School days continue to challenge Dad, and I start to learn little bits about his younger brother Jackie/Jack/Jake (it does not surprise me that he calls his little brother different names as he also signs his letters in a variety of nicknames including Murray, Moe, Chuck, Charlie . . . not yet Charles). I wish I had some of my uncles letters, as I understand he was very funny! Perhaps my cousins could find some?
As I continue to type Dad’s letters, smiling all the while (because it’s fun to imagine my Dad writing them as a 20 year young man), I’ve been gathering remnants of the lexicon that was fashionable in the forties. I will add to this list as I come across sayings we rarely hear nowadays (and please feel free to add ones you might hear from your great, great relatives!):
- The old duck (a 74 year old European story teller)
- Chum around together [hanging with your peeps]
- t’other [as in, you take one, I’ll take t’other]
- I’m back in the chips again [after being paid]
- Pretty classy [I suppose we’d say ‘stylish’?]
- Weather is wetter than babies’ diapers [how’s that for a simile?!]
- Those so and so’s [i.e., sonsofbitches]
- Fair to middling [feeling only okay]
- Full of vim and vinegar [fiesty!]
- Get dolled up [so you’ll be looking fine for your babe]
- Terrific [used to express excess or something horrendous ]
- You’ld think… [an unusual contraction]
- Methinks… [perhaps he was trying to be “classy”!]
- ___ will come in mighty handy [fill in, “the dollar you sent”]
- I’m a’raring to go [so look out, world, I’m ready!]
- That fellow is really tops [and is probably a swell chap!]
- Spry young man [lively, energetic, fun]
- Stepping out [hitting the town, looking for action!]
- Perchance [quite the elegant way of saying ‘perhaps,’ or ‘maybe’]
- The laundry “did me dirt” last week…[didn’t come back dirty because it didn’t come back at all! Our much more crass saying today would be, “screwed me over”]
- Gaily decorated tables [the word “gay” continues to evolve from the original meaning of “bright” or “cheerful”]
- Someone ‘put us wise’ to an empty barn…[now we might say “schooled us” or “told us about”]
- So I can’t kick too much [can’t complain too much]
- On the blink again [not working quite the way it should]
- All the Gilder Snerds and Vander Snoots of the town…[the upper crust of society–and perhaps “upper crust” is slowly becoming obsolete!]
- Swell…as in, “You’ve done a swell job on your homework, Jimmy,” or, “The dollar you sent in your last letter was swell!”
- No soap! [for “it’s not happening,” or “no way”]
- Umpteen times [I now use the word “kajillion” for large numbers]
- Here I am hale and hearty [and probably feeling “swell”]
- Bitching to beat hell [what the fellows did when unhappy]
- Fellows [dudes]
- Jalopy [a car which needed lots of TLC to stay running]
I’ll keep my eyes peeled (yuck!) for more swell saying!
I learned today (from a letter written home in August of 1943) that I came by my sharp-shooter skills honestly! Dad evidently won “big money” back in the day:
“Last Thursday I was called up in front of the company, with six others, at retreat. We were the high scorers in the rifle competition. The company commander congratulated us, shook our hands and thanked us for making a good showing. The first prize was $10. I got $7.50 as second prize and five others received $5 apiece for tying in third place.”
I do not believe the army gives cash prizes anymore for demonstrating skills proficiency!
He then presents his latest challenge (torment, fad!) to his family in his typical matter-of-fact way:
“As I sit here thinking of what to write, I am afflicted with a new torment. My latest fad is heat rash. This is similar to poison ivy and spreads like hell. It is very itchy.”
I can see him sitting there on his bunk bed, pen in hand, thinking of what news to send home . . . scratching!
Shortly after receiving his commendation for weapons skills performance, Dad was finally picked up for advanced schooling and sent to Texas A&M. His first induction to college life, however, was all but academic:
“Yesterday we started our college work. We were presented with grass cutters and told to have a certain part done by noon.”
Army boys at college were still, first and foremost, army boys.
Her internal light,
Radiant beyond compare,
embraces us all
Challenging us to
release the pain of our past,
to overcome fear,
Knowing that today,
here, now, is reality
we must not deny
she gave to us, joyfully,
through sparkling bright eyes.
[rest in peace, my beautiful cuz]
It seems that nothing would stop my father from writing home, not being in a tent, not “forgetting” to bring his pen! Letters sent home the last half of May, 1943 focus on the drudgery of camp life (and the seemingly endless guard, cleaning, kitchen duties!) and the smaller things, like not being able to buy treats.
“If we had any more inspections I would have dropped from nervous exhaustion. We have to shake our blankets out daily and five minutes later they are full of dust. They should call this Camp Dust instead of Camp Swift.”
Despite the drudgery, he always seems to keep his dry sense of humor.
“Monday I was hit with my old faithful “K.P.” I would rather walk twenty miles than do K.P. It’s really rough.”
K.P., or “Kitchen Patrol/Police,” is the equivalent of being a busser/dish-washer/floor scrubber at a fast-food restaurant…with no chance of earning tips!
“I got your letter yesterday with the dollar in it. Thanks a lot. Paydays are few and far between in the army . . . . The candy & cookie situation here is quite desperate, as the P.X.s have very little stock and what they have is bought up by fellows leaving for overseas. Any donations will be most gratefully received.”
The thought of a “desperate” cookie situation initially makes me chuckle, but the reality of not having them available because of the war situation makes me feel guilty about what I have in my cupboards right now. “Cupboards”? Does anyone use that term anymore?
When the blankets have been shaken and the kitchen cleaned, there is still work to do:
“Talking about windows, every Friday nite we have to clean all the windows in the barracks for inspection. Besides we have to get down on our hands and knees and scrub the floor. So you see I’ll be quite useful when I get home. If and when I do get home I want you to make me wait outside the kitchen about fifteen minutes before meals, as I might get too lonesome for the army. We have lines for everything, even when we go to town. When I get home I might get too soft if I get right into a movie or can eat immediately.”
And frequently there’s the talk of going home . . .
I try to imagine the changing expression on the face of this young man as he enters the dance hall in May of ’43:
“We finally had our dance Friday nite and although it was nice, it wasn’t quite as nice as I had expected it to be. At any rate it was nice to get out of camp . . . The girls were nice but kind of old for us young squirts. It seems that the young girls are either away at school or are employed in defense work.”
Looking for love. I wonder how old is “kind of old.” Cougars? I shudder.
For his next letter, he clearly went out of his way to find something special for Mother’s Day.
“Here’s a few more flowers for you on Mother’s Day. I hope you had a nice one. I said some extra prayers for you at Mass this morning. We went to Austin over the weekend and it was the first time I’ve been in a civilian church since leaving home. It was small but nice and reminded me a little of home.” Touches of homesickness become a common thread. The frequency of his letter writing–often daily–reminds me of my own daily Facebook time. I, too, feel a longing to be . . . to stay connected with the people who mean the most to me.