Our Kathy

vessel of acceptance, love
and understanding

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

Everlasting gifts
she gave to us, joyfully,
through sparkling bright eyes.

[rest in peace, my beautiful cuz]


Elbow Grease and Cookies!

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 . . .


Flowers for Mother

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.


Time and money

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.


The Bernier Family

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!


Faith, fun, and family

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.!)


Gas, tennis, measles and dirt.

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.”


A Penny for . . .

The last paragraph in a letter dated March 22, 1943 reminds me to take stock of all that I own, and of the conveniences of living in the 21st century:

“Pass this news on to the fellows and tell them I can’t write them all because I’ll only have to tell them all the same news . . . tell them and the LeBlancs that this is sure a swell pen & pencil set. The pen writes by itself. All I have to do is hold it. I really appreciate it. This watch that you gave me is really on the ball. It will go pretty near two days on one winding and it’s keeping good time.”

Just the thought of having to write individual letters to all my friends and family leaves me exhausted. With Facebook and other social media, I can update all 255 of my closest peeps (!) with the click of a key. I do, though, remember receiving my own gift pen & pencil set when I left for my first college, and treasured it as I did my Smith Corona electric typewriter (which was quite a technological advancement from the manual one on which I learned to type at Braintree High School). Do we make wind-up watches anymore? I wonder what percentage of our population even wears a wrist watch in 2011.

Earlier in this same letter, Dad asks his family to remind any of the “fellows” to follow that they should bring 10 hangers with them, and requests “a carton of book matches, if you can get them. All they have down here are those penny boxes of wooden matches and they are too bulky to carry around.” To smoke was the status quo, and if cigarette manufacturers had the knowledge then of the destructive physical results, they sure didn’t tell anyone. Soldiers would find cigarettes in their meal rations . . . “’Spuds,’ ‘Wings,’ and if we were lucky,” Dad tells me, “Chelseys.”  They came four in a pack. I am reminded of being a child in a time when chalky candy cigarettes from the “Penny Store” were a treat. Ugh.



Fifty-three’ish beautifully handwritten letters uploaded (i.e., typed)! Next steps . . . read through them all, highlight significant statements, events, trends, compile questions for the author!


Boston boy in for an eye-opener

In 1943, just a month after his 19th birthday, Dad boarded a train to “somewhere” with a toothbrush and a change of underwear. He had joined the army. In one of his first letters home, I discover both his early sense of humor and his sheltered naiveté:

“To begin with we rode on a Boston and Maine day coach that saw its prime 75 years ago. Nothing but the best for the army, you know. However, the other cars were all more modern and it was better than walking. Leaving Mass., we hit the corner of Vermont, then thru New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, then Texas. I might have missed one or two states, but it doesn’t matter. We hit snow in every state except Texas, which I think is God’s country. (It might be a little of the devil’s too, for it is so hot down here!) We passed under the Appalachian Mts. by way of the Hoosac tunnel, and crossed the Mississippi river. After viewing the country all the way down here, except for Texas, I was thankful that I lived in Massachusetts, for you don’t realize the poverty that most of the people live in. Most all shacks we passed were inhabited by colored people, and a few whites. Yet they seemed to be happy and waved to us as we passed by.”

The train’s destination: Camp Swift, Texas. He describes his new daily routine:

“We get up at 6:30; fall out for revile at 6:45, and eat at 7:00. About 7:30 we fall out again and have about an hour of physical exercise, and I do mean exercise. We do all kinds of body bends and twists. Then we form in a circle, walk then run, then do all kinds of torture movements such as squatting down and walking, or walking on our hands and toes. After this we have classes on various things such as courtesy and customs, motors, hygiene, the artillery guns, and other army methods. We eat dinner at 12:00. After dinner we usually have a few more classes, or a training film on different things. Then we usually go for a little walk about 4:00. It’s not so easy to keep step marching in sand. Monday, we did a bit of wood marching. First of all we had to leap across a pretty wide ditch. I didn’t realize it was so deep or wide until I was half way over. I made it all right but some fellows just aren’t jumpers. Poor fellows! Then we do double time running up and down hills, over rocks, and over a log, which is a bridge over a ditch. After going through that I think I’ll give up cigarettes. Boy! was I winded.”

Torture movements! I know Dad played tennis back in his high school days . . . I’ll have to ask if that was the extent of his physical activity before his army days. At least he wasn’t one of the “poor fellows” who couldn’t jump; perhaps he should have played basketball!

I suddenly realize how difficult it will be to find the focus of this memoir writing. So many letters, so much information, so much still to ask . . .