Sunday, November 11, 2018

In Honor of Veterans: A Personal Family Story

Brother Robert (WW2) and Dad Daniel Smeltz (WW1)

One hundred years ago, November 11, 1918, my father was stationed on a front line in France during World War I. In memory and in honor of all veterans, including two brothers and my husband, I’d like to share my dad’s story:

Soldier, Farmer and Family Man

            Veterans Day parades always made my father, Daniel Monroe Smeltz, choke up. As a child, I wondered what was so moving. But later in life I read his diary of World War I. Then I knew.

On November 11, 1918, he wrote, "The biggest day of my life. Eight a.m. runner reports that armistice is signed to cease firing at 11 a.m. There is heavy firing all through the morning, and we do not know what to think about it. We anxiously await eleven o'clock. After a few mighty bangs and roars, all is quiet. The war is over."

            Daddy, a member of Company A, 34th Infantry, 7th Division, had sailed for Europe on August 17, 1918. Ten days later he landed in Brest, France, and soon headed to the front lines.

At St. Etienny, he bathed in the Moselle River and came down with a sore throat and fever. Too ill to march when his company moved to Averainville, he rode on top of an open supply wagon—in the rain. Later he slept on a stone pile—in the rain.  

            On November 1 Daddy noted that he had carried ammunition, barbed wire, picks, shovels and grenades to front lines and returned under German machine gun fire. A second trip resulted in a "close shave" when Germans started firing "one pounders."

Brother Robert and Me
But Daddy made it safely home to the farmlands of central Pennsylvania. He used his military severance pay to buy a John Deere tractor, which became his pride and joy as he worked on his parents' farm. For a time Daddy also worked as a carpenter in the coal mines. As he drove to work he noticed a pretty young woman walking to work in a shirt factory.

One day he stopped and struck up a conversation with Grace Huntzinger. They soon married and settled in a small house my father and a friend built by themselves. My brother Robert arrived in 1925, Ruth in 1926 and Russell in 1929. Just after Russell's birth, my parents purchased Daddy's family homestead from his stepmother, paying $5,000 in installments. Sister Marie was born in 1931.

In 1936 Daddy was hospitalized with rheumatic fever. In those days if a patient died, the doctor didn't charge the widow. Dr. Dunkelberger was so sure that Daddy would die that he didn't keep track of his bill. But Daddy surprised him. And I was born in 1940, “way on behind,” as they say.

Daddy's ensuing heart condition made farming difficult, especially in the summer heat. For extra money, he cleaned one-room schoolhouses. I loved the pungent smell of the green cleaning compound he sprinkled on the floors. He also sold religious books door-to-door, so I always had plenty to read.

Brother Russell
My earliest memories of Daddy include "gall attacks" in the middle of the night. Mom would cry, worried he was going to die. We had no phone, so an older brother drove to a neighbor's house to call the doctor. Soon I would hear Doc Dunkleberger's heavy steps on the stairs, and in a day or two Daddy would be better.

            Daddy treasured his vintage 1920s Kodak Junior camera. A bellows opened from a flat case. To take pictures, he snapped a shutter release on the end of a cable. He cranked the film rewind by hand. Once the number in the orange dot indicated that the film was filled, Daddy disappeared into our windowless bathroom, which was located behind our kitchen and contained only a bathtub and a waist-high cabinet. Soon the distinctive odor of developing fluid spread throughout the downstairs.

The Smeltz Family
            With his camera, Daddy documented our family history. There we are—my parents sitting on kitchen chairs in the front yard, me on my mother's lap and my siblings standing behind us. There are Daddy and Robert wearing their Army uniforms. And, of course, Daddy took plenty of photos of me—the baby of the family.

            Sundays we all went to church. Daddy and my brothers sat on the right side of the sanctuary, and my mother, sisters and I on the left. The pastor and his wife often came for Sunday dinner. Daddy or Mom always blessed our meals with a prayer.

            A photo of Daddy wearing his Sunday suit and his American Legion cap hangs on a wall in my home. He looks so proud. And well he should. Our Daddy left behind a legacy of faith, patriotism, hard work and love for his family. I hope to pass on to my grandchildren. 

Originally published in Good Old Days magazine, Nov. 2006,

My Husband, Bill
This post should have gone out at 8:30 a.m. November 11; I'm reposting, since it did not seem to publish. Forgive me if you get two copies.

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