Kiley Bense | Longreads | November 2019 | 14 minutes (3,580 words)
What I notice are the boots: two pairs in worn black leather, lined up beneath a bookcase, their heels pressed against the turquoise-painted baseboard. They look as if their owner had stowed them there in one careless motion, after yanking them off his feet. The toes of one pair turn slightly into each other, just kissing, and the others face off-kilter toward the corner of the room.
This room is a shrine made by freezing the contents of a life in time. It belonged to a French soldier, Hubert Rochereau, who was killed during World War I at the age of 22. His parents sealed off his bedroom intact, and when they sold the house the deed included a stipulation that the new owners leave the room untouched for 500 years.
The wallpaper in the room is a pale pink-and-white stripe, the bedspread a fading snowflake-patterned lace. The books have cloth covers and paper labels taped over their spines. There are framed photographs on the shelf, and on the desk sit an iron-wrought key and a tarnished pipe. A tattered soldier’s coat hangs beside the desk, all its brass buttons dulled with age, the blue fabric fraying.
I got stuck on those boots and on this room vibrating with the memory of a man gone more than a century, because here was a memorial for a soldier that didn’t erase him as an individual: a young man with a serious gaze and dark hair.
When we remember our war dead, we often do so en masse. We visit fields where rows of white headstones radiate outward in straight lines, touching the horizon. We pin red poppies to our lapels and stick yellow ribbons to our bumpers, hoping to express our collective grief. We hold a minute of silence, or two, marking thousands of vanished souls with an absence of sound. We leave a wreath at the base of a monument inscribed with so many names that it would be impossible to linger on any one of them, let alone understand and feel the pain that each of their deaths meant to those they left behind.
Last month, at a rally in Minnesota, as he talked about his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Donald Trump invoked the deaths of service members and his own feelings about meeting their families as they waited to greet the coffins of their loved ones at Dover Air Force Base. He called visits there “a very tough experience.” “We meet them, and we talked to them, and their son or daughter is being flown in from some far away place in a coffin, and these things are just impossible. I don’t know how parents can do it, even […] I see parents make sounds, that were just 20 minutes ago absolutely fine, make sounds, scream and cry like you’ve never seen before,” he said. Trump noted how surprised he was by this display of emotion, how he hadn’t expected it because the mourners seemed “okay” before the caskets arrived. He didn’t mention any of the families or soldiers by name.