Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Four Pages of Family History

Over the holiday season the Grim Reaper was busy in my little corner. Just around Christmas my cousin Edie Kellem died in Mountain Home, Arkansas. Last week I learned that one of my closest friends of undergraduate years, Dupre Jones, died on January 9 in Beaufort, South Carolina. Both of them were killed by bladder cancer. There were less savage bonds of coincidence that might link them in my mind, and that might plausibly give shape to a readable essay. But it is too early for that; for the moment they are the stuff of private meditation rather than public proclamation. “Family and friends.” They are the usual categories of our scrapbooks, our generic Christmas letters, our intercessory prayers. For most of us, too, for most of the time, they are the categories of history. 

We all have history. It is the medium in which we live--and die.  One mode of history we are all familiar with is “family history”, but my own family--that of my father and mother, I mean, and their own forebears– have been terrible historians.  There are of course material reasons why “the short and simple annals of the poor” are short and simple.  Most of my ancestors simply did not lead lives nourishing of the archival mentality. I'm trying to do a little better for my own posterity. For this reason I was delighted if also flabbergasted when a few months ago I found three letters written by my father. I don't know where they came from, although one of them is addressed to me. That is one of two printed note cards decorated with Navajo designs—the other is addressed to his brother John (my uncle) in Arkansas—written after my mother’s death and shortly after his penultimate stroke in 1978.  “Dear John,” he writes in a hand barely decipherable through the palsy, “I am working hard on speek and writing.”  He worked hard at most things; I don’t know many people who worked harder.

But it is the third letter I intend to share with you.  How it came into my possession, or why I never saw it before, is a mystery now beyond resolution.  This letter is undated, but context shows that it was written in 1942 from Gary, Indiana, to his father Samuel Fleming (my grandfather) in Arkansas.  As the disastrous economy of the Depression began to brighten a bit as a result of the European War, he had found work in the steel mills where he had once before worked in the mid 1930s.  The letter is more or less self-explanatory.  As my father writes, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is a recent event.  He is explaining to his father why he feels impelled to leave his family and go to war.  The people alluded to are his sister (my Aunt Louise), my mother Janet, and “Ricky”, my baby brother.  We talk in a rather vague and sentimental way about the “Greatest Generation”.  For me the penultimate paragraph of this letter gives sharpness and specificity to the phrase. And as a bonus I also found out where my heart murmur came from!

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Dear Dad,
                  Probably you have heard from Janet’s letter to Louise about what’s been going on.  Believe you are entitled to a more minute account of proceedings so here goes.
                  The day after my arrival from Arkansas I thought I’d take a trip to the Chicago naval recruiting Station to see what I could find out about their construction work.  So Janet called there and yes they would be open all day Saturday and yes there were openings in naval construction.  So up I goes.  The Lieutenant in charge, after talking with me for several minutes advised my taking a physical and then see if we could agree on something.  So I did.  I passed the vision 20-20 and the hearing OK also the teeth.  I was going great guns when bang! the doctor says “How long have you had that hernia and why didn’t you tell us about it before?  I was too astounded to answer and even more so when about 3 minutes later a doctor called me for a heart murmur.  I was beginning to feel mighty blue not only missing out on service but I dreaded the time should come I’d have to take a physical exam at the mill.  About ten minutes later they smacked me again blood pressure 170.  I really felt like calling for an ambulance.  So they said they were sorry but come back and take a GCT test.  I supposed it was some sort of heart test and only went up Monday because I wanted to get it over with and be rejected and get something done about the hernia.  Monday I found that the test was a mental one—they wanted to see as they cold bloodedly told me whether it was worth their while to assume such a poor risk!  Thank the Lord I passed the mental with a high grade.  Then they found the blood pressure was down to normal the high reading of Saturday I suppose was caused by shock and apprehension.  So they passed me physically.  By the way the Doctor said the heart murmur was wholly functional, that 18 out of 100 have it and it’s not to be considered as a heart disease or anything of the sort.  It just isn’t a perfect heart.
                  After getting some recommendations from the mill and out West the Lieutenant offered me a rating in construction Battalion.  This is a new branch of the navy.  I am listed as a carpenter’s mate, first class.  That is a first class Petty Officers rating, corresponding with a Top or First Sergeants rating in the Army.  I am to await call and after 3 weeks inoculation etc be shipped to whatever base we are to help in constructing.  They range from Alaska to the south Seas and from Ireland to Brazil.  Rather expect when the time comes to head South as I am listed as having some command of the Spanish language.  The base rate is 114.00 per month plus 34.50 for Janet and 22.80 for foreign service.  There is no domestic service in our branch.
                  In many ways the rating should be better, at least financially than a higher one.  One grade up—chief Petty officer and you have to buy your own uniforms.  They total I am told about $300.
                  I am very thankful to get the rating.  I will be doing vital and important work even though it is considered non-combatant.  The enlistment runs until 6 months after the war.  I am to be hospitalized whenever the rupture bothers me and I can carry $10,000 insurance.
                  To say that the thoughts of separation do not appal both Janet and I would flatly be a lie.  I hope the war is short – I fear it will be long.  That’s a sacrifice we must make.
                  Janet will be going to Denver for over the winter at least.  Give Ricky one more year and Arkansas should be much less dangerous to him.  If I can obtain permission I’ll drive her out.
                  Concerning the money we owe you Dad I guess if you’re willing we’ll have to let it ride.  Janet will have to have a little reserve until my checks start coming.
                  In many ways this has been a fortunate break.  They laid off to May 1936 in my department, so I’m hanging on by three months service.  There’s another cut coming later sure as shooting.  Of course there are jobs and plenty of them.  The armor plate mill, […] rubber plant etc and of course back in the copper mines they are crying for men.  But that rupture wouldn’t help at all in getting those jobs and it would have been found out I’m sure for the navy doctors caught it instantly.  I had been aware of a chafing feeling for some time but never dreamed of a hernia.
                  Please all of you write to Janet regularly.  She has had her heart set on going to Arkansas for a long time and she’s going to be very lonely.  After all, as she says, she rather got accustomed to being around Flemings.  But I felt it best she should go to her folks over the winter.  You know how those Arkansas rains are and with the lack of doctors it makes a hazard for Ricky.  But of course in an emergency wire for Janet right away.  I told her she could probably go to Arkansas in the spring.
                  When I’ll be called I don’t know and I know enough of military procedure not to start fretting.  You cant rush those people and when they want me they holler.  Meantime I’m on the active list.
                  I hope my course of procedure does not grieve you.  We have under God each our own conception of duty that we owe to ourselves and our loved ones our country and our Lord.  In the case of my wife and myself this conception left us but one choice of action – the choice is not mine but ours – for we see eye to eye on this matter.
                  I doubt extremely if I will get to see you again before leaving for duty.    So to all I say may God bless us – one and all.

Your son