Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Umnak Island, 19 September 1944

My pretty potato…

I had a rather sad experience today. I went to bed early in order to catch a little sleep before the thundering herd struck the hut in the afternoon. The trouble was I went to bed too early and , not being completely sleepy, picked up Graham Greene’s “The Confidential Agent.” This is the second time I have taken it from the library; the first trip it went back unread. But this time I cover to covered it and so rolled over for my snooze about three o’clock. And no sooner had I dropped off that someone was shaking me: Keeney (the lovable character who proclaims he would climb under his mother’s dead body to rape his sister). He had a paper in his hand and, as sure as you run into paperwork in the army, there was a snafu. This one was one of those simple things. The personnel clerk at 980 apparently forgot to send in my shot chart when I completed the typhoid inoculation course out there and so the army was all set to give me a booster. And by the time I was fully awake I was down at the hospital having a needle jabbed in my arm. So now I have an aching fever and all the rest of it. Besides I still haven’t had my sleep. 

I went right to bed on getting back but the terrible Tim was just getting up. He was magnificently unhappy. Somehow he had had the idea that he would be demobilized as soon as the war with Germany was over. Yesterday someone convinced him he wouldn’t be so he was mooing complaints about the injustice of it. Somehow he feels that he has fought a tougher war than the guys on Tarawa. Another guy in the same boat is our chief censor. He has spent most of the war at Fairbanks, and quite a bit of it with his wife there—in fact all but the last four months. He seriously believes that he should be mustered out because of the trials and tribulations of wielding a rubber stamp. Now that he things he won’t he is in a pout. I doubt that anyone wants to get out of the army as much as I do—but I certainly don’t think that any of us ACS commandoes should be reprieved before the combat men. That is, while there is still a war on with Japan and while it would be necessary to replace us. When the second half of the war ends, then I’m all for their letting everyone get home and in respectable clothes as fast as possible.

Well Tim finally left, trailing laments after him and I got to sleep. Then about an hour later Tim was back joyful. It seems he may finally draw his rotation to Ketchikan. And I no sooner slipped off to sleep from his celebration when Jack arrived to say it looks like he may make it south pretty soon himself. So I rolled to the other side and got sleep and about that time the fever from the shot hit me and I had a nightmare until it was time to get up and go to work. 

Greene’s book … is a nice quiet little chiller job in which the hero is a Spanish loyalist professor who gets mauled every time he gets in a fight and who only half succeeds in his assignment, a rather different type of hero for this style fiction. The heroine is something of a bitch but her name is one that Steinbeck is partial to for his heroines, and so am I. On that score, I might mention that Jack was reading the first pages of my new short story and got quite a kick out of my persistent typing error of putting an A for an E in the past tense of the verb to rise. 

I have just finished reading “Suwannee River” and “Siberia,” both of which were quite good.  [selection of quotes follow] …

I forgot to say that the Okefenokee Swamp is where the Suwannee rises. It was one of the last retreats of the Seminole Indians, who still haven’t  admitted U.S. sovereignty. And it is believed that either the Seminoles or the tribe that preceded them in this region came not from the west but from the south, in boats across the Gulf—Mayans!

Rather oddly, I ran across another bit about our Indians in the other book I was reading at the same time as Suwannee River. Langyel tells of an American adventurer named John Ledyard, who ran away from Dartmouth College back in the days when most of the Dartmouth Indians were really Indians. John-boy didn’t learn a lot in his classes but from his classmates he learned to make a canoe and when he left school he did it in a dugout, paddling down the Connecticut River to Hartford. He shipped out half a dozen times, and explored the Pacific Northwest with Captain Cook. Finally he got the idea of discovering the Northwest Passage to the Orient, above Russia and Siberia. Since he couldn’t get a ship, he walked it. And he wrote to Tom Jefferson that the American Indians were related to both the Tatar and the Chinese. “I am certain that all the people you call Red on the continent of America and on the continent of Asia as far south as the southern part of China are one people and that the best general name would be Tatar. I am satisfied that America was peopled from Asia.”

About that Northeastern Passage. The hunt for it was quite interesting (especially after just finishing the Columbus book about his searchings). The first to try to make it through the narrow Arctic Ocean from London to the east was Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) who didn’t come very close but did pioneer sea trade between England and Moscow. Holland tried it next with Willem Barents making three voyages. He got pretty far north but died on his way back after a trip in which he saw some wonderful northern lights:  “On each side of the sun there was another sun and two rainbows that passed clean through the three suns, and two rainbows more, the one encompassing round the suns, and the other across the great rundle. Hudson was commissioned for a try, but he didn’t like the route suggested so he pulled a Corrigan and wound up in the Hudson River, then Hudson Bay. Exploration was stopped for a while by Ivan the Terrible, but Peter the Great allowed it to be resumed. One of his subjects, Kotzebue, came up with a theory that the water from the rivers warmed the eastern part of the Arctic Ocean and made it passable longer than the rest. A Finnish-Swede with the horrible name of Adolf Erik Nordenskjold gambled on the Kotzebue theory and started much later than other men had begun their voyages and he made it to within sight of the Pacific before being frozen in. But his reports were buried and when Bering found the strait a quarter century later it was news to the world that America and Asia were not joined in the northeast-northwest corners. After all it would be a terrible thing if we had to try to talk about the Nordenskjold sea and Nordenskjold strait.
The trip is done rather frequently now. The Soviets have developed amphibious ice-breakers which crawl up on the frozen skin of the sea and pound away at it until it crumples. One such icebreaker was stuck about the same place Nordenskjold came to grief. There were ten women aboard. One of them had a baby on the ice floes. They lived there about a month before Soviet planes picked them up.

The early history of the country was as interesting as the story of the Czech Legion, which we already partly knew. What I did not know about the march of the Czechs was that they not only went all the way across Siberia but captured almost all of it, set up governments in many of the cities, and actively cooperated with the Allied Expeditionary Forces which sought the reestablish the monarchy in Russia and get Russia back in the war. 

The southern portion of Siberia, which runs into the Pamir Mountains, is believed to have been the first home of man. From there the hunters pushed around the world. By the time man got into history, there were three main types living in Siberia: the Turkic, Mongolian, and American Indian. The fate of the Turkic tribes we know: Turkey, Hungary, Finland. The Mongols stuck around in Siberia. The Indians followed the disappearing game north, it is believed, and beat Columbus by about ten centuries. 

Miscellaneous details from the Siberia book: the disrobing Dukhobors of Canada came from a religious sect which was exiled to Siberia, the Duhoborty, or “spirit warriors.” Another group was known as the raskolniks, or “dissenters,” which must have given Dostoevski ideas. And Lengyel tells a nice story about the effect of isolation in the arctic cold on some of his Hungarian co-prisoners. One of the men roamed all over the camp, unable to stop anywhere. His voice was penetratingly hollow, and as he roamed from place to place he repeated the word “dismal” in half a dozen languages…Another kept saying “Life is death and death is life.”…But my favorite was a first-lieutenant who wrote down what he remembered of the service  regulations of the Austro-Hungarian Army. When he completed a section he would pass it around among the prisoners inviting them to meditate on the most important thing in the world: military procedure. He was carving type from blocks of hard wood, expecting to have a press ready to print the manual in two years. He had been a country teacher and the army had elevated him into a higher world by making him a first lieutenant, and his commission became the veritable center of his universe.

Well, enough about the literary life. I want to tell you a bit about Tookie the Texan. He is, as I have said, a puppyish boy of just nineteen who is friendly, moody and our local niño problema. He sweats out letters from his 17 year old wife with more impatience than most, and when they come they always make him terribly blue, either because she is very loving and he gets lonesome, or, other times, because she is repeatedly bemoaning her health and he is worried. He always tells us what she says about her health, and some of us are beginning to suspect her of laying it on a bit thick or of being a hyperhypchondriac. One day, for instance, she said she had mumps, and the next day she didn’t mention them and was back at work. But the worst letter of all came this week. She told him she had been to see the doctor, that he said she had cancer, and then she told him that the doctor said for her not to worry and had given her some medicine which would clear it up in three or four days. Luckily Tookie’s vocabulary is very limited (he really thought that “moron” was a new word, made up for the Little Moron jokes). Consequently he realized neither the seriousness of the illness if she really has cancer nor the improbability of any doctor promising a three-day cure. 

We have a fourth censor on the staff now. He is, b.i.o.n., from Tacoma. That gives us an all-Tacoma censor group. His name is LaRue and he is married to a Lincoln classmate of yours, but I don’t remember her name. I’ll have to ask.  …

This is degenerating into the veriest of chit-chat, my loved one, so I’ll tear it off. I love you and miss you and think of you in everything I see and do and feel, my nunny.

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