Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Umnak Island, 26 August 1944


My little one…
So little happens…

The last couple of nights I have worked on the novel, not getting my ten page daily quota completed on either night.  Or both. Each night I have gone to bed after sunrise and read until about eight, when the alarm clocks of the dayshift shift start going off at five-minute intervals. Something about an alarm clock makes me sleepy so about that time I drop off. Each time I woke about three, made coffee on the hot plate with the Nescafe from the commissary, and groped down to the operations building to deadtail  it for eight long slow hours. 

What can I tell you about such days? What that I have not told you time and again in the last four months? 

Perhaps a bit about the feel of the nights. They are cool now, and longer. The last few nights have been cloudy with no moon and no stars. The other night Jack and I took a long walk down the road toward the Bering sometime between two and three. It was dark, so dark that we could not see our hands before our faces, or each other, or the edge of the road which shelves off into a several hundred foot drop. Once we walked into a low cloud and did not see it until we felt it. The flashlight, which we turned on, did not reach the ground. The night was so still that a mile from camp we could hear the click of the billiard balls and the chatter of the teletypes. We talked about everything from the formative influences of first impressions of light to forehand shots in ping pong. 

Jack is currently reading “Life and Death of a Spanish Town.” I don’t remember whether you read it in Patzcuaro. But I know you’ll remember how I bitched about the lurid hortatory paragraphs and the soupy sentimentalism. Manuel refused to finish it. But Jack, who is getting his first bit of backgrounding on the Spanish revolution, is tremendously excited about the book, and can’t understanding my lack of enthusiasm for the passages he quotes. Especially so since I recommended the book to him at the library the other day.


End papers of "Life and Death.."
PART ONE
4000 B.C. to 1936 A.D.
Dawn and Moonlight
There is so much revolution and class war going on in all parts of the world that I believe that it will be of interest to American readers to know how fascist conquest, communist and anarchist invasion, and the bloodiest war yet on record affect a peaceful town. By a town, I mean its people. I knew all of them, their means and aspirations, their politics and philosophy, their ways of life, their ties of blood, their friendships, their deep-seated hatreds and inconsequential animosities. Because Santa Eulalia is on an island [Ibiza], the inhabitants were unable to scatter and flee, and therefore I was able to better to observe them and to know what happened to them as I shared their experience.
The town was very much like any American seaboard town except that the various races there had had six thousand years in which to be blended, and consequently the population was more homogenous. Also the young men did not, as a rule, leave the island to seek their fortune elsewhere. Enough generalities! I feel self-conscious in writing about my dear friends with such objectivity. I loved them and their animals and the shadows of the trees that fell upon their houses. They divided their last pesetas and red wine and beans and gay spirit with me. I got away, and they did not. Their land is dying. Mine is not. This book is a debt I owe them.
Eliot Paul, 1942

As for my own reading, I have finished “Argentina, The Life Story of a Nation” and started on Man of Mexico.” The author of the latter is a devout Catholic and think I am going to have trouble refraining from damaging government property with the volume. The introduction left me feeling something like “Philosophy of Solitude” or “Look Homeward Angel.” But I aim to struggle through because the biographical sketches are all on men who could be of interest: Moctezuma II, Cortez, De Las Casas, Don Vasco De Quiroga, Hidalgo, Morelos, Iturbide, Santa Ana, Juarez, Maximilian, Diaz, Carranza, Calles and Cardenas.

The book on Argentina opens with a preface in which White apologizes for being pro-Argentine. But he is a poor propagandist for a I finished the book with a strong distaste for the argentine. About the only paragraph in the whole book which was pleasing as well as informative dealt with the gaucho (who has disappeared from the country) and his former way of life: 

A strict gaucho code of unwritten law grew up on the pampas. It was a crime to steal a horse. It was all right to borrow one without the owner’s knowledge, because when it was turned loose it would return home. It was also acceptable to kill another man’s cow for food, but honor required that the owner of the animal get its hide. The gaucho also had a deep inborn sense of hospitality. He never under any circumstances refused a meal and lodging to anyone who might ask for it, even when he knew his guest was a hunted criminal. And, of course, he never admitted to the police who his lodger had been. No stranger ever got out of his saddle in front of a shack on the pampas without first calling out “Ave Maria” and waiting to be invited to dismount. If he responded to the greeting Buenas Tardes with Buenos Dias, that meant he had had no lunch, and food was prepared for him at once, no matter what the time of day. Throughout Argentina today, people still say Good Afternoon at eleven in the morning and Good Morning at three in the afternoon according to whether or not they have had their mid-day meal.
Speaking of food, I got a package of cookies and fudge from Phyllis and Otto yesterday. The candy and cookies were packed in separate boxes: one for garters, a couple of big matchboxes, the one which held the rum cakes we took down on one trip, and several others. I ate one box of fudge last night, but the rest of the food I’m saving until some day when dinner in the mess hall disgusts me too much. Them I’m going up and brew a batch of coffee and sit down to a Vienna fiesta, to foul up an idea internationally. Anyway I regard those cookies as a prisoner would a file. 

The food situation here is hardly pleasing, although I must admit that the lout Robbie has been behaving himself all right as far as I am concerned. But not some of the other fellows are griping. Tonight, for example, there were baked potatoes served for the midnight meal. Swell. Most of us like them very much, especially with butter and there was butter. But two of the fellows didn’t like baked potatoes. They preferred to get their starch in the form of bread. But when they went to butter their bread Robbie howled and yelled and cursed and threatened to throw things. The butter was supposed to be for potatoes. They explained that they hadn’t eaten potatoes and were using the butter they would have used on the potatoes. But Robbie, who is 5-5 if ever there was one, couldn’t figure it out.
On final little picture of our life here. It is six a.m. I am coming home from the operations building where I’ve been writing and Tim Egon is wondering in from the rec hall where he has been playing ping pong. Sunrise is about an hour along. Just at the steps leading down to our hut—which is dug in about five feet—we stop and look back across the swamp at the Bering. The sea is slate gray; the island beyond, black. A layer of flat, low, bruise-colored clouds cover nearly all the sky. But between the clouds and the black island, we can see the sunrise. You won’t believe this, but the sky was green. Greener than grass and as brilliant as the sheen on a bird’s neck. The green reflected faintly on the thin mist which rose from the swamp. Several poles stuck up out of the fog. On two sat bald eagles, turning their white heads slowly. 

From Wind Blown and Dripping, 1944
That’s the picture. “It’s beautiful,” I said. Before Tim answered, one of the eagles screeched. “Yeah,” said Tim, “incredibly beautiful. Sitting on an island in the middle of beyond watching a beautiful sunrise and nothing else to do but listen to screaming eagles.”
Which reminds me. The other night the boys were in a bullsession. It was very much like the old bullsessions back in college days for the subject was what we would do if there was a war. Everyone had plans for staying out of the army. One fellow said, “When the next one starts I’m going to find me some piece of geography that no one wants and go there and sit it out no matter how bad the climate.” And Eagon said, “Hell, that’s what I’m doing in this one.”

How does Rumania being on our side strike you? It reminds me of the old gag about the Italians: “Insult them. If they are neutral they will pin down one or two of our divisions watching them; if they come into the war it will take three divisions a month to knock them out; but if they are on our side it will take two armies a year to defend them.” Those poor Rumanian peasants.
M

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