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.
April 18th, 1943:
“Here it is Sunday again, and Palm Sunday at that. I just got back from Mass and communion. Time seems to go by so fast in the army. When I left home it was Washington’s Birthday, now it’s Easter.” The ages old question of where time “goes” seems to unite us in a common theme. A friend’s status update on Facebook today asks, “Does anyone know where September went?” Suggestions for where to “look” to find the missing month are giggle-provoking. “Civilians don’t realize how little free time a soldier actually has.” The notion of “free time” causes me to think. Is any of our time ever free? My husband, Mike, just came in to look at our calendar. He is unable to express–adequately–the frustration he feels over the number of obligations he has taken on given the constraints of time. But I can read it in his face. He does not need to say anything. Nonetheless, we talk over toast about what we might do to improve our current budget.
“Thursday we got paid. This pay covered the period from when we entered the army until March 31. I was paid $48.50. This does not include the $6.75 for my insurance, nor the $3.75 for war bonds. In other words I made about $59.00. Since we will be paid again in about two weeks for April, I am sending home $40.00 with which you can do what you want.” When sons left their homes back in the ’40s, they actually sent money back to their parents. What a foreign concept that is in a world which today seems to accept that children will be cared for by their parents long after they are no longer children.
Before I continue with tidbits from Dad’s letters I, thought I should provide a proper introduction. In the center stands our protagonist–Charles Murray Bernier–between his parents, Alice (Murray) and John (a.k.a., J.J.), and with his “favorite sister” Kathryn (Kay) and brother John/Jack/Jackie.
I chuckle when I read what must have been a response to a letter from home talking about his dad’s workload and the cold April temperatures in Boston: “Hope Dad gets his Sundays off. He needs the rest and it will give the family a chance to see more of him. Good old Dad, I’d sure like to see him myself. I don’t want you to freeze your face Mom, for I still consider and always will consider you to be a very beautiful woman. No one can beat you.”
Awwwww! I can only imagine that my Dad was the most perfect son!
Early April letters provide hints of both Dad’s days and what the “folks” at home were up to. “We also took an electrical test this afternoon. 50 questions in 25 minutes, mostly on telephone equipment. I think I did fair on it, whereas most of the new fellows were completely lost.” I believe my Dad had already had some experience working with AT&T before joining the army, but I’m not sure how much! (question to you, Dad!)
I also would like to know how bad a cold has to be to land you in the hospital: “That rest I had in the hospital did me a lot of good besides completely curing my cold. I was there six days.”
Dad clearly took his job as oldest child in the family seriously and knew how to communicate both love and respect: “I’ll bet you’re doing a swell job, Mom, rolling bandages. If every woman who has a son in the service would do as much, the bandage situation would be greatly improved. Tell Dad not to work too hard. You don’t have to do all the work at the Meisel Press. Why don’t you let the bosses do some; that is if it’s alright with you.” The Meisel Press Mfg. Company And United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers Of America was established in 1942. Dad’s dad was a tailor by trade (in Canada before emmigrating to the U.S.), so I am curious about this job. I also wonder about the bandage rolling situation . . . Red Cross, perhaps?
Two themes are consistent so far in his letters: missing home, and keeping up with his Catholic obligations. Although he wants to hear his parents’ voices one afternoon, he is thwarted: “I was over to the main post this afternoon and was going to call up but the operator said it would take from three to six hours to put it through, so I didn’t bother. I did make it a point, though, to go to confession and I’m going to communion tomorrow.” His faith was, and still is, paramount in his life.
Dad doesn’t failed to find opportunities for recreation, however, as the topic of U.S.O. dances comes up frequently: “Girls and refreshments will be served.” That quirky sense of humor again! And money . . . what a difference half a century makes. He acknowledges receiving a letter from an aunt: “It was very nice and contained a lot of advice, but the best thing it contained was a dollar.” A dollar in a letter! That’d buy 100 boxes of penny matches! (I am left wondering what advice an old aunt would give a young G.I.!)
Betwee April 4th and 8th of 1943, Dad experienced his first gas mask drills. The first came after some tragic news of an Engineering Lieutenant and several of his men who were killed when a faulty fuse failed to trigger at the right moment.
“The other night I was tired and went to bed early. Some of the fellows came back from the P.X. [post exchange…the army equivalent of a department store] crying and laughing at the same time. Somebody either planned or accidentally dropped a case of tear gas. Immediately the alarm was given to put on our masks. In my first experience with gas, where was I but in bed, reading a magazine with my gas mask on.”
I want to know what magazine he was reading! The second drill came after receiving the results of his IQ test; he explains that “If you get 110 you qualify for Officers candidate school,” and he earned a 122/150. “When we got back we were told to prepare for a tornado. We had to wear gas masks, rain coats and helmets.” Fortunately, the tornado did not manifest, and the drill was called off. I wonder how the masks would have helped had the storm struck!
In these letters I start to sense that this young soldier may be a bit of a perfectionist. After apologizing for the quality of his writing, “(This penmanship is very poor as I am writing in bed),” he makes a generous offer to his younger sister…but with conditions! “Tell Kay that if she gets the urge to play tennis, she can use my racket; but make sure she loans it to no one and always puts it in the press when not in use.” I wonder how this proclivity will affect his behavior as his time in the army passes. I recognize hints of this trait in my oldest son, now the age my Dad would have been.
Dad wraps up these letters with a true sign of the times: “Three out of six barracks in the company are quarantined on account of measles & mumps. Never a dull moment here,” and then throws in the bit of humor that I will continue to search out in his messages home. “They say you have to eat a ton of dirt before you die. I’m well on my way to my last few pounds.”