REFUGEE SKETCHES - Dr. and Mrs. Virgil F. Parker - 1914
Dr. Virgil F. Parker was a Dentist from Brooklyn, New York. Besides this adventure, his claim to fame was a charge in 1895 for Cruelty to Animals for shooting three cats that kept him awake at night.
DR. PARKER'S ADVENTURE
Dr. and Mrs. Virgil F. Parker, of Brooklyn, New York, experienced one of the most trying adventures heard on Dr. Parker board the ship. Dr. Parker told the following story:
Mrs. Parker and I had just ended a motor trip at San Sabastian, Spain, when the war broke out. On Saturday, August first, we boarded a train for Marseilles in order to make our boat -- the Canada of the Fabre Line -- back to America on the following Monday. In San Sabastian we knew nothing whatsoever about a war between France and Germany.
Only after we had passed the French border and had seen soldiers guarding the tracks and tunnels everywhere and the fields destitute of men, did we surmise that something unusual was going on. Then hordes of French peasants began to pour into our train. At every station, more crowded in until not another person could have climbed on board. Fifteen people pushed their way into our compartment built to accommodate eight.
My wife and I were jammed into our seats so tightly that we could not move; to make matters worse, a big, fat peasant suddenly plumped himself upon my lap. I protested vehemently, but he could not understand English and I could not speak French, so that my objections affected him as little as if I were giving a monologue in Patagonian about the next tribal bear hunt. My legs had hardly become inured to the pressure of his two hundred pounds, when a new calamity came upon us. A woman, too tired to stand any longer, seated herself in the open window, effectually shutting off our already meager supply of fresh air.
For twenty-seven long hours we sat in that inferno. From Saturday afternoon until Sunday night, we endured a torture I had believed impossible this side of Purgatory. I tried my utmost to secure food, but without success, for I could not budge from my seat to get at the scanty supply sold by the vendors at the stations.
Fortunately, Mrs. Parker found a shriveled lemon in her handbag, forgotten there since we had left America more than a month before. By squeezing and rolling it between my hands, I succeeded in pressing out fifteen precious drops. We had never appreciated the delicious flavor of lemons before this time.
I am willing to wager that no Olympian god ever enjoyed his nectar more than we did that sour juice. The relief which the two drops of water of parable fame would have afforded the Rich Man in Gehenna would shrink into insignificance compared to the refreshment we derived from our withered lemon. During twenty-seven tortuous hours, hours of heat, smoke, cinders, and foul air, no other nourishment passed our lips. I never realized up to that time how much agony a human body can endure.
We learned afterwards that our train was the last one carrying civilians over the Pyrenees. Even though two engines pulled it all the way, we made so many stops and went so slowly that we covered only about 350 miles in those terrible twenty-seven hours.
During the next two days, Monday and Tuesday, we lived in the midst of mobilization activities. Marseilles fairly shook with the tramp of marching feet; thousands upon thousands of men poured in from the surrounding country to this point of concentration. Very quickly, lodging accommodations gave out, so that the incoming people had to sleep in the parks and streets.
They crowded into the open square in front of our hotel like a lot of sheep into a fold, trampling on the grass and flower beds with ruthless unconcern. Some wore soldiers costumes, some wore the red trousers of the French army with ordinary civilian coats; many carried round loaves of bread strapped to their backs because the price of foodstuffs was rising daily and rumor had it that the supply would give out shortly.
"At all hours of the night, the heroic Marseillaise burst forth from excited throats. Even though I was in straits because of the very situation which led to the singing of that song, its stirring melody and martial rhythm thrilled me through and through.
On Monday, we learned that the Canada would not sail, since the government had ordered her to report with the fleet as a hospital ship. Before we made this discovery, we had put our trunks on board, so that we now gave them up for lost. Luckily, however, our porters succeeded in carrying them down the gang-plank just before the vessel pulled out.
Right after this, we received the information that the banks refused to cash travelers' checks and letters of credit. I had $300.00 in American Express Company's checks and three francs in cash. By dint of some of the most economical buying we have ever done in our lives, Mrs. Parker and I made that sixty cents purchase three meals, and you may believe me that ten cent luncheons and dinners looked pretty slim after a twenty-seven hours fast.
Monday afternoon, we went to our consulate where we found fifteen fellow countrymen in similar hard straits. The seventeen of us swore eternal allegiance and fidelity to our little band. The consul told us that the French government had issued orders that all foreigners must leave Marseilles by midnight Tuesday, and also that no one would be allowed to go without first getting permission from the Chief of Police. These commands put us into a pretty plight, for none of us knew of any available trains or boats leaving the city. We felt as helpless as prisoners tied hand and foot in a dungeon who might be ordered to fly.
By the time Mrs. Parker and I had walked back to our hotel -- we had not any money to squander on either cab or car fares -- we were almost ready to have ourselves arrested as spies, for in prison we could at least obtain food and drink. Our proprietor told us that the hotel rates had advanced all over the city, at which I took great pains to explain to him that if he increased the charges for our accommodations, he might just as well put our baggage into the street at once, because we absolutely could not afford to pay more than the usual price. He kindly allowed us to remain.
Not long afterward, a riot broke out in the street not far from our hotel. A huge mob of mad Frenchmen began to storm two shops owned by Germans. First they hurled brickbats and cobble stones into the windows of a jewelry store and after they had completely ruined the contents of this place, they turned upon the establishment of a furniture dealer. In both instances, they destroyed the merchandise without taking any of it for plunder. Such hatred made my blood run cold.
Late Tuesday afternoon -- in fact, so late that I could not notify the other Americans -- I received a 'tip' that a boat carrying refugee German officers and civilians would sail for Genoa at midnight, and that Mrs. Parker and I might go along, if we could get the necessary permission from the Chief of Police.
We hurriedly packed our baggage, giving one trunkful of clothes, for which we had no urgent need, to the hotel proprietor in return for his kindness in allowing us to stay in his establishment at the normal rates, and rushed to the police station. To our dismay, we found this place closed for the day. In desperation, we decided to try to board the boat without the Chief's permission.
On our way to the dock, we saw scores of deserted wagons in the streets, left standing in their tracks by the officers who had commandeered the horses. We passed one square filled with these animals, proud racers standing side by side with clumsy toilers of the fields. A soldier clad in blue and red went from horse to horse painting large white numerals on their necks. The white paint on his brush erased all distinction of blood and breed; each horse lost his identity and became a cipher.
Very few automobiles except those in the government service were to be seen on the streets, for the military had also commandeered motor vehicles. Those being used by the army flew little French flags at their windshields.
When we arrived at the dock, we found a squad of French soldiers standing guard at the gang-plank ready to take the Germans as prisoners of war if the ship did not get under way at midnight. By a happy chance, no one asked for our permit from the Chief of Police, so that we slipped on board, feeling very thankful for our good luck.
Nevertheless, we were far from being calm until the whistle announcing our departure sounded over the harbor, and I am pretty certain that some of those dignified German officers breathed a secret sigh of relief when they heard the blast, even though they did pretend to feel quite stoical about the whole matter.