Updated: Sep 27
On September 26th, 1918, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive began. The largest offensive in U.S. military history, the 47-day campaign lasted until the armistice was signed on November 11th. The battle involved 1.2 million American soldiers and was the deadliest in the history of the United States Army, costing over 26,000 American lives.
Among the over 200,000 Ohioans who served in The Great War was Louis Herzberg, a medic who had attended Starling-Ohio Medical College, the forerunner of the Ohio State University College of Medicine. Louis became one of the 19,000 Americans who were gassed by the Germans in the Battle of the Argonne Forest. He would suffer health complications from his exposure for the rest of his life, and his condition would later come to affect the life of his future foster son, my father.
Al Yost was deposited on the doorstep of an orphanage in January, 1932, in Wheeling, West Virginia. He was raised in the King’s Daughters Children’s Home, whose ranks were swollen by the ravages of the Great Depression. Some economists argue that the instability and global realignment caused by World War I contributed to the Great Depression. Thus it may be said that the military struggle in which Louis served contributed to the economic struggle into which Al was born.
Al struggled with instability as well, tossed in and out of different foster homes, at times suffering abuse so psychologically damaging that he could only bring himself to talk about more than half a century later. For whatever reasons, Al was repeatedly returned to the children’s home, where he watched his friends taken in by visiting families. He felt increasingly alienated, scarred by abuse and resentful at being society’s refuse. His angry outbursts drew the ire of the staff, who not infrequently would lock him in the dark basement. Pounding on the door, he would scream to be let out, sobbing that he would be a good boy if they did.
By the time he was seven, Al was the oldest child in the home, making him increasingly unappealing for prospective families, who sought cuter, more malleable options. However, Louis was frequently visited by bouts of poor health, making it difficult for him to hold down a steady job,. Moreover, the nine-acre patch of ground on which he and his wife Estella lived was proving too much for the childless couple to manage alone. They needed a boy who was larger, stronger, and with the energy to work for them. The monthly stipend they received was apparently enough for them to take Al in.
The couple renamed Al as Sonji Lou Herzberg. My father couldn’t stand the new title, so childhood friends would always call him “Sonny,” and he would later adopt “Lou” as his adult name. The Herzbergs, however, never officially adopted my father, which seemed fiscally prudent since doing so would have cut off the government aid they received. Plus, it gave them the option to return the merchandise, so to speak. When he didn’t do as he was told, the Herzbergs would sometimes threaten to take my father back to the children’s home, reminding him of the tenuous nature of their relationship. Once, when he talked back to his mother, she slapped him across the face, scolding, “It’s bad enough taking sass from your own kids, let alone somebody else’s.”
Desperate to prove his worth, my father continued to work hard for his foster family, taking care of their ducks and chickens, tending the garden, splitting wood, and doing other household chores. Most children did that type of work in those days, and many still do today. But the Herzbergs returned little affection toward a child who had been abandoned at birth, and largely mistreated since. Instead, they frequently regarded him as little more than hired help, using the feigned bonds of family to disguise what was essentially a labor contract. Though I think deep down inside my father had to know that this was the foundation of their relationship, it would have wounded him far too deeply to ever admit it.
As the Depression wore on, millions continued to struggle to find work, and Louis’ health issues made it even more difficult for him. When my father was eleven, not long after the start of the Second World War, he lied about his age so that he could get a job sweeping the floor in a nearby foundry. He later found work on farms and drove spikes on the railroad in order to save money for college. When he was eighteen, my father would go to the county courthouse to finally have his name legally changed. After paying his way through college and earning a degree in Architecture from Kent State University, neither of his parents came to his graduation
Nothing that the Herzbergs did or didn’t do could have erased the abuse that my father suffered before he came to live with them. But I believe they could have softened it, by giving him a little more affection and sense of belonging. Still, my father spoke nostalgically about his childhood, about the food that Estella would cook for him, or the apples that he and Louis would pick from the orchard.
And my father experienced a lot of life's joys, and shared them with me. We’d laugh as we watched Tonight Show comedians long after I should have been in bed, and we’d cheer as we watched football on fall afternoons. A cool breeze and a bottle of Orange Crush on a hot summer day always made him smile. Occasionally my father would take me with him to work out at our local YMCA. After showering off the sweat, he’d remark as he got dressed:
“One of the best things in life is a clean t-shirt.”
But the wounds of the Meuse-Argonne offensive bled into those of my father’s childhood, creating a war that at times raged within him and that would spill over into my own life. Fueled by job stress, chronic back pain, and an eventual addiction to opioids, my father would occasionally visit his anger on me for minor transgressions, or for undeserved reasons altogether. I’m sure this happens in lots of parent-child relationships, but I found this rift increasingly difficult to bridge. Periodic indolence, disobedience, or just disagreement were not merely viewed as childish habits in need of correction, but as ingratitude and disloyalty. When I got older, discussions became arguments, or worse.
My father mellowed as he got older, but the pain-love imbalance that he'd experienced affected him in other ways. He would often withdraw from family gatherings and experience bouts of melancholy. He’d sometimes retreat to his room after dinner, choosing not to interact with his sons, whom he sometimes hadn’t seen in a couple of weeks or months. I grew to find these instances preferable to the stress caused by interaction. Unfortunately, by the time my own emotional scars began to heal, my father had developed dementia, and any hope of finding greater bonding or understanding from our linked childhoods was lost.
None of this means that I wasn’t close to my father . . . just that I wished that we could have been closer. But the barriers to that were not just personal. Some of them were global, influenced by long-ago events, in far away places. Thus I never blamed my father for the anger that he felt . . . only in the ways that he sometimes expressed it. As a child, I often fantasized about traveling back in time, so that I could befriend my father and comfort him when he felt alone or unwanted. Then we would be so close, I’d think, and both of our lives would be better.
I awoke this morning in one of my father’s t-shirts. My mother gave it to me six years ago today, as we picked out the clothes he would be buried in. Earlier that day, at the close of the ninety-ninth year since the Meuse-Argonne Offensive began, my father’s spirit was lifted from this world. As I wrote his eulogy, I renewed a vow that I’d made to myself when each of my sons was born: that my children would not be casualties of my battles, and could seek their own peace as best they were able to find it.