I have just finished a reading marathon: a memoir by my great uncle, Col. William Neill Hughes, Jr., who was born in 1878. His 278-page, double-spaced and self-typed manuscript written in the mid-1950s is called Along the Way: Incidents—Anecdotes—Episodes—Adventures. I tried to read it as a young woman because I adored my Uncle Billy, but it seemed dry and difficult. War "stories" weren't my "thing." I set it aside for—let’s see—almost sixty years.
|Wm. Neill Hughes, Jr.--Uncle Billy, 1963|
Sitting at my kitchen table (where the light is good and the chair comfortable), I became immersed in the politics of war—both the Spanish American and WWI—as described by this man who enlisted in the army at age nineteen (leaving behind law studies and a job working for the railroad in Pennsylvania), following in the footsteps of his career-army father. He retired from the army in 1921 as a Colonel as Chief of Staff of the 42nd Division (Rainbow).
He worked as a civilian for a period, then reentered the army at the invitation of General Squier, the Chief Signal Officer of the Army, to become chief signal officer of the 7th Corps (comprising Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa and Minnesota). After being ordered to report to Washington D.C. as the assistant to General Squier, he retired again—this time for good. His subsequent business career in New York and Chicago was focused on banking, particularly the overseeing of businesses in receivership due either to poor management or the Great Depression.
Uncle Billy’s memoir is anecdotal and reads, in part, like a Who’s Who of the army, including personal encounters and episodes involving Generals Pershing, Billy Mitchell, George Squier, Charles Rhodes, and two McArthurs, Arthur and Douglas. His first-hand tales of near assassination and near-misses from rifle and artillery fire are hair raising. His depictions of the hardships soldiers endure are among the most memorable I’ve ever read—probably because I knew the writer. For the first time in my life, I am in awe of the logistics of moving a Division of 25,000 troops from one place to another—not to mention procuring them sufficient food, clothing, and ammunition to stay alive.
In my late teen years, after meeting Uncle Billy for the first and only time (he lived in the southeastern United States and we lived in the Pacific northwest), I became his devoted fan. The two of us carried on a correspondence that began in my late high school years and lasted thirteen years until he died in 1970. We wrote to each other about many topics, but I never had a full understanding what had made him who he was—until now.
If anything has made me believe even more strongly in the legacy of anecdotal history (not to mention incidental, episodic and adventurous), it is this wonderfully rich memoir written for the author's descendants. If anything has made me believe in the need for maturation before reading certain works, it is this fascinating tale written by a man two generations ahead of me. If anything has made me want to meet up with a long-dead relative in the hereafter, it is my recent immersion in another person's life, thanks to the dedication and self-discipline of my Uncle Billy.