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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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By Lewis Harris
Illustrated by Harold Altman

The Magpie, Spring 1940, v. 24, n. 2, p. 33.

WITH bowed head, the old man stood motionless before a lone grave. One would have to approach him very closely to notice that his lips were reverently moving and that his tired eyes were suffused with tears. As he knelt in the soft carpet of grass, his eyes became dim and his mind wandered back through the years—far back.

* * * *

It was 1917, and the war fever pulsed through the bodies of all patriotic Americans. Centerville was no exception. The men spoke violently against the damned Heinies, and the young men rushed impulsively into makeshift recruiting stations and emerged soldiers. The whole country was attacked by an impulse to war, and the bodies and minds of Americans were dominated by a frenzied madness. There were the familiar speeches and parades. And soon the youth of America left to the tunes of blatant marching songs, the wave of a young hand, and the flow of a few tears.

But there were retreats, and losses, and lists. Wounded, died in action, or the more hopeful, yet tragic, missing after action. And so, when the older men were called, William Martin was conscripted for active duty. When he received the little blue card. he was stunned. He was not a coward, and yet, by killing a man whom he did not know or hate, he would violate every principle which he believed in. He had always been a little different from the other men in Centerville. They had always scoffed at his gentle philosophy of life and his hopeful dreams of world peace and happiness. He had led a quiet life, somewhat apart from other people, and he had been content to live as he was. Now, however, his peaceful existence had been cut short. Why, he did not understand. He could not enter into the glowing war fervor. He could envision only the horror of the fighting, and the tragic aftermath of the war.

So he went to court, where he registered as a conscientious objector. He was spurned as a coward, but was made a guard in the small Federal prison in Centerville. His friends avoided him now, and those who did not know him looked on him with the contempt due to a coward. He had a son of sixteen who was hoping that the war would last long enough for him to enlist. His mind was troubled over this, and he hoped and prayed that his son, at least, would never have to go to war. And so he was content with his present status.

Hans Muller had lived in Centerville for eight years. He had come to this country from Germany after he had saved enough money to start a little business when he arrived here. And so he opened the little bakery on the corner, where he made friends and established himself as a member of the community. He was living a tranquil life, and was satisfied with what money he made at the bakery. Then war in Europe broke out. Hans had never taken out citizenship papers because he had never felt the need for them, and when the war started, he felt that it would be cowardly to use them to defend himself. He lost his friends, and one night his store was burned down by some men who resented his presence. There was nothing to do but retire. It might be nice to rest now that he was getting old. But there were tears in his eyes as he signed the paper which separated him from the congenial atmosphere of his store and his friends.

Then the United States went to war. A letter addressed to Hans was opened, and when it was seen that it was written in German and had been sent from Germany, the inevitable word "spy" bubbled forth and seethed through the quiet town. Hans was placed in the Federal jail for detention. In the meanwhile there was no trial for several weeks, and rumors grew as cysts grow, breaking and spreading their pus.

One night an infuriated mob of men assembled in front of the jail. Some of the men lit torches and others waved ropes ominously in the air. The blood lust ran high through the crowd, and the fiery spirit was quenchable only by blood. William Martin stepped out and calmly looked at the mob. He asked that Muller be given a fair trial. He pointed out that it would not be democratic to deny him his right. He was still speaking quietly when he asked the men to go home and protect democracy in America while others fought for it abroad. And he was still speaking quietly when an angry youth waved a revolver menacingly. At this his voice rose and he placed himself defiantly on the steps leading inside. The mob slowly marched forward, some defiantly, while others hesitated. In the crowd he could see many of his friends, sane men, whose minds were twisted by a lust for blood. He lifted his rifle and warned the men to stop or he would fire on the first one who attempted to march into the prison. Once more the youth stepped forward, and William Martin fired. Just after his son had slumped to the ground, the mob stopped, their fever gone. They were hushed as they broke up, and only a few men remained to take Martin home and take care of his son's body.

They say that William Martin received a medal for valor in the face of danger, but he never wore it. Time went by, and the war ended. The scars left on William Martin never healed, and the memory of that night never faded.

* * * *

William Martin placed a wreath beneath the small headstone, rose, and slowly walked away.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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