Kilsyth’s “Thank you” to a WWI Vet…..100 years later.

When my mother passed away I was the trustee for her estate.  I dutifully sorted through her possessions to  separate out those things that were precious from those that should be distributed among family members, sold or taken to a thrift store.  It wasn’t so much about getting value for things as it was about finding homes for them, like placing orphans with good families where they will be loved.  If you have been through this yourself, occasionally you find something that was clearly saved for a long time, but you have no idea what made it special.  Maybe it meant something to your mother’s mother?   You will never know, but you can’t bring yourself to sell it or throw it away so you put it in a box and save it.  With each generation it’s value fades because its story is unknown.

My wife’s mother had two pocket watches hanging on hooks under little glass domes on her mantle.  I remember when she bought the glass domes.  Her husband had retired after working many years at Amtrak and she bought him a decorative pocket watch with a train on it. The train would go round and round on the dial with the second hand.   It was bit gaudy looking, a manufacturer’s best effort at making something from the 1990’s look like an antique. She wanted to create a set with an older pocket watch she already had and bought the domes to put them on display.  She never said a thing to us about the older pocket watch, but it was quite plain looking next to the train watch.  After she passed away we kept things that meant something to us and sold the things that we were not interested in.  The watches “made the cut”, so we packed them and the glass domes carefully and moved them with us to Northern California.  They sat on an upper shelf in our laundry room for almost fifteen years.

A few weeks ago my wife got the decorating bug  and pulled them out of storage.  She asked me to clean them up and repaint the bases.  Dusting things off,  I took a closer look at the older watch.  It was very plain, no markings on it.  I popped open the cover and saw that it was handsome with roman numerals and slender watch hands. It looked pretty old.  I gave the stem a few turns and it immediately started to tick, the second hand sweeping around the clock face.  “Wow”,  I thought, “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking!”. DSC_0123I turned the watch over and took a look at the back side.  It was also blank but I notice a slight finger edge on the side.  I have looked at old watches before and it’s not unusual for both sides to open.  Many times the back side has small mechanical controls for making fine adjustments to the watch. When I opened the back I was surprised to find it highly polished and elaborately engraved.  I started to read it and immediately got a chill.

” Presented by the People of Kilsyth and District to L-Corprl. William Rigg  A. & S. H. in recognition of having won the Military Medal 4/2/19″ DSC_0125   I have written about William Rigg in the past in this blog.  He served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders for Scotland during the war.  He is my wife’s grandfather and I consider him my one true personal connection to World War 1 history because I shook his hand when I was dating his granddaughter and he told me about his service and how awful chlorine gas was.  With my passion about World War 1 history, I had carefully preserved all the relics of his military history that I found, just a handful of things.  His medals, his picture, his badge from his uniform and some papers.  I had no idea that this “Thank you” for his service was sitting in a box in the closet.  In some ways it was so much more personal than the other items, a gold watch from his home town, celebrating his bravery in battle that earned him a Military Medal and welcoming him home after over  four years of service as a soldier in the Great War.

It made me think of the controversial treatment of veterans returning from Viet Nam or the young men and women struggling to get proper healthcare after returning from Afghanistan.  You could pretend that the 1918 was a simpler time, but regarding the wars effect on people, I don’t think so.  Thousands of men came back scarred and broken, and tried to fit back in with their families.  The medals, the discharge papers and the watch all tell a story.  Disembodied the15th of January 1919,  Payment of Soldiers Account, the 19th of January, 1919.  The watch was presented on the 4th of February, 1919.

The “Certificate of Employment During the War” is an interesting document.  It is intended as something to give a potential employer when you go back to your old job after being gone for several years, surviving the hell of trench warfare, constant artillery bombing and choking chlorine gas.  The document is signed by a Major and states;

“Has proved himself a very good efficient soldier and bears a very good character.  He has been awarded the “MM” (military medal) for brave, good conduct in the field.”

One quick sentence, they both sign the paper, a handshake and off the soldier goes back home.  How many of these did the Major sign?  He must have seen thousands of men in all conditions, some ready to go back to their family and their jobs and others that would never be the same.

In Wully’s case he was returning to his job as a coal miner. “The toughest job there is” he told me, on the same day he described his military career.   When a coal miner is transported down into the mine it is pitch black.  One wonders what thoughts and images went through his mind as descended into the dark, returning  to work for the first time.  Maybe the watch helped.  I don’t know…. but I do know that the watch will now be carefully preserved among the other artifacts I have gathered.  And I do know that grouped with the medals, portraits and papers it tells an important part of the story of a soldiers return home to friends and family.

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….and one more document thanks to the folks at The Great War Forum!


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Spiritual Objects & the Making of a Soldier’s Sketchbook

I once worked on a Catholic church that was designed in the round and had a stone altar. It was designed to look like it was carved out of a granite boulder with a polished top that had engravings on it.  The creation of the altar had all the elements of a typical construction project of this scale, design discussions, shop drawings, engineer’s analysis, coordination with fabricators and contractors.  I was on the jobsite just before opening doing a punch list and an older women carefully approached the alter, touched the top, blessed herself and walked back to her seat to pray.

It caught me off guard.

I appreciated the design of the altar, but to me it was just one element in a complicated project.  I could remember arguments over cost, discussions over constructability and working with the contractor to decide how to get it into the church. When did it cross the line and become something sacred?  The cynic in me could shrug it off, but I couldn’t.  I began to realize that regardless of your religious beliefs  the artist had successfully designed something that could inspire someone spiritually.  At that point the altar no longer belonged to the artist, or the fabricator or the contractor.  It belonged to the church, the parishioners, this woman, and it had begun its own life as a spiritual object.

When I settled that the “The Blue Max Project” was going to involve a soldier’s sketchbook, I hunted on-line until I found a small leather note book that had the right look and feel.

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I new I would have to “age” the book in some manner and at first thought I would try to do this digitally in photoshop.  The examples I saw did not inspire me much and when I stumbled onto the article in Air & Space that showed an example of an actual journal of a World War I pilot, I knew I was going to have to do a lot more than put a few filters on a digital image to make this shiny new leather book with its gold edging look like this.

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I researched techniques for aging paper, found that most of them involved single sheets, not whole books, but settled on a method that involved “basting” each sheet with brewed coffee, wiping it off and blow drying with a hair dryer.  I found I had to place a plastic cutting board between sheets to avoid the whole book from getting too saturated

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Over three weeks I worked page by page, wrinkling the sheet with my hands, pulling at the corners, randomly making folds and crunching the edge.  The binding started to split and the book became fragile and fat with the wrinkled pages.  To get it to lay flat I ironed the pages and at night I put the whole book under a pile of heavy books ( like putting your brand new baseball glove under your mattress after you oiled it).  Some wonderful random things started to happen. Pages soaked thru, telegraphing stains between pages.  I tried to control it a bit but not too much.

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For the cover I took sandpaper and distressed the surface, focusing on the edges.  I cut off the ribbon bookmark and bought a leather string to hold the book together

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Over the last year I have fussed over the approach to this project, struggled with the copy stand, the camera, pens and format.  There is still a long way to go.  The most intimidating part of the project still lies ahead with the writing the story and developing the artwork that will fill this journal.  Is this just an interesting folly, one man’s art project?  Will it be authentic enough that it will give readers another vantage point to view history?  Will it eventually cross the line like the stone altar did and become a real artifact in the reader’s mind?

As I hold this fragile, empty sketchbook in my hand, I am beginning to feel like I did when I was in that church that day, when I realized that the altar was not mine any more and that the object had begun its own spiritual life.  It sits empty under a pile of heavy books waiting for me to complete it.  I hope I am up to the task!!

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