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Veterans Day

My plans to attend a big ceremony were foiled this year. No big surprise, stuff happens. Like they say down south, if it ain’t one thing, it’s two things. I try to take it in stride. In place of that potential story, please enjoy this back-up story about some other Veterans.

I realize these cemetery tales are dry, and not for everyone, they never get much response. TLDR. Too Long, Didn’t Read. I understand. I’m OK with it. Digging up stiff facts about forgotten folks, trying to spin them all into some sort of personality. More than a name. Unfortunately, these stories bring me great pleasure from idea stage all the way to final edit. There’ll be more. Lots more.

This one literally came out of the blue, on a visit to Woodlawn just a few weeks back. Across the way from Captain Lawrence’s plot a stone caught my eye. Dresser. Didn’t ring any bells, but the stone was gorgeous. To my eye, at least, others might find it sullied and drab. A lovely white marble headstone topped with a trophy-like cup, apparently bronze or another copper based metal. Coated by the giant stain of a century’s worth of tarnish and oxidation. A tie-dyed blend of putrid green and dirty gray that might generate an urge to scrub it clean. Imagining the splendor of the shiny precious metal underneath, atop a stone with the natural texture of hard snow, and nearly as white. Something about that patina, and the eons that it represents, makes it exotically beautiful to me. You can’t just paint that stuff on, it has to happen, has to age.

The flag holder alongside also intrigued me, it wasn’t one of the regulars. I zoomed in. It was military, for certain, for a Mrs. R A Dresser. I was hooked already. I hadn’t seen many Lady Veterans from this era, I dare say none that I could recall, and here she was with a personalized military flag holder.

My kind of Lady. My kind of story. I had to know. The trophy above was for a World War I Veteran. Another category that doesn’t often come up, a War that we don’t hear much about. I’ve seen a hundred WWII movies, but only one or two about WWI. Bloody stalemate trench warfare is all that comes to mind, tactics used at the end of our own Civil War, but with slightly better weapons. This once-shiny cup is for Stephen Dresser, a young volunteer in the American Field Service and the USA Ambulance Service.

The stories I eventually dug up for these Dressers would make a pretty good movie, a stack of names on the back adding color of their own. Glory, greatness, sadness, despair, it’s all there. I can’t even pick a main character, a headliner, their chapters all stand well alone. Even with the scant smattering of facts left on our eternal cloud of data, it’s easy to like these Dressers. I may be prejudiced, because they also turned out to be my kin, at the 4th or 5th cousin stage. We’re tied through great grandfather Ernest Anderson’s line, through his mother Flora Etta Boothby. She had Dresser blood, and I have Dresser blood. We’re all relative.

On with the story. This family War movie is going to open with the Elder, Mr. Stephen M. Dresser.

A local Maine boy, born right in Standish, 1839. There is a tiny family cemetery way at the end of the Varney Road with some Dressers, I think the family farm was there. Young Stephen had big dreams in this age of the Wild West, farming wouldn’t cut it. By age 22 he had landed a job in Newton Massachusetts as a fireman for the Boston & Worcester Railroad. A bit more exciting than hewing hay or splitting wood. He was just getting warmed up. He was still a greenhorn at the Railroad job when the Civil War started.

Stephen didn’t waste any time. He didn’t travel back to Maine and break it to his parents, or sign up with his hometown friends. He enlisted right there with the 44th Massachusetts Infantry, trained and headed for North Carolina, so far from home. Deep in Unfriendly Secessionist territory. Talk about adventure. Beyond young Stephen’s wildest dreams. He survived a full two year stint, went back to Newton and got his railroad job back.

The War had left him with a new mission, after two years away Stephen quickly saved enough money to marry his best girl, Reliance Quinby Hazleton. There’s one of those old powerful names. He scored a better railroad job in New Jersey, they’d settle there and raise a family. Their first born son Edna (Yes, son) died in his 4th year, most likely taken by illness. Reliance was a Westbrook girl, and though I’m sure New Jersey was lovely, the Dressers would make their way back home. Stephen started a trucking company with Reliance’s brother. The hard way, with horses and wagons, actual trucks were still a few decades away. Westbrook would incorporate as it’s own City in 1891. Stephen Dresser, now in his 50s would sign on as one of the first officers in the new Westbrook Police force, and stay for the rest of his working years.

Quite a guy. The best, and my very favorite fact about Stephen is a visual clue. Rare for these old souls, most of these names are just that, names without faces. I found an old article about Stephen stating that he very much resembled famous Indian fighter, showman, and fellow Civil War Veteran Buffalo Bill Cody.

More names, more people to meet. Stephen’s son Ernest Lean Dresser grew up here and also married a Westbrook girl, Miss Hattie May Raymond. They’d settle at 16 Stroudwater Street, though I’m sure it was a very different place at the start of the 20th Century. The paper mill was already a huge employer, cars and trucks were appearing in the bustling young City. Medical progress lagged a bit, killer diseases were also thriving amongst the growing populations.

Ernest was a successful salesman for a silk firm. Hattie stayed home with their two children. The kids’ grandfather was a popular local policeman, a colorful Veteran of an almost forgotten war. Life should have been pretty good. Like most of my stories, this is exactly where the fickle fingers of Fate make their entrance. Stage Left.

Their baby girl Doris was probably taking her first wobbly steps when the Darkness took her. Tuberculosis. A chest cough, a fever, the poor little child, and then she was gone. Her brother had just turned 6 when she died, little Stephen Raymond Dresser, named for his Grampa and his Mother’s family. Young Stephen was stricken as well, but he would resist. A tough life for a tough kid, he would spend most of his childhood in hospital beds. He was 9 when his Mama died. TB again. Heartless TB.

Ernest’s heart was broken. He’d switch from sales to bookkeeping, he wasn’t smiling much anymore. People were caring and considerate, of course, but he had lost too much. He would keep to himself and his books while doing his best to care for little Stephen, ever battling the same monster that had taken his girls.

Stephen Raymond Dresser. The poor little sick boy would miss a lot, growing up. Getting bedsores while the other kids played sports or rode bikes around the neighborhood. He would eventually beat the disease enough to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. World War I had erupted in Europe, though America still yearned to be neutral, not yet committed. Stephen would commit. He was ready.

The bronze cup, atop this pretty gravestone that called out to me, that’s all his. A fine tribute. Apparently young Stephen hadn’t wasted all of that time in bed feeling sorry for himself. He had filled those long days and nights with books. Private tutors made sure he kept up with his studies, and he took full advantage of them as well. When he finally beat his nemesis malady for good, Stephen wanted to make a difference. A few weeks before his High School graduation ceremony he signed up with the American Field Service, and just like that he was on a ship to France and the awful War.

Maybe he had something to prove, after being robbed of so many life experiences. Perhaps he was just a born Soldier, able and brave. Every story I found written about young Stephen, a Soldier at 19 and a long way from home, was full of praise and respect. Driving Ambulances at the front lines, trying to help wounded French Soldiers in a full-fledged war. The Americans did get involved soon after Stephen joined, he would then officially work for the USA Ambulance Service. He was in the Army now.

It was said that Stephen was utterly fearless, he faced battle after battle with a smile. I’d say it’s more than just family lore, he had some bling to back it up. He would receive the French Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) medal for heroism in combat. Not just staying cool under the pressure, but going Full Hero. Saving people’s lives while under enemy attack. He got that medal 3 times in 2 years, and an American Citation to boot.

When they tried to give him his third Croix de Guerre, he resisted. Surely they could find another Soldier that hadn’t received any medals, someone more deserving. No, they insisted. Stephen R Dresser had earned them all the hard way. For his “Exaltation of service in his every word and act.”

Here’s where our movie takes a little plot twist. You don’t see it coming, we fade in to a combat scene. A couple French guys are shot, Stephen wheels his ambulance through the confusion like he has a hundred times before. We’re looking out through his windshield, scanning for the next flailing patient when BAM! We’re upside down, the glass is all cracked and the roof is mushed in. We’ve crashed, and it’s pretty bad. Strangely quiet as the dust settles, grunts and groans of the crew as reality creeps up.

Nothing will ever be the same.

They all survived the wreck. Stephen had a badly broken arm, suddenly he was the flailing patient. The tables of life can turn so quickly. After such a glorious stretch, our Hero would find himself back in a hospital bed, helpless and oh so far from home. Maybe it was that bed, the flashed back memories of his childhood were just too much, he had already suffered more than his share. Perhaps there were complications from the accident, or his medical treatment. We’ve sure come a long way since then.

If you read most accounts of his story, it sounds like exactly that, he died as a result of his accident. Folks were more polite back then, especially with a hometown hero. The Bravest of Soldiers. An accident.

I wasn’t buying it. I had done my own digging, scanning every document I could find, every mention of his name. An odd note on a military service record caught my eye, self-inflicted gunshot wound. That certainly didn’t jibe with the accident / broken arm stack. I had to know. Finally, a solid and trusted reference. Maine Adjutant General’s Report 1919, a photo of an actual page. I could smell the musty old book-ness right through my monitor. Stephen R Dresser, DS, March 20, 1919. I had to virtually flip back through the aged pages to clarify the DS status, sure enough it was Death by Suicide. Horrible. Tragic. While flipping the pages my engineering eye noticed several more Maine Soldiers with that very same very sad DS beside their name. A handful on every page, probably the most sobering moment of this whole project. I guess War really must be Hell.

We fade in with slow music, Mozart or Bach, our Hero Stephen lies in his bed. His arm is all wrapped up, pain shows on his pale face. He looks out of place, or lost. He’s just licked the envelope to seal his final letter home to Dad. I’m sorry, Pop, after all we’ve been through, but I’ve seen all of this world I care to see. Please tell Grampa that I was a good Soldier, and I wanted nothing more than to make you all proud. Your Loving Son. He plops the letter on the nightstand, it’s all stamped and ready to go.

Stephen’s hand wobbles a bit when he drags his Browning pistol from under his pillow. He cycles the action to make sure, this isn’t something he wants to do twice. He takes his time now, the quivering has ceased. He made his mind up days ago, right after the accident. He’s made his peace, written his letters, everything is done. Almost everything. Fat tears appear out of nowhere and roll down his cheeks as he brings the pistol up under his handsome chin. Fade to black, I don’t need to see anymore.

A terrible end to a really sad movie, but don’t get up just yet. There’s more to this gravestone story.

Ernest Lean Dresser’s home on Stroudwater Street. The quiet bookkeeper isn’t much of a housekeeper, he really should hire a cleaning lady. Not filth, but clutter. Lots of clutter. His home office has spread into most every room, he just doesn’t care much these days. He’s fine, he gets up every morning and goes to work. He’s no slob, he’s quite presentable as he visits a local sawmill office, one of his clients. Tomorrow will be a few trucking companies, including one that his Dad used to own. His father has finally retired, he’ll be 80 this year. Mom is 82. They live right over on Spring Street.

Ernest has a bad spell on the way, but he doesn’t know it yet. I think he’ll get the official Army Telegram before he gets his son’s final letter, but it will be close. Either will be a complete shock. He’s going to fold up like a lawn chair as he collapses into the familiar depths of grief. So far all of Stephen’s letters have been modest and brief, but the boy has sent home 4 medals now. Nice ones. How did things turn so quickly? What could have possibly been so bad? Ernest will never fully understand why, but he has definitely lost his only child. Suicide always leaves the most terrible collateral wounds.

The community will rally around Ernest. Stephen’s tragic death will be deemed accidental, he will forever get the Hero’s treatment that he rightfully deserved.

Ernest’s parents will absorb the blow as they have so many before. Mother Reliance has certainly lived up to her name, still a warm shoulder to cry on at age 82. Papa Stephen has seen some stuff, I’m sure he figured out the circumstance of his grandson’s faraway death. He would have read it from Ernest’s face whilst hearing the awful news. You can’t fool those older fellows, it’s best not to try. I’ll bet the Old Man kept a pretty close eye on Ernest for a while. Maybe babysat his guns for him. Let me clean those up for you, Son, get them ready for hunting season. How much grief could his poor boy handle?

I’m guessing that the grandparents had probably purchased the pretty headstone before this point, and now added the fancy bronze cup. To the best of my knowledge young Stephen Raymond Dresser never made it home from the War, he’s interred at the Suresnes American Cemetery just outside of Paris, France.

New Scene. A Flashback. 30 years before. A 3-masted steamship is docked in Boston Harbor, the SS Cephalonia. She’s massive and regal, over 400 feet long. Zoom in to a wide-eyed English lass making her way down the gangplank, holding firmly to her father’s hand. The sturdy hand of a solid man, a talented stone mason. Little Rhoda Ashworth is just 4 years old but already sharp, and caring. You can see success in her pretty eyes, her tiny glowing face. The American sky seems to shine brighter than the steady overcast back in England. Already it feels like home.

They’ll settle in Blue Hill, on the rugged Maine coast. School would be a breeze for Rhoda, answers seemed to come naturally, problems readily solved with logic and tact. Little Rhoda had a big heart as well. Big dreams. Ladies’ career choices were a bit limited in those days, but she could never picture herself as a waitress or a secretary. A happy homemaker? Marrying a successful gentleman and raising children together? That sounded simply awful. Maybe someday. Not right away. No, this young lady would choose a different path. No spilled coffee, no shorthand. Rhoda Ashworth would study medicine.

All of the Ashworth kids were pretty determined. A brother and sister would both become Teachers at the high school level. Little brother Thomas became a Dentist, running a busy ‘parlor’ at his home. Freshly out of nursing school young Rhoda started as the Superintendent of the Waldo County Hospital in Belfast. She was brilliant. She would keep her nose to the grindstone and continue to shine. Superintendent of Nurses at the McCarthy Hospital in Rumford. First and long-time District Nurse in the Westbrook District Nursing Association. A born leader.

When America succumbed to the First World War, just as young Stephen R Dresser had, Rhoda Ashworth felt compelled to join the effort. She was 34 and single with a successful career when she enlisted with the United States Army Nurse Corps. Her talents were immediately put to good use. After training at Fort McKinley on Great Diamond Island, she was named Chief Nurse of Army General Hospital no.8, in Rumford I believe. I found another Virtual Dusty Old Book, pictures of pages from the Maine Adjutant General’s Reports. This time my monitor smelled more military, like your Dad’s old gun cleaning kit. On Rhoda’s page I found her name amongst about 76 masculine sounding names. I had to flip 3 virtual pages (I don’t lick my finger in between) before I could find another Lady.

Rhoda was a Boss in every sense of the word. She served a full year, earning Veteran status and the cool, unique Army flag holder that shadows the Dresser headstone. Yes, she would become Mrs. R.A. Dresser.

The Romance. The Mystery. I’ll let the reader’s imagination write this part of the movie, I can’t nail it down. Life is pretty amazing sometimes. I’ll lay out what I know, let you stew it over a while.

Ernest Lean Dresser, 47, our sad and shy bookkeeper back in Westbrook. Widowed for a decade.

Rhoda O Ashworth, 34, remarkably successful Nurse from Blue Hill, lately Rumford. Never married.

A fellow once told me that “Every kettle has a lid.” You never know.

A slight synchronicity that probably means nothing, the timing. Rhoda was honorably discharged from her Military duty on March 14, 1919. Ernest’s son Stephen died in France that same week. Ernest’s aged mother, Reliance, passed 3 months later.

Whatever went down happened quickly, while Ernest was at a very low point. The lowest.

She saved him. However their paths may have crossed. Divine intervention, maybe. He needed some.

July 7 of that same year Mr. and Mrs. Ernest L. Dresser tied the knot in Waldoboro, on her home turf.

They didn’t stick around long, a fresh start was in order. The newlyweds would end up in Vermont, where salesman-bookkeeper Ernest would become Proprietor of the St. Johnsbury House. The Hotel would flourish under his care, to an extreme. I can’t help but think that Rhoda was an outstanding silent partner. Probably not silent at all, it was the start of the Roaring 1920s and the Dressers were popular and successful. Ernest’s life had completely turned around, and I bet he sure appreciated her love.

We fade in on the couple as they enjoy the sunset from their back porch. Ernest has a coffee while Rhoda sips tea, a scant glimpse of her British heritage. She barely remembers the Old Country. America has been everything she ever hoped for, and more. A brilliant career, and a chance to give back, she had so proudly served her new homeland. She is thankful and aware of her good fortune, she has witnessed some terrible scenes. Her Ernest has suffered so much sorrow.

She looks at him now with the same pretty eyes that came down that gangplank so long ago. He’s a good man, she has his back, and she loves almost everything about him. She still has the little girl’s expression of hope and promise, now backed up by well-earned experience and confidence. She looks forward to growing old with her fine gentleman. She feels complete.

He looks at her like a goofy high school kid who just got his third kiss ever. He grins at the lucky dog in his bathroom mirror each morning. He can’t even imagine the sad life he had grown so accustomed to. Different worlds. He sits with his pretty bride in their pretty house in their pretty Town. Business is good, money will never be a problem. The sunset lights up the river and the mountains, it’s quiet and peaceful. He looks at her with realistic eyes, she is absolutely everything. She is his. They are a perfect team.

We zoom out from this lovely scene over the whole valley, catching the last orange glare from the sun through the tree covered mountaintops. Romantic music takes over, Tchaikovsky perhaps.

A happy ending after so much anguish, credits will start to roll.

No. No credits yet. Happy endings are fantasy. These are real people, real adventures.

Almost a decade breezes by in the blink of a trip to the snack bar. Popcorn. Extra butter.

The Dressers continue to thrive. Content, ever enjoying each other’s company. Busy, the Hotel is heralded as the best in the county, keeping up with the times. Rewarding in many aspects. Joyous music still plays in the background as the Postman walks up the driveway of the St. Johnsbury House. He stops whistling and removes his hat as he enters the lobby, then strolls up to the front desk.

Telegram for Mr. Dresser.

Ernest is there, working, welcoming. Always. His smile is quick for the Postman, but noticeably fades at the mention of the telegram. Hardly ever bearing good news, it would seem. Today was no exception. His aged father had fallen ill. He should probably come home.

Key the foreboding music. Ernest’s stomach suddenly gurgles. He’s pale. Rhoda will cover for him while he takes the trains back to Westbrook, and his father. You remember Papa Stephen Dresser, now 89, he’s the retired cop who looks like Buffalo Bill. Probably one of the City’s last living Civil War Veterans. The Old Man has always had Ernest’s back. All of their backs. This day has been coming, time rules all. Still, Ernest is not ready. Not today. Not ever. His guts go from bad to worse. The rail car rattles while Ernest stares out the window, reminiscing.

The train whistles as it finally rolls into Westbrook. Ernest is white as a sheet now, sweating. His arms are clutched around his knees and he’s sunken down a bit between the seats. He’s in bad shape.

Sirens wail as an ambulance makes it way. Ernest is inside now with attendants fussing over him. A blur. Fever has him in a trance, he sees the random driver as his long lost son, young Stephen smiling back. He drifts off into scary dreams as the pain takes over. His appendix has failed him, he’ll be heading straight for surgery. When it rains in Ernest’s world, it pours.

Papa Stephen couldn’t hold on much longer. He died a few days later at his home on Spring Street. Surrounded by family, of course, but Ernest missed it. Stuck in the hospital with ongoing problems. Doctors had removed the junk appendix alright, but along came a critter called Ether Pneumonia.

Early medicine. Sketchy, by today’s blessed standards. An ever possible anesthesia surgery side effect. How bad could it be? Bad enough to kill poor Ernest, just a week after his father. Four days before Christmas, 1928, at 56 years old. Key the sad music again.

A sober ending, the double funeral, everyone in town and a bunch from away. The Military Respects, they probably fired guns for the Old Soldier. Definitely played Taps, the saddest song of all time. Don’t grab your coat just yet. Like they say on the shopping channels, There’s More.

The funeral scene fades, we’re back in Vermont. The Postman shuffles up the hotel drive once more, but he’s not whistling this time. His hat’s been off since he read the telegram. He wishes there were another postman to hand the deed off to. He takes a deep breath as he finally slugs up to front desk. His voice cracks like an adolescent.

Telegram for Mrs. Dresser.

Zoom in on Mrs. Dresser. The new Widow Dresser. Remember, this is Rhoda that we’re talking about, Chief Nurse during wartime Rhoda. She drops her tea to the floor when she makes eye contact, before he speaks again. She knows her world has changed.

Out of the blue. He’s gone. Papa’s gone. It was too much for Rhonda. Our solid nurse had an old fashioned “nervous breakdown” right there on the spot. She’d spend Christmas in a sanitarium in Massachusetts, alone. Making progress, she would probably get past this.

No, said Fate. She would not.

Two weeks after Ernest’s sudden death, still in the sanitarium, our Rhoda was “stricken with heart trouble, lapsed into a coma and died within a few hours.” She was just 44.

A vile Hat Trick for the Grim Reaper.

Finally. Roll the credits already. Another funeral. Same place, same crowd.

That pretty-colored headstone is center stage as Nurse Rhoda Ashworth Dresser gets her own Military Honors. Sad and beautiful at the same time. Another flag, another Taps. More tears. This whole enchilada, every bit of this long-winded story lies under this single handsome family gravestone. Genuine people, Ernest was my 5th cousin, 5 times removed. A ‘just barely’ cousin, but blood.

Blood is blood. I’m proud to represent. I’m happy to make the connection, and learn the story.

That’s all, I promise. The credits roll forever over the rainy funeral scene, but this saga finally comes to an end. If you’re still reading, thank you. Grab your coat and don’t step in the sticky soda spots.

I hope you enjoyed the show. Thank your Veterans.

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