From the archives: Ernest Hemingway speaks to Oak Park and River Forest High School

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Originally published in the Oak Leaves, March 22, 1919.

High School Student Body Hears Story of the Ardenti and of Fighting on Piave

There are so many scores of stars in Oak Park High’s service flag that those luminous bodies are left perforce to twinkle unheeded in their own particular corners. Now and then, however, a particularly vivid comet goes flashing across the military heavens, and the alert school astronomers whose telescopes are kept continually leveled sight the luminary and transplant it to terra firma and fame. Two weeks ago the school’s bright particular constellation was Lieut. Alan Winslow; last week it was Lieut. Ernest Hemingway. Both warriors addressed great audiences at assembly, audiences that made the four walls echo with their cheers.

Lieutenant Hemingway, the first American and only Oak Park man to be wounded in Italy, and bearing in his body one hundred odd shrapnel wounds, told the story of the Italian retreat and advance with the journalist’s instinct for dramatic touches and the Yank’s love of humor. Beside him sat his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. A. T. Hemingway, and his mother, Mrs. C. E. Hemingway, representing the three generations. Miss Caroline Bagley, a classmate of Lieutenant Hemingway’s in ‘17, introduced him. She told of her first acquaintance with him in their grade school days when Lieutenant Hemingway was chosen to be the monk in the class play, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” Tho Ernest’s chief occupation seemed to be just sitting on a grave stone during the entire performance, he made a big hit.

“It is not so much because of his record in the war that we all honor him today,” said Miss Bagley, “as it is because he is such an all-round, regular fellow.”

Lieutenant Hemingway prefaced his address with a naive commentary on his feelings.

“Anybody who says he wasn’t scared in this war was either a liar or else he wasn’t in it. One way a soldier has of telling he is scared is that he can’t spit. I couldn’t spit right now to save myself.”

Lieutenant Hemingway described his adventures in Italy, moving wounded from first aid stations to base hospitals along mountain roads that were “like safety razors,” with thousand-foot drops on one side and the constant spatter of bullets everywhere. He told of the gallantry of the Italian soldier, the Bersaglieri, dapper, brave in their feathered caps and brilliant uniforms, utterly fearless; of the Ardenti, the majority of whom are criminals released to fight as shock troops, who go into battle stripped to the waist, loaded to the teeth with hand grenades and murderous-looking knives, singing their infamous war song, the repetition of which before the war meant imprisonment for three months; of the infantry, which “always had the burnt edge of the stick, which was always in the rottenest hole which was always being shot at, which at the end of the war consisted mostly of boys of 19 or men of 40 because all the others had been killed off.” He related the story of an Ardenti who came into a first aid station where he was with a bullet hole in his chest. Upon investigation it was found that he had stuffed the gaping wound with cigarets. The soldier protested desperately when they told him he would have to stay for treatment. His plan was to go right on fighting as soon as the hole was bandaged. In the night he got up, stole the uniform of the man next [to] him, and escaped back to the front. He was killed [the] next day.

Lieutenant Hemingway limned the graphic tale of his own mishap, when accompanying an Italian infantry regiment to the front, he had volunteered to carry food to the front line trenches. A trench mortar got him in the legs, and when he recovered consciousness he found himself half buried in sand bags and earth and dead and dying soldiers. One man near him whose leg had been shattered was crying openly and calling his mother’s name. Lieutenant Hemingway told him with characteristic Yankee repression to “Shut up with that noise.” Then bundled him on his back and started back. His legs were beginning to sting as if red-hot needles had pierced them, his knees sagged, but he stumbled on. Then two other bullets got him, and when he returned to consciousness a second time he was lying in a dugout wracked with pain. It seemed hours before the stretcher bearer arrived. He threw his revolver away, the temptation to finish up the job was so acute. At length came the stretcher. “And then,” said Lieutenant Hemingway, “I did the only brave thing I did in the whole war — I told them to take the other guys first; that I was all right.”

The Italian doctors extracted thirty-two pieces of shrapnel from him, all of which they swiped” as souvenirs. When the victim himself feebly demanded a souvenir of his own, they informed him jauntily that there were twenty more pieces inside him yet and he could have them.

A craving to see one of his own countrymen after the long weeks with the Italian soldiers seized him. In vain he begged one of the doctors to procure him one just to look at. Then a familiar khaki uniform appeared at the other end of the room.

“Americano?” yelled Lieutenant Hemingway.

“What the devil do you think I am?” answered the voice peevishly.

Turning, the figure in khaki was revealed as one of the wounded man’s best friends.

“My gosh, Stein,” greeted the soldier, “you’re not going to die, are you?”

Right then and there Lieutenant Hemingway decided that he wasn’t.

One of his most pitiful experiences was his first view of his nurse. Visions of a dark-eyed Italian lady bending soulfully over his cot had sustained his feeble spirits during his long drive to the hospital. And when he saw “her”, she wore a long, bristling beard and spoke Italian in a masculine bass.

Lieutenant Hemingway coined some interesting war epigrams in the course of his address. Some of them were these:

“A trench mortar is like a glorified gas pipe.”

“A machine gun resembles closely a crazy typewriter.”

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