Thursday, November 25, 2010

Umnak Island, 28 August 1944

Dearest Nunny…

This has been a good day, one of the best. For a change the weather was fickle, the right way. When I went to bed, around noon, after a post-breakfast trek to the commissary for more Nescafe and pineapple juice, the sky was dull and the wind heavy and damp. But when I woke about five the sun was out and the meadowland flashed silver and green and the soft and warm wind undulate the long yielding grass. 

I decided to give my stomach a break and instead of inflicting a dinner for breakfast on it, brewed up a bit of Nescafe over the hotplate and then went to wake up Jack. He was reading “Life and Death in a Spanish Town” in his sack, had started the morning with a quart of overly sweet grapejuice, and was in such a Hitlerian humor that the local absence of rugs was probably a good thing. 

We went for a walk. Today marks his anniversary on the island and about his 29th month away from the States. That probably accounted for the mood. He told me about his memories of his first day: he had gone, all unwilling, to a movie. There was a line outside and while waiting the fellows he was with read a very funny letter. They giggled as they passed it to him. It contained gags like “I wish you luck like pork, that is in a pig’s ass I do.” And “I hope you fall through your arsehole and break your back.” He does not remember the show, but on his way out an MP bawled him out because he had not brought his rifle with him.

The anniversary was, I believe, more pleasant. We walked to the Bering, but to a stretch of the beach we had not visited before, a spectacular pile of basalt boulders which thrust abruptly from under the grassy topsoil into the corrosive sea.

We reached the shore just before twilight, and as we clambered over the twenty-foot rocks, lamenting our leather-soled GIs, the moon came out, large and lustrous and lopsided. Behind us, far behind, the mountains of our island: one distant and white, the other near and black and fleetingly fog-girdled, both flowing down into green valleys. Close behind the tall grass, fireweed flamed. Under our feet the prehistoric, elephantine rocks. And nowhere a hint of habitation. In all the miles our eyes could cover, not a sign that man had been there before. 

Perhaps it was because of an article I read last night. The piece was “In Pursuit of the Earliest Americans” in the July Harpers. It is the story of the Folsom man, who lived on this continent nearly fifteen thousand years ago and disappeared not long after the last Ice Age. His remains have never been found. All that is know about him has been reconstructed from the flint lance-heads he left imbedded in the bones of such animals as the American mammoth and the pygmy horse. But these points are expertly shaped, much more adroitly than those made thousands of years later by the Indians we know. A Negro cowboy found the first point, and since then they have been found regularly, mainly in an area just east of the Rockies and south of Montana. Then one turned up on a Ketchikan curio store, and the scientists turned north. Near Fairbanks they found huge deposits of mammoth bones frozen in the muck. Many still bore flesh. The scientists sampled steaks from animals extinct for millenniums. Naturally, the steaks tasted like mud and sand, but the dogs liked them very much. Chilled dinosaur might be the answer to the dogfood in wartime problem.
The scientists next went to the Alaskan coast and there, in a stormy inlet on Kodiak, they found another deposit of Folsom points. Before they could complete their studies—and they were not sure whether the Folsom man came across the Bering straits or along the Aleutian chain—there was a war on. Perhaps you have heard of it. And so their studies were suspended temporarily, which, perhaps, is a good thing, for it left me free to stand on the slate colored rocks and look down the moonpath and wonder about the early man who, before the pyramids were built or the great wall started or the first word written came along this coast in his dugout, paddling down the moonlit streak in the sullen sea.
Or Baranoff, a mere hundred years ago, standing off our island in his little sailing ship, the water speckled with the kayaks of the Aleuts. Not even the rocks would have changed much since then; a few inches of erosion, a little more or a little less water in the lagoons. But otherwise, the scene unchanged. I was feeling sheepish about my romancing when Jack said, “I’d marry the woman who understood how this makes me feel.” And I knew you would understand how I felt.
We walked back from the Bering by moonlight and talked of many things: planetariums, Sorel’s theory of the political elite, over-writing, Al Storz from whom Jack received a Museum of Modern Art postcard of a Uraguayan painting today, the merits of the graveyard shift, Machiavelli, and the confusions of modern education.

By the time we reached camp we were well talked out and, going to my hut, brewed coffee and looked up references to various topics we had talked about. And, turning the pages, hearing without listening the goodnight tunes on the radio, we decided we did not want to go to midnight chow in the mess hall. Se we cooked two cans of Campbell’s chicken soup, made some more coffee and broke out Phyllis and Otto’s cookies and spent a long, leisurely hour sipping and sampling and talking of Henry Morgan and Dick Pack. It was my best evening in the Aleutians.

Your letter today was as your letters always are—the best substitute for you that can be delivered in these parts. The idea of Haj developing an Aleutian stare rather worries me: if she gets too deep in reverie that rabbit may sneak up on her some day…Your project for shipping bees her to go with the fireweed is unnecessary. There are some here already, huge bumbling fellows at least an inch long. They make so much noise as they waddle through the air that everyone calls them bee-17s. I don’t know if they produce honey out of their efforts for no one seems to know where they shack up…Carmen’s story on anti-semitism and negrophobia on her father’s part seems incredible. Carmen still hasn’t written me, by the way…Your comment on “an armistice, if not peace, in Europe” reminds me that John C had a good article in the current Fortune on “Five Years After the War.” I liked it for a very smug reason—his account of Europe in the first five years after the last war contained little that I did not already know. I was quite proud of my background on the subject. The article, incidentally, was one of John-boy’s best. 

As I told you the other day I have been filling in all my spare time while on shift by operating one of the local teletype circuits. Occasionally my regular duties make it necessary for me to talk to the parties at the receiving end of the messages. All last month I talked to a man who signed his initials merely LW. On the last day on the swing shift I talked to him not on the teletype but on the telephone. I had kidded him once about a bit of sloppy poking by saying “OK Finnegan, Wake up”  and he had come back immediately with “River Ran.” I didn’t get the allusion so when we had finished our business talk I asked him what he meant. It turned out the River Ran is the second chapter of “Finnegan’s Wake.” So we got to bullsessioning a bit and I found that he is a graduate, ’42, of Yale who was going to go to work on Time, except that the Army got him first. He comes from Brooklyn, does not like John-boy because of his prewar isolationism, and thinks John Hersey the best young American writer. His name is Larry Weistrub and the next time I go down to the library I am to drop over to his outfit and look him up.  It will be nice if there is someone literary to visit here after Jack goes out on rotation. Jack expects to be here about another month. 

Speaking of the library reminds me. Did you send my copy of The Prince? Also, could you send me a list of the packages you have started this way since I came from the old post. I believe I still have one missing that you sent here and the only ones received here are those containing the pajamas and the vitamin pills (but not the lime tablets). Did you ever find my Serb hat to send me? I’d like to have it especially as this will probably be the only time it will be useful besides spectacular. And it will be nice to have something to wear that belongs to us instead of the army. For the benefit of any food you might want to send and have not a request for—I want it. 

[The rest of the letter is a summary of Argentine history, from a book by John White]

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