That’s what the tattoo on his forearm said.
July 1, 1916
It had the impact of a poem. A haiku. A koan.
All in red.
Most tattoos are pretty elaborate. A range of colours. Especially ones on the forearms. To people who recognize the date, it’s heavy timber. Has weight. It was a date of horror beyond any sane person’s ability to comprehend. The near annihilation of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel, France in World War One.
The tattoo was just under a rolled up woollen sleeve. The background was a tanned muscled arm that belonged to a tanned muscled body.
It was covered in a fine sheen of perspiration. Well actually it wasn’t all covered. Oddly enough the sweat only seeped through the letters of the tattoo. Letters raised from the skin creating little paths between them. Over it all, fine blonde hairs curled and twisted. Like barbed wire on a battlefield.
The quason hut he was entering made him very nervous.
He was going to be a model at a bronze foundry. The likeness of his face would be part of a larger sculpture. One of a hundred bronzed faces that would make up a monument dedicated to the memory of soldiers who fought or died in World War One.
The bronze artist needed a hundred molds. The faces would be completely covered with a plaster alginate mixture. Eyes closed, mouth closed around a large straw to breathe through. No coughing. No sneezing. The straw was the only lifeline.
He called around to different people who had gone through or would be going through the same process. Some just couldn’t wait to do it. Others were naturally cautious. Most had to admit it wasn’t an especially pleasant experience. The fear of the unknown played a big part.
Claustrophobia was another.
While he knew his face would be covered it wasn’t until it was close to actually happening that the pinpricks began to hit. Looking for some reassurance he gulped saying, “How do you breathe?“ The female assistant told him once again that he would be given a straw to breathe through. The idea sank in like a barbed hook and set off another pin prick of panic. ‘What have I got myself into.’ He shivered as his vision took in the surroundings. To his left was a huge furnace. He presumed it was in the process of heating a cauldron of molten bronze. To his right was a wall of heavy metal tools. Sledge hammers, drills, concrete piercing Hilti guns and an army array of unfamiliar looking equipment whose unusual shapes were baffling. He instinctively knew each one had their place and were ready to be called upon at a moment’s notice when needed. Further off to the centre was a collection of ceramic molds. Legs, arms, heads and torsos all lined up in a row with their gaping black holes waiting to be filled with roaring, raging hot metal.
“We’ll be with you in a minute.” spoke the preoccupied assistant. His stomach tightened. Then eased up. Be cool he scolded himself. People are watching. Don’t let them see you’re nervous. Don’t let them think you’re afraid. He looked at his tattoo, saw something that he never noticed before. From this angle it was upside down. The distracted thought made him chuckle until he quickly realized his own world would soon be upside down just like his grandfather’s on that fateful day, July 1, 1916.
The assistant bawled out, “Over here.“ It was like a sergeant major’s order. The model worked his way through the twists and turns of the foundry to a well lit area. A stark white background with two large flood lights shining on a bar stool.
But very small for all that.
“Just sit on the stool there.” said the female assistant. His stomach gave another turn. He could feel the acid working on his breakfast, on his stomach lining.
‘ I don’t think I can do this.‘ he silently groaned. As if reading his mind, the artist came out of nowhere and said.” You’re not going to chicken out on me are you?”
“Its too late now. I made a commitment and I’m sticking to it.”
“That’s good to hear but I understand. It can be scary having your face covered in mud. Just to get used to it, begin breathing through this big fat straw. Not to sound too dramatic but the straw is your oxygen feed.”
He took the straw, placed it in his mouth, closed his eyes and tried to imagine what it was going to be like having his face completely covered in plaster.
His stomach gave another turn.
“Okay let’s get started.” the artist said over the distant whirling of a mechanical wand. It was stirring the plaster alginate mixture. When the noise stopped the assistant brought forward a five gallon bucket of alginate and they immediately began to cover his face. He flinched. Be cool he reminded himself. They were calm. It helped. He began to relax.
The artist talked to him as they applied the mud like substance.
“This stage doesn’t take long. The alginate dries quickly. Just concentrate on your breathing.”
The soft words and soft hands soothed. ‘ I’m going to make it.’ he thought to himself. Relaxing, he then began to think of his grandfather who had fought at Beaumont Hamel in the Battle of the Somme. The model remembered his grandfather’s story about getting shot in the arm and tumbling into a shell hole. Just as he landed another large artillery shell exploded close by and buried him with heavy wet mud. His grandfather couldn’t breathe at first. The mud filled his mouth and nose. He pushed with all his might to lift his body. A knife like pain shot up his arm. He heard a sucking sound as his head broke through the gripping mud. Head above ground, he tried to breathe but was choking on the muck. He shoved a finger down his throat. A spray of blood, pebbles, and mud flew across the shell hole as he cleared a passage. He gasped and thrashed about until his breathing returned to normal.
The light straw the model held up with his right hand began to weigh heavier. A slight tickle formed on his tongue. He swallowed. The tickle went away. The female assistant asked him to give a thumbs up if he was feeling okay. No reaction. He was deep in thought about his grandfather’s plight in the shell hole, thinking of him choking on the mud, desperately trying to breathe. He became conscious of mucus forming on the back of his throat. His free hand curled and tightened. The mucus tasted acidity. It didn’t tickle. Now It burned.
“ How you doin’ there buddy? “ asked the artist, looking for some reassurance. “ We haven’t got long to go. We’ll put a little more alginate on your face. Then it will take about ten to fifteen minutes for the stuff to harden up.”
He raised his arm to give a thumbs up. It weighed heavy as though it was cast in concrete.
He couldn’t move. Unease set in. The straw felt like a chunk of birch firewood.
‘ How can that be? It’s only a straw.’ The thought was troubling.
Sweat formed between his raised, straw holding arm and woollen sleeve. The itch dug Deep like a cut worm burrowing into his vein and expanded as the sweat snaked to his elbow. More cut worms. More vein breaks.
‘ Is my arm weeping blood?’
Another stab of panic.
‘Control yourself. For God’s sake its only sweat.’ he commanded.
‘Concentrate on your breathing. In and out. In and out. That’s it. Get control. In and out. In and out. Slow it down.’
His body relaxed. Gaining control, he calmly thought. ‘Just hold on. It will be all over soon.’ He unclench his left fist, imagined a fresh running stream in the woods, with himself sitting on a dead log watching a flat assed kettle hiss and spit as it began to boil. He could smell the trees and the wispy fir scented smoke as it rose and enveloped him.
The pleasant reverie abruptly ended when the alarmed assistant said, “ Where’s that smoke coming from?”
“ I’m warming up the furnace for a bronze pour later today. The ceramic casts are ready for the arms and legs of the soldier statue.” the artist replied.
“ I should go over and turn on the fan just in case it gets too smoky here. “ stated the assistant.
Without prompting she crossed the foundry floor and pushed the button to start the huge overhead fan. The smooth sounding electric motor kicked in to turn the main shaft and propeller.
She returned to check the alginate. The model’s feet began to shuffle as a scent of smoke sucked in through the straw. Mucus burned at his throat. His mouth was bone dry. He bit the tip of his tongue. Moisture seeped in, enough to have a relieving swallow. It was not all saliva.
There was a taste of blood.
‘ I must have bitten too hard.’ he reasoned.
The loud clanging sound was startling. Everyone stopped.
That’s coming from the overhead fan. Turn it off.” shouted the artist. As the assistant moved towards it, the fan gave a final, thunderous clatter and suddenly disconnected from its whirling shaft. The propeller flew at an alarming rate as it scree sparked across the concrete floor. The assistant drew back but not before it sliced a piece of leather out of one of her steel toed boots and ricocheted to a nearby mound of modeling clay, sticking out like threatening knife.
“Are you alright?” asked the alarmed artist.
“I think so,” she said. “I got more of a fright than anything.” But the model wasn’t. He was jerking in the chair and feeling like he got an electric shock. He wanted to stand up and run, wipe the plaster from his face and suck in a lung full of outside air.
“Sorry about the noise but its under control now. Please try to relax.”
His mind flew off in another direction. No longer a model. He was his grandfather clearing guck, mud and stone from his mouth. Terror wired and traced throughout his body. His boyhood friend from Red Island, Placentia Bay was lying next to him. His entrails oozed out on to the shellhole. He imagined pushing his friend’s stomach back in place. Guts, blood and soul squeezed through his fingers like the paunch of a slaughtered moose. The model’s face went white under the plaster cast. White under white.
The artist’s alarmed voice snapped him back. “Be still now. We’re here to help. Two more minutes and it will be all over.”
Tensed but able to see a mental light at the end of a tunnel, he told himself to hang on. Hang on like his grandfather, whose trauma was so much more horrifying. He chided himself for being so mentally weak. Straightening his back he gave a thumbs up. His pulse slowed, he felt their relief, and adjusted though the mask continued to prick and pull at his skin and hair. ‘I just had an out of body experience,’ he thought. Maybe on that day so did Grandfather. There is only so much a person can handle when faced with such horror. Though disturbing, the story had overtaken his mind. The model allowed himself to recall the rest of the shell hole tale. He remembered his grandfather recounting the day when his attempt to get out of the shell hole was stopped by a German bullet ricocheting off his helmet. His arm wept red again but stopped the bleeding by sticking the wound in the mud. He then looked down at his dead soldier friend, took out his pocket bible and between tears, read aloud The Prayer for the Dead. Under the cover of darkness he eventually he made it back to his lines only to see the remnants of a massacre. A massacre that mentally stabbed him daily til the day he died.
The artist gently knocked on the alginate mask. “Its time to take off the mold.“ Slowly the mask was removed. Some of the alginate clung to his matted hair. The assistant tugged more forcefully and the mask came free taking some hair with it. “Boy that was quite an experience.” he said. “I won’t soon do that again.”
“Yes it’s pretty uncomfortable but you did well.” said the assistant.
“I can see that. My grandfather’s memory words rattled constantly through my head as the plaster was being put on and hardening. I often wonder how I would have behaved in circumstances like he was under at Beaumont Hamel. I really don’t know if I’d have the guts to carry on.”
“I feel the same. What they went through is unthinkable for us. We have it so easy. I hope this bronze face project keeps reminding us all of the gift we’ve been given.” said the artist. “I better go now before I get soppy on you.” said the model.
“ My grandfather would never forgive me. But then again maybe he would.”