I don't know when it began. 8th grade? Somewhere around then. Seeing the photos of the men quivering with shell shock. Listening to the poems of the lost generation. It might have simply been the staggering statistics. "How could a MILLION die in one single battle?" My preteen self was hooked.
I don't want to say it's been the love that has lasted a lifetime, because 'love' is a strange word to use with war. Let's try obsession instead. :)
When I went to college, I majored in History and when I was to student teach, somehow I managed to get a position with the Department of Defense. In Belgium. Big surprise - right where the brave boys of Europe had bled out on the battlefields of "The Great War."
So my clueless, Junior Year of College self is riding on a train in Belgium, en route to her destination, and I settle myself down in a train compartment. Think Hogwarts Express but with fewer steam engines and way more bodily odors.
As soon as I'm seated an elderly gentleman joins me. Just he and I in the car. I give him a polite nod. He returns my insincere gesture and the train chugs out of the station.
Except ... we begin to talk. He could sense my obvious excitement at being in the place that, up til now, I'd only read about in my textbooks.
"Have you been to Belgium before?" he asks, politely.
"Never. But I've studied it. You know."
"I don't know. You've studied...Belgium?"
"I'm a History teacher. Well, on my way to becoming one. And Belgium. World War One. It's kind of exciting."
He didn't say anything for a while. Then, eventually, "I fought in World War One."
Me, "No way!" Ok, in retrospect, I could have been more refined. But it was better than "Get out!" Or "You're shitting me!"
As I remember, he nodded and smiled.
"Ypres? Ypres fascinates me."
His eyes took on a distant look. "I was there."
"For the first battle, or the second?"
"The first, thank God."
"No kidding!" I agree.
We continue speaking in a language meant for uber history geeks or veterans - from... well the coast of Belgium to Brussels. It must have been at least an hour. I had questions and he had insight. It was marvelous. No, it was life-changing.
When the train pulled into the Brussels station, it was with real regret that I told him I had to change trains, to Mons. We both knew the battle significance of Mons and exchanged a knowing glance.
"I... may I...?" It was strange to see him stammer after he'd been so composed and full of details about his exciting battles.
I waited for him to continue. "It may seem abrupt, but it's been so long since I've kissed a young girl. Would you mind, terribly, if I gave you a kiss?"
"Are you kidding?" I asked. "A chance to kiss a soldier from the Great War? It's my lucky day!"
He brushed his lips against mine. They weren't creepy or clammy or old. His lips felt sweet. Genuine. Kind of heroic.
I thanked him for his time and lugged my suitcase off the overhead rack.
I never knew his name, but I've never forgotten him either. Thank you, sweet old man, for showing me there was more to you than your exterior. And for inspiring a few generations with your courage.