Herbert W. Westphal is a veteran of the Great War, the War to End Wars, the First World War. He is spending this Veterans Day in he bed beside the window in Room 413, East-South wing of the Veterans Administration Hospital, at 50 Irving St. NW.
He is 82 and partially deaf, which explains why, when asked to sell his name, he responds: "Am I married? I sure am." He laughs and his eyes sparkle.
I was in the First World War and the second. Both of 'em. The Second World War I didn't serve much. But the First World War I went across and went through the whole mess.
"I was in the Army. I was a sergeant. Then I had bones-bones on me." the frail old man says. "Now I got nothing at all. Anybody can look at me and knock me over." Again, the laugh. A nice laugh.
"Were you drafted or did you enlist?" he was asked.
"Oh, I enlist." replies Westphal. "Yup, I enlist in the First World War. I was working with my father, he was a photographer. I don't know what made me go nuts." he says. the crinkle around his eyes giving away the joke." All my friends were going so I decided I might as well go.
"It wasn't long before we were sent across...They were in too much of a hurry. We got over there and we got bombed out. But they wanted photographers." he remembers.
Westphal has much to remember. He was a pioneer, an aerial combat photographer in an age and a war when flying and photoraphy were both in their infancy.
"I thought it would be something worthwhile." he says. "but it wasn't."
"We didn't expect to get what we got. He didn't expect to get bombed out. It isn't clear to me. The only thing I think about is my friends are gone.
"You figure you get to be my age and you have no friends anymore. They're gone and no one has much use for you, for the simple reason you don't know anything. But when it comes right down to it, you know more than they do."
He speaks of being alone and forgotten, but the hand scrawled birthday cards on his window sill belie his words: "Dear Grandpa, How are you? I'm fine. Hope get out the hospital soon, xs and Os." A second card says much the same thing, with an added "I live you."
"I often thought if they took men at 85 I'd go and enlist again and get it over with, see if I could get shot down," says Westphal. The laugh is hollow this time.
He continues to reminisee: "We had to teach them (the younger enlistees) how to fly an airplanes then, just wings." He grins broadly and flaps his bony arms like bird wings.
Westphal and his father had "quite a (photography) business" near Buffalo, N.Y., both after war and before. "Every time a fella was called we had to take his picture first, ya know. He wanted his picture before he left. It's a long time now. I don't know how the time passed, to tell the truth about it. I lived all that time and my friends are gone at 65 and I keep on going and I'm stuck and I don't have clothes to go anywhere and they have me tied with a piece of rope with my name on it."
To set the record straight, he is wearing a hospital name tag, not a rope, and hospital officials say he will be discharged as soon as a place can be found for him in a nursing home.
"What do you think about Veterans Day?" the old man is asked.
"I don't even know when it is, that's how much I think about it. I know there's a day someday. When is it, the 11th?"
"I wouldn't know unless you tell me. These birds around here don't know."
It is hard to tell when Veterans Day is. It used to be called Armistice Day and it was celebrated every year on Nov. 11, the day the guns stopped firing at 11 a.m. in 1918. In 1954 it was renamed Veterans Day and in 1968 it was moved to the last Monday in October, giving federal Workers a three-day weekend and merchants a bonanza. Next year it moves back to Nov. 11.
"I know Veterans Day," Westphal continues. "They used to have parades and all and they went past the photography studio and I used to dip the flag and all. But people didn't know the difference if you were or weren't one. There's so much stuff to be told."