IN FLANDERS FIELD
In Flanders Field the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place......
Louis J. Herman
Flanders Field American Cemetery
108Th Infantry Regiment
27Th Infantry Division
I remember the day, the hour, the moment I first saw the entry written in the pen of the head lighthouse keeper, Charles Hunter. Recorded shortly after the close of WWI it simply stated, "Keeper Edward Herman is planting a walnut tree on the Marblehead lighthouse grounds in memory of his cousin who was killed during the war."
The name was not recorded in the log book on that particular day, in that hour, in that moment of time. Until that entry caught my eye I had no knowledge of any individual in my family killed in any war. Now, I was staring at an acknowledgment of one such person. Who, I wondered was he, or she for that matter? I asked family members. I received no answers. There were no answers because no one remembered. Since no one remembered I was drawn to find the answer.
The answer would take a long time to find. It would take over a year and I would learn it almost to the day of his death. You see, history, as I have said before, has it's own time, it's own place and one cannot expect an immediate answer. And, history has a way of finding it's rightful owner.
In November of 2009 I visited the Marblehead Lighthouse for the first time since the late 1970's when it had stood as a ghostly reminder of a once glorious past. Now, I was going back to a place that held for me a different light. One, which was guiding my research and my path on a journey to learn about my family and about lighthouse history. I did not know that November I was taking back to Texas a remnant of that history. I also did not know just how significant that little souvenir would be in the greater picture of my life.
I took back a walnut from one of the trees that stood guard over the keeper's residence. Not because I was drawn to it as a remembrance of a past, but as a remembrance of the here and now.
The walnut grows inside a large outer shell. Squirrels must gnaw the outer covering to expose the shell. The other-worldly sound made by the gnawing of the outer shell was in competition with the wind in the tree branches. My husband took a photograph. It was to remember this place. It was of a walnut tree. It was of my past. I did not know that on this particular day, hour, and moment.
Then I read the entry one night. And I needed to know the history. My husband reminded me of the walnut we had taken that afternoon in November. Slipped silently into our suitcases, it now graced the shelf in my husband's study. I wanted to hold it, to touch a part of my own history, the one I did not know. And so, it came home to sit on my shelf, in my study. And I wondered about the person whose memory had caused it's planting.
A cousin is a nebulous word. In a large family it can mean many persons. Which part of what family did this cousin come from? Edward's mother or father? Ten or fifteen siblings can amount to a forest of cousins. Another needle in a hay-stack. I seemed to have many of them.
All of my research tricks came up empty. Was this cousin from Western New York State? Perhaps he was from family that had moved to Michigan, Illinois, or Wisconsin. Suddenly, there seemed to be multiple needles and many hay-stacks. Searches through census records and military records filled my ancestry.com shoe box. They gave me nothing for all my trouble.
It was summer, 2010. It was Memorial Day. I was working on the material for the Captain Herman web site. I was reminded of the unfinished walnut tree, an entry in a lighthouse log book and a person who was killed in a war. Once again, I began to search for the name. I needed to know.
May, June, July. Nothing. August arrived with the roar of the cicadas beneath my windows and the heat of Texas. I was working on the materials from the Edward Herman Collection. Suddenly, here it was. It always had been. It just had not been history's time for sharing. "It" was a Memorial Day program. Saved because it had a secret to share. It was for WWII Gold Star Mothers. I had never looked beyond that page. Until now. I opened it to see above the WWII Gold Star Mothers a handful of WWI Gold Star Mothers listed. And there I found my answer. Mrs. Mary Herman.
I did not know her. I did not know much about my great grandfather's family except where they were buried. All of them. Except one. Now I searched through the census records and learned Mary Herman had a husband, John and three sons in the 1910 census record. I searched the 1920 census records. John and Mary listed only two sons. I knew the answer to my question. I did not know the depth of that answer. Until I typed in Louis J. Herman into the military records for WWI, WWII, Korean War casualties. His was the first name on the list. He was from North Tonawanda, Niagara County, New York State. He was also not buried in the family cemetery.
He was killed at the age of twenty-one, before he ever had the chance to live life and he was buried far away from a mother and father and loving family. He was buried in Flanders Fields.
Now I remembered the name of John Herman. I was a small child holding tightly onto my grandmother's hand. We were at the North Tonawanda farmer's market. It was August. It was hot and the cicadas hummed in the Western New York trees. We were buying eggs on that particular day, that hour, that moment. A man came up to my grandmother and started talking to her in a language I didn't understand. It was the language of my ancestors. It was German. Half-way through the conversation, my grandmother must have remembered the little child who still held tightly onto her hand. She looked down at me and said, "This is my father's brother, John Herman." It was a strange way to be introduced to my great grandfather's brother. He was mine too. But she didn't tell me that.
It would take almost fifty years and a foreign country to realize the connection. It was to be found on Flanders Field. His name was Louis Herman. And he had a walnut tree planted in his memory by a lighthouse keeper. Now, part of that same walnut tree rested on a shelf in my study. And, his father had spoken to my grandmother in German while I held her hand one day in August. I had an answer to my long searched question.
I looked up the Flanders Field American Cemetery on line. I typed in his name. On this day of August 1o, 2010, Louis J. Herman was listed as follows;
Title: Private First Class, U. S. Army
Rank: Private First Class
Service: U.S. Army
Division: 108Th Infantry Regiment, 27Th Infantry Division
Date of death; August 13,1918.
He had served in the same Infantry Regiment and Infantry Division as Edward's younger brother, Charles Herman. Only, Charles returned home.
I am traveling to Europe in January. I am going to do something his Gold Star mother never had the opportunity to do. I am going to place flowers on his grave. And, maybe, just maybe a walnut.