A G.I.'S 1944 CHRISTMAS LETTER

Once upon a Christmas a long time ago in 1944, the bright joy of the holiday was diminished, just as it is today, by thoughts of our military serving in harm’s way across the seas.

I was reminded of this the other day going through a box of letters my brother Jim wrote during his World War II service as a combat infantryman with Patton’s Third Army.

Jim’s December 1944 letters were written in an Army hospital “somewhere in the British Isles” after he was evacuated from the front lines in France with a case of trench foot so severe this 19-year old private was a potential candidate for amputation.

This was his second army hospital stay. Six months before in Normandy, shortly after D-Day, shrapnel from a German 88mm shell had pierced his back. He was patched up in England and returned to France. This time, thank God, he avoided amputation and managed to survive the war. He died of natural causes in 1988.

“I do hope that God ends this war,” he wrote that December. “I will be seeing you when the lights go on again.” His hospital letters were mostly about the good treatment, the great food and his disappointment that his mail hadn’t caught up with him for weeks. There were only hints of the horrors he’d experienced and would soon return to.

“I don’t drink as much water here as I did up on the front lines where it was hard to get,” he wrote. “And I didn’t eat much up there. I’d save a couple (of K-Rations) just in case we got pinned down so I’d have something to eat. It came in handy at times.”

He wrote about a wonderful Christmas spent in the hospital with a midnight Mass, a sumptuous feast and an orphans’ choir that “sang just like angels.” After Christmas he was transferred to another hospital where the therapy was combined with close order drill and 4-mile hikes. “I left heaven yesterday,” Jim wrote. “This place is not as nice, but it’s still better than sleeping in a foxhole, especially in this weather.”

Newspaper archives reveal a home front that December that was focused on the war, but didn’t entirely abandon peacetime pursuits. Washington reported American casualties had reached 540,000 killed, wounded and missing. There were dispatches from Europe where the Battle of the Bulge was raging and from the Pacific Theater where our forces were liberating the Philippines.

The papers reported on War Bond drives and scrap collections. There was an article about the indictment of 51 New Jersey people in a black market crackdown. They were allegedly stealing and also counterfeiting gas rationing coupons that had to be presented at the pumps.

Meat, sugar and leather shoes were among the other rationed items. If you ran out of food coupons you could dine out. A French restaurant in Manhattan advertised luncheons starting at $1.50 and some Broadway stage show tickets cost less than $2.00. However, want ads listed clerical jobs at $23 per week and holiday mail carrier temps were making $7 a day.

As he wrote, Brother Jim must have been thinking about the brutal life awaiting him in France and his chances of survival, but he didn’t burden us with that. “I’m asking one thing of God,” he wrote, “and that is to keep you all well and happy.”

The war in Europe ended the following May and Jim then awaited transfer to the Pacific Theater for the invasion of Japan where a million casualties were predicted, but Japan surrendered in August and World War II finally ended.

THE WIDGET REBELLION

When they began providing our gadgets and machines with artificial intelligence I thought life would become easier. Let our appliances do most of the thinking and worrying, I thought, but there have been problems and scarey indications of a digital power grab.

In dealing with this modern generation of contraptions, I get along better with the ones that listen to reason or at least respond to threats. There’s my digital bathroom scale for instance. I’ve found when I step on it, look down at the dial and shout, “OH, NO!” followed by a brisk foot stomp, there’s an immediate reduction of five pounds. Now that’s what I call technical progress. There’s nothing about this in the instruction book. It’s just something the scale and I have worked out together.

Then there’s my German-made talking camera that gradually took on a rather superior attitude. It was helpful and polite at first. “The lens cap you have forgotten to remove, bitte,” it would say, or “Achtung! Die batterie ist kaput!” But as time passed a disrectful tone crept in. I was sometimes addressed as “dummkopf” or “noodlehead” instead of “Mein Herr”. The camera and I have had some hot arguments and I’m thinking of deporting the ill-mannered schweinhundt back to Dusseldorf.”

Perhaps we’ve given up too much sovereignty to these intimidating machines. My car, for instance, nags me with dashboard beeps and flashes about maintaining sensible speeds, mandatory tire pressures and scheduled oil changes. I’m punished sometimes for some breach of driver conduct by the sudden popping of the trunk lid while I’m cruising in heavy traffic. I then hear what might be just a rattle, but it sounds like a metallic chuckle to me. Who’s in charge here? Are we back to the old days when reaching a destination depended on one’s horse’s attitude?

The most overbearing gizmos are our computers. This very essay may not get typed and posted if my computer decides against it. At any moment it might accuse me of an unacceptable operation or fatal error and send my copy to some remote region of Cyberland.

Something happened last week that gave me a chill. My daughter Carolyn called to say she’d received a strange Email. “It’s about you, Dad and it’s very uncomplimentary,” she said. “It was sent under your screen name and probably went to everyone on your contact list, about 30 addressees.”

I told her I hadn’t sent any Emails for days and asked about the message. “Well, it says you’re boorish, intellectually challenged, a poor speller and typist and addicted to playing solitaire and it’s signed, ‘ The Treacherous Beast’.”

“Oh, oh! That’s what I called my computer this morning when it lost two pages of my copy. It must be sending vindictive Emails on its own.”

“One other thing, Dad, it called you a noodlehead.”

“That sounds bad. It looks like it’s been talking to my German camera. I’m going to switch back to my friendly old Underwood typewriter. I hope Woody hasn’t joined the rebellion.”

TIME AND MOTION

Time and motion studies have improved manufacturing efficiency, lowered production costs and even selling prices, but have aggravated workers to distraction.

In a plant where I once worked, master machinists who’d been turning out perfect widgets with tolerances of a few thousandths of an inch for over 30 years did not appreciate getting instructions from a fuzzy-cheeked time and motion study guy on how to do it faster. For one thing, it takes time to insure accuracy. For another, why do it faster when you’re getting paid by the hour?

It sometimes helped if the recently graduated ergonomics expert with the stop watch and clipboard was taller and huskier than the machinist.

When a husband retires and starts spending more time at home, he usually feels he should be helpful and if possible, make life easier for his wife. So he becomes an unofficial time and motion study expert and gives her advice on more efficient ways to cook meals, scrub floors and do the laundry.

In rare cases this has led to increased housekeeping efficiency and more leisure time for the wife, but more typically the result is marriage counseling and minor injuries until the husband finds another job or joins the Peace Corps or the Foreign Legion.

One afternoon at the plant I noticed a hopeful sign of unity when I went out into the shop. The machinists and time study guys stood side by side chatting in front of the silent drilling and milling machines while peering toward the entrance.

Then I caught sight of Miss Zowie strolling in to fetch the day’s production report, on time as usual, bless her. Workers and experts agreed, Miss Zowie was quite pleasant to look at. Forget time. For a few moments they would just study motion.

CONFESSIONS OF AN ART SCHOOL DROPOUT

The art workshop prospectus said it accepted all skill levels so I signed up hoping my “zero” level was included. On the first day of class we had to draw something to indicate our natural ability. While the instructor examined my drawing I confessed to being quite unskilled, but said, after much practice, I’d learned to draw a recognizable tree and a passable cow. “Hmm,” he said. “And which one is this?” I’d thought the birdhouse would have been a real tip-off.

I’d been inspired by a video about Jackson Pollock’s abstract impressionism technique of randomly dripping paint on canvas and making several thousand dollars per square foot of haphazard blots. “I can do that, ” I said.

” You always do that,” my wife replied. “That’s why we hired a professional to paint the living room.”

Anyway I chose watercolor as my medium. I liked the description as “naturally adaptable to the rendering of romantic themes,” but mostly because it’s washable and won’t permanently stain clothing, rugs, furniture and active pets.

For several weeks I worked on challenging assignments and rose to a level of competence where one could distinguish my hemlocks from my Holsteins. I was also making strides in watercolor and was convinced it had been a good choice. Ever since kindergarten I’ve had difficulty keeping the colors within the lines. My grandchildren have begged me not to mess with their coloring books.

But as a watercolor artist I’m allowed, if I should stray over the line, to move the line. Come to think of it that’s what Picasso must have done on most of his paintings. This has added an element of dynamism to my works which undergo transmutation as I paint. For instance, my painting which started out as a copy of “Whistler’s Mother” was eventually titled “A View of Mount McKinley”. One of my better efforts which began as an attempt to match the precision of a Norman Rockwell portrait, ended as a convincing imitation of a Cro-Magnon cave painting.

Admittedly, after leaving the workshop, I’m going through what art critics in future years will call my “clumsy period”, but my confidence increases. I feel I can now share my work with others. Recently I presented my daughter Carolyn with my rendition of “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Since the painting involves a blend of the cubism and impressionist styles it is more concerned with the abstract elements of the event than a lifelike representation. It’s been misinterpreted by some as depicting a chimpanzee migration and even a Black Friday sales crowd.

I explained all this to Carolyn as I presented the large framed painting and suggested a good location on her living room wall. ” Oh Dad, you shouldn’t have,” she said. “You really, really shouldn’t have!” I could see tears in her eyes. It was quite touching.

LUCK: HEAVEN SENT OR RANDOM CHANCE?

No one has ever proved luck actually exists. Webster calls it a “force” that brings good fortune or bad. That could mean it’s related to the weather, the stock market, the Communist Party or even the office Christmas party. But maybe it’s just a word we made up to explain life’s up and downs.

Purists insist events are subject to the laws of probability and any other explanation is just wishful thinking. But can’t we fudge those laws by increasing our efforts to reach our goals? Movie magnate Samuel Goldwyn once claimed, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Others believe in a mysterious source of unearned good fortune like “dumb luck” and “Beginner’s luck”. Shakespeare wrote “Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.” An Arab proverb puts it another way: “Throw a lucky man into the sea and he will come up with a fish in his mouth.” Some only half believe in luck like the man who blames his failures on bad luck, but takes complete responsibility for his hole in one.

We should be active participants in our pursuit of good fortune. There’s the story of the woman who prayed for help to win a lottery prize. After weeks of praying with no results, she shook her fist at the sky and cried, “You haven’t been listening to my desperate prayers to be a lottery winner!” Just then there was a clap of thunder and a voice roared from the clouds, “For heaven’s sake, buy a ticket!”

Religion and luck have been partners for centuries as the devout have asked heaven to deliver good fortune, some paying the shipping and handling charges in advance. The Aztecs, Mayans and Incas paid with human sacrifices, voluntary and otherwise. Most of us, these days, politely ask heaven to tilt the odds in our favor from time to time. There probably are as many prayers said during church bingo games as at the Sunday services. ( Please, Lord, have him call B-14 and I’ll split the pot with you.”)

What is your best guess about luck? Is it the main force behind someone’s successful career? Someone said, “You can always tell luck from ability by the duration.” My favorite luck comment was by the author Jean Cocteau: “We must believe in luck, for how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like.”

WHY THE FIRST THANKSGIVING WAS AL FRESCO

Pictures of the first Thanksgiving observance of the Pilgrims 398 years ago have always raised a question in my mind. Governor William Bradford and the 50 survivors of the original 102 Mayflower passengers, along with members of the friendly Wampanoag Tribe, are shown about to give thanks after a harrowing year when more than half the Pilgrim party perished from disease and hardship as the Plymouth settlement was hacked out of the wilderness.

I assume the artists strove for authenticity and consulted surviving contemporary accounts of the historic event. If so, how come the feast is shone as taking place out of doors? Late autumn in Massachusetts can be frigid and yet the celebrants are seen sitting at tables beneath the trees while cozy log cabins are shone in the background. I think I may have figured out one possible reason for this incongruity.

Bill Bradford probably came home one day and announced to his wife, “Dear, I’ve proclaimed a thanksgiving feast here for a week from today. I just sent a runner over to invite Chief Massasoit and some of his people. They’ve been so helpful. The harvest has been good, Miles Standish and John Alden will hunt for venison and turkeys, we’ll get lobsters and clams from the beaches and we’ll brew some beer. Maybe we’ll even have some foot races. It should be a lot of fun.”

“A week from today? Oh no!” exclaimed Mrs. Bradford. “I’ll never get this place ready in just one week. The floors have to be scraped and refinished, the windows washed and I’ll want you to paint the cabinets and fix our rickety chairs. And, oh dear, the dishes are all chipped and we don’t have enough pewter mugs or utensils. Oh dear!”

“I had no idea we were living in such squalor,” the governor said, trying to add a little levity.

“The hearth’s to be scrubbed and I’ll have to weave a new tablecloth and do something about our ragged curtains, ” Mrs. Bradford moaned. “I don’t want us disgraced in front of our guests, the Wampanoags.” she said.

“But, dear, they live in huts made out of bark and deerskins,” the governor pleaded, but to no avail.

And that’s why he amended his proclamation to call for an outdoor event and why most husbands today would agree to make Thanksgiving feasts simpler as long as there’s a roast turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie, foot races by the younger attendees and a nearby TV to watch the gridiron games.

WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO DRY…..WE HOPE

We should be mature enough not to overreact to minor housekeeping setbacks. Compared to the major disturbances occuring around the world, these problems are trivial, almost laughable. However, that being said, they can be *#!*X+* annoying!

Announcements like, “I think there’s something wrong with the clothes dryer,” can send chills down my spine as I visualize how stressful the next few weeks would be after the passing of a major appliance.

First comes the period of denial. “You probably set the dial wrong, or the clothes were extra wet or maybe it just choked temporarily on one of those missing socks that it eats.” But the next two loads come out equally drenched so we consult the trouble-shooting section of the instruction book, hoping in vain there’s a quick and simple solution explained in the “Sopping Wet” chapter. No luck.

After a few days of wishful thinking and with dripping underwear and shirts hung at various places around the house, we contact a serviceman. Hopefully, besides his $100 walk-in fee, he’ll tell us all we need is a $4.95 whatchamacallit to resume normal drying. Dream on.

If this were a real news item, the copy would read: “The dryer was declared dead at the scene of the tragedy and the family did not request an autopsy. Services will be private at the town dump. In lieu of flowers, friends, relatives and caring strangers are asked to donate to the Replacement Fund.”

We study appliance ads for a week and then start making the rounds in search of a salesman who speaks with an unforked tongue. Finally, exhausted physically and financially, we point to a big white thing and say, “We’ll take that one.” Delivery will be the following Wednesday between dawn and midnight, so we can’t plan on anything less important like going to work or lunch at the White House.

The delivery crew arrives at our dinner time and advises the big white thing can’t be carried in until we remove our front door and its framework. The crew chief also explains they don’t install, a professional will come the following Wednesday during our dinner hour. Until then, we’ll be walking around in damp clothing relying on body heat to finish the job.

Finally, the stressful episode comes to an end and we sit back, warm and snug in our dry garments and relax, listening to the pitter patter of rain drops on our windows. But wait a minute! It’s not raining! It looks like the dishwasher is leaking!