Bally’s Digression

Written by A. Cooper “Bally” Ballentine

DIGRESSION

Patriotism and prejudices were strong in the land of my youth. They were stronger at the time of World War I, “the war to end all wars.” Once the U.S A. got into it, a young man was dishonorable if being shot at “over there,” or if not at least in uniform.

Chemistry at Columbia University was not to my liking, so I switched to mechanical engineering and Cornell. In early November, 1917, word came from my Kehonka buddy, John Moore, by then a Harvard Ph.D. and teaching at the University of Washington, that he was joining a special, detached ambulance unit of the army, and was headed east for Camp Crane at Allentown, Pennsylvania. “Come on,” he said, “I can get you into our unit.” Answer? An enthusiastic “Yes!” Imagine, the company of a friend in the midst of the shooting!

Section 570, U.S. Army Ambulance Corps had about 35 men in it. Another man was needed, and John picked me out of “Casuals,” as recruits were called.

The winter of 1917 struck early and viciously in Pennsylvania. Camp Crane, a fairground, was not ready for an orderly alignment of barracks. The ground was frozen. This was before the days of backhoes, and hand digging was required to lay pipes. It was a frigid, “impossible” task. Guard duty -two hours on four hours off -for twenty-four hours also I seemed like a brand of punishment. Regimented outdoor exercises at 6:00 A.M. every winter morning was another joy. To get in trim, we hiked and ran, with forty-pound packs on our backs, and with icicles in our nostrils. This was also the winter of a disastrous flu epidemic that became a killer in many instances.

Throughout all these Stateside adversities, the desire to be honorably “over there” grew stronger. Rumors and delays were the more frustrating. The winter was tedious, but ultimately spring came. A notice described an intensive course in chemical analysis to determine safe drinking water for G.I.’s, a sudden opportunity to get “over there.” John and I signed up; he with his superlative English literature credentials, I with my two years of chemical engineering. By army logic, he was chosen, I was not. He went to Washington, D.C., was affected by gas in a laboratory, and never did get overseas. Within two weeks, however, Section 570 was on its way.

Departure day was routine for the most part. About 8:00 P.M., bedtime for exhausted recruits, an order came to pack up. For me it meant including two hand-knitted blankets, one with intricate zig-zag design, the other with an American flag in the center, both knitted in segments by Kehonka camper and counselors. I valued them for the prospect of warmth but even more for their sentimental significance.

By 10:00 P.M., with forty plus pounds on our backs, we marched without fanfare along a main thoroughfare of Allentown to the railroad station. We were crowded into ordinary coaches with straw matting seats obviously drawn from a summer’s supply. How that train required all night to go from Allentown to Weehawken, N.J., is something even the army wouldn’t know. At 7:00 A.M., or thereabouts, we boarded the Italian freighter, Giuseppi Verdi for its maiden voyage as a troop ship. Each of us was entitled to one duffle bag beside the pack on back. Somehow the duffle managed to connect with us on board.

Assignments in Section 570 were alphabetical. The first name in our outfit was Jack Ayer. I was the second. Jack and I were paired together. We proved ideally compatible and were the only team to stay together the whole distance. By nature of army and alphabet, we were given some of the most dangerous and difficult tasks as well as some of the most desirable.

I returned from the “war to end all wars” in the spring of 1919, a propitious time to join my favorite people at Kehonka. After the summer, I had neither the means nor the will to resume a full schedule at college. My age of twenty-six seemed for me then to be beyond any sort of enrollment. I was introduced to a job in construction and later to a tutoring opportunity that provided my residence and left me free time to pursue courses at Columbia. But my future began to be really visible when in 1925, I settled in fully at Wolfeboro and my life became a Kehonka life.

Responses

  1. I would love to give some of my photos and memorabilia to the archives; tell me what to do. I was at camp 1945-1946.


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