Inside the Brown Bag – The Shared Experiences

By Peg Brown

March—the third month—we all know the aphorisms: “March comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb, “or “March is mad as a hare” (referring to let’s just say aggressive mating habits of animals during spring). We also know that the month is synonymous with green beer, zeppoles, too much basketball, and has the dubious designation as the longest month without a school vacation in sight.

With these topics available for comment, why would I choose to write a column that you might think more appropriate for Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day, or just about any other time of the year?

A recent personal health challenge gave me an unusual amount of time to catch up on my favorite PBS series. Among those programs was an in depth look at the life and career of Bob Hope. The documentary, which included comments from friends, colleagues and family members, was an honest portrayal of the man’s accomplishments and indiscretions, his generosity and human flaws, and a reaffirmation of the decades long commitment he had to bringing a touch of home to the United States military forces stationed abroad–beginning in World War II and extending through the Korean, Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq wars and conflicts.

What was most riveting in the film clips of his many visits to these combat areas, were the black and white images of the faces of very young men (and later women), teenagers in many cases, laughing– and crying amid the chaos and carnage of their lives as soldiers. While the venues and uniforms changed over the decades, the faces of their common shared experience, whatever the conflict, were always the same—young, hopeful, afraid—a common bond across the years with those who themselves had experienced the loneliness and fear of war.

The program led me to search out family documents that I had been intending to review, record and preserve, but had never found the right moment to undertake what I perceived to be would become an all- consuming project. Amongst a pile of fragile letters, dated between 1905 and 1928, written on unlined paper, now yellowed and stained with age, was a three page note in pencil, dated November 16, 1918. It begins with the salutation, “Dear Sister.” The family archive is largely a collection of correspondence between Lottie Angevine and her brother Frank, who served in Europe during World War I. I’d like to say that these letters had been lovingly preserved by the family. However, truthfully, they had resided unceremoniously at the bottom of a box that by chance missed the dumpster a number of times.

The Bob Hope special had sent me in search of confirmation that the shared experiences of those who experienced similar trials and emotions formed a unique bond among those who never actually met, but who could, at any time, share a bond with one another through a moment spent in like circumstances.

Let me share an excerpt from this 1918 letter: “Well the War is History and History is the past. The guns roar no longer and the —— (a commonly know bombing plane) no longer flies overhead, ready to spray you with machine gun fire and bombs—and every night we sleep in the same French man’s house and eat our meals off a table. I can’t realize it yet, but they say it’s true and we are just outside Le Mans which was captured by this division a few hours before the Armistice was signed. I won’t write much about that now for I will be telling you about it while you cook up big feeds and fill my pipe with Edgeworth’s tobacco –yes, the smell will be foul…I am too excited to write much now but the news was great. The civil population crowded into the streets and cheered and cried for (days?) and they brought flags and…threw bottles of wine and champagne and gave it to us and did everything they could to please us as the long job is done and it was a hard one. If everything goes well, I will be home in early spring so I will close for now hoping this finds you well as it leaves me. Frank”

But my message is not just about shared experiences during war, but the links we have to others through everyday contacts. If you will indulge an aging former teacher of English, no one, in my opinion, expressed this more clearly than the late 19th century poet, Walt Whitman. In his poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the lone narrator focuses on his surroundings, most importantly on the passengers who are seeing the same landscape, feeling the same waves, and hearing the pounding of the engines. It occurs to him that all those commuters traveling on the ferry now, in the past and in the future share commonalties—that “shared experiences can unite people across different historical eras,” and that “all humans are connected across time and space.” And, not to get too literary, his choice of the word “crossing” (a present participle), implies time continuous, with no beginning or end for having shared experiences during the mundane routines of everyday life—or, more eloquently put “the narrative thread that connects all human beings.” (Gundersen, K. 16 August 2014).

What by now probably seems to you, the reader, a very disorganized article, I come back to the beginning. We have all shared space with individuals during the many moments of our life—most of them strangers traveling, shopping, vacationing, working, being entertained in some venue, or just sitting next to you in the bar. For that second, minute, hour or day, you have a shared experience that connects you to all others that have walked the same path.

My recent hospitalization, almost two weeks, in shared space, with rotating room-mates, changes in shifts, and in the echoing silence of the beeping hospital sounds at night, reminded me that we are all in some way linked—all we must do is tell our story and listen.

Author’s notes:

The Armistice was signed by Germany and the Allies at the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month—November 11, 1918—at Compiegme, France. The Treaty of Versailles, not signed by all parties until June 28, 1919, went into effect on January 11, 1920.
38 million soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing during the War. Total deaths for the US were 116,516; 201,002 additional US troops were wounded; and a total of 4,734,991 US troops served. Keep in mind, the US did not enter the war until April 6, 1917, and did not begin landing in France until June 26, 1917.
PS. Luke is wishing he wasn’t having a “shared experience” with other crazy owners who force their pets into the costume of the month!