Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Umnak Island, 29 September 1944

Hello Love of my Life…

I have just finished reading “Hell on Ice” and while it is a long hoot and a loud holler from being up the “The Worst Journey in the World,” it is a fascinating book. The story is of a polar expedition in 1879, carried out under the strange joint sponsorship of the New York Herald and the United States Navy. On a made-over schooner, the Jeannette, purchased by the Herald and manned by Navy seamen, Commander G. W. De Long tried to reach the North Pole. 

He based his attempt on two geographic theories then prevalent: first, that the Japanese current divided off the Aleutians and half flowed east and south while the other half flowed into the Arctic Ocean  and moved westward along Siberia; second that Wrangel Island (then called Wrangel Land) was a huge mass extending far to the north, perhaps going across the pole and linking with Greenland. Both theories belonged to the Age of Alchemy. They had no basis at all in fact.

On September 6, 1879 the Jeannette was frozen in the ice pack just west and north of Wrangel Island. She never broke loose. For two years her crew lived aboard, carried far to the north and east by the drifting ice, menaced by bergs which crushed through the floe toward them, once almost sunk when a submerged berg moving under the ice field smashed into the hull, once almost crushed between an island and the ice they were frozen in. On June 5, 1881, the ship was crushed. The men were left on the ice pack, 500 miles from northern Siberia, with limited provisions, a few sick dogs, some sleds and the ship’s three light boats. For ninety days they moved across the pack, and when they reached the new Siberian Islands, the land was so bare it offered absolutely no support. They had dragged their boats behind them over the field, and at the islands they launched them and made for the Lena River delta in Siberia. One boats was lost with all hands. The other two were separated in a gale. One of those two eventually found a settlement. Two of the men from the other boat reached another settlement, but the eleven other men, including De Long, died of starvation after eating all their clothing. 

The author, Commander Edward Ellsberg, says the trip made many important scientific discoveries, but he does not list them. It discovered three barren islands, disproved the theories about Wrangel Land and the Japanese current, and produced a theory that the salt frozen in the sea ice was the cause for scurvy on polar trips. Other than that the scientific value must have been in the weather observations made while on the polar pack. One chance for a good deal of new information was lost when the lone newspaperman about forgot to bring developer for his camera plates. The plates would not keep in the cold temperature undeveloped. 

The chief engineer had a few negatives and a little developer about and one day got such a shot as had never been taken before, and probably never since: “The view was marvelous. Heeling now 23 degrees to starboard, the spar deck dovered with men clinging to the rigging, the rails, and the davits to keep from sliding into the scupper, showed up clearly; while with her black hull standing sharply out against the white pack, and with bow and bowsprit pointing high in the air and stern almost buried, the Jeannette looked like a vessel lifting while she rolled to a huge ice wave. Never again would I see a ship like that. I exposed a plate, the, for insurance, another; and folding up my rig, stumbled back over the ice to the ship, laid below to the darkroom on the berth deck, poured out my chemicals and proceeded with much difficulty (because of the extraordinary list) to develop the plates, which in that climate had to be done immediately or they would spoil. In the vague red light of a bull’s eye lantern, I was struggling in the darkroom with this job, when the ship got a tremendous squeeze, the north deck buckled up under my feet, and amidst the roar of cracking timbers I heard Jack Cole’s shout, “All Hands! Stations for Abandon Ship!”

Another story you might like is of the Chinese cooks who, after a year and a half on the ice, suddenly went mad about flying kites and soon had the Jeannette at the steady end of strings holding kites in all shapes, fashions and colors—birds, flies and dragons.
And a short, terrible story is of a seaman who, when a gale came up with the boat only an hour from landing in Siberia, went mad, stopped bailing and began to pour the icy water over his head, laughing like a baby in a tub.
My next reading job will be “Genghis Khan.”

Yesterday I didn’t write you a letter, little lover, but I did send you a copy of an action short story. And today I am three pages deep into a screwball style story about the Aleutians. It is one I have had vaguely in mind for several months; if fact, I first thought of it while starting up here. The idea is simply to have a basketball game played in a williwaw, and the excuse I have devised for it is rivalry between a newcomer and an oldtimer at a post. The new man is annoyed by the talk of the post’s undefeated basketball team. The fact that the team has never played a game does not seem funny to him, just silly. So, after hearing that a champ U.S. team is to come thru is islands on a U.S.O. tour he tricks our hero into betting that the locals will remain undefeated. When the USO sponsored teams appears on the island our dirty dog of a deep dyed villain [copy missing] which of course is played under strange climactic conditions and ends in a four-four tie or something like that. It is the first comedy I have tried to write in a long time and I am not sure, although the kids who have seen the first three pages snorted and snickered on occasion.

I have been thinking quite a bit this week about the effect of life in isolation upon one’s sense of humor. Probably all but the most extroverted tend to abandon the attempts many make to be funny in other circumstances. The trouble is that the same stimuli produce the same jokes. For instance this week we have a boy on latrine detail who is really doing a good job of scrubbing, mopping, dusting and draining. Consequently each of the two score men who see him daily make comments and most of the comments are “Say, I recommend to the CO that you be put on this detail permanently.” The poor guy is so sick of hearing about it that today he was talking to himself in the mirror, “Going to put me on it permanently, are they…Next guy says that I’m going to throw him in and flush him, I am.”
Another set of gags are delivered daily at the doors of the men sweating out transportation. The four guys that Martin left behind are still here, and they are growing daily grumpier. For which no one blames them. And everytime any of them goes anywhere around the camp area he is greeted with shouts of, “Putting in for permanent duty?” or “You still here?” or “You must like the Aleutians.”

The Army term for a man who is ostentatious about dong extra work is “bucker.” It is not necessarily a term of disparagement. Corporal Bender—he of the mighty mustache now departed—has long been referred to as Buck Benny, and the gags about Buck Benny riding again are as prevalent as they are putrid. But just recently another corporal has gone hog wild for work. In fact he works so hard he is almost a nuisance. We now keep individual records of the amount of traffic we handle in a shift, and this one boy is so anxious to build his score that he actually sits in your lap to send a message on your machine so he can put his initials on it. But while this sometimes annoying, it is a good source of fun and has produced a few of the better gags. Our two buckers are now referred to as Big Ben and Little Ben. The other night the TC said, “Little Ben, if you’re going to keep racing around like this I’ll jab the broom up your rear end and let your sweep the floor as you go.” My own term for this energetic individual is The Good Soldier.

Freddie Steele
And that reminds me. Don’t miss “Hail the Conquering Hero” when it comes to Seattle. I saw it here yesterday afternoon. It is better than the “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and it gives the institution of the small town here as pleasant a plastering as the other show did the adulation of multiple production of progeny. But, just on top of all that, Freddie Steele plays the part of a shell-shocked marine and does a really fine piece of acting. In fact he was so convincingly punchy that I am worried about him. [Freddie Steele, “The Tacoma Assassin,” began his boxing career at 13 in Bellingham. He was a middleweight champion before becoming an actor, a career he left in turn to run a popular restaurant in Westport, WA. He and Murray both attended Jason Lee Junior High in Tacoma, a few years apart.] 

I have had a bit more exercise the past few days. Yesterday I have our hut a pretty thorough cleaning, and then going by the rec hall, ran across a football. Russ Linhart, the large lad of the Juneau boil story, was around so we passed and kicked the football for a couple of hours. Then I walked to the show. Today I got up around seven and, for no reason except I felt like it, went for a run of about a half mile. My cold is gone and I feel swell.

Besides our two pups we have another pair of dogs in the camp area now. No one knows where they are from. One is a little bitch, in heat, who sometime in the dim past had a collie near her family tree. The other is a beautiful black and white creature which looks like a cross between a chow and a Husky. He is very male. The pups should be interesting.
You are much, much loved, my distant darling. I think of you so much that it seems you are beside me whenever I see some beautiful thing here—like the moon last night, veiled behind silver clouds which raced across the cone shape of our black, black volcano.

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