A Short Explanation as to How I Ended Up in the Caucasus
Nothing could have been more exciting in 1918 than for me, from a village in Illinois to go to France with the Red Cross. I was studying for the stage in New York City and went to a Rally at the Metropolitan Opera House and heard Sarah Bernhart recite the Marseillaise - - that did it. I determined to go and help France. I took the necessary hospital training in Chicago and was chosen to go with a small Nurses' Aid unit. Preparations over, we sailed on the troop ship Rochambeau; secret orders for boarding and we were off in the night without convoy or lights. Escaping a torpedo boat just outside Bordeaux harbor, we landed and the troops were welcomed by the frightened, desperate French populace, who followed them, throwing flowers and cheering. In Paris Big Bertha was dropping bombs at regular intervals and nights were broken with alerts to go to the shelter in the cellar. All too exciting- - the beauty of France and of Paris, the danger and the challenge of the war and the opportunity of being a part of it. I loved it.
For four months I worked in a children's hospital in a beautiful chateau outside of Lyons, Chateaux des Halles, where we cared for two hundred children sent to us from Evian. - - Then into a military hospital for gassed soldiers at Bellevu, just outside of Paris, and finally to the Little Front near Belfort, where we were swamped with Flu patients. November 11th.,I arrived in Paris, carrying my duffle bag on my back to mix with the hilarious crowds, and to be hoisted, by French poilus up on the statue of Joan of Arc on the Rue de Rivoli, just outside the Red Cross headquarters.
Next service was with the Red Cross Canteen in Toul for the 2nd. Army under Colonel Haskell.- - Then home for a few months and then the Big Adventure! -- out to the Caucuses on the Relief Commission under Colonel Haskell ( one of the seven "picked women" to assist the military in administrating supplies and services to the of victims of massacre and famine. At one station, Alexandropol, we had twenty thousand orphans under our care.
Although the Versailles Treaty had set boundaries and ordered all wars to cease, these small communities had never heard of it and the petty wars still continued. The situation got so hot that finally Washington ordered the military commission out, and we were forced to leave on a few hours notice ( I was in Erivan ) We travelled in box-cars, equipped for sleeping and cooking. The U.S. Destroyer S. S. Pittsburgh was waiting for us in Batum and we were taken to Constantinople. Captain Yarrow, not military, was left in charge in the Caucuses and he had told Veronica and me that he would like to have us return, if were possible; the American embassy would not allow us visas, so we had to resort to our wits to get ourselves back.
Vonney had a temporary job at the embassy and there she met a man in the shipping business, who promised to arrange passage for us, if we were willing to go on whatever ship was available. We were. One day, at eleven o'clock a courier came to the Pera Palace Hotel where I was waiting for word, with a message- - - "be ready to sail at three, bring food, Vonney". I packed our things, bought bread, cheese and wine and was ready when the embassy car arrived with Vonney; driven by two white-uniformed navy yes we sped to the harbor; "The Barker?" (a destroyer which took mail to Batumn ). "No" said Vonney -"the Pantheon" - "What?" they asked in utter amazement- - "Why that's the Buggiest Boat on the Black Sea! "- it was! From the trim immaculate Navy launch we climbed the ladder onto what looked to me exactly like a Pirate ship- - unpainted and standing high in the water [that is, in a situation where everyone needed both goods and raw materials, and fuel was scarce, it was cruising a war zone with no cargo]. We were received by a group of swarthy men, uncollared and unshaven with whom we found we had not a word in any mutual known language. However, it was apparent that we were expected, and we and our luggage were stowed away in a small cabin with two bunks: - shut; silently we stared at each other, wide-eyed, giggled an the and said " this is it"!
Our shipper friend had given us a few instructions; as we were actually stowaways, we were to keep out of sight until we passed the Control, and hope that we would not be discovered. The ship was underway almost at once- - ( they had been waiting for us) we sat huddled in silence; after an hour, we heard the tramp of feet approaching our cabin; there were loud voices just outside the door re held our breaths; the door handle was shaken-- - but they didn't open the door!-- - We learned afterwards that the blessed captain had called their attention to something else just in the nick of time! The heavy footsteps sounded down the deck and disappeared- - utter silence, but we still didn't move. Then came a joyful cry outside the door and loud pounding on the door-,- and we opened it to see the beaming faces the pirates; no language was needed for us to know that all was well! and we were off on a weeks cruise on "The Buggiest Boat on the Black Sea"! -- the only women on board.
We were now hungry and opened our supplies - bread, cheese and red wine- - nothing ever tasted so good; were gnawing away when there was a knock at the door- - when we opened there stood a tall lanky waiter in a black apron, with an enormous tray, which he put down, bowed and left. There was a quantity of greasy fried meat floating in oil, and bread. We ate what we could and secreted some of the remainder to be thrown overboard when no one was looking. We still did not dare to go out on deck, so we decided to go to bed. We drew lots for the upper or lower bunk, undressed, turned out the one light and went to bed. We were exhausted but also pretty excited so sleep didn't come very soon; after a short period of silence, Vonney asked - - "do you feel anything?" I certainly did and finally felt so much that I got up and turned on the light to investigate; no searching as needed - - - the wells were literally black with BEDBUGS! We knew that we couldn't possibly sleep in the bunks, so stealthily we took our sleeping bags out onto the deck, right before our cabin and lay down to sleep. Our cabin was just below the captain and bridge and soon we heard a tenor voice serenading us; delightful- then someone came quietly and put down two cushions, evidently from the salon sofas, and without a word disappeared. We each took one and were soon sound asleep, feeling safe and snug.
It was summertime and we soon spent most of the time on deck; the sea was calm and sparkled in the bright sunshine as our hulking craft plowed its way along. The third day, the captain invited us to have dinner with him and his officers; & bit timorously we accepted and he led us below to the mess-room; here a table covered with a wine bespattered red and white checked cloth greeted us; the Captain sat at the head of the board with one of us on each side of him; the others were the first mate, the "brother of the owner of the ship", the purser and the doctor, all Greeks. If we didn't eat what was served, the Captain would call in a loud voice "Stellon" and the waiter would bring us something different; all pretty bad and always greasy, but we soon found that we could eat fairly well because of the pleasure of being with this group of really delightful men; in spite of the language barrier, there was nothing we didn't discuss, literature, history, politics and romance. Aided by a sense of fun, which we all shared, we would go into gales of laughter trying to communicate and then make a point. There was never a moment when we were not treated with the greatest courtesy and consideration; they were our protectors and hosts and they did everything imaginable to make us feel this and also to entertain us. I was confirmed then of the gentleness of simple, honest men.
During our several weeks absence from the Caucuses, the Bolsheviks had taken over control of the port of Batum, where we were to land. The question of our lack of passports came up and, as we had no visas, something had to be contrived. Always wonderful in any emergency, Vonney produced from heaven knows where, some rather important looking cigar coupons. The Captain provided an official seal of some sort and the combination really looked important; anyway we would give it a try. The last two days, the beautiful and impressive Caucasian Mountains came into view, snow capped and shimmering in the sunlight, then the wide harbor of Batun nestling at their base. We weighed anchor and waited for the all important Control to come aboard. Standing at the ship's rail, we saw a small launch carrying the American Flag approaching. Two uniformed men were looking at us thru binoculars; when they get near enough for us to really see each other, we heard one say, "By God, they are Americans!" we wore indeed! and two rather frightened ones at the moment, wondering if we would be allowed to land, and if not- - what? The launch turned and shot back to its destroyer: The Baxter, which had made the trip in two days and we in a week. We and the ship's officers were all in the small saloon when the Control arrived. These Bolsheviks were a killing sight, all wearing what looked like Crusader helmets; full of assumed importance and confidence, they first took care of the ship's credentials. As we watched them we sensed that they knew practically nothing of what they were supposed to do. When they came to us, Vonney handed them our certificates, with great dignity and confidence, as if they were mandates; they carried them to the far side of the room and with great concentration examined them; we held our breaths; they then took them to the Captain's table and there was a mumbled conference; the crafty Captain said very little, just kept nodding his head, Then we saw the brand-new Bolshevik seal stamping our coupons - - and off they went. As soon as their launch drew far enough away, we all joined hands and did a joyous circle dance!
The Decameron of Now