Friday, March 18, 2011

Adak Island, 2 July 1944


Dearest Nunny….

I’m still sweating out transportation, and a very pleasant sweat it is, too. Because I might be going at any minute I am not assigned to any shift. And so today has really been a day off.

I climbed the hill to the hut known as the “Olympic Hotel” and had a haircut from the best of our amateur barbers. It was the first time I ever had a barber bob my curly locks without saying a word. He liked the Beethoven Violin Concerto which was on the radio. He also gave me what is probably the best haircut I’ve ever had, the more’s the pity. They are too valuable to waste on the Aleutians.

One of the men in the barber’s hut I had not met before. He came in the hut from the library during Till Eulenspiegel’s listige Streiche and turned up the radio—a good sign. He carried his chair next to the radio for Beethoven, so when the haircutting was over I stayed on to talk to him. His name is George Hoskins and he is a graduate of CPS [now the University of Puget Sound]. He knows Tarz and Rodger, Clark and Red, Craig and Gordon, and even Jack Mansfield—for whom he has no use. Originally Hoskins came from Peshashtin, and he was amazed when I knew where it was. Remember? – It’s one of the towns serviced by a correspondent of the Spokane Chronicle. …

Before I board the iron bird for parts unspecified, I want to tell you about one of the our lesser characters around here. He is Charlie Mac, a crypto-censor, a fat boy, a red head, and a dyspeptical.
Charlie is the youngest and fattest boy in the department. He has a hulking, soft body and a low-cheeked face, broader at the mouth than at the balding forehead. He has a first moustache, Teddy Rooseveltian and strangely bristly on an uncertain face. There is nothing uncertain about Charlie. He is a devout Catholic and an old-fashioned family worshipper. His respect for his mother and his father, who died before he could have known him at all well, is almost Chinese in intensity. 

Charlie is methodical. He plots every day on a card and lives up to his schedule: ten minutes for reading before breakfast, five minutes to wash, ten minutes to pray after breakfast, and so through the day. He has alternates for his non-duty time, and if anything keeps him from (1) washing his socks or (2) writing mother, he is upset.

When Charlie is upset he usually resorts to religion. He can really concentrate in prayer. Last winter when a personal problem had him bothered he went to the shower hut in a storm. When he didn’t come back in a long time one of the boys went up to see what had happened to him. He found the shower hut door open, snow drifted on the floor, and Charlie sitting stark on a bench, counting his beads. There is something to be said for faith: he didn’t get pneumonia. 
One of the recent arrivals from Seattle brought an interesting story. He is a Finn and, naturally, loves his steam baths. One day he and a couple of the boys were wearing down the pre-Alaskan furloughs along with some bad blend. Our hero suggested  a steam bath. “Okay,” says a pal, “where?” They consulted the phone book and picked on a building near Fort Federal. They made an appointment and, at the designated time, climbed the stairs. The door to the steam bath palace was locked, but there was a bell. They rang it. A nightclub peephole opened, and a girl looked out. “You the three gentlemen who phoned for reservations?” “Yes.” She let them in.

The girls was wearing a tight red blouse, unbuttoned will below the cleft in her breasts, and tight blue slacks, the zipper partly unfastened. Our hero began to have his doubts.

“You all want bawths?” They all did. “I’ll take you to the dressing rooms.” She led them down a little hall. The sounds from behind the doors seemed to confirm our hero’s suspicions. The girl stopped at a door and said to our hero’s companions, “One of you here and one across the aisle.” She went down a few more doors and said to the last man, “I’ll be back in a moment. You can take off your clothes.”

He still wasn’t certain. When she came back she was carrying a towel—and not another thing. “God,” he finishes the story, “I sure wanted that steam bath.”

Bill Fett
Today’s mail brought two wonderful letters from you and a rather incoherent two-page “note” from Bill Fett, who said that he has written a really long letter and is sending up two of his lithographs. I hope they arrive here before next year but I have picture of the censors trying to figure out surrealist posters. Bill repeated your good news that he is not coming to the states. He is terribly worried about his competence to come through with the work we all expect of him and says, “I wish you, ‘her’ and the others would quit pinning too high hopes on a simple guy just creating because he can’t help himself and actually still in the infant stage of his creative ideas…” I am looking forward very much to seeing his lithographs and the rollei reprints of them. …[See the 12 July 1944 letter for photos of the lithographs]
Your long letter about houseboat life and problems is even better than the last long one, which was the best letter I ever had: including Howard’s fabulous epic of the misplaced j’s.
M

From Howard Lewis
20 June 1944
Muroc Army Air Field

You poor frigid bastard,

…Seven days at Hammer Field brought shipping orders to a place called Muroc, which I had never heard of. When I asked some veterans about it, they just shook their heads and I wasn’t happy. Then on the Santa Fe, on the way down to this hole, I asked the conductor how about this Muroc place, and he shook his head, too. “See this car, sonny?” he asked. “Noo?” I asked, pulling my Yiddish on him. “Well,” he said painfully, “you see more green in this obscenity car than you’ll see at Muroc.” 
Howard Lewis, right, shucking oysters with modernist poet Charles Olson. Photo by Rosa Morgan


He was exaggerating, of course. There is a lawn in front of the Provost Marshall’s Office, covering an area of about 20 square feet. There are also trees—Joshua trees, which make a porcupine look like an Angora cat. They bring in two tank cars full of water from L.A. every day to keep the Provost Marshall’s lawn fresh, but otherwise there isn’t much attempt at landscaping around here. We seem to be in the middle of the whole bloody Mojave Desert, ringed around by mountains some fifty miles or so in every direction, in a saucer polka-dotted with sagebrush, where even the lizards and snakes carry water bottles, and where the temperature goes from 130 during the day to about 50 at night, and where the wind hauls freight. There is not much sand here, but a kind of coarse gravel, and when the winds gets rough, every few days, it picks up the gravel and sends it stinging against the face. On most days we clean out the barracks by sweeping the sand onto a shovel, but on one of the better days, we just use the shovel.  …

I ran into a guy down here named Vincent O’Keefe, who used to be a sportswriter of sorts on the Seattle Times. [O’Keefe returned to Seattle after the war, went back to the Times, and retired as executive sports editor in 1982.]  Asked him if he knew anyone in Grays Harbor and he said Pete Antoncich. A hell of a big guy, he said, and a good newspaperman. It seemed peculiar to me to hear Pete described in such prosaic terms when I recalled your fabulous stories about him, but it did my heart good. It helped bring back those gigantic evenings in New York, where Rosa thought every day was Thanksgiving, where Judith [Daniel] swore like a drunken madame, and Oh God but I am flooded with memories!...

Best to you both,
Howard

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