May 26, 2009

Joe: Love at First Sight

Her name was Mary, of course. She was a blue-eyed, smiling, long-legged, cool -looking girl--a trifle naive. A girl with class, he thought when he first saw her, but young. A bus seems an awful place for things to start, but there was she on a bus going to church and planning to have a chocolate ice cream cone with sprinkelettes. He was going to church too, but she sat in back of him and that was that.

He said hello to her that afternoon or more likely she said hello to him. Again nothing happened--there are lots of shapely girls in blue bathing suits at a lake summer resort. The summer resort was one of those let’s-be-one’big-happy-family sort of places--it even had a social director and a social directrix.
Naturally one afternoon there was a baseball game in which all the boys and girls (in those places they’re all boys and girls even if the boys and girls have big boys and girls of their own) were to participate. Well this particular boy and girl were antisocial or mutually social. They sat out the ball game on a raft. Long afterward he learned her reason why she was there but being a romantic still doesn’t believe it.

They talked about prosaic things--families and schools; after all he was a shy young man. She wasn’t. Maybe that is why he was sure it happened then. That’s the trouble with shy young men: they are not used to openhearted friendliness. He never knew what she saw in him, but for the rest of the week they were summer friends. He struggled a little bit--an inherent male instinct. Why one rainy afternoon they went to a Bing Crosby movie in separate groups. They had only a week, not even a full one.

However, this time it did happen on a bus. They had made some sort of plan to ride back to New York on the same bus. He from the summer resort, she from Albany where she was visiting. He was positive. She says it couldn’t haven happened then--that soon.

He didn’t know the proper method of courting a girl, not a beautiful one like her. Oh he was quite proper. The movies he took her to were always approved for adults and children. A baseball game, a few football games, a little bowling--that was about all. He didn’t have much time, altogether three months. He then went away as did twelve million other men young and old. Oh yes, he finally kissed her once. He was very proper and very shy and afraid she would say no.

He did have a secret weapon. His job had been writing letters under constricting rules. He now could write letters without rules. She claims it was all platonic yet her first letter to him was a sixteen-page affair. Looking back he is smiling at the strategy of the salutation of his letter. First it was a proper Dear Mary--it’s possible to write the same two words so they are less proper but more warm. She should have realized what his plans were right from the very beginning. The first thing he did was change her name,, he first name that is. How could he ever have written letters beginning Dear Marie.

Three months of seeing her, three months of exchanging letters and she was sure too. A little later--less than a year after they first met, it was properly formalized. She got a ring (It was not in a car; it was outside on the sidewalk in front of her house). The ratio was changed. One kiss in three months to how many kisses in two weeks? Not enough, there will never be enough. His heart was just too full--that time was a blur to him. Did it happen to her as it did to him? There was no beginning. It just always was. Just two he and she.

Of course they were going to be engaged for a long time, and it was a long time. Six months and twenty-six days. One could say he was respoinsible. Too much of his heart got into one of his letters and now slipped in. But she was more direct and she knew her hussyness. She met his train and before they got home it was all decided. And then for a week they didn’t see each other, well hardly at all. A girl has a lot to do before here wedding. Some girls take months and months. This girl did it all in a week.

Married on Monday. What plain words. Rainbow isn’t a fancy word either. Nor sunrise,nor moonlight. Love and sacrement--a sacrament of love. "For this cause shall a man leave father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two but one flesh."

May 25, 2009

Joe: Army Life

I recall that on one Sunday afternoon, about five hundred years ago, someone told me how the army made a friend of theirs so much bolder. I hope you're not drawing a parallel. If you had higher mathematics at Queens college, you show know that, according to Riemannian geometry, there are no parallels. It's not the army, Mary; it's the fountain pen for a mighty man with pen and ink, am I. In all these years it's been a hidden talent.

Since one Nolan at least is interested in the army, I should begin by describing the process of Uptonizing. The prospective soldiers arrive in Camp Upton (I can't tell you how since that is a troop movement and troop movements are military secrets) late in the afternoon , and the balance of the day and night is spent in being acclimated. This involves standing out in the open, swept by cold winds (and rain if there is any) until the body temperature is about 40 degrees, and then marched into a building to thaw out. Just so this time is not wasted, they dish out either a meal or a test.

I was lucky because my first day ended at 11 pm; if my name began with a "z" it probably would have concluded at about 4 am. The next day the process is repeated beginning at 5 am--it is dark at this unearthly hour . However, after breakfast and after the inevitable standing around being counted and recounted , we were marched into the processing unit. I entered one door as a civilian and came out a fully uniformed soldier (in fact, carrying three other complete uniforms in a large canvas bag), possessing an insurance policy, and bearing the imprints of typhoid, anti-tetanus, and smallpox innoculations. After that the entire group is marched to the cinema to see a double feature entitled, "What Every Young Soldier Should Know." Thus ends the process and the solider is usually sent to some other camp for basic training.

But you are probably saying to yourself, Joe must be still at Camp Upton because the envelope says so. Yes I am still out here in the woods. It seems that I'm on a special detail; the requirements for which seem to (1) that you wear glasses, and (2) that you pass the intelligence test (I got 151 but I always knew I was a genius). After working for a week I don't think the second requirement is at all necessary. On the whole work is rather easy--just routine clerical work handling the records of the incoming soldiers ,but there is certainly enough of it.

Because of our work we live in a special row of tents. I'm sleeping in a 6 man tent and believe it or not, my principal complaint is that it is too hot. One of the soldiers in my tent was formerly a fireman on a Coast Guard rum chaser during prohibition days: he has appinted himself chief of the tent stove and he keeps it red hot night and day. Even on the windiest days the temperature inside our tent is about 85. We use coal so we're not affected by oil rationing. Heh, Heh.

You can almost hear his voice.
May 19, 2009 03:22 P

Joe: Professor Koch on Procrastination

It was my intent to begin this letter with a lecture on procrastination delivered in Prof. Koch's inimitable style. This is how I used to work it. In those days I got off at 4:30 so I would be home considerably before 6.

Since dinner would be ready at 6 it was hardly worthwhile to begin studying. So I would start reading the LI Daily Press. After supper it would be only a few minutes till Lowell Thomas comes on so I might as well wait. (Please excuse the shift of tenses to the narrative present.) Well, a fellow needs some amusement and what's fifteen minutes; so to WEAF for the Chesterfield program with Fred Waring. Time out to rest so now it's 7:30. The half hour from 7:30 to 8:00 was really the difficult time to waste. I usually couldn't think of a valid excuse for not studying. Since I wasn't a lawyer, I usually got by without one.

Of course, everyone knows that the good radio programs come on a 8 o'clock so I was saved. This was good for Monday and Tuesday nights. Wednesday was a tougher struggle for I knew if I could get by Wednesday, I was saved for the rest of the week. What would be the use of studying for the last two days of the week? Occasionally, though, I would lose on Wednesday nights and I would have to make some attempt at getting to work.

I usually got seated at my desk about 9 but I was still struggling. I could rearrange the papers on my desk for ten or fifteen minutes , but finally I would have to pick up my book. However, there was still life in the old procrastinator: instead of opening the textbook at the assigned chapter, I could skip a hundred pages or so and then begin reading there. If I was near the end of the book, there were always other ones to look over. At approximately 10:30 the struggle would be over. It always puzzled me why I felt so tired after studying for only three hours.

New Years Day 1943

After making our beds and cleaning up the barracks, you can well realize why we don’t have to report for calisthenics until 8 o clock. The exercises are given out on the drill field and it certainly is cold out there because the sun has not cleared the mountains that early. For the first few days calisthenics were easy because the corporals giving the exercise would tire soon and we’d be through. Today, however, a new system was inaugurated--a shuft of four corporals put us through our paces. After briskly running about a hundred yards we then have to “police up” the company area (It’s now seven minutes to nine so this epistle will have to be continued tomorrow since we have lights out at nine. Oh well early to bed and early to....!)

Policing up consists of spreading out in a line and marching forward picking up stray bits of paper cigarettes etc. from the ground--street cleaning in other words. That is the theoretical aspect. Actually you walk along with your hands in your pockets studiously avoiding looking at the ground.

May 21, 2009

In My Grandmother's House

My daughter Katherine wrote this about the wartime letters:

In my grandmother's house, past a stone Mexican statue named Harry, up the front stairs and to the right there is a bedroom. In this bedroom there are a pea green carpet, a bed with yellow and orange flowered sheets, and a cracked blue dresser. This dresser, unlike every other bureau and closet in this house, does not contain any seventies-style ties, old scarves, or early feminist t-shirts. Instead every drawer is filled with letters.

Joe lived in Jamaica, Queens, with his parents and six younger sisters and brothers. His college yearbook said of him, "Even his own brilliance could not fathom the enigma that is Joe." Mary lived in Queens Village. She was the second child, and the oldest girl, in a family of seven. Her high school yearbook described her as, "Sincerity coupled with bubbling vivacity, scholastic excellence with literary talents, athletic prowess, sparkling wit." She would not have a college yearbook until many years later, because her father had died without much life insurance when she was seventeen years old. Her father's brother squeezed together the money for her older brother to continue school at St. John's, but Mary was just a girl.

Mary and Joe had met the summer of 1942, on a raft at Loon Lake in the Adirondacks. He was 28, she was 21. A week later, back in Queens, he took her to see Bambi. They saw each other often in the three months after Bambi became Prince of the forest, and before Joe was drafted. He kissed her for the first time on the day he left for the army.

They will get engaged the night before her 22nd birthday in August 1943 and will marry the next March. The wedding will not be fancy, since it was planned in about four days and no one had much money anyway. The reception will be in Mary's backyard. Joe will go off to war in Europe, though his bad vision will ensure that he never faces combat. They will have their first child while he is away. There will be short letters to Baby Mary Jo, my mother, enclosed with the longer ones to Mary. Then in 1946, when Mary Jo is eight months old, Joe will finally come home and the letters will end.

They will have five more children, and the children will have fourteen kids of their own. Joe will die of Alzheimer's disease in May of 1987. Mary will become a lobbyist and counselor for victims of the disease and their families. She will become even more involved with her church,
and even more of a rock for her distressingly heathen children and grandchildren. Mary will die in April 2004 of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy.

My grandparents' generation has been called "The Greatest Generation." They survived the depression, they fought Hitler. Yes, they did, but many of them also contributed to horrible racial inustice, and a few of them dropped the bomb. I suppose that talking about our parents' and grandparents' moral superiority is an improvement over not trusting them because they're over forty, but it's not much of an improvement. It would be far more honest to say that they did some very good things, and some very bad things. They had fewer toys, and certainly they wrote better love letters, but they were more or less just like us.

To put it another way, generation schmeneration. I'm not going to even try to judge. Instead I will sit here and read these letters. I will learn that my mother's mother is more than the grandma who babysat for us almost every week for ten years, and who is always inappropriately freezing things. I will learn that my mother's father was far more than the sick, confused old man I remember.

May 7, 2009

Emma: Mother's Day 1986

1974, 2007
Mother's Day 1986
Dear Mommy,

Here’s to the memories. All the laughter, tears, happiness, and sorrow that we as your children have experienced with you right beside us every step of the way, making sure we didn’t stray off the path. Thanks, Mommy, for who would we be without you.

Love, Emma

Emma gave me a small book of family photos with this lovely message inscribed on the back cover. She was just 13. I carried it around in my bag for at least 3 years, so I could read it every time I felt like murdering her. Her eloquence was only matched by her --what word can I use-- spawn-of-Satanhood?

When she was 6, her first grade teacher said, "Emma knows exactly where my limits and she will go right to the brink, but never cross over." She didn't show such diplomacy with her mother. However, when she worked around the world in her 20's, she never had to bribe anyone at airports. After her first trip to Africa, she got several letters from cabdrivers addressed to "my angel Emma."

Emma repeatedly stuck her tongue out at me minutes after birth.This picture of her at 17 months (the day I got pregnant with her sister Rosalind), is revealing.  She should have been born with a printout: "You will win five battles with this child. Choose them carefully." I learned what the five battles were by losing hundreds of others.

At the height of our teenage struggles, Emma used to say: "I don't have sex, don't smoke, don't do drugs, don't drink, don't party at all hours. I am not pregnant; I do well in school; I plan a serious career in world saving. What is your problem, mom?" Of course she was right, and that's why her sisters seemed easier. I didn't fight the silly battles.

But it was all worth it. Watching her mother my grandson gives me absolute joy. Despite our arguments, we have always been extremely close. As usual, my writer Jane says it best (2001):

"Emma is capable of more generosity than anyone I know. She holds herself responsible for you, me, Rosalind, and Molly.. Being incredibly brave as well as generous, though, she doesn't stop there; she is now going to try to save some people in Africa (Rwanda) too, or at least to learn how."

Emma deserves this more than I do: " Here’s to the memories. All the laughter, tears, happiness, and sorrow that I as your mother have experienced with you right beside me every step of the way, making sure I didn’t stray off the path. Thanks, Emma, for who would I be without you?"