American forces the right to gather their dead for a period of nearly three years. However, by 1921, nearly 46,000 bodies had been dug up from their mass graves and transported across the Atlantic to their respective homes. Frank’s body was one of those. Not all soldiers received such accommodations, as it was largely at the behest of their families. Ballots had been sent out in 1919 to mothers and fathers and wives across the country giving them a say in what happened to the remains of their deceased. For Irma, there was no question – she wanted Frank to return home, no matter what it would take or how it would look.
By September 23, 1921, she got her wish. That morning, as the city of Houston was blanketed under a tapestry of white clouds, a ship arrived with the remains of two young men – one was a family friend, Tommy Waugh, and the other was her son, Frank. Under that same sky, in the sweltering Friday afternoon heat, Frank and Tommy were given all of the pomp and circumstance of a final send-off. A funerary procession, that began at First Methodist Church on Main Street and ended at Glenwood Cemetery on Washington Avenue, would be one of the largest military services the city had ever seen, before or since.
Over 200 cars traveled in the cortege, as well as countless other city officials, police, firemen, pallbearers and friends who followed on foot. They traversed two miles, from church to cemetery, at a slow and mournful pace scored with the hallowed music of a forty-piece marching band. Flags atop every downtown building were set at half-mast in honor of the dead and a crowd of multitudes stood around each street corner woefully watching.
At the tail end of the procession were the cars that belonged to friends and family. Irma, John and their two remaining (albeit, grown) children were there, as well as Mollie Sevier, the nursemaid who had helped Irma to raise Frank as a baby. The outpouring of people and the sheer grandeur of the service made for it to be a full-day affair. By the time they had all journeyed to the cemetery, the blue sky was starting to turn a murky gray.
In the final moments, before the conclusion of the service and the disbursement of the crowds, a bugle played taps as the sun set over the flower-covered graves of Frank and his friend. The overflowing love that the city had shown, as well as the long, harrowing road of one mother’s determination, all came to its apex at that moment. The years of waiting and worrying and lamenting and railing all wrapped themselves up neatly in that one final crescendo. And Irma could do nothing more than sob.
One thing a mother should never have to know is the pain of losing a child. It is an unnatural act; but, one that Irma had become acquainted with only too well. Closure came and went, but afterwards there remained a sort of emptiness. A hole in her heart that would never again be filled. Where he sat at the dinner table, where he slept at night, the streets where he played as a boy and the path that he took as a man, all remained empty. Devoid of Frank.
Would the glory of his final parade, the unification of a city in prayer, or the hugs and casseroles from family and friends be enough to heal his absence? In a word, no. That would come with the passage of time. But, with a lucky penny still resting in his pocket, and a mother’s love still extending outward from her being, Frank and Irma would forever remain in their roles of a story that was older than time. A tale of those who sacrifice – men of war, mothers of men. And, eventually, as she was given her gold star, it would become a new role that she would take on with absolute dignity; for, it was a symbolic way that she and Frank would be linked forever.