The neighborhood grocery, when I was a little girl, was just off South Eighth Street at East Reynolds in Goshen, Indiana. The small building still stands. The phone number was 590. The grocery was owned by Wilson Wilt, whose main helper was his son, Mar, tall, freckled, with blue eyes and white teeth. Mark made deliveries on his bike, which had a wire basket on the back, and he could be seen many times during the day pedaling down the dirt street with his red hair looking as if it was on fire when the sun shone on it.
In those days we called the store and they were pleased to deliver "one loaf of bread" or one of anything. They'd just run it over for you. A heavy glass milk bottle picked up off the back porch could be redeemed at the store for 5 cents' worth of penny candy, and my fingers caressed exciting shapes in my dress pocket the long block home.
When Mother sent me to the grocery to get things, I'd stand at the counter watching Mark fil the order as I read it off. He walked back and forth for each separate item. He looked as though he was marching. "A pound of butter. A dozen eggs." Back and forth from the front of the store to the rear -- tramp, tramp, tramp. Mark reminded me of a soldier, but he would not be going to war -- though this was 1918; he was too young, I was sure. The store smelled good. Crackers, bacon, coffee. The coffee grinder was a beauty. It had a huge red wheel decorated in gold. It dressed up the whole store.
Now I didn't really knowm Mark -- he was barely out of his teens -- just a nice young man with a friendly grin. I like Mr. Wilt, too. He was fun, and generous. I'd heard my mother tell how he'd continue giving groceries to families who found it difficult to pay, and he'd make it as easy for them as he could. Wilt's Grocery was the center of activity in the neighborhood. It was like the hub of the red grinder wheel, with the surrounding homes making up the spokes going round and round holding us all pleasantly together. Housewives like to visit a bit when they happened to meet at the store, and there'd be laughter when they apologized for being caught in their aprons.
One day in April I went to the store and it seemed so quiet. No one around but Mr. Wilt. I said to him, "Where's Mark?" His father said, "He's gone to the war." I just stood there. Then I couldn't get my groceries fast enough. I gave the money, grabbed the sack and ran all the way home to our front step and sat down hard. I felt a sadness and an ache. I understood more than I wanted to. I knew there was something terribly wrong about war. Surely there was a better way.
On December 2, 1918, Mark's name was in the newspaper -- one of the first in our town to sacrifice all for his country. His death had actually occurred four weeks earlier, on November 5, six days before the armistice was signed on November 11. I remember vividly the factory whistles blowing and church bells ringing as school-children were allowed to go home. Mark's parents and four married sisters must have especially rejoiced for their soldier son and brother, who they thought could now come home.
Musing over these memories recently, the thought came to go through old 1918 newspaper files in Mark's hometown, and there I found the account about him in headlines, along with a reprint of h is last letter to his parents: Somewhere in France October 13, 1918
My dearest Mother and All -- This is the first time I have had a chance to write to you for a long time, at least it seems long to you, but to us time goes very fast, for we are so busy ducking the Hun shells that we have little time to think of much else. As you know, a "dough boy" is supposed to act and not to think, and that is what we've been doing.
Had a letter from Elmer the other day saying Mildred had returned home. I was much in hope that she would stay until I returned. I have a lot of varied experiences to tell you when I get back, which I hope will be in the near future. I will tell you this much, your son has not changed a bit, except grown a little larger, straightened up a bit, and afraid of no man. We've found out it doesn't pay.
. . . The weather over here is miserable, nothing but a cold rain for the last six weeks, so you know the clay mud is pretty well, soaked up and somewhat sticky to hike around in. About the Christmas package, am enclosing the tag, send anything you wish, and write often. Remember me to everybody. With worlds of love, Mark
I think of you fondly, Mark, as the grocery store helper who was sent into a war my childhood imagination could not comprehend, and I hope that my remembrance of you and others like you will help lead us into that time when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall there be war anymore."