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Inside, the main registration building is warm but dimly lit. The entrance leads into a main foyer. A receptionist sits at her desk, talking quietly to a man in uniform. The latter walks over to meet them. He wears a green tunic and pants. His black dress-shoes are so shiny that they are hard to look at. His nametag reads “Buchannan.”
With his pimply forehead, she thinks he looks no more than 23, maybe 25 tops, but he has a limp.
“You must be William Chatman?” he says.
“I am, Sir.”
The soldier shakes the boy’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Corporal Thomas Buchannan. You can just call me Bucky.”
“Well, Bucky, why don’t you tell me what my son can expect?” Her tone is snider than she intends, but she doesn’t waste any time regretting it.
The soldier turns his attention towards her.
His smile is slick and charming, she thinks. That’s why they gave him this duty, he’s good at easing the separation.
“You must be Ellen, William’s mother.”
Her reply is cold and curt. “You can call me Mrs. Chatman.”
The corporal hesitates. He looks at the boy. “Say, why don’t you take your bag to room 103, just down the hallway to your left, then come on back...If that’s alright with you, Mrs. Chatman?”
The boy looks to his mother, who gives him a nod.
After the boy leaves, the corporal turns his attention back to her. His demeanour of charm quickly slides into a one of business. “Okay, what do you want to know, Mrs. Chatman?”
Her hands begin to shake. A rush of blood paints her face a pale blush. There are so many questions, so many things she needs to know. “How is the war going?”
“We predict a victory within the year.” The response is rehearsed.
“Do you know why I’m here?” she shouts suddenly.
The corporal takes an involuntary step back.
“Don’t you think I know that legally you are not allowed to accept a boy under the age of 18, or do you think us womenfolk from the sticks are too stupid to read?”
The corporal turns beet red, but knows well enough to keep his mouth shut.
“I knew he was lying when he told me the joining age was sixteen,” says Mrs. Chatman. “But I agreed to let him come here, because he’s like his father. He’s a wanderer at heart. If I were to say no to him, he would resent me forever, and that’s something I can’t live with.”
She realizes she’s talking more to herself than to him.
This time the smile on the young man’s face is genuine and warm. “Ma’am, if you take him away, in my experience, he’ll end up sneaking back on his own anyway.”
“I can promise you,” the corporal continues, “that your son is fighting for a noble cause. He will be fighting evil itself. For that, he will be a hero.”
She is unable to keep eye contact with the soldier. Instead, she finds herself staring at his damn shoes.
He lays his hand on her shoulder. “You are doing the right thing here,” he adds. “Every man gets his strength from his mother, so you need to summon all the courage you have, the same courage he will need when he gets the call for battle. And when you leave here, leave here smiling.”
Before she can respond, her son makes his way back.
To the mother of...
“Did you find the room?” the corporal asks.
“Yes. It’s nice.”
She stands there, watching her son being enthralled by the soldier’s details of what is to follow next — his training, the weapons he will get to use, and most importantly, the time he will depart to meet the rest of the regiment in Italy. The boy can barely keep his feet on the ground.
It is unbearable to watch.
“Mom, you should get going, your train leaves in less than an hour.”
Clyde, give me the strength, she prays to her deceased husband.
She kisses her son on his forehead. “You be good,” she says. “Do what’s asked of you, and don’t try to be a hero, just come back home, understand?”
“It’ll be fine, Mom. It’s only a year.”
She heads towards the door.
“It’s going to be okay, Mom, you’ll see,” the boy yells.
She looks back. “I know,” she answers. She gives him a smile.
Five months later, a man will nervously knock on her front door. He will be meticulously dressed in his issued uniform, and will be wearing shiny black dress-shoes. In his hand he will be holding a pale green envelope.
The Newfoundland Regiment was cut to pieces within just 30 minutes at Beaumont-Hamel in France when, armed with rifles and bayonets, its members were sent up against enemy machine-gun fire, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916.