Saturday, January 15, 2011

Umnak Island, 11 July 1944

Rosa darling…

I didn’t write yesterday, partly because there was little to write about but mainly because I was rumdum. The morning KP and a midday shortarm inspection dismembered my usual sleeping period and all through the evening I was more asleep than awake.

But today I carved out a solid eight hours of slumber and feel as well as I ever will until I get back to you. This afternoon, standing in front of the hut and watching the clouds roll in from the water, covering the peaks and partially veiling the meadow, I said “Lord, I wish Rosa were here.” And Senor Juan snorted, “for a man in love you certainly say funny things.” I protested that the view was beautiful and he finally conceded “I suppose it is—in its own dull, dreary way.”

In time I suppose I will come to feel the same way, after all an alabaster prison would still be a prison and in a sense the green meadow, the grey arctic water, the tundra-covered basalt hills and the snow-covered mountains are walls. But for the present I still find them beautiful.

After dinner tonight I was feeling a bit blue, mainly because of the mail. There hasn’t been any of it. I know that it will start catching up with me eventually and that the delay is the inevitable result of the shift of stations and is really little enough to pay for such a pleasant change. But I nonetheless have hopes at each delivery and, at all but one, disappointments.

So, feeling blue, I went for a walk, skidding down the sharp slope to the meadow directly below the camp. It was my first visit to this part of the swamp. At close range the meadow is less attractive then from ninety feet above. What appears to be good grazing grassland is really a huge a bog, spongy at best and swamp at its worst, cut by numerous rivulets which, hidden by the waist-high, windbent grass, are undetected until you step in them. 

Where these tiny streams start remains a mystery. A few creeks flow down the side of the same cliff I descended but they are larger and their courses distinct. One of these cliff creeks takes a spectacular fifty-foot drop over the black rocks. These falls are visible from the ACS area and they were my objective in the hike. Like the swamp, they demonstrate the deceptiveness of the local terrain. The hill on which we are perched is smooth and green and soft, except for one agglomerate outcropping, but the softness is only dirt deep. The stream has worn though the thin, alluvial skin and exposed the basalt bones of the island. I guess that the dirt surface nowhere goes down more than ten or fifteen feet and in most places it cannot exceed two or three. The muskeg of 980 is missing.

In the swampy land at the base of the falls I found some hydrangeas, white and small blossomed and sweet as a Sunday in March. I climbed the cliff beside the falls—getting soaked by the windblown spray—and in a little crevasse fund the tiny, redgreen, maplelife leave clipped on to the first page.
The stream of the interesting falls rises from the side of the hill only a few feet from where it goes over the cliff: what a short, rough life the little river has. The water is very clear and very cold. Senor Juan tells me there is a real river quite some distance from here which flows out of a crater lake. During the next nine and a half months I intend to see it. 

After inspecting the source of the falls I kept going up the hill until I could look down not only on the plain but on the little shelf which holds the ACS station. The layout is not unpleasing. The best feature is that here has been no need to build boardwalks, as at 980, and the paths go through grass instead of across land. 
The huts here are dug in deeper than at the old station. On most of them only a foot or two stick out above the top of the humps of raw dirt thrown up when the ground was cleared for laying the floors. Several of the huts were set in little hollows and sheltered steps have been run from the front doors to the ground level. These little wooden necks sticking from the tubular Quonsets and Pacifics give the huts a strangely saurian appearance when seen from above, like baby dinos stretching their necks for food. (Much more talk like that and I’ll begin to suspect I’ve been here too long.)

Which reminds me, there is an altogether different set of stock phrases here. The old station specials—“You’ve been here too long” and “Never had it so good”—are known but not particularly popular, the all-pervading profanity here is “Oh my fucking back,” a comment which can be applied to either favorable or unfavorable developments. My first day here I was a bit puzzled to see and hear our local Texan reading about Brooklyn’s tree and, with howls of laughter, complain about his back. Already I am used to it.

Except for that one spinal special, there is remarkably little profanity employed here: certainly much less than in the ACS at Seattle. As I have mentioned before, this station is what the whole organization must have been in the early days of the war—a group of rather able individuals out to do a job. The intellectual atmosphere is that of a rather rundown fraternity, one not yet gone to seed or the collection of athletes. While not stimulating it is not depressing. Yet.

Coming back from the walk—I doubt that I covered more than a mile in all—I went to the rec hall for a while. It was more quiet than usual and the radio wasn’t going. So I took over the chair by the phonograph and had a pleasant time with Mozart’s double piano concerto. The r. album is almost as enjoyable as the music itself. We looked at it one day in the book store: a pale blue background on which are set two very Russian figures and a radish-domed church, the entire effect Tanguey-like or, perhaps, Chiricoish.

Which reminds me. The more I look at the late afternoon picture you took from the Ford’s porch the more I am impressed with the merging quality you caught in the landscape. The photo has the same effect that Bill gets in his watercolors. No higher compliment could I pay. I am, you’ll remember , looking forward to more of our photos and also some new ones of the houseboat. Also, Piltzer, would you mind slipping a package of phonograph needles into one of your letters. The ones used here are pretty well beaten up and I hate the thought of wearing out our local classics with stuff fit only for Guy Lombardo.

I have finished reading “Mexico at the Bar of Public Opinion,” and am well into “A Diplomat’s Wife in Mexico.” Both are profoundly depressing. 

I believe I told you about the general scheme of the “Public Opinion” opus. It is “A Survey of Editorial Opinion in Newspapers of the Western Hemisphere” on the Mexican action in taking over the British and US oil properties. The survey was made by Burt M. McConnell, identified as “member of the Literary Digest editorial staff, 1919-1929” and the finished work was copyrighted by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. 

Under such sponsorship the opus does not go out of its way to present material favorable to Mexico. The papers quoted from other countries than the U.S. are mostly English-language editions in Latin American countries. Among the “representative” Mexican papers quoted as complaining against Cardenas’s actions is “El Hombre Libre!”

Lazaro Cardenas, giving land to the peasants
But the inflammatory nature of the editorials quoted in even the more respectable U.S. papers—the Herald Tribune, for instance—and the ignorance or willful distortions manifest in others make me ashamed of my profession. From a standpoint of international relations, the editorials are almost inexcusable. The only thing that can be said about them is that the writers were just as vicious in their attacks on leaders in this country as they were upon the Mexican government. In fact most of the writers seemed to feel that to call Cardenas the Roosevelt of Mexico was to brand him as a villain. Try to follow the logic of this little essay from the Cleveland News. 

“He (Cardenas) is devoted to the lower classes, and with great skill he keeps them in tow…Among the peasants he divides the land taken from both Mexican and foreign owners. He has raised his soldiers’ pay. He encourages unionization of workers, and he lets these unions run the industries he takes in the name of the state. Mexico’s president has had four busy years. He has worked hard at settling peasants on land, at building schools and highways, and at nationalizing key industries to squeeze out foreign capital. If the United States goes on supporting Cardenas, our prestige will suffer and other countries will feel free to rob our citizens.”
There were innumerable inflammatory articles suggesting that we should “clamp down on Mexico like a trip hammer,” because the only policy that Mexico understands is that of firmness.” The good old Daily News, arguing for an imperialist solution, said, “This is no debate over national philosophies or economic ideologies; this is a fight, and the stake is the kind of power a modern nation must have to stay modern—oil.” … The Wichita Falls Record-News quotes the professor of Latin American government at the University of Texas as “declaring bluntly that neighborliness and friendliness have nothing to do with trade, and citing the figures to show that trade was better when the United States Marines were keeping order with machine guns in some of the southern republics.”
Our lack of knowledge about our relations with Mexico continues to amaze me. Not even Greuning’s book made me realize how close the United States came to a full-fledged war with Mexico in 1913-16. But  Edith O’Shaughnessy brings it out. She was the wife of Nelson O’Shaughnessy, who was American charge d’affaires in Mexico from the period not long after the murder of Madero to the time when we broke relations in 1914. Our troops at that time were occupying Vera Cruz. We denied recognition to the Huerta government (after our previous diplomatic representatives had fostered the Huerta coup against Madero). And with the country torn by civil war and no government able to function effectively without the recognition we refused to give, we massed troops on the Texas border.

 [last page missing]

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