(On June 26, 1917, the first American troops landed at the port of Saint Nazare, France to begin military involvement in the First World War.)
Standing in the shadow of the red-tiled roof shading off the blazing Florida sun, father and mother in that spring of 1917; they stood gazing after the army train rolling north out of Winterset station, until it evaporated into thermals at the corner of Old Haven Cemetery.
Mother had turned cranky when her son told them the news.
—Young man! Why didn’t you say something before! Why?
—Most of the guys from school are joining up! I didn’t think that—
—Listen, your father has a torn rotator cuff and needs help in the grove.
—I won’t be long. I read the war’s done by Christmas.
—Oh really? Why you think the French need American boys over there?
—Anyway, it won’t be long. Just like that war in Cuba was in dad’s day.
—You’re ready for a voyage on a troop ship? It’s rough on the Atlantic.
—I’m good on these Florida lakes, aren’t I? I don’t know what seasick means.
That was when father cleared his throat.
—You wouldn’t be just following the waves of the Brits, would ya?
—What’s that mean?
—Those cousins who don’t know when to quit gnawing on the settin’ sun.
—Well, Pa, we speak the same lingo, don’t we? We gotta help out.
Father rose, limped over to the window that looked down the rows of the valencia grove.
—What’s it matter to us who runs Europe? Germans? French? It’s their continent!
—It’s a European fight. Let them fight it out, mother added. Not our business.
At the station, mother couldn’t stop shaking her head, straw hat too large. Turning her graying head to see the conductor of the troop train blow a whistle, she said:
—Son, now listen, your father’s not getting any younger. He needs another hand.
—No, he’s 19, enough’s been said.
Lugging his duffle bag, father led his son to the fold-down stairs, and after handing him something, came limping back. They stood in silence, gazing after the train pulled into the thermals.
Finally father said:
—Ah hell, they say the government’s gonna end up drafting American boys anyhow.
—What was that you gave him when he got on the train?
—Was gonna give him a wrist-watch like I read those British boys have—
—Who needs to know the time of day when you’re a soldier in mud and—
—That orange grove he grew up in was planted to directions by that compass.
—Compass? You gave him your compass?
—Gave him my compass, sure did.
—You really think he’s gonna use a compass in the bloody trenches of France?
—No, but he might need that compass to bring him home.