On his daily lunchtime walks, Boyfriend has taken to unearthing tiny bits of the long-forgotten history of Oakland. They are made for one another in this regard, he and Oakland. A city that has only just started gentrifying, Oakland hosts several historically significant sites, handing Boyfriend a new treasure every week. From the evolution of the oldest business owned by an African-American woman to the fate of a Japanese grocery store in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Boyfriend has traced some very interesting stories on his recent afternoon strolls. So it didn’t entirely surprise me when the other day, as we were grabbing a snack in downtown Oakland, he glanced out of the window of the establishment and said, apropos of nothing, “You see that stairwell leading down to the train station? That was the exact location of Oakland’s first public restroom.”
This may not have been the most appropriate snack-time conversation, especially considering the fat piece of roasted potato I had just stuffed in my mouth. But it was a fascinating story. In August 1919, the City of Oakland allotted $10,000 of public funding to build Oakland’s first “comfort room,” on a site that hosted, at the time, a temporary hut for community service volunteers during WWI. The women’s section of this comfort room was provided with many more facilities than the men’s, including passageways that could accommodate baby carriages, and “rest rooms” (as opposed to “restrooms”) for the ladies to, well, rest.
Of course, with Boyfriend the conversation never stops at the end of one story. All that talk of toilets and WWI had led him to yet another tale, and before he could end the Great Comfort Room Saga with the dramatic flourish it deserved, he moved right on, without transition, to this:
“Did you know that the mayor of one of the French villages in which General Patton worked during the First World War mistakenly maintained a latrine pit under the assumption that it was the grave of a fallen American soldier?”
The first thing that comes to mind when one hears the name of General George S. Patton is his role in the Battle of Normandy. Not so well known is his role in WWI, during which he was stationed in France as Captain, and briefly as Colonel. Towards the end of WWI, Colonel Patton was given the responsibility of developing the Army’s Tank Corps. After a thorough recon of the area in 1917, he decided to establish the Tank Brigade Headquarters in a muddy little town by the name of Bourg — because what better place to learn how to man a tank than a large patch of earth slathered in mud.
But then the war ended, and for a short couple of decades, people moved on with their lives. The next time George S. Patton visited that region of France, he was a General and a hero to the people. For reasons that I imagine were both professionally and personally motivated, he traveled through some of the places he was stationed at during the last war. In Bourg, people remembered him from the last time he was there and welcomed him with a “procession of pitchforks, scythes, and rakes.” As he visited all the places that had been a part of his temporary home back in 1918, the General realized, with much amusement, that a particular “grave” by the name of “Abandoned Rear” was still being maintained by the town. Here’s the story of the grave in the General’s own words:
In 1917, the mayor, who lived in the “new house” at Bourg, bearing the date 1760, came to me, weeping copiously, to say that we had failed to tell him of the death of one of our soldiers. Being unaware of this sad fact, and not liking to admit it to a stranger, I stalled until I found out that no one was dead. However, he insisted that we visit the “grave,” so we went together and found a newly closed latrine pit with the earth properly banked and a stick at one end to which was affixed crosswise a sign saying, “Abandoned Rear.” This the French had taken for a cross. I never told them the truth.
The only record of this incident is in the General’s autobiography (from which the above passage is taken), which was incomplete at the time of his death in 1945. I cannot imagine what kind of name the French mayor thought “Abandoned Rear” was, especially considering that the word “abandon” means the same in both French and English. Maybe he thought “Abandoned” was a rank in the US Army, like Captain or Major, and that “Rear” was the last name of said “Abandoned.” Or simply that whoever had gone through the effort of putting this soldier with the last name “Rear” in the ground, hadn’t then taken the time to leave a proper epitaph, instead leaving a quick note indicating the “abandoned” status of Private/Specialist/Corporal “Rear.” Whichever way this worked out, it’s not clear if George S. Patton kept the truth from the mayor simply because he didn’t have the heart to correct him, or because he had a great–if dark–sense of humor.
Personally, when I think of the young George S. Patton being walked to the site of “Abandoned Rear” by an earnest French mayor, I imagine him thinking to himself, “Dude, this is just total shit.”
And yes, I do wonder if the “grave” of “Abandoned Rear” still stands in Bourg. It’s probably a long shot, but I’d be tempted to take a look if I find myself in that part of the world.