Left in Andover: Some heroes don’t wear capes

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

When I was little, my family made frequent trips to Bennington from Andover to visit our aunts. We developed various rituals coming into town including who could catch sight first of the Bennington Battle Monument.

Then, yelling “keppel” (Yiddish for head), we ducked our heads in unison as Dad’s farm truck barely slipped under the low hanging railroad bridge at the bottom of Harwood Hill.

Herb Leader, left, with Uncle Millen Brand.

After that came a picnic at the deerpark on the grounds of the Soldiers Home. We rarely if ever caught sight of the human residents.

In more recent times, the Vermont Soldiers Home was renamed the Vermont Veterans Home. Female veterans and veteran spouses were welcomed. My older sister recalls visiting one of our aunts in the late 1980s when she resided there, receiving excellent end-of-life care.

The home was established in 1887 on the 200 acre grounds of a former private estate. Its original mission was to provide a homelike environment for any Vermont veterans in need, including the last surviving Civil War veterans.

In his novel The Heroes, published in 1939, my Uncle Millen Brand, husband of Dad’s sister Pauline, explored the psychology of the all male WWI veteran residents of the Soldiers Home. Many were what was then called “shell shocked.” Today this condition has become better understood under the category of PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder.

Millen and Pauline Brand.

A powerful scene occurs when George, the one-armed hero of the novel, realizes his comrade Hrubes is missing from the Home’s recreation room during an electrical storm. He races to the sleeping quarters where he finds Hrubes in a semi-conscious state on his bed. George lies down beside him:

“He waited, fearing with the body beside him the coming of the next lightening flash … The sight of death looked out of Hrubes’ eyes, out of his torn face, his wounds seemed new. There was sweat on his forehead and it ran in bright lines down his cheeks … Hrubes reached for his hand.”

Unwilling to become a burden to his family after he lost his job in fictional Leedsville, Vermont, George Burley has checked himself into the Soldiers Home, 90 miles away. Despite his disability, he is young and fit. Entering the Home entails a major loss of personal freedom. He begins to lose his sense of identity and purpose.

During the Great Depression, when the novel takes place, George, along with many other residents, is institutionalized not just because of his disability. The lack of economic opportunity in the capitalist system is what dooms him.

A Bennington Banner article about Millen Brand. Click image to enlarge.

George applies for jobs at the town’s many factories almost daily during the 18 months of his stay in Bennington, with no luck. Ironically, had he managed to get one, he would have been required to leave the Home.

Against all odds, George meets a strong willed factory girl, Mary. He dares to dream of a return to normal life on the outside with her. She is unusual in not stigmatizing George as a disabled vet from the Home, but as a whole man worthy of her love.

When Millen Brand turned his attention to the inner world of the Soldiers Home, he was already the best selling author of the psychological novel The Outward Room, published in 1937. That book explores the inner life of a woman confined to an insane asylum and her subsequent rehabilitation. Lauded by Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, it achieved spectacular popular success as Book-of-the-Month pick for May 1937.

Perhaps the ambiguously titled The Heroes was doomed from the start by Uncle Millen’s Marxist outlook on wage slavery and war. A book with this title might be seen as a challenge to actual war heroes. The book was, indeed, a commercial flop. But it endures as an early study of PTSD and quasi-historical Vermontiana.

Uncle Millen’s ‘The Heroes’ and ‘The Outward Room.’

In one of its most charming chapters, Millen reaches into his childhood as the son of a carpenter for inspiration. George, demoralized by his inability to get a job, volunteers days of labor at a local Bennington woodworking shop, just to prove to himself he is still a man. In the end, it is the promise of starting an independent cabinetry business in his hometown of Leedsville that gives cover for George and Mary to escape to a heroically normal, independent life together.

In his own way, Uncle Millen was forced to grapple with the apocalyptic motto “Live Free or Die,” which an aging General Stark toasted Bennington with in 1809, 32 years after the battle.

Millen took his own heroic stand in defense of constitutional freedoms in 1953, when, during the Red Scare, he refused to comply with an order from Sen. Joseph McCarthy to testify against fellow members of the League of American Writers. As a defense, he cited his constitutional Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

Nonetheless, Millen was blacklisted in Hollywood, where he had won an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay in 1948. At his moment of truth, this everyday hero did not hesitate to do the right thing.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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