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When the Clouds Roll By
By Myra Johnson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Myra Johnson
All rights reserved.
Hot Springs, Arkansas November 11, 1918
If perfection existed this side of heaven, Annemarie Kendall had just achieved it.
A thrill dancing up her spine, she rotated the tall, teardrop-shaped vase and examined it inch by beautiful inch. When she wasn't busy keeping books for the family pottery business or putting together Red Cross comfort kits for the boys serving in France, she found immense satisfaction in creating her own works of ceramic artistry.
Certainly not her father's preferred use of her time, as he'd told her often enough, but Annemarie aspired to more than utilitarian bowls, urns, and butter churns—the mainstay of Kendall Pottery. Someday ... someday ... visitors who came to Hot Springs for the baths would also take home a one-of-a-kind piece of her ceramic art as a lasting reminder of their stay in this scenic and charming city.
For the past few months, Annemarie had been experimenting with a crystalline glazing method, striving for the perfect blend of ingredients, timing, and technique. With this vase, she'd achieved her vision—a design reminiscent of a Ouachita mountain sunrise, the view she'd awakened to nearly every morning of her life here in Hot Springs.
Her smile widened, her cheeks warming with the glow of victory. Her ears hummed with imagined celebratory cheers—
Except the cheering wasn't coming from inside her head. Beyond the workroom walls, the sound grew louder, the eruption of excitement drawing Annemarie's attention from the vase she so tenderly cradled.
Suddenly the door from the adjoining factory slammed open.
The vase slammed against the stone floor.
"Annemarie!" Her father blew into the room like a late-season tornado. "Annie-girl, have you heard the news?"
A thousand shimmering shards scattered at her feet, Annemarie barely comprehended his words. She stood frozen and held her breath—along with the shriek that begged for release.
One ... two ... three ... four ...
With a stubborn lift of her shoulders, she turned to face her father. What news could possibly have Papa—and the entire factory, so it seemed—in such a state of jubilation?
"It's over, Annie-girl! The war is over!" Papa lunged toward her, his work boots grinding the pottery fragments to powder. He scooped her into his beefy arms and twirled her around the shop.
"What? What did you say?" Annemarie's heart slammed against her breastbone. She pounded her fists upon her father's thick shoulders until he released her. "Papa, is it true?"
"You heard me, girl! Kaiser Wilhelm has abdicated. They've signed the armistice. Our boys will be home before you know it!"
Head spinning, Annemarie stumbled backward and braced herself against a worktable. Tears choked her. She pressed the back of her fist against her mouth. Dear God, so much suffering, so many lives lost. How she'd prayed for this day— the Great War over at last! "Oh, Papa. Praise God!"
"Praise Him indeed!" Papa enfolded her in his arms, with gentleness and care this time, and let her sob into his grimy muslin shirt that smelled of sweat and smoke and clay. "There, there, Annie-girl, you're not the only lass weeping tears of joy this day. The Lord willing, Gilbert could be home by Christmas!"
Annemarie straightened and sniffed away her tears. Finding a handkerchief in her apron pocket, she dabbed at her cheeks with a trembling hand. "I almost forgot. A letter came this morning. I haven't even had a chance to open it."
"A letter from your sweetheart and you forgot?" Papa clucked his tongue.
Her happy smile faded. It pained her to admit the letters she'd so looked forward to this past year now evoked more distress than delight. She wrung her hands and swallowed the bitter lump of guilt. "I ... I was working at the wheel when Morris delivered the mail. He said there was a letter from Gilbert, but my hands were covered with clay, and ..."
Papa's disgruntled sigh spoke louder than words. His gaze slid to the pottery fragments littering the floor before he skewered Annemarie with a disapproving glare. If Papa weren't so anxious to learn the latest word from Gilbert, she'd surely be in for yet another lecture concerning the "abominable waste of time and money" spent upon her "art."
He was right, though. She had no business concerning herself with anything so frivolous when brave soldiers lay wounded or dying on the Western Front. She prayed the Lord's forgiveness for her selfishness.
"Well, go on, now. Get the letter and let's hear what our Gilbert has to say." Papa pushed the factory door closed and then plopped onto a stool and propped one elbow on the worktable.
Her face burning with remorse, Annemarie tucked in her chin and strode through another door to the front office. Sorting through the mail on her cluttered desk, she retrieved Gilbert's letter and hurried back to the workroom, careful to sidestep the broken vase. She would not mourn over pottery shards, not when Gilbert—her dear Gilbert, the boy she'd loved since childhood—would soon be in her arms again.
Letter in hand, she scooted a stool close to her father's. She slid a stubby, clay-stained fingernail under the envelope flap and tugged out the single page. The thin, cream-colored sheet crackled beneath her fingers as she unfolded the letter. As usual, the censors had already done their damage. Though as an officer Gilbert was particularly careful to avoid specifics, smudged ink and the occasional blacked-out word interrupted his spidery scrawl.
Smoothing the wrinkled page, Annemarie cleared her throat. "Shall I read it aloud?"
"Oh, no, no." Papa chuckled and waved a hand. "I'm sure it's full of personal stuff between you and your sweetheart. Just tell me the important parts—how he's mending, when he expects to ship home."
Annemarie stifled another frisson of worry. Wanting to shield both her family and Gilbert's from further concern, she hadn't shared how utterly impersonal Gilbert's latest letters had become—a coolness that had nothing to do with concerns over censorship. The letters he'd written as a West Point cadet, and even during the early months of his deployment to France, had been filled with declarations of love, how he strove every day not only to honor his father's memory but also to do both Annemarie and his country proud. It wasn't long, however, before the tone of his letters had darkened. While she knew he did his best to protect her from the ugliness of war, clearly he had been changed by it.
Then in August, word had arrived that Gilbert had been wounded. An artillery explosion had taken his left leg and shattered his left arm from wrist to shoulder. He'd nearly lost an eye and for eight days had feared permanent deafness. His first letters after evacuation to a French field hospital, dictated to the chaplain on duty, were terse and factual, which she'd attributed to the fact that Gilbert chose not to share too personally through a stranger.
Yet when he'd recovered enough to take up pen and paper himself, Annemarie could no longer deny the truth that lay beneath his deceptively courteous words. Her dear Gilbert, once bold and ambitious, full of life and love and great plans for their future, now seemed dispirited, desolate, defeated. Annemarie couldn't begin to fathom the horrors he'd endured, but surely with time he would recover both physically and emotionally. She prayed night and day for his healing—as well as for the strength within herself to stand strong at Gilbert's side as the wife he would need in the months and years ahead.
Slowly, determinedly, Annemarie perused the letter, dated Sunday, October 6. "Still in the hospital ... constant headache but some vision returning to my left eye.... They say I'm one of the lucky ones—if you can call it that. So many wounded, so many dead and dying. More every day. Will this blasted war never end?"
Annemarie's heart broke to realize Gilbert had penned these somber words only weeks before the armistice. With trembling fingers, she brushed away a tear. Her father reached across the space between them and patted her knee as she silently read on. "Waiting for the next transport home—possibly December. Don't know where I'll end up yet. Probably a military hospital somewhere like _____."
The name was obliterated, but wherever it was, Annemarie would find a way to get there as soon as possible. She looked up with a hopeful smile. "He's getting better, Papa. He may be home next month! He says—"
The jangle of the telephone interrupted her. Papa hefted his bulk off the stool and hurried to the front office to answer. "Kendall Pottery Works, Joseph Kendall speaking."
Within seconds, Annemarie discerned the caller was Evelyn Ballard, Gilbert's mother, and it sounded as if she'd received a letter as well. Annemarie rushed into the office and hovered at her father's elbow, waiting to hear what news Mrs. Ballard's letter contained.
"Of course, we're as thrilled as you, Evelyn," Papa was saying. "What a homecoming that boy will have! Here, I'll let you speak directly with Annemarie."
A dark tress had worked loose from Annemarie's bun, and she tried in vain to tuck it back into place. The arrogant Evelyn Ballard, with all her wealth and sophistication, never failed to intimidate Annemarie. She could feel the woman's critical eye upon her even through the telephone line. Hesitantly, she accepted the earpiece from her father. "Good morning, Mrs. Ballard. It's wonderful news, isn't it?"
"Oh, my dear, it's simply the best! I've already made some calls, and thanks to my late husband's military connections, I've arranged for Gilbert to continue his recuperation at the Army and Navy Hospital right here in Hot Springs. We'll be able to visit him every day until he's discharged."
"Really? I'm so glad!" Annemarie drew her lower lip between her teeth. "How ... how did he sound to you?"
Mrs. Ballard released a long and pain-filled sigh. "Oh, my dear, our poor lad has suffered so much. Of course, he is unhappy about his current state of disability and naturally concerned about the prospect of a lengthy recovery. But we cannot give up hope. We must encourage him in every way possible and keep him constantly in our prayers."
Fresh tears sprang into Annemarie's eyes. "Always."
"And once he's home and we set the wedding plans in motion, I'm sure it will lift his spirits even more."
Annemarie squeezed her eyes shut. "Perhaps we shouldn't rush him in that regard. He'll have so many adjustments to make."
"Yes, but keeping his mind occupied with happy anticipation of your nuptials will be the best medicine, I'm positive." Voices in the background drew Mrs. Ballard's attention for a moment. She came back on the line to say, "Sorry, I must ring off for now. But I'll have you and your mother over for luncheon soon, and we can start making plans!"
"Yes, well ..." No use arguing with the woman—truly a force to be reckoned with. If Mrs. Ballard had been a general, the Allies would have won the war in a single day. Annemarie said good-bye and set the earpiece on the hook.
She pivoted toward the workroom, only to find her father had returned to the factory. Beyond the open door, she could hear his booming voice instructing the pottery workers to finish their current tasks and then take the rest of the day off in celebration of the armistice.
Annemarie's current task, unfortunately, was sweeping up the remnants of her shattered vase. She found a broom and dustpan and with each stroke sang a little song in her head:My Gilbert is coming home soon!
With a new lightness in her step, she made quick work of depositing the broken pottery in the waste bin.
Yes, perhaps it was time to put this dream to rest once and for all, because when Gilbert returned to Hot Springs, everything about her life was sure to change.CHAPTER 2
Aboard the U.S.S. Comfort December 1918
Smooth seas today, praise God!
For the first time in days, Army Chaplain Samuel Vickary actually finished his breakfast without the urgent need to rush to the nearest head. He'd already "fed the fishes" too many times to count on this journey. The U.S.S. Comfort, formerly a passenger steamship, had been converted to a floating military hospital, and now ferried troops home from the war—a more blessed Christmas gift no one could ask for!
Teeth brushed, his uniform inspected, Bible in hand, Samuel prepared himself for a task that had grown even more draining to his spirit than those daily bouts of seasickness were to his body—morning rounds among the returning wounded. Once again he prayed for the Lord to give him words that would comfort and reassure, words to give strength and hope.
Words he prayed would find their way deep into his own wounded soul.
A refreshing breeze greeted him as he stepped out on deck. The ambulatory patients preferred the sea air over the medicinal smells of the wards, and who could blame them? Not to mention the smoke from their cigarettes dispelled much more quickly in the open air. While serving in the trenches, Samuel had been tempted many times to take up the tobacco habit but managed to resist. Tobacco might provide temporary relief from the stresses of war, but it too easily became a physical craving. Faith came hard enough these days, and Samuel intended to crave nothing more than his Lord and Savior.
He inhaled a bracing breath and tightened his grip on his Bible. Still getting his sea legs, he slid one hand along the rail as he walked. The deck beneath his feet rose and fell in a comforting rhythm, a certitude that somewhere ahead of them across the vast Atlantic, home and loved ones waited.
At least for some.
"Padre, will you pray with me?" A doughboy reclining on a deck chair reached a hand toward Samuel.
The thin, freckle-faced boy didn't look a day over seventeen. Samuel knelt beside him. "What's your name, son?"
"Private William Jeffries, sir. I survived Belleau Wood with nothin' worse than a bullet in my leg, but now they say I got somethin' called shell shock." The private couldn't seem to stop shivering, even beneath a wool blanket. "The things I saw, the nightmares—I can't sleep, can't hardly force myself to eat."
"I know, son. I know." Samuel knew all too well and briefly closed his eyes against the specters that still haunted him day and night, the doubts and questions that rose in his heart to battle with the remnants of his faith.
Private Jeffries fixed Samuel with a look of desperation. "Do ya think it'll ever go away? The fear, I mean? The shakes? The nightmares?"
"I doubt we'll ever forget what we saw over there." Samuel pressed the boy's hands between his own and squeezed hard. "But you must cling to the assurance that Jesus saw it too. Give it all to Him. Trust Him to carry you through the agony of remembering, just as He carried you through the battle."
The boy nodded, moisture rimming his reddened eyelids. "Thanks, Padre. I know you're right. And I do trust Jesus. It's just ... so hard."
"This is why we need Jesus all the more." Samuel bowed his head over their clasped hands and lifted up Private William Jeffries to the Lord in prayer, while in his heart he prayed for all the other doughboys and marines and sailors and aviators, the doctors and nurses and Red Cross volunteers, the mothers and wives and sisters and children—
Dear Lord, he could pray night and day for the next century and never cover all the suffering and loss.
If he could only be certain God still listened.
If only he dared to hope heaven hadn't barred its doors against him for eternity.
With a parting word of peace to the young soldier, Samuel rose and wearily went on his way. One after another, he sat with the men, listening to their stories while silently reliving his own.
Desperate for a cup of coffee as the morning wore on, Samuel detoured to the mess. Attacks by U-boats during the war had severely handicapped supply lines, which meant what he'd find there would be little more than coffee-flavored water, but he'd need every last molecule of caffeine to get through the day. After filling a mug with the weak brew, he sank into the first empty chair, curled his hands around the warmth of the cup, and inhaled the aroma. Maybe he could extract some extra caffeine from the escaping steam.
Excerpted from When the Clouds Roll By by Myra Johnson. Copyright © 2013 Myra Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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