Thursday, December 16, 2010

Umnak Island, 22 and 23 July 1944:The Guys in the Hut


My Darling…

I have been here almost three weeks now, so it is time that I tell you a bit about my roommates. As I have mentioned before I see much less of them than I did the men in Hut 18 at the old station. The reasons are that the weather is better here so we are all outside much more, beer is allowed only in the rec hall here so many of the men of day shift spend most of their evenings there, and a couple of the fellows work swing which means they are at the operations hut during the only hours I am not sleeping or working myself. 

There are eight of us. Our beds all run parallel to the wall. The bunks to the rear of the hut are considered the most desirable because they are farther from the door. During the williwaws the door sometimes blows open and the beds nearest it get soaked in the horizontal rains. So the old timers gravitate to the far end of the hut and they take the best and biggest furniture with them. Coming in to the hut one feels that the feels that the floor slopes down from the door, like Chaplin’s in “The Gold Rush.”

I have the cot nearest the door on the left . My desk is under the window, an improvised cabinet in the space between desk and wall. I have fastened up nearly every picture you have sent me, including the shots of the Pennsylvania barns.

The cot next to mine is occupied by our new cook, John MacDougal, who arrived here about three days after I did. He is a short, wiry, clerky man with graying brownish hair, a long sloping chin which he aims at you as he talks, and a small mouth that folds into an otherwise sharp face and makes him look an ad for cheap dental plates. 

This is Mac’s first trip outside the U.S. He spent the last two years at Fort Douglas, Utah (where my papers once were lost). There he was a baker, a corporal and almost a civilian. His wife lived in the town and he was home nearly every night. Because he is in his mid-thirties he had rather expected to sit out the struggle near Salt Lake. His is just recovering from the shock of finding himself on the shores of the Bering. 

Mac flaps about the hut in outsize blue fatigue. They make him look a little pathetic, like a convict who has been in too long. One tends to feel sorry for him rather than to really like him, although there is nothing about him not to like. He speaks softly with a second generation scotch burr; he is neat and does his share of the housework; he is generous.
And as a cook, he is anxious to please. The fellows all say “none of them are bad at first.” But I think that a man who is in there working extra hours after a couple of years in the army must be interested in his work, or at least in keeping everyone content.
He was not a cook as a civilian. Before the war he worked in Butte as a day laborer and as a salesman. He is married and childless. When the war came he was drafted—his wife was working—and sent to Douglas. While there he met a friend who was a baker. The friend said he needed an assistant and that the job had to be filled that day. So Mac became a baker. He did little cooking but kept his eyes open while in the kitchen. He learned the tricks. Now he is not so sure it was a good idea. When the ACS sent in an order for a cook, bingo. The Aleutians.

Mac’s wall is bare of beauties. He does not even have a picture of his wife up.
Deanna Durbin at 18
Not so corporal Greenleaf Thornton. He has over his bed, the one beyond Mac’s, two hunting scenes taken from calendars, a picture of six Chilean beauties taken from Time, and a shot of Deanna Durbin with her breasts hanging out taken from life—and I do mean from Life. Incidentally the article accompanying this decisively décolleté daguerreotype said that Miss Durbin was going to rely on her dramatic talents instead of her voice in future pictures.

Greenleaf is the boy who looks like Alan Ladd. He is five feet ten, solid but not stocky, with light brown hair and hazel eyes and a set of teeth that couldn’t look whiter if his face were black and he had lived all his life on tortillas and beans. He carries himself like a soldier and thinks like a civilian. When he gets out of the army he will probably make a moderate fortune selling something.

He could probably sell anything to women. He was peddling vacuum cleaners before the war and is the type who gives foundation to certain salesmanship jokes. He also worked in hotels and, it is presumed, made the most of his opportunities there.
But Greenleaf is not a professional ladykiller. He seems to be one more or less by accident of his good looks. His ambitions are in business and he aims to make his fortune, to self make it. He is even willing to stay in Alaska to get it which indicates the desperateness of his desire. 

He is an ambiguous boy. Personally ambitious and a potential businessman, he is nevertheless an admirer of Henry Wallace, FDR, and Harold Ickes. In debates with Hazen and Godfrey he defends labor unions, the Democratic Party and publications like PM and the New Republic—which he does not read.

Greenleaf is 27. He comes from Chicago, and thereby hangs a tale. About four years ago he read an article on opportunities in Alaska. That night he and two cronies got drunk. Greenleaf talked them into quitting their jobs and going to Alaska. The next morning he called for them in his car—and one was still willing. They started north and west. Three times they crossed into Canada and three times thoughtful gas station operators explained that there was no road to Alaska. The first two times Greenleaf and his pal were unconvinced. They suspected the Canadians of trying to hoard all the Alaskan opportunities for themselves. “How the hell would you get to Alaska if there’s no road?” The third time they were convinced. They drove to the Pacific Northwest.

Reaching Seattle early one morning they took one look around, decided nothing could be more desolate, studied the map and drove to Tacoma. In Tacoma they took one look around and drove back to Seattle. They both found jobs and worked until boards of their newfound neighbors sent them greetings. 

In the army Greenleaf drew an artillery outfit and distinguished himself mainly by kidnapping command cars everytime he had a rating. In this was he kept getting promoted to Corporal on alternate Fridays. He was stationed at Fort Lewis and, for a brief time, just after Pearl Harbor, did duty in Grays Harbor, mainly at the ship. He recognizes our boy Bill by description: short, fat and despicable, with a snotty-nose mustache. 

He finally drew a transfer into the ACS and did duty on Kodiak. He came here about eleven months ago and is now sweating out the home stretch before drawing his furlough he hopes he hopes.

Greenleaf is the best conversationalist in the hut and on a good night will argue anything ably. He swears little, even avoiding the local catchall “Oh my fucking back.” His favorite expression is “blow my/your cork” which can mean anything from getting slightly angry to becoming positively Peter Oboed. He reads Time (with a cocked eyebrow), Terry and the Pirates, good mysteries and bad novels for the stenographer trade. As an operator he is probably the most efficient man at the station.

At the end of the left side, beyond the hut magazine table which sits between him and Greenleaf, is Corporal Richardson, a slight, sallow boy from the East Coast who hates Alaska with a holy hatred. He had 15 months in a line outfit and ardently defends the merits of the type of discipline he learned there. The Aleutian attitude toward officers—Hiya Bill—he deplores. He has a long face with too small features and fine Italian looking eyes. As he works swing I almost never see him.

Our problem child sleeps across from Richardson. His name is Reger. He comes from Johnstown, PA., where once won a competition by having the cleanest women’s lavatory of any service station in town. It is his sole claim to fame, his neatness.

He has inherited a fine, large desk built by one of the men who has left for warmer climes at OCS. On this desk he keeps a line of pocketbooks which he never reads. He has half dozen souvenir shells nearly arranged on it. Also a can of shrimps and can of peanut butter, neither of which has been so much as moved during the three weeks I have been here. He never sits at the desk. 

Reger is a hero worshipper. His former hero was a non-com whom everyone else in camp detested I never met the man but from what I hear of him from one and all he must have been impossible. The closest thing to a kind word anyone has had for him was Thornton’s comment, “He had it in him to be a fine man if he weren’t such a complete bastard.” Anyway, Reger is now minus this hero and is currently emulating a simple lad who talks hepcat. Consequently we are all treated to Reger’s parroting of phrases like “Taper off, tots,” and “Get on the beam, dream.”

When using his own vocabulary, Reger is consistently below the belt. His attitude is enough to curdle a normal man’s sex impulses. He is a verbal degenerate, although I suppose he is repulsive enough so that it is impossible that he has achieved the conquests he enumerates. Fortunately he is due for a furlough soon and we are all rooting for him with an enthusiasm which in an intelligent man would arouse suspicions. 

I have to work now Nunny so I’ll leave the other three … to another letter. We also have some interesting characters in the operating room including a likeable Southerner, a Spanish-Greek-Turkish Jew and the Brooklyn defendant of the word of Betty Smith. Of them, more later.

The war news remains incredibly good. I really can’t see how Germany can sweat it out more than a couple of months at most. And the fact that we can keep up a big offensive in the Pacific while fighting the showdown fight in Europe means that at least we are keeping the Japs off balance and at best that we may be able to finish them off in less than a year after the Germans fold. Knock wood my darling. 

I miss you terribly. No mail again today, which makes it bad. No one from Seattle got any today so I know it isn’t your fault.
All my love little one, 

M

23 July 1944
Hello little sweet…

Yesterday I was telling you about the guys in the hut. I had six down and three to go.
Let’s start with Al Hesse. He is your Lincoln classmate, a solid, balding boy of twenty five, earnest and unimaginative. He has been in the ACS for two years, has stomach ulcers and a profound longing for the end of the war. 

A few months ago he chanced on a book about short story writing. He had read little up to that time but, getting interested, he has since waded through nearly every anthology of short fiction available in Alaska. He prefers the New Yorker type of short story. His seemed strange to me as he does not seem particularly subtle. (The boys razz him unmercifully and he seldom realizes his limb is being lengthened.) But he explained to me the other day that in the New Yorker stories there is no need to think up a plot. 

He showed me a short story he wrote recently. It was far from a meritless performance, its prime fault being blatant obviousness of its point, which was that an Alaska soldier meeting two girls got interested in the wrong one. But Al is very worried that the point will be missed.

Hesse is also interested in painting. Oils are his field. His style might be called Coca-Cola primitive, characterless faces and unintentional perspective. But his work gets better as he goes along and may achieve fourth class. I realize the unfairness of this criticism—his painting is without question superior to what I could do if I tried. And he realizes its limitations.

I don’t know Al very well. We do the same work and consequently work different shifts. He spends most of his free time in bed, coddling his stomach which really needs care. As he has been up here only a month more than I, he is one of the three who will sweat out most of the rest of the year with me. He wears well, is quiet, soft-spoken and tiptoes when men are sleeping. To ask for more in a room-mate in the army is indeed captious. 

Tim Egon is our character, the wildman of “The Empty Arms.” He is Irish, black-haired, clear-skinned, an incipient alcoholic with a welling hatred of the Aleutians. Some days he lies in his bunk and stares at the curve of the brown wall and does not answer when spoken to. Some days he sweeps the hut and picks flowers for the mess hall and writes long letter to his wife in Minneapolis.

He is a radio operator and a good one. But this is his second hitch in the Aleutians and his fourth year in the army. His incentive has atrophied.

On his last furlough at home he found “it’s damn hard to be a real human being again.” He felt that he and his wife were strangers. So when he hit Seattle he went on a tear and wound up asleep in the aisle of the YMCA. Someone let him in his room and then someone woke him up and told him he was under arrest. That was Luckman, the sweating sergeant. He chased Luckman out, and then chased Luckman and me out a little later. His remarks to the lieutenant who finally arrested him were enough to cost him his sergeant’s stripes, which he has yet to regain. Shipped north he went to a mainland station where he fouled up or had bad luck. Anyway he was sent back out here, where he had first served isolated duty. His is not happy.

Tim has a true toper’s nose. He can smell out alcohol at inconceivable distances and if the opportunity exists he uses it. But recently the OIC pretty well grounded him by banning him from the beer bar in the rec hall. Now, he says, “I gotta do my dreaming on my own.”
He has a Celtic knack with words and a Daniellian flair for profanity. Waking with a hangover one morning he groaned and announced, “I couldn’t knock a sick whore off a pisspot.” After one interview with an officer he said, “I was so mad I could have shit a running dog.” 

Somewhere I had picked up the idea that Tim had a roughneck’s hostility to reading, that he considered my bookishness with contempt. But in the past week I have gone to the mat with him over Wolfe, a favorite of his; agreed with him that Melville could outwrite a quartet of Nordhoff and Halls; disagreed on Hemingway vs Steinbeck but conceded that “Great Two-Hearted River” is better than “Johnny Bear”; agreed that Maugham tells a good story but hasn’t written a major novel since “Of Human Bondage”; agreed that D.H. Lawrence is good only in small doses and that the seduction scene in “To a God Unknown” is unique. He wanted to talk about “War and Peace,” which he had read during his first Aleutian year, but I haven’t read it yet. For his sake I hope he gets out of here soon, but for mine I would just as soon he stayed.

As a civilian, Tim was a radio operator for a railroad. He worked in Minneapolis and Spokane. He was in one of the Railroad Brotherhoods (“Damn best union you ever saw. When you want a raise you take a strike vote. Everybody votes strike or he’s a sonofabitch and treated as such. Then the steward shows the strike vote to the company and you got the raise. Sometimes the government sends someone to look into it but he always says the raise isn’t big enough anyway.”) He is a pre New Deal Democrat who liked Roosevelt better than Wallace, Wallace better than Dewey.

Tim thinks a Mississippi trip would be “wonderful till you get in the South.”
Lyle Deckard, who has the bunk right across from mine, is a large, StBernardish individual, broad and slow. He comes from Idaho, where he worked in the mines in the Salmon River (“River of No Return”) area. He dug, and his shoulders still show it. He likes being outdoors and while he hated the pits he liked the trips to the distant mines. They went in by horse, along trails bordering the rivers. He says the Salmon would be “bad shooting” because the rapids are very rocky. He does not have the usual doubts about kayaks in rough water because he has seen the Eskimos doing their tricks. 

In mental attitude Lyle is a lot like By [By Haines, All-American UW Husky football player] (He played football somewhere), and in speech he has a likeable Gadke-ish quality.
He is a bookkeeper now, and studied it somewhere along the line. His is a conservative politically, hates Wallace and Ickes but sees good in Roosevelt as a war leader. Borahish in Idahoan inconsistencies he hates Henry Ford and public utilities. 

Lyle will be the first of the fellows to leave the hut if everyone goes in the order now expected. After that we will lose Thornton, Richardson, Reger, and Tim. But Tim hopes to get a transfer soon so within four months Mac and Hesse may be the only oldtimers sharing the joint with me.

According to schedule, Jack should go in a couple of months or sooner. He arrived with Deckard. But he doubts that he will be out on time. I am almost tempted to hope he does not get out right away for he is the closest companion I have found since entering the Army. My liking for him is probably an evidence of a narcissus-complex. He is a hell of a lot like me, more so than I care to think of another person’s being.

Jack takes no pains to conceal attitudes towards people. He will probably grow out of that because there is an unnecessary brutality in some of his criticisms. But most of them are valid. On those he likes just a little more than an active dislike, he practices a bold baiting. His favorite victim is Mac the Missionary.

At one time Mac and Jack were hutmates. One of the other men shared Jack’s virulent views about would-be mystics and raw reformers. So they made up rhymes and shouted them to each other from opposite sides of Mac’s bunk. One night Jack literally dreamed up this one and woke the hut by repeating it with dripping water regularity:
Ecclisstocracy—Tis ought but fraught
                       With thought distraught

He entered the best of these Nash nip-ups in his notebook under the title of “Bits of Glass.” My favorite of those I have seen is
                                Life in this Quonset
                                For them that want it
                                  Is all very good, I say

                                But I’ll live my life
                                Where evil is rife
                                  For I’m of a common clay.

That reminds me of a story I found in “Lord of Alaska.” It is the tale of a Russian missionary who went to one of the Aleutian villages on the mainland because he wanted to preach to Indians unspoiled by the white man. He was accepted in one town but the natives considered him “unnatural” because he would not sleep with any of the native women and said that all men should give up three of their four wives. The author quotes this story as told by an Indian boy:
“One morning the village howled with laughter. The night before one of the girls of the village had crept into Father Juvenal’s cell and got into his bed with him. The three of us boys were sleeping in the other room and we heard him say something—then there was a silence for a long time—after which he screamed like a madman that she had made him fall and he drove her out of the house with a stick.
Father Juvenal
“The next morning he did not come out of his cell for a long time, and when he did he seemed like a man who had lost his sense. His eyes were wild and staring, his hair was disheveled…he was afraid to go into the village though I told him everyone would consider it only a joke. My father rocked with laughter when he heard that one of the girls had persuaded him to be a man…when the women saw him they laughed. It made him angry and he turned on them with harsh words. They could not understand his words but his tone was insulting. A circle formed around him. Someone hit him and he fought back. I was sick to my stomach when they pushed him down…someone drew a knife, walked toward him as he lay there and buried the knife to the hilt in his back, then stepped back. The crowd watched, silently. Juvenal lay several minutes the blood streaming from the hole in his back, then to everyone’s horror he seemed to want to rise. The crowd fell back, stricken with awe. He put his hands to the ground and lifted himself, slowly, to his feet, then stood there, swaying. Blood trickled down his beard, smeared his face, and streamed down his black cassock. I saw his lips move and he clasped his hands: ‘Oh God come to my assistance. Oh Lord, make haste to help me. Let them be confounded and ashamed that seek my soul.’
“Suddenly the crowd yelled with fury and were on him again, this time with knives. And when they had torn Father Juvenal apart their threw the pieces into the lake…”
That little Aleutian Decameronet is the wildest story in the book but the whole thing is a really good job. It is the best biography I can recall and the foreword is a superb description of the Aleutians. It was written by a disciple of Prof. [Edmund] Meany. If you can find it at the library take it out. “Lord of Alaska” by Hector Chevigny.
[It turns out that this story of Father Juvenal's death is a forgery, and Chevigny left it out of later versions of his work. A equally colorful if less racy version comes from a blog by the Very Reverend Father Peter-Michael Preble, a motorcycle riding priest of the Romanian Orthodox Church in America:

In 1795, Father Juvenal baptized over 700 Chugatchi at Nushek, then he crossed Kenai Bay and baptized the local people there. In 1796, according to native oral tradition, St Juvenal came to the mouth of the Kuskokwim near the present village of Quinahgak, where he was killed by a hunting party (There is a forged diary attributed to Ivan Petroff which gives a slanderous version of Fr Juvenal's death, and alleges that he was martyred at Lake Iliamna).

The precise reason for St Juvenal's murder by the natives is not known. However, they later told St Innocent something about his death. They said that St Juvenal did not try to defend himself when attacked, nor did he make any attempt to escape. After being struck from behind, he turned to face his attackers and begged them to spare the natives he had baptized.

The natives told St Innocent that after they had killed St Juvenal, he got up and followed them, urging them to repent. The fell upon him again and gave him a savage beating. Once more, he got to his feet and called them to repentance. This happened several times, then finally the natives hacked him to pieces. Thus, the zealous Hieromonk Juvenal became the first Orthodox Christian in America to receive the crown of martyrdom. His unnamed guide, possibly a Tanaina Indian convert, was also martyred at the same time.

It is said that a local shaman removed St Juvenal's brass pectoral cross from his body and attempted to cast a spell. Unexpectedly, the shaman was lifted up off the ground. He made three more tries with the same result, then concluded that there was a greater power than his own at work here. Years later, a man showed up at the Nushagak Trading Post wearing a brass pectoral cross exactly like the one worn by St Juvenal.

A column of light arose from his holy relics and reached up to Heaven. It is not known how long this phenomenon continued.]
You are love with a massive muchness, Nunny.
M

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