As we near the 100th Anniversary of U.S. engagement in WWI, I turn the pages of an ancient scrapbook meticulously documenting the journey of an International “Y” Girl, one of the first five women who went abroad to support our troops at war. This young woman from Maine was my grandmother, Faith Hinckley Powley, and she left behind a book entitled “Forgotten Fires,” as well as a trail of artifacts and photos that tell the tale of war in intriguing detail. One of my favorite pieces is her “cootie bracelet.” (While the word “cootie” makes most of us think of a made-up disease or children’s game, the term was also a nickname for the very-real lice that men in the trenches during WWI had to deal with.) The bracelet features a string of silver cootie bugs and an oblong clasping locket, which stored a white powder believed to repel the travel of real-life cooties up the arm and into the hair and clothing.
These bracelets were issued to “Y” Girls along with formal uniforms including hats, capes, boots, jackets, canteens and gas masks. She said she donned her bracelet immediately upon arrival in France, but was infested before bedtime that same day. She was later told production of the bracelets was discontinued when news of their ineffectiveness became known. Her tour of duty in Europe carried her through the devastation of Spanish influenza and the trials of entering Germany with the Army of Occupation. In comparison to the atrocities of war she had witnessed, her personal theory was that a few cootie bugs residing on your person was really “proportionately insignificant” in the overall scheme of things. She returned to the U.S. aboard the U.S.S. Grant in 1919, wearing her timeless conversation piece, “the cootie bracelet.” I smile every time I clasp it around my wrist knowing that it will assuredly invite a story of WWI and a fascinating “Y” Girl named Faith.
P. Faith Peters paints and writes in the inspirational seaside city of Portland. She loves history, art, perennial gardening and spending time with various grandchildren who can fix her many computer issues in the blink of an eye. And yes, she maintains her landline and flip phone for posterity, or so she tells her friends and family!
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