SunSpec: Nearly Non-Existent

The helmet in the picture above belonged to my great-grandfather, Bayard Randolph Kraft Sr. From the design, you can guess that it was the helmet he wore while serving in the Army during World War I. He served as a medic, on the front in France to aid and evacuate the wounded and dying. Given the descriptions of trench warfare that have been written, I can’t even imagine what that was like.

In picking the helmet up, the first impression I get is how rough the metal feels under your fingertips; it has a gritty feel to it akin to very coarse sandpaper. The padding within has hardened over time and the chin strap buckles are pretty worn and frozen into place. The helmet doesn’t feel heavy, but it has a certain weight to it, one that makes you think that you’d be protected if something happened. But given the relatively thin metal involved, it’s a fleeting bit of confidence.

But this helmet is more than a war souvenir from a relative. It’s the story that goes with it that makes it an important sentimental piece.

As the story goes, my great-grandfather was moving through the trenches to get to where there had been a German assault. When he came to an intersection in the trenches, he paused for a moment to figure out which way to go. He did not realize it at the time but a German sniper saw his head poking out above the trench walls at the intersection. He took aim on my great-grandfather during his momentary pause.

As the sniper fired, my great-grandfather heard a noise to his right and turned his head to look at it. The bullet entered the helm by his ear, grazed his left temple, and exited through the front of the helmet, knocking him over in the process. What you see of the helmet above is the damage the bullet caused on its way out. The edges are still sharp, even after nearly a hundred years.

When I think about the generations that proceeded me, there are certainly an innumerable amount of close calls that must have been experienced stretching backwards through time. It’s a little different when you have the evidence of a close call in your hand, especially when it is just slightly remotely removed in connection to a great-grandparent. I can remember my grandfather wearing the helmet and telling the story dozens of times for family and friends. I can actually retell it by heart, that’s how much it impressed me as a kid and later as an adult.

For me, it’s a bit strange to look at this helmet and see the moment of time it represents. It’s a moment where the other outcome means that I wouldn’t exist. It’s one thing to have come and gone, it’s another to be a ‘never was’. And since the universe has a habit of not noticing such transactions, it is truly an isolating thought. It has an Alice in Wonderland quality to it as an “impossible thought”; how can one imagine something like that?

I’ve added a few pictures to show you the helmet and how it looks on someone (it’s not one of those ‘smile and take a picture’ sort of moments).

I’m curious if there are others out there with similar family tales. I’d love to hear them or if people have other thoughts on non-existence.

5 thoughts on “SunSpec: Nearly Non-Existent

  1. Great story, Andy! I wish that there were stories like this passed through my family, alas I’m afraid that many of them have evaporated over the generations. I know of a family member who was a part of Guadalcanal during WWII but he never talked about it (for good reason, based on what I’ve read). Another family member flew a B-17 “flying fortress” in WWII, but again nothing was talked about. Hearing that my family participated in events like this (and I don’t mean purely war stories but tales throughout history) helped build my love for history. Out of curiosity did your great-grandfather’s role in WWI push any of your family members (yourself included) into learning more about the event?

  2. World War I seems to have loads of “close call stories”, each one of them fascinating to me. While fighting in WWI my SCottish grandfather was given the wallet of a dying friend to return to his family. My grandfather put the wallet in his breast pocket, was shot at, but the bullet lodged in the wallet, saving my grandfather’s life.

  3. This story brought to mind a Dawkins quote I’m rather fond of:
    “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.” – – Richard Dawkins, Unweaving The Rainbow, 1998.

    I love this story. My family has several “close call” stories, but nothing with this much force. Thanks for sharing.

  4. My grandfather took the time about ten years ago to write out his memoirs for the family, only a few copies existed until this summer when one cousin made copies so each cousin could have one.

    Then last week my mother was bored and typed my grandfather’s name into Google and the first thing to come up was this:

    I knew my grandfather served and that it was hard for him being Puerto Rican and not speaking English when he joined the Army but this opened my eyes. I’ve since started doing some light research on the Borniqueneers or The 65th Infantry Regiment.

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