100 years ago tomorrow …

By Karen Zautyk

A recent addition to my personal library is the book “The Bowery Boys’ Adventures in Old New York.”  

The authors are (obviously) neither the notorious 19th century anti-Irish street gang nor the old-time movie comedy troupe. 

These Bowery Boys are a couple of history buffs — Greg Young and Tom Meyers — who have a gift for storytelling. (They also host a podcast, which I would describe if I knew what a podcast was, and they write a blog: www.boweryboyshistory.com.)

Like yours truly, they are fascinated with the “historic neighborhoods, secret spots and colorful characters” of N.Y.C.   

Their book is not the sort I’d read cover-to-cover. Rather, I dip into it at random to see what I can discover. And one such discovery left me perplexed. As some of you know, I have a deep and abiding interest in World War I, and yet I was never aware of a certain WWI Manhattan monument until I read about it in “Adventures…”

I learned that in DeWitt Clinton Park, at 11th Ave. and 52nd St. in the neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen, stands a statue of a doughboy clasping a handful of poppies. Alas, the authors rightly felt the need to explain to our history-ignorant populace that those particular flowers “held a decidedly different meaning during the statue’s dedication in 1930 than they have today.” 

(Perhaps some of you are familiar with Lt. Col. John McCrae’s classic 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields.” If not, look it up.) 

I have been in and through Hell’s Kitchen innumerable times, and yet I never saw the memorial.

Why should it be the focus of my column this week? Because tomorrow – April 6, 2017 – marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I.

The Allies — Great Britain, France and Russia — had been fighting Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire since 1914, and a dozen other nations had chosen sides and entered the murderous fray in the interim. But the U.S. remained neutral. At least officially. We were lending money and were shipping supplies, including armaments, to the Allies.

Germany did not like this and eventually — in January 1917 — it embarked on a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, targeting all commercial shipping headed toward the U.K.

Soon, American boats were being sunk in the North Atlantic. (The story that the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania triggered America’s entry into the war is a myth. That atrocity had occurred back in May 1915. But it was an effective argument against neutrality.)

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow (“He Kept Us Out of War”) Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to request a formal declaration of war.  On April 6, Congress approved same. (Four days? Does Trump know about this?)

The rest is literally history.  Devastating history.

Although it is impossible to give an exact tally, and even estimates vary, it is thought that there were more than 17 million military and civilian deaths in “The War to End All Wars.”

Now, about that Manhattan memorial: After I learned of it, I made a mental note to someday see it. And filed said note in the back of my brain. Then, just a few weeks ago, I was taking a taxi downtown from 57th St. in Manhattan. The usual route is to head south on Ninth Ave., but this cabby continued west to 11th Ave.

I almost objected, but for once remained silent.

A few blocks down 11th, we got stuck in traffic. As we sat there waiting for things to move again, I glanced to my right. There, framed in an arch of trees, was the doughboy. Holding the poppies. 

Why did the cab go down 11th and not Ninth? Why did it get stuck at that particular corner? Why did I look out the window at the right moment?  Why was no truck or bus blocking my view?

I think the doughboy and I were meant to meet.


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