Sunday, January 9, 2011

Umnak Island, 14 July 1944


My darling…

I must have been tired. I slept nine hours today, almost missing dinner. Seldom have I slept more soundly. Reger, the one man in our hut who makes no effort to let sleeping GIs lie, mopped the hut out, moving beds and stacking duffel bags on them, without waking me. In fact I didn’t wake up until Senor Juan arrived bearing a letter from you which he used to tempt me out of bed in time for chow.

Unlike the last post’s library the one here is a bit fussy about books being returned on time. Today was the last day for those we took out last week so we had planned to hike over to the main area with them. But after dinner we felt lazy and decided to wait until tomorrow. We went instead to look at a couple of fox holes—the genuine kind, not the GI variety—behind my hut. 

The foxes had dug into a bank about fifty yards from the hut. The entrance is concealed in tall grass. It does not look as though the hole is being used now, although be reaching down into it I was able to get a little fur, rather like that Haj leaves on the sofa. There is a second hole in the back about ten yards away. Jack says that the two little tunnels are connected and that a fox chased in one will emerge in a few minutes from the other and scamper down the hill. Last winter the fox who lived in that hole was quite friendly with the men in our hut. One of the boys has a blurry picture of her coming to be fed. 

http://www.flickr.com/photos/light_seeker/2828287204/ --this is a wonderful photo of a fox on Umnak

Speaking of holes in the hill, there is a sort of super foxhole even closer to our hut, about five feet high and seven or eight feet long. I thought someone had dug it as an air raid shelter but Senor Juan assures me that one of the local lads with religion dug it as a sort of chapel. He used to spend two hours a day in it, praying. But during the winter it caved in and since then he has done his praying in the hut. Senior Juan says this character’s prayers that he quit smoking were all that kept him from quitting smoking for several months. Since then the character has ceased praying that Juan quit the evil weed and Juan has quit it. 

There was a sort of showdown on the praying business last winter. The boys were using the GI skis which are available for local ACSers. And the God-touched lad stood at the top of the hill praying mightily for their safety. He was praying for Senor Juan when that worthy tangled with a telephone pole. After that he was warned to keep his prayers to himself. 

This individual is named McCracken, or something similar. I have only run into him once as we work different shifts and meditate in different manners and that time I only noticed he was quiet and blond. But I would like to meet him again because he undoubtedly knows Dave and Grace. He was a missionary in Mexico for a short while and, although he hates Mexico, hopes to go back after the war. 

Senor Juan has relayed the information about his missionarying and my data is incomplete. But Mac was down there in 1940 or 1941. He spent most or all of his time in Mexico City, and most of his time there in the missionaries’ boarding house that Dave and Grace told us about. He did not want to leave the house because he was afraid of polluted air, polluted water, polluted food, polluted people. While the rest of the missionaries were out doing the things they do, Mac kept up the house in Mexico City for them. He was there two or three months  and then came home, presumably to the Army. Having inspected the cliff dwellings, we climbed a little farther down to pick some flowers we had not seen before. They are of the same family as tiger lilies, gold with reddish brown flecks in the throat, and quite beautiful. We kept going farther down the hill after them until we reached the marshlands. So we went for a hike and found several more flowers including what seems to be a wild sweetpea, purple with small, brilliant flowers. 

All flowers here seem to be exceptionally fragrant. The wind off the meadowland reminds me of the walk on the heather we took with Joan and Geoff while down at their farm—remember climbing the hill with the old oak trees and coming out on the hill, the essence of all English countryside? I suppose one reason for this fragrance is that there are so few competing city smells. But I suppose it is a compensation for the short season. Each plant smells strong to increase its chance of attracting pollen bearing insects. It is a plausible hypothesis but my botany is shaky enough so that I would hate to have to uphold it. 

Returning to the hut laden with lupine, tiger lilies, sweet peas, daisies and a lidless aluminum coffee pot Jack found in a creek we felt so refreshed we decided to go to the library after all. We caught a ride down but made the long walk back, a hike I really like. 

I renewed the two books on Mexico I have been reading—the summary of editorials because I have not copied all my notes from it, and “Diplomat’s Wife” because I was not quite through. I also took our three more: an account by Bemelmans on his experiences in the army in the last war (“My War with the United States”) which Lieutenant Bernnard had recommended; “Scum of the Earth,” another book by Koestler, the reformed communist whose “Darkness at Noon” I liked so much; and “King News” by the head of the international news service. “Scum of the Earth” should be exceptionally interesting—it is the story of disillusionment among the political refugees in France after the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed in 1939. I think Koestler is as convincing a novelist as any now writing and one of the most intelligent in his approach to the work. 

Remember in my last letter I commented on finding “The Murderer’s Companion” on the hobby shelf of the local library? Today I discovered “How to Become an Officer.”

In telling of our trip on the marsh, I forgot the high point. We saw two ducks, rather small but definitely ducks. They were dark brown and although one seemed to have a darker head than the other seemed to be of the same sex, probably Mallard hens. 

Juan mentioned that there might be ducklings around so we watched the water closely. Sure enough, we spotted a tiny bird swimming in the reeds. But when we came closer we saw it was not a fuzzy duckling. Instead it was a fully developed little bird, about the size of a robin. It had a brown back and breast of the grey you so admired on our houseboat helldiver. It swam with little jerky movements of its head, like a coot. That would indicate it does not have fully webbed feet. When it took off it walked the water for a short distance and had the usually duck difficulty in gaining altitude. But once in the air it flew like a swall9ow, in spurts and bursts and climbs and glides, all very unducklike. It has rather swallow-like, V shaped wings. The wings have a broad brown streak along the forward edge and this merges in to light grey toward the back. It seemed to have a brown head, although I am not sure. The bill is long and Jack is sure it is pointed. I couldn’t tell. The bird was the smallest I have ever seen in the water. 

By the way, the tall grass by the creek is very like the tule in Lake Patzcuaro. It made me long for the canoe and the long paddle down to the Fords’ place for Sunday dinner. I suppose I felt the paddling urge more than usual toady. I have the picture of the Fords’ house and the views of the lake from the porch on the wall above my typing desk, and last night I told Senor Juan and Pete Pedersen about the duck hunts and the weekly visits we used to make to the far end of the lake. 

And then, just before going on today’s walk, I read your letter about the paddle on Lake Union and the visit to the Guinness Yacht. I especially enjoy the idea of the big Cornell crewman getting a stiff shoulder from our little paddleboat. Remember when I wore Pete [Pete Antoncich, former UW football and basketball star] out on Lake Quinault.

I’m glad you got to see Lou Cooley. He wasn’t one of my favorites at the old station, but he is a well meaning kid. If he can make the grade physically he will probably be a good officer, but that is a mighty big if. … Lou considers himself something of a wolf, although his appearances are certainly against him there. The picture of him spending an hour combing Jean’s hair raises the old problem of pursued and pursuer in my mind. I hope that nothing gets in the road of Jean’s trip to San Francisco. But I will take your advice about writing to her and not do it. Nor to Gene. 

The idea of Gene taking a transfer from Anchorage to my old station in the hope of being able to get more creative writing done strikes me as almost tragic. If ever there were a place calculated to keep a man from writing that was it. The physical and mental difficulties in the way of creative work are almost insurmountable. Every day I say a little prayer of thanks about the transfer. As the local saying goes, “I’ve found a home in the Aleutians.” I dislike being here so much less than being there that I almost like it. 

I am glad that you liked the passage in my last letter from there on the stupidities of Army terminology and also glad that you showed it to Bos. He is one who would appreciate it. As a matter of fact I liked that passage particularly myself. It came at a time when I was particularly peter oboed about the lousy writing in some directive or other and I tried to get my anger down on paper. The reason I am glad Bos saw it is that the only thing of mine that I can remember his reading was an early draft of the story due out in the current Adventure [“A Job for Joe”], and I am not particularly proud of that. Is Box still on permanent duty at Fort Lewis? I thought he thought he was due for an overseas assignment.

By the way, Nunny, what does Jean want to go to San Francisco for? Does she think she can write better there? I liked the phrase about her “tremendous aimless drive.” In fact, my Nunny, I like your letters so much that I am wondering very much who is supposed to be the writer in this family. I like your reporting better than mine—and could such a smug mug as I pay a higher compliment? 

I do so long to be with you. I have stopped counting the days because they went by so slowly. Now I just try to forget the present and pretend I am not really living it away from you. Keep dropping around for my dreams, Nunny.

Your,
M

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