It was late afternoon in November of 1984 when I heard someone enter through the front door of my combination office/natural apothecary. The office, where I conducted my practice was at the back; and, fronting the street, was the store that primarily served my clients but walk-ins occurred as well.
I had just completed a busy day of consultations and was sitting at my desk making notes when the bell attached to the front door jangled and alerted me. I entered the store and went to the counter to provide assistance to whoever had just appeared.
I saw a diminutive old man standing near the front door. He greeted me with a smile as he said hello. To fend off the cloudy and chilly November weather, he wore a well-kept, long overcoat of 1930s or 1940s vintage.
A leather-billed cap with folded-up, fur-lined earmuffs covered most of what remained of his thin white hair. His facial skin was pale but ruddy in places from the cold; blue eyes the color of fair-weather summer sky sparkled with humility and hard-won knowing. He was clearly one of those poor people who emanate a dignity rooted in the soul rather than the thin topsoil of money and possessions.
I asked: “Can I help you?”
He replied: “Do you have something that can bring down the pain in my knee? It troubles me more when the weather turns cold.”
“What happened to your knee?”
He rolled up his right pant leg, pointed to a thick scar running diagonally across his bony kneecap and said, “It was hit by a machine gun bullet in World War I.”
Ironically, when I first saw his coat, it reminded me of the pictures I had seen of the winter coats, called greatcoats, worn by the soldiers in the trenches of World War I. I sensed that he was lonely and in no rush, and perhaps willing to spend some time describing the traumatic coming-of-age experience he endured as a young man at war. It likely wasn’t often that he encountered a young person who knew much about World War I or who was eager to listen to a veteran’s memory of that awful conflict.
I have always been interested in history. And I took quite a few college history courses, including one in military history that was taught by an ex-Hungarian general who had fought, and then fled, the Soviet army during the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956.
On the chalkboard, the old general would map out the battle lines and troop movements of long ago battles. You could hear a pin drop in the room as he passionately described Napoleon feverishly moving reinforcements up to the line or Lee’s maneuvers at Gettysburg. For some inexplicable reason, I found his descriptions about World War I combat to be the most compelling. For me, the dark drama of what was naively referred to at the time as “the War to End All Wars” was particularly affecting.
So I pulled up a couple of chairs and asked the old man to tell me the story of that day when a German bullet shattered his knee.
The War To End All Wars
But first, in order to give the reader a better feel for what the old soldier who had come into my shop had experienced, it helps to know a bit about what battle was like in World War I, because it bears little resemblance to how wars are now fought.
The war, considered to be the first truly modern one, was an incongruous tandem of 19th century tactics and 20th century weaponry that inevitably resulted in enormous casualties. No one anticipated these casualty levels. When war was declared, there were street celebrations throughout Europe.
Of the 60 million European soldiers who were mobilized during the five years of combat, 8 million were killed, 7 million were permanently disabled, and 15 million were seriously injured. Germany lost 15 % of its male population, and France, nearly 11%.
Much of the combat involved trench warfare during which hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of soldiers died for each yard of territory gained—captured ground that was often lost when the enemy launched a counter-offensive. Often the tactics were no more sophisticated than the age-old approach of charging across open land into the teeth of enemy fire.
Thus, many of the deadliest battles in history occurred during World War I. One of the most shocking examples of this was “The Battle of the Somme,” during which British and French forces launched an attack against the German trench lines near the Somme River in Northern France. For many historians, the Battle of the Somme is the battle that symbolizes the incredible horror and futility of the trench warfare of World War I.
The battle began on the first day of July 1916 and continued until November 1916.
The infantry advance was preceded by an artillery bombardment that lasted eight days—1,500 British artillery pieces along with a similar number of French guns were employed in the bombardment. The British guns alone fired close to 2 million artillery shells. The sound of the bombardment was so loud it could be heard in England.
Can you imagine what it would be like to be hunkered down in a muddy trench for eight consecutive days, face pressed to a dirt wall, trying to shrink into yourself, while millions of deafening artillery shells explode all around you without let-up, spraying hot shrapnel in every direction? Is it any wonder that so many World War I veterans suffered grievously from what was termed “shell shock?”
The expectation was that the ferocity of this bombardment would entirely destroy all the German forward defenses and enable the attacking British troops to walk unmaimed across the “No Man’s Land” that separated their trench lines from the German’s. Accordingly, they would then take possession of the latter from the battered and disoriented German troops.
To achieve this objective, 750,000 British soldiers (27 divisions) were sent out fully exposed to enemy fire. However, their ferocious bombardment destroyed neither the barbed wire nor the concrete bunkers protecting the German soldiers who were able to exploit their good defensive positions and their position on higher ground to utterly decimate the advancing soldiers.
As a result, on the first day of the battle, the British Army endured the bloodiest day in its history, suffering nearly 60,000 casualties, including almost 20,000 killed. Most of the casualties occurred in the first hour of the attack. By the time the battle finally ended four months later, the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties, the French: 200,000 and the Germans, nearly 500,000.
To put these kinds of losses into context, in the recent seven years of combat in Iraq, nearly 4,500 U.S. service men and women have been killed. In the Battle Of The Somme, in just one hour, the British sustained 4-times that many killed in action.
Before Action was the last (and most famous) poem ever written by the English poet William Noel Hodgson. Penned just before The Battle of the Somme as he watched the thunderbolts of airburst artillery shells: anti-personnel artillery shells designed to detonate in the air instead of upon contact with the ground, each airburst followed by the vicious sleet of shrapnel balls.
… I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine [blood red] sacrifice,
Before the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this;
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
The son of a bishop, Hodgson (known as “Smiler” by his friends) volunteered for the British Army in 1914 at the age of 21. Two years later, on the first day of The Battle of the Somme, he was killed when a German machine gun bullet tore into his throat.
This was the war in which the small, frail old man who sat before me on that cloudy afternoon in 1984 had, nearly 70 years before, marched up to the Western Front and charged into the mower blade of German machine gun fire.
Essential Oils And Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
The term “shell shock” (coined in World War I) was updated to “combat fatigue” during World War II, when it was recognized that, aside from the maddening effect of sustained shellfire, soldiers could be traumatized by all manner of combat experiences.
Ultimately, since the Vietnam War, the term “combat fatigue” has given way to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which implies that the effects of combat trauma persist after a soldier has returned to civilian life. PTSD, like all chronic disorders, can plague an individual for the rest of his or her life.
In the future, I plan to provide a complete discussion of this disorder and the potential value of essential oils in addressing its psycho-spiritual impact. However, within the context of this article, I can only touch on the topic briefly.
Spiritual PhytoEssencing is the art of soul-level healing with essential oils, which I have been developing for the last 15 years. One of its basic principles is that an essential oil is the bonding medium for the soul of the plant, and thus, uniquely suited to act as the physical entity that can facilitate an interface between plant and human souls.
The plant-soul is not encumbered by ego, so it has the qualities of purity and infinity. Thus, an individualized plant-soul combination within an essential oil blend, when proffered to the human-soul, would be eagerly received and infuse the latter with the impetus to move beyond limitation by changing its orientation from the finite to the infinite.
This reorientation enables the higher soul to reassert its natural governance, and thus, infuse our primary consciousness with spiritual guidance and illuminate the pathway to actualization of one’s true self. The inability to actualize who we really are leads to the entrenchment of fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, depression, regret, etc. And these emotions are often repressed, becoming morbidly introverted emotional “cysts.” Our bottled-up emotional cysts exert a strong undertow upon us physically as well as emotionally.
Thus, from a Spiritual PhytoEssencing perspective, PTSD would be addressed most efficaciously using highly individualized blends of essential oils that consider the full scope of the sufferer’s innate inner nature, rather than just those symptoms which, while identified with the disorder (e.g., anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, etc.), are nevertheless expressions patterned in accordance with the unique fabric of that inner nature.
After all, if it were not for variation among the soul natures of different individuals, why would one soldier who was exposed to protracted combat stress develop severe PTSD symptoms, while another, exposed to a similar level and quality of stress, be relatively well adjusted when he or she returns to civilian life.
Yet, certain oils would definitely be selected to specifically touch upon the traumatic experience of combat, because the conditions within the crucible of that experience were so intense as to actually alter an individual’s constitutional wiring. Therefore, within the context of a broad-spectrum individualized essential oil blend, oils selected for the express purpose of addressing the influence of the traumatic experience would exert a long-term constitutional action, rather than a transient symptom-treating action.
PTSD and the Acute Miasm
A miasm is the homeopathic concept of a reactional mode, or predisposition, to specific symptoms and personality traits, transmitted from generation to generation bioenergetically rather than by the acknowledged genetic mechanism.
In my work as a homeopath, I found the concept of miasms useful in helping to organize one’s understanding of a person’s inner nature, thus, I built miasm theory into the practice of Spiritual PhytoEssencing. However, in Spiritual PhytoEssencing it is understood that in addition to intergenerational transference of these predispositions, or reactional modes, they are also carried forward from past life incarnations.
Of the 12 miasms considered in Spiritual PhytoEssencing practice, the “Acute miasm” is the most primary one regarding the constitutional influence of PTSD. Thus, the essential oils that have a strong affinity for this miasm are given special consideration when working with someone who is suffering with that disorder.
The feelings of the Acute miasm are: sudden, great danger; acute, intense threat—threat is significant and peaks suddenly; instinctive response. In the “failed state,” there is panic, shock, immobility and stupefaction.
The Acute miasm personality tends toward: more readily perceives stress situations as acute threats; feels helpless in the face of these; feels the need to run for her life. This state of alarm elicits instinctive intense reactions and inappropriate overreactions. The individual tends to be excitable, hyperactive and hypersensitive.
He might be prone to: manic defensive reactions, sudden impulsive violence, abnormal bursts of courage and ungrounded cheerfulness. His dreams are full of intensity often revolving around acute, threatening situations. On a physical level, he may have violent reactions (such as anaphylaxis) that cause emotional panic, unsettling those around him.
These people are subject to the foreboding that something terrible is about to happen. Some of the homeopathic rubrics which may be associated with an Acute miasm remedy include: excitable; fear of death; restlessness; easily frightened; violent anger; hurry; joy with laughter; sadness with weeping.
Of course, there are quite a few other oils that may prove relevant when addressing PTSD. One that comes immediately to mind is davana. Davana oil is considered to be of potential value in the treatment of: anxiety, nervous tension, depression, anger, insomnia, stress-related emotional symptoms, shock and trauma.
For thousands of years, davana has been used in India for religious purposes. Most notably, the fresh flowers of davana are offered to the Hindu god Shiva. Each day, the faithful, as a way of expressing their love and devotion, place davana cuttings on altars dedicated to Shiva.
Shiva is one of the principal deities of Hinduism. In Hinduism, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (known collectively as the Trimurti), each represent one of the three primary aspects of the divine. Accordingly, Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the maintainer or preserver, and Shiva is the destroyer or transformer. Shiva represents the aspect of the divine associated with the dissolution that allows for renewed creation within the cyclic process of creation and dissolution of the universe.
Some believe that the name Shiva is derived from the Dravidian word Siva, meaning “to be red” (the color of blood). It is the equivalent of Rudra, which means “the red.” Rudra is an early name for Shiva (found in the Rig Veda) derived from the root rud, meaning red and/or roaring. Rudra is also a fierce storm god. Shiva is often depicted as sitting in a cremation ground in that he is considered the controller of death in the material world.
The Old Soldier’s Experience Of War
The old soldier identified himself only by his last name: “DeVries,” as if I was an officer questioning an enlisted man standing at attention in the ranks.
He was interested in my work as a naturopath, so I provided some general details. He then told me that he began chiropractic school in 1916. When war was declared by the United States in 1917, he felt it was his patriotic duty to serve his country when it called, thus, he joined the army and never completed his chiropractic training.
“How old are you?”
“I am 92,” said DeVries.
I did the math in my head and determined that he was born in 1892 and had been 25-years-old when he enlisted.
I then asked him about his time in the army, and this is what he told me:
After basic training in the United States, my regiment boarded a troop ship in New York and sailed for England. There, we received a couple of months of trench warfare training and were then ferried across the English Channel to the fighting in France.
For a brief period, my unit was kept in reserve in a rear area where, off in the distance, we could hear the thunderclaps of the heavy artillery, the thump of mortars and the rattle of small arms fire. By this time, our boyish sense of glorious adventure had evaporated as we were gripped by fear.
After just a couple days of forming-up in France, my unit received orders to march to the front as replacements. So we Doughboys (as American World War I soldiers were called) loaded up our packs, shouldered our Springfield rifles and headed off to battle.
As we made our way forward, we began to see seasoned troops who were being rotated out of the line, traveling the other way.
Combat veterans often avoid acknowledging green troops, as they haven’t yet earned the veterans’ respect. Also, those who have witnessed the blood and terror of war find it difficult to look into the eyes of a young man who hasn’t yet accepted the possibility that he could be one of those who would soon lose life, limb or sanity.
On the other hand, when the green troops stole furtive glances at the mud-spattered veterans, the latter’s stubbled, hardened faces and empty thousand-mile stares offered little reassurance to them and surely ratcheted up the uneasiness that had already taken root within their innards.
I once read an account of a Civil War soldier moving up to the front line as part of a group of replacements during some fierce battle. As his unit was approaching the front, they were met by the troops they were sent to replace, running at full throttle away from the fight.
The replacement, taken aback, called out to one of the fleeing soldiers: “Why are you running?”
Without breaking stride, the man racing at the rear replied over his shoulder:
“Because I can’t fly!”
Honor, Duty, the Iron Series and Thyme Oil
DeVries, transported back to combat, went on with his story:
Our unit continued to move toward the forward trench line, the percussion of artillery and the rattle of small arms fire became louder and more immediate. Then suddenly, a burst of machine gun fire sliced the air around us and everyone dropped to the ground, clawing for cover. We were pinned down now and couldn’t advance another step unless the machine gun nest was taken out.
We returned fire but it was ineffective as the machine gun nest was well dug in. After a short while, an officer crawled up to our platoon sergeant and tasked him with the unenviable mission of destroying the machine gun and the men who were firing it.
If this same situation occurred today, the sergeant would call in the map coordinates of the machine gun nest to a command center, and either computer-guided artillery, located miles away, or an air strike, would, in military parlance: “smoke” the machine gunners.
However, this was World War I, and the only option available in that instance was a direct infantry assault. In other words, the soldiers would have to run or crawl as close as they could to the machine gun through a curtain of bullets, and try to stay in one piece long enough to destroy the emplacement with rifle fire and grenades.
The sergeant gathered our platoon behind the cover of a barn and gave us the news: “Boys,” he said, “we have been ordered to take care of that machine gun.” With those words, we 25 or so soldiers felt a chill wind blowing through our blood vessels as we stared wide-eyed at the sergeant.
The World War I German Maxim heavy machine gun was capable of firing 600 rounds per minute and was estimated to provide as much firepower as the massed fire of 80 infantry rifles. When its barrel swept back and forth, it had the potential to kill 10 men in a matter of seconds. In this case, the gun was deeply dug in on the other side of an open field. The soldiers who approached it would be totally exposed targets. If this wasn’t a suicidal mission that they were just given, it was a close approximation.
As the sergeant looked at his young charges, he must have thought of a parent, wife, sweetheart or kid brother back home going out to the mailbox each morning hoping for a letter from one of these young men. He knew, for some of those folks, the last letter had already been sent.
Looking into our faces, the sergeant continued: “I’m gonna be honest with you boys, some of us are gonna be killed for certain running across that field. So I’m not gonna make anyone go who doesn’t have a mind to. But I have my orders and am asking for volunteers to come with me. So step forward if you’re willing.”
DeVries was one of the 10 or so men who stepped toward the sergeant.
I imagined myself being in his position and wondered whether I would have had the courage to force my legs to move. I think I would, I thought to myself. But anyone can be brave when a dangerous situation is merely hypothetical. However, if, like DeVries, I could actually hear the bullets of a heavy machine gun as they flew by and realized that I could soon be lying on the ground eviscerated and bleeding out, it would doubtless dampen my enthusiasm.
I asked the old soldier: “Weren’t you scared?”
He looked at me and straightened in his chair, shoulders pulled back and chest pushed out: a soldier coming to attention. His clear blue eyes were trained on me, but he was staring through the mists of time to that field in France on that day of decision.
He replied: ” Sure I was plenty scared. But I thought to myself that I had joined the army to fight for my country and help save democracy. If that’s what I’ve come here to do, I’m not going to put it off.”
Before my eyes, DeVries had metamorphosed from a frail old man with a bad knee into a brave and good man: a genuine hero. I was humbled.
DeVries and the other volunteers fixed bayonets and mumbled fortifying prayers to themselves:
The sergeant looked all of us over as if to record in his mind the image of our faces while we were still alive and breathing. He unholstered his pistol and said: “Okay, boys, spread out, keep your heads down, let’s send �em back to their Maker.”
Courage, Duty, Thyme Oil and The Iron Series
In developing the art of Spiritual PhytoEssencing in the 1990s, I matched essential oils to various human archetypal qualities and character traits. Whenever I think of DeVries and his recounting of that moment of decision, the first oil that comes to mind is thyme oil (Thymus vulgaris). Two of the keynote character traits in this reference are courage and sense of duty.
The word thyme is thought to derive from the Greek word for courage. Thyme increases strength and endurance and boosts motivation. In ancient and medieval times, this plant was thought to invigorate the capacity for bravery and to enhance the propensity for chivalrous behavior. Thyme’s ability to heighten both the senses and mental alertness are invaluable for surviving in battle.
Among the ancient Greeks, the scent of thyme was associated with praise for those who displayed an admirably courageous style. Roman soldiers bathed in extracts of thyme before entering battle. In the days of medieval knights with their code of chivalry, thyme was emblematic of bravery and martial vigor. It was a custom for women to embroider a bee hovering over a sprig of thyme onto the scarves they presented to their “knight in shining armor.”
In aromatherapy, thyme oil is considered to be potentially useful for the treatment of the following symptoms and conditions: nervous debility; stress-related disorders; chronic anxiety; shyness; introversion; apprehension; self-doubt; pessimism; frustration; loss of willpower.
In Spiritual PhytoEssencing, for a variety of reasons, certain oils are associated with specific mineral elements such as copper, gold, iron and silver. In homeopathy, the element iron and certain elements that have proximity to iron on the periodic table of chemistry (e.g., nickel and vanadium) are considered to be “iron series remedies,” and all are considered to be associated with certain characteristic themes and qualities.
The thyme plant is a concentrated herbal source of iron. While it also contains high quantities of other minerals such as chromium and silicon, thyme’s iron-content is particularly influential regarding the plant’s therapeutic character and soul-nature. Also, in many cases, the red color of red thyme oil derives from its distillation in iron vessels. Thyme’s grayish appearance is reminiscent of iron, and, consistent with thyme’s folkloric association with battle, iron has long been a primary component of weapons. Therefore, even if the distilled oil contains no physical iron, in a homeopathic sense, it is imbued with a bioenergetic artifact of the iron process. DeVries had a strong constitutional “iron component.”
According to homeopath Jan Scholten (and elaborated in his Homeopathy And The Elements), key qualities of the iron series remedies include the following:
- task, work, duty—very responsible individual who strives to fulfill his task and duty to the best of his ability;
- performance and perfectionism—he has a trade or a position of responsibility and his sense of duty drives him to perfect his skills. He is eager to develop his skills through training, and appreciates it when others notice that he is performing his task with notable competence;
- practical, pragmatic—he is very conscious of the need to earn a good income, and so, factors-in practical value when he chooses his work and judges matters;
- order, rules—he likes orderliness, oriented routine, self-discipline. He needs things to be well defined by rules, established procedure and theoretical structure;
- control and rigidity—one of his main focuses is to make sure everything stays within the bounds of certain standards. This can lead to rigidity and suppression of emotions;
- failure, fault, guilt—his sense of duty can lead to fear of failure, feelings of guilt and self-recrimination.
The Last Of Dass
It was at this point in his recounting that DeVries told me the part of his story that I found most compelling:
One of the other soldiers who had volunteered to charge that machine gun was a fellow named Dass.
Here again, as with the name DeVries, I am spelling the name as it was pronounced. Thus, it may not be correct. It’s also possible that the man had a longer last name and was called “Dass” for short.
Now, I met Dass in boot camp and we became close friends. He was always easy going, but when we got on the troop ship that sailed us across the Atlantic Ocean, he changed.
The crossing took several days. On the first day, I was standing by the rail looking out over the ocean and Dass came over; he was quiet for awhile and then said to me: “DeVries, I am going to get killed over there. This is going to be the last of Dass.”
You can’t know that, Dass. You’re just getting yourself worked up. You’ll be okay.
“No,” Dass said, “I know this for certain. This is going to be the last of Dass.”
Every day of that crossing, whenever I encountered Dass, he always repeated the same refrain: “DeVries, this is going to be the last of Dass.”
I grew up in a neighborhood of Brooklyn that bordered the Atlantic Ocean. To me, the North Atlantic seemed tinctured with primeval darkness. When you gaze out over its gray waters, as DeVries and Dass did on their way to England, it’s easy to sense the forebodings that lurk, like the predatory German U-boats of their war, just below the surface.
No matter how hard I tried to convince Dass otherwise, I could not talk him out of this notion that had gotten into his head. So that morning in France, as we were readying to move across the open field, it came as no surprise to me when Dass walked over, looked me in the eyes and said: “Good luck to you DeVries. As for me, this is going to be the last of Dass.”
A few minutes later, the sergeant gave a signal and our line started advancing, bayonets pointed toward the gun emplacement, which was about 75 yards away. As soon as the Germans spotted us, the Maxim gun opened up and the air was filled with its hammering sound. Once or twice, I heard the sickening thud of a bullet slamming into human flesh.
I didn’t have time to consider who might have taken those rounds because I hadn’t advanced more than 25 yards when I got hit squarely in the knee. I went down hard on my back; there was a good deal of bleeding and the pain was excruciating, so I began to pass in and out of consciousness. Every time I came to, I heard loud groaning just a few feet from my shoulder. I couldn’t look to see who it was coming from because I was in so much pain, I couldn’t bear to move.
We lay out there all day, until the machine gun nest was finally overrun and it was safe for stretcher-bearers to carry the wounded off to the field hospital. By this time, darkness had fallen and the groaning nearby had stopped.
The fellows who were loading me on to a stretcher were from my unit. One of them asked me: “How are you doing DeVries?” I said, “I’m okay, but there was someone groaning the whole time I was lying out here. How is he faring?”
The stretcher-bearer stared at me silently for a couple of seconds, then shook his head and quietly replied: “That was Dass. He was killed.”
Essential Oils and Clairvoyance
In Spiritual PhytoEssencing, quite a few oils are associated with clairvoyance. However, Dass experienced a highly specific type of clairvoyance: presentiment of death. The term presentiment refers to a steadily escalating sense of foreboding.
In Berkowsky’s Spiritual PhytoEssencing Repertory Of Essential Oils (one of the two central reference books used in Spiritual PhytoEssencing; the other is Berkowsky’s Spiritual PhytoEssencing Materia Medica/Spiritualis Of Essential Oils), the following oils are listed under the rubric (meaning a specific quality or symptom under which relevant essential oils are listed)
Death, presentiment of:
Ammi visnaga; anise; buchu; cacao; cajuput; camphor; catnip; cedarwood; celery seed; cilantro; clary sage; clove; dill; fennel; eucalyptus; fennel; fenugreek; galbanum; hyssop; jasmine; laurel; lavender; ledum; lemon; mastic; melissa; oakmoss; oregano; patchouli; peppermint; Peru balsam; rosemary; sage; seaweed; tarragon; tea tree; thyme; tobacco; turmeric; vetivert; yarrow; ylang ylang.
Since all I know about the soldier called Dass was this one incident, I’m not in a position to determine which of the oils in this rubric would have been most specific for him. In order to accurately individualize oil selections, I have to cross-correlate a broad spectrum of personal qualities and behavioral patterns which, in concert, reflect that individual’s unique soul nature.
However, just for the sake of demonstration, I have crossed the rubrics Acute miasm (see discussion above re: Dass was clearly experiencing this reactional mode) and Death, presentiment of, and found that the following oils occur under both of these rubrics:
hyssop, melissa, sage, tarragon, tea tree, tobacco.
Hence, having no further information about Dass to refine my oil selection, I believe that a blend of two or more of these oils—while perhaps not altering Dass’ karma and the denouement of his life—could certainly have brought comfort to his soul and positioned him for quicker adjustment to his journey on the other side.
Having worked with clients now for more than 30 years, I’ve listened to a great many sad recountings. I can’t say why this particular one moved me so deeply that a quarter of a century later, I can still clearly recall most of its details and palpably sense the presence of Private Dass each time I do.
After DeVries finished his account, we returned to the subject of his painful knee and a respiratory issue he was also experiencing. I went over to the shelf and selected a nutritional supplment and an herbal medicine which I felt would provide a degree of relief for him on both fronts. I gave them to him as a gift because, given the sacrifice he had made for me and all other Americans, it seemed the least I could do.
By this time, the traveling rain clouds were embedded in the matrix of an opaque topaz sky, dimly backlit by the setting sun. The headlights of the cars passing by in the dusk accentuated the melancholy of distant memories which filled the air like a form of humidity.
DeVries thanked me and I thanked him. Then he turned and stepped out into the street. I stood by the window and watched him slowly approach the corner and wait for the traffic light to change. When it did, he limped along the crosswalk in front of the double line of idling cars.
The drivers, eager to get home, must have given him only superficial notice. To them, he was just an anonymous old man in a vintage overcoat. How could they have known that they were crossing paths with a warrior who had long ago fought bravely for their freedom; and that his limp was not the product of the decrepitude of old age, but rather, a badge of courage earned in the prime of his youth.
I saw DeVries only once more after that. He returned a couple of weeks later and told me that what I had given him had helped both his knee and his cough. I was grateful for that. It is not every day that you have the privilege of helping a hero.
DeVries is long gone now. After all, he’d be 117 years old if he were alive today. In fact, of the millions of men who served in the United States armed forces during World War I, only one is still around. He lives in West Virginia and his name is not DeVries.
I sometimes imagine that when DeVries passed on and exited the passageway that opens into the light, he was met by his old friend Dass. Perhaps Dass, his former good-natured self restored, clapped him on the back, and said: ” See DeVries, didn’t I tell you?” I can picture DeVries nodding while his clear blue eyes twinkled with mirth.
Then, the two would begin walking together as they did on that fateful day in France. In Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields were the final resting place for the souls of the virtuous and heroic. This time, instead of negotiating a killing field, Private DeVries and Private Dass would be setting out across Elysian fields of gold.