by Jane Futcher
Going Over–September 17, 1917
“How dashing you look, my darling,” Marjorie said when Thomas entered the sitting room dressed in the Canadian lieutenant colonel’s uniform the tailor had sent.
“Oh, Daddy!” The boys had shivered with delight at the sight their father in uniform, racing upstairs to don their own little soldier suits, sewn for them by their aunts in Ontario.
Baby Gwendolen, cherubic and unflappable, broke into a wail.
“What on earth?” Marjorie placed the infant over her shoulder, tapping gently on her back. “Nurse! Where are you?”
Nurse rushed in from somewhere. “Right here, Mrs. B,” she cried, scooping Baby into her arms. “Goodness, me!” she exclaimed, seeing Thomas. “How handsome you look, doctor!”
“Feel quite foolish,” Thomas reddened, pulling the wool away from his neck, so very hot and scratchy on this humid Baltimore day.
“Nonsense,” Nurse laughed. “Every nurse will swoon at the sight of you.”
Marjorie poured Thomas his tea, adding cream and three lumps of sugar as he liked it, then glancing at the doorway through which Nurse had hurried off. “I’m not at all sure she’ll do, Tom.”
“Nurse won’t?” he said, alarmed. “What has she done?”
“She’s scatterbrained and foolish. And she never calls you ‘sir,’ no matter how many times I’ve asked her.”
“I don’t mind, my darling.”
“But I do,” With a sigh, Marjorie returned to the socks she was knitting for the war effort. She had been knitting socks since the Germans had invaded Belgium three years ago. “The Irish are so . . .”
He stared at his wife. “The Irish?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I don’t,” he said, sitting down next to her.
“They’re so . . . emotional. Feelings running everywhere, like . . . ”
“Potatoes?” he offered, with more sarcasm than he’d intended.
“Don’t, Tom. Not today. I’m far too —“
“Emotional?“ he offered, touching her shoulder. “Aren’t we all a bit . . . right now?”
That afternoon at home seemed far longer than two weeks ago. Now here he was, wearing the uniform for real, the Sam Browne belt strapped across his chest, gold stripes on his sleeves, his riding breeches and knee-high leather boots snug on his legs. Did all five thousand soldiers who had boarded Olympic in Halifax today feel as uncomfortable as he did, actors in costume for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta?
Would this were just a bit of entertainment, Thomas thought, standing at the rail of TItanic’s sister ship, Olympic, watching the mountains of Nova Scotia fade into the darkness. Hands squeezing the rail, he could not but think of dear Harvey setting off for England more than two years ago. He was booked on Lusitania’s final voyage two years ago and would have gone down with her had a bureaucratic snafu not delayed his plans by a day. He had written Thomas of the sad and eerie feeling he’d had as his ship made its way silently through the Irish Sea toward Liverpool the day after the Gerries had torpedoed Lusitania. For miles he’d gazed down at Lusitania’s haunting debris floating in the water — clothing, luggage, saloon chairs. Thomas gripped the rail more tightly. Wouldn’t the Gerries love to send this ship filled to the brim with fresh Canadian troops to the bottom of the sea? And there was little to stop them now that Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff had persuaded the Kaiser to resume attacks on any vessel headed to England or France. The Olympic, enormous and conspicuous, would be a perfect target, particularly since it was not traveling in a convoy; no destroyer was fast enough to keep up with the White Star Line’s fastest passenger ship on the sea.
A horn from the top deck blasted so loudly that Thomas felt his heart jerk in his chest. An unearthly groan arose from somewhere near him.
“Dobbsie?” a soldier cried. “You all right, mate?”
“We need a doctor,” came another voice. “Look at the poor fellow!”
Edging forward, Thomas saw a soldier sprawled on the deck, arms and legs flailing, eyes rolled back into his head. Pressing through the crowd, he knelt next to the man, placing his jacket beneath the man’s head as he managed to unbutton the soldier’s collar.
“Don’t let him swallow his tongue,” a man yelled.
“Steady on, my friend,” Thomas said to the seizing man. “You cannot swallow your own tongue.”
“Dobbsie? You all right? Can you hear me?” cried his friend. “Say something!”
“Help me turn him onto his side, would you, man?” Thomas said. “He won’t swallow his tongue but he could choke on his saliva.”
Thomas felt the boy’s pulse, which was rapid but regular.
As the crowd dispersed, the drama over, Thomas said softly, “Private? Can you hear me?”
The boy smiled up at Thomas. “Hello, sir,” he said pleasantly. “Private Willy Dobbs. Seventy-Sixth Ontario Infantry Division, Canadian Expeditionary Force.”
“You’ve had a seizure, Private Dobbs,” Thomas said, relieved that he was coherent.
“A what? Good Heavens no,” he frowned. “I’m fine.”
“You were shaking all over, Dobbsie,” said his friend, a red-head with freckles, barely seventeen. “Never seen you that bad.”
“I’m fine, Reggie,” Dobbs said. “No need to broadcast.”
“Not your first one?” Thomas said.
“Feel fine, sir.” The boy tried to sit up.
“Easy,” Thomas said. “Any headache or numbness? Ringing in your ears?”
“Have you a bromide in your kit? Or phenobarbitone?”
“Doc said I was done with them.”
“With your seizures?”
“The shakes, we call them, sir. Nothing to worry about. Started after I hit my head in the quarry. Should’t have been diving there.”
“That was a time, wasn’t it, Dobbsie?” laughed his friend. “Thought we’d lost you.”
“Fit as a fiddle now, I am.”
The danger over, Thomas noticed the smell of alcohol on the boy’s breath and the tiny pink blood vessels reddening his sclera. “Does alcohol aggravate your . . . shakes?”
“Very rarely drink, sir,” Dobbs said.
“But we drank last night, didn’t we Dobbsie?” his red-haired friend laughed.
“Where are you from, private?” Thomas asked. “I know some Dobbses in Saint Thomas.”
“In Ontario?” the boy asked eagerly.
“That’s my family, sir,” the boy cried. “I grew up down the road in London.”
“Think of that,” Thomas smiled.
Dobbs grinned. “My Uncle Harry owns the feed store in Saint Thomas.”
Thomas smiled for the first time since he’d left Baltimore. “Harry Dobbs is your uncle?”
“Bang up to the elephant! That’s him!” Dobbs exclaimed.
“My brothers buy their grain from him. I’m Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Barnes, by the way. Canadian Medical Corps.”
“You’re a doctor?”
“I am,” Thomas said.
“I’ll write my mum. She’ll be over the top.”
“I live in the States now, but my brothers and sister are still in Saint Thomas.”
A handsome, mustached officer slightly younger than Thomas approached, trailed by two medics carrying a stretcher. The major glanced at Thomas, then Dobbs. ”What’s wrong with you, private?”
“Private Dobbs needs a full work up,” Thomas said, rising to his feet. “He’s had a grand mal seizure.”
“Not a seizure, sir,” Dobbs said quickly, pushing up on his elbows but falling back. “Just a few shakes.”
“Can you stand up, Private?” asked the man.
Dobbs did not move.
“Too many beers in Halifax?”
Dobbs looked sheepish. “We all did, sir, going over, saying goodbye to the family. We wanted to celebrate.”
“We did, too,” laughed his friend. “Met two lovely ladies in the saloon and . . . “
“Reggie,” Dobbs cried. “Keep a lid on, mate.”
“Took a chance, did you, boys?” the doctor scowled. “Hope you were careful. You may have another medical problem if you weren’t.”
“Oh, we were, sir,” Dobbs blushed.
The ship’s doctor turned to leave. “Well, a good night’s sleep, something to eat and plenty of water to drink, and you’ll be a new man in the morning.”
“You’re not admitting him, captain?” Thomas said, surprised.
The doctor’s lip seemed to curl as he glanced at the stripes on Thomas’ sleeves. “And you are?”
“Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Barnes. Canadian Medical Service.”
“You’re here because?”
“I was close by when Dobbs seized.”
“Liverpool, of course,” Thomas said.
“And after that?”
Why was this man interrogating him? “Orpington, Kent,” he replied.
“Canadian War Hospital Number Sixteen?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” Thomas said. “How did you —“
“You’re Thomas Barnes, aren’t you? The new chief medical officer?”
“How did you know?” Thomas was flabbergasted.
“You’re one of Sir William Osler’s boys, aren’t you? From Johns Hopkins?”
“I was his chief resident,” Thomas said quietly, clenching his fists.
“A fine little club, you posh ones,” said the doctor.
“I am the son of a pig farmer,” Thomas said quietly.
“God’s own truth,” Dobbs cried. “His family buys feed from my uncle.”
“And you are?” Thomas said to the doctor, feeling his blood pressure rising.
“Major Raymond Jessup.” He did not salute. “Ship’s doctor for one last trip.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Thomas said, saluting.
“Remember these soldiers. Colonel Barnes,” Jessup said, looking down at Dobbs and his mates. “You won’t see as many healthy men in one place for a long time to come. Half of them will be your patients in a month or two if they’re not already dead.”
Thomas chewed his lip, shocked that a physician would speak this way in front of new recruits bound for the front. “The ship’s horn is the last thing I remember,” Dobbs was saying to his friend as he moved his head from side to side as if shaking the sound from his ears.
“You’ll admit him, won’t you, Captain?” Thomas asked. “Watch him over night and take a history?”
“He is not your patient,” Jessup snarled.
Thomas stared at Jessup. “It’s entirely your decision, of course. But if the Olympic’s horn caused this lad to seize, I hate to think what might happen if a Howitzer explodes next to him.”
Jessup’s pale eyes narrowed. “The War Office wants bodies, Colonel.”
“Healthy bodies, I presume,” Thomas replied.
“I’m a healthy body, sir,” Dobbs offered cheerfully.
“I’m sending you down to the hospital, private,” Jessup growled.
“I’m fine, sir,” Dobbs insisted, grabbing Reggie’s hand and standing up. “No need.”
“Private, if Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Barnes from Johns Hopkins Hospital says you should be looked after, you’ll go to ship’s hospital on a stretcher.”
Thomas touched Dobbs’ sleeve. “I’ll check in on you tomorrow, Mister Dobbs.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” the boy said miserably, sitting down and placing himself on the stretcher.
Thomas peered down at the water from the rail. How on earth did Jessup know that Thomas was to be the new CMO at Canadian War Hospital Number Sixteen? And why was the man so disagreeable? Thomas had met plenty of cocksure, arrogant young physicians over the years at Hopkins, but none had gotten under his skin so quickly as this man had. “Aequanimitas,” he told himself. “Calmness amid storm,” the Chief had written in his famous speech to new doctors. “He who shows in his face the slightest alteration, expressive of anxiety or fear is liable to disaster at any moment.”
Thomas looked up quickly as a thunderous clanking sound came from somewhere on the deck. Was it the ship’s engine? Had they veered off course? He scanned the ocean for signs of a German submarine but saw nothing but the vast dark ocean. One or two other soldiers still at the rail did not seem at all concerned. No crew members raced out with orders to man the lifeboats and begin evacuation. Perhaps the queer noise was caused by what the manuals called zig zagging, sudden directional changes to disguise the ship’s course from the enemy. It would end, he’d read, when the ship was one hundred miles from port.
“Pardon me, Sir,” a young seaman said. “Captain is asking all passengers to proceed to their bunks.”
“Of course,” Thomas said. “Everything OK? No Gerries pursuing us?”
“All dilly, sir. Just a precaution.”
Thomas was puzzled as he opened the heavy steel door to the interior. Were they under attack? Or was the threat coming from within, from his nerves? He sat on his bed, reaching for his kit bag and the flask of brandy Marjorie had packed for him. Perhaps a sip or two would take his mind off German submarines and the unpleasant ship’s doctor. He poured himself a shot in the little jigger, feeling grateful indeed when the strong drink quelled the tension in his chest. He opened his leather writing sleeve. Perhaps he’d sketch this first-class stateroom for his wife and the boys, showing them how elegant it was, far more so than any cabin he’d booked for crossings in peace time. He would draw its sleigh bed, marble sink, walnut writing desk, oak wardrobe, and large window-sized porthole, which, alas, was sealed and covered to prevent his light from revealing the ship’s location to the enemy.