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Rare find reveals hardship we cannot imagine

When people die, family members are left with the task of going through their stuff. Such has been the case with our family following the death of Laura’s father, Quimby Melton Jr. On a recent Saturday, I ventured into his stables ‘“ a place rarely visited since Quimby’s last horse, Bandy, died in 2006 at 38 years of age. Privet hedge has crept in close to the building. I carried a .22 rifle as I opened up the stall doors and the little office at one end. I started cleaning out. There were old saddles, a set of vintage U.S. Calvary issue saddlebags, multiple bridles, ropes, some neat old gentian violet bottles, etc. Basically, the typical detritus of a horseman’s life well-lived. I went through an old desk, uncovering letters, plaques, rat-eaten books, legislative records, volumes of attorney general opinions, old magazines, etc. I removed the desk and behind it was an old, free-standing bar. I could envision Quimby savoring a quiet cocktail on the nearby couch, away from the house up the hill and the four kids who ruled it as his mounts snorted and pawed the ground nearby. I looked behind the bar and there was an olive drab case, unquestionably Armyissue. Scrawled on the outside were the words ‘˜Melton, Company K’. I figured it was one of Quimby’s cases from action in the Philippines in WWII and stuck it in my Jeep. Later that night, I opened it and was amazed. The small pouch was the map case of Quimby Melton Sr. who was a Major in the U.S. Army in World War I. The case was full of battle maps from the battle at Verdun and the Argonne Forest. I carefully unfolded the brittle treasures. Some were marked with troop movements and objectives. Some were topographical maps for officer reference. I was stunned. As I pondered what Pop’s experience must have been like in those epic battles, I unfolded an old newspaper clipping of when he was named associate editor of The Birmingham Ledger after the war. It answered some of my questions. He was commissioned a captain in August 1917 and took command of Company K of the 25th Infantry Division. He and his unit went to war in Europe shortly thereafter. He took command of a battalion when the unit’s major was killed and two captains wounded. He got a battlefield promotion to Major as more officers around him were gunned down or maimed. Major Melton’s unit entered the Argonne on Oct. 9 with 1060 men and 24 officers. When it was relieved on Nov. 3, its unit strength was 161 men and three officers. Such was the ferocity of trench-to-trench warfare on the front lines during WWI. Imagine the heartbreak, if you can, of losing that many of your men. The hardship is almost impossible to fathom. No wonder old warriors generally don’t want to discuss their battlefield exploits. The pain of those memories is just too great. I only met Pop once. He was old, blind and in a nursing home bed. He did not look like the proud, bloodied warrior he once was. I knew he spent his life devoted to veterans and veterans’ affairs. Now, I know why. Walter Geiger is editor and publisher of The Herald Gazette.

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