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A trunk full of war mysteries

Tony VagneurAspen, CO Colorado

References to World War I in recent editions of the paper have brought back memories of an old soldier from those days, a man, possibly heroic, who still manages to confound me.The old, brown steamer trunk at the foot of my brass bed isn’t much to look at, but it serves quite well as a prop for a coyote’s tanned winter hide and as a reminder of days when such pelts were a prize, a time long ago when such things didn’t make people squeamish. I hadn’t opened the chest (which mysteriously became mine many years ago) since childhood, and with a sudden, burning curiosity, reached for the latches with trembling hand.The mundane minutiae of life that is saved by some can be very revealing at times – quite boring at others. Every check that the Stapleton Brothers ranching company wrote from 1931 to 1944 is still in that trunk, and there are glimmers of a family life from the past that jump up at one with remarkable clarity, although clouded with uncertainty around the edges. There are deeds to land, bookkeeping journals, bills from livestock companies, and other things pertaining to ranching life in those days.Also, of course, are letters home to Aspen from my great-uncle, Jim Stapleton, stationed in World War I France, offering very little other than confirmation that he was OK. Of particular interest were the contents of the paper bag I found, a bag made of the finest and smoothest paper imaginable, of a pale pink shade, and had it not been carefully folded and placed in the middle of a World War I pamphlet containing the names and addresses of all in Jim’s unit, I might not have been curious enough to open it. Inside was a picture of Jim as a young man, and enclosed within the edge of the frame was a very small envelope, containing a generous lock of golden curls, signed, “Love, Marion E. Smith, September 23, 1912”. Jim would have been 17 that year, and perhaps this was his first, and last, great love affair.Jim was, in the words of several family members, “a mean son of a bitch,” a remark made without kindness or remorse. I remember well his final homecoming, shortly before his death at 58, convalescing from a heart attack while apprehensively awaiting the final convulsion. What glimmer of susceptibility, what chink in the gruff and seemingly impenetrable exterior did I see that made me (at age 5) run across the dining room and jump excitedly into the big, leather chair with him, telling him I loved him? It could have been the exuberance of a young child caught up in the machinations around a serious illness, but I don’t think so.Further down in the trunk, buried beneath World War I uniforms, including a government issue hat, sat an intriguing box, tightly wrapped and tied, containing exquisite linen kerchiefs, tucked inside of which were further, romantic notes from Marion E. Smith, written during the war. Also inside was a container surrounded by very fine, delicate paper. Carefully opening the fragile, skillfully wrapped package, a powerful, deep lilac fragrance of the Italian countryside, almost 100 years ago, touched my senses in a way that was nearly overwhelming. A present brought back from the “War Across the Sea,” for a sweetheart of years running, carelessly tossed into the bottom of this trunk when he learned of her perceived desertion? Had she possibly grown tired of waiting for his return, or had he, stuck in Europe, become withdrawn and unresponsive to her questions from home?If the relationship was ever consummated, we shall never know, but I am more drawn to wonder when the boyish smile he was once known for (as the youngest son), faded away, never to reappear. Perhaps it was when he got off the train in Aspen. Tony Vagneur admits to changing the last name of the woman in this story – out of respect for her family. Read Tony here every Saturday and send comments to ajv@sopris.net.


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