Weirdly enough – and this apparently happens to authors at random – I had a dream about the plot of a new book late this past summer and woke up just in time to remember it all. A novel set in WWII, which is at least half a century or more out of my fictional headspace; I like the 19th century. Got all the reference books, the books or art, a grasp of the vocab and the look of the whole 19th century universe and outlook. (The costumes, too; yes – I dress in late Victorian or Edwardian garb to do a book event. No, the corset isn’t that uncomfortable, and yes, how people react to me in this get-up, hat, reticule, gloves and all … it’s amazing. Last time out in all this, I had a guy tip his hat to me and say, ‘Howdy, ma-am’ and that is just freaking amazing!)

But – WWII. For me, it is just enough close in time that I knew a lot of people personally involved, from Great-Aunt Nan, who was one of the first-ever women recruited for the WAACs, to any number of high school teachers (some of whom were more forthcoming about their service than others) to the Gentleman With Whom I Kept Company for about a decade, to a neighbor of Mom and Dad’s who had been a prisoner of war in the Far East and fortunate enough to have survived the experience. In short, the books, the movies, even the TV shows that I watched as a kid and teenager, were all marinated in the memories of the Second World War. I was born a bare decade after it was all over; shows like World at War were in the ‘must watch’ category at our house, as well as any number of now slightly cringe-making series like … never mind. Just take it for granted that WWII was inescapable for a person of my age. I also scribbled some bad and derivative juvenile fiction with a WWII setting. (Which I found in a box in the garage during the most recent turn out … yep, it was bad. Supposedly, one must write a good few millions of words to get the bad out of your system. Just about all of that is in a box in the garage, against which are orders to the Daughter Unit to burn in future.) And I had a self-directed exploration into the 1930s-1940s in college, when I had access to a college library with microfiche scans of a certain newspaper; I read every issue from 1935-1945, which was like seeing a whole decade of history’s first draft narrowly through a key-hole.

Anyway – enough of the throat-clearing. As is my wont when working out the fine details in a plot, I set up an Excel spreadsheet broken out by month and year, marking events in various theaters, all the better to work the travails of my fictional characters against. It struck me all over again that 1942 was the year That Everything Happened. For Americans, it was the first full year of war on two fronts; for Britain and her colonies and the governments-in-exile of her allies, it was the start of a third year of a war formerly limited, more or less, to Europe and North Africa. And then all merry old hell broke out in the Far East. Possessions, colonies, independent small countries began falling like nine-pins to the Japanese war machine. British Malaya and Fortress Singapore, Dutch Indonesia, the Philippines, Guam and Wake Islands, a good chunk of New Guinea and other islands all across the South China Sea – all fell in the first few months of 1942. It would have been a depressing thing, reading any major Western newspaper during those weeks; weeks where Allied confidence in their own ability to fight a balls-to-the-wall war and win took a considerable beating.

The Allies reeled … but in May, the fortunes of War began to smile on the Allies. A naval clash between Japanese, American and Australian naval forces in the Coral Sea checked Japanese attempts to take Rabaul in New Guinea. In the next month, another sea battle – again between dueling aircraft carriers in the defense of Midway Island – blunted further Japanese advances in the Central Pacific. In July and a world away – the Germans were blocked and turned back from Egypt at the first battle at El Alamein, and then again three months later, in the same place. In the month of August, the Americans began landing on Guadalcanal and the Australians began taking back New Guinea. The Axis tide was checked, and slowly began to retreat. In November, the Allies (American and British with Canadian, Australian and the Free Dutch naval backup) opened a second front with the Torch Landings in French-controlled Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco – this not quite a year after Pearl Harbor. In barely a year, the Allies went from disaster and defeat on practically every front, to regroup and to begin effectively striking back. It would take another two years and more to completely defeat the Axis Powers, but it is striking to look at the timeline for 1942 and to see how the war situation turned from humiliating defeat, through resolve, and then to begin the long march back.

Discuss as you wish.    

(Which still remains nameless, but is nearly half completed)

Letter from Vennie to Peg, dated 15 December 1942, Postmarked APO NY, headed Arzew, Algiers

Dear Cuz:

Well, here I am, at last with time enough to write you a very long letter! The French in North Africa surrendered a month ago, and the fighting front is over, more or less, having moved on from here to Tunisia. We continue here at Arzew, caring for our patients, but at not such a frantic rate as at first! Matters have calmed down, now that we are supplied and supported, and the hospital here has been fitted out with all that is proper and needful for care of our patients. We nurses are billeted half a mile away in old French barracks, which were so filthy and flea-ridden that they put up tents for us, on the former parade ground. We are conveyed “home” at the end of every shift, and back again by an escort of Rangers from the First Battalion, and then by soldiers from the engineers, whose unit is repairing the harbor facilities. My friend Ruth, who is tall and sturdy of build – has been courted by a Ranger who calls her ‘his little girl!’ He is as tall as Paul Bunyan, without his ax and ox! A head taller than Ruth, who is amused no end. It is the first time in her life that she has been called ‘a little girl!’ At least, since got her full growth at fourteen or so. Me – I’ve always been ‘a little girl.’ I’m done with the charm of that. Why can’t I be as tall as a Becker? Anyway, enough of my lamentations regarding my personal shortcomings.Several of us had the opportunity to visit Oran late in November – sightseeing! Can you imagine? It was so very nice, to be driven in the back of a truck, rather than in a jeep in the dark, with my legs hanging over the back.

Oran is one of the leading cities in Algiers, and I have to say that it looks very neat, beautiful and clean from a distance – all whitewashed walls and red tile roofs, in terraces climbing up and down the hills from the harbor, punctuated by tall steeples, minarets, and stands of palm trees. The outskirts of the city were adorned with groves of orange and olive trees, and there were so many native Algerians in colorful robes and turbans – all so very exotic and romantic … but that was at a distance. Up close, the walls are seen to be dingy and peeling, and the robes are faded, ragged … and the people wearing them have not washed themselves or their clothing for years, to judge by the smell. We visited the old headquarters of the French Foreign Legion in Sidi-bes-Abbes, where three of the French officers showed us around. There was a little museum in the Legion HQ, with examples of all the uniforms the Legion has worn, back to the days of one of their moldy old princes who established the Legion. They showed us through town as well but explained the reason for so many dark looks cast in our direction, as many of the locals were very pro-Nazi and not at all happy to have the Allies in occupation now. We did not linger there for long. When we came back that evening to Arzew, we had a delivery of mail from home, and I had your latest letter.

What happy news for you, that Tommy is alive and a prisoner of war! Are you able to write to him, and send him comforts, and to tell him that he is the father of a daughter as well as a son? I do hope so. I have had no word from my friend Helen, who was reported to be interned among civilian women in Santo Tomas. It is hard to believe that just a year has passed since the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Manila and Singapore. How so many things have changed for us both in just a single year! If you can write to him, send him my love and best wishes. I was also very happy to hear that the books and the coral bead necklace that I posted to you in England for Olivia and Little Tommy’s Christmas presents have arrived in good time.

They should have a lovely Christmas in Australia – we at the hospital in Arzew are planning to have the same here in Africa! Lt. Worth, our senior nurse, has said that we should make it a most memorable Christmas for our patients here. Among things found by the Rangers in a warehouse near the harbor – and which hadn’t been looted and burned by the locals – were several bolts of red serge fabric. And it is Lt. Worth’s idea that we should sew Christmas stockings of red serge, trimmed with white from hospital sheets, for every patient in this place. We are sewing like mad elves, every moment that we can get – for we will need almost seven hundred. That is – when we are not working in a candy factory! Our supply officer and his sergeant assistants came by quantities of peanuts, milk, sugar and chocolate! (We call him Ali Baba and his 40 Thieves, for no one closely inquires by what miracle they were able to come up with all this because it probably wasn’t strictly regulation!) We turn too, when off-duty and not otherwise occupied with sewing stockings – and make candy! Peanut brittle, fudge, and taffy – a lot of work, but such fun! It almost feels like normal, getting ready for Christmas. Not like last year, when everyone was so worked up over Japan attacking, and everyone looking over their shoulder and wondering what awful defeat would happen next. Now we have the Nazis on the run, and soon the Japs as well.

Got to go do candy duty in the kitchen – I’ll write again when I can.

Your fond Cuz and auntie to your babies,

Vennie

Sometimes, long after first reading a book or watching a movie and enjoying it very much, I have come back to re-reading or watching, and then wondering what I had ever seen in that in the first place. So it was with the original M*A*S*H book and especially with the movie. I originally read the book in college and thought, “Eww, funny but gross and obscene, with their awful practical jokes and nonexistent sexual morals.” Then I re-read after having been in the military myself for a couple of years, and thought, “Yep, my people!”

The movie went through pretty much the same evolution with me, all but one element – and that was when I began honestly wondering why the ostensible heroes had such a hate on for Major Burns and the nurse Major Houlihan. Why did those two deserve such awful, disrespectful treatment? In the movie they seemed competent and agreeable enough initially. In the book it was clear that Major Burns was an incompetent surgeon with delusions of adequacy, and that Major Houlihan was Regular Army; that being the sole reason for the animus. But upon second viewing of the movie, it seemed like Duke Forrest, Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre were just bullying assholes selecting a random target for abuse for the amusement of the audience.

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(The writing on this is going very fast – I might yet be able to bring it out in time for Christmas. What with the Commie Crud responsible for cancelling market events and fairs right and left, I’ve got nothing much else to concentrate on.)

Letter, dated 20 May 1942, postmarked Fort Slocum, New Rochelle, NY

Dear Peg:

So happy to hear your wonderful news! Does the Baby Bungle Olivia look like a Becker or a Morehouse! Is Little Tommy pleased with his new little sister? I can hardly wait to see pictures of her, and I suppose that her grandmother and step-grandfather are spoiling her every much as she (and you deserve!) Their house sounds so pleasant, in the word-picture that you draw for me. It is all for the very best that you have such a lovely home for now with Stanley and Edith. It is so very reassuring in these times to have normal things like babies to take pleasure in, even at a distance of a wide ocean and most of a continent. As for myself, we are engaged in the pleasant occupation of sewing. The powers-that-be have finally conceded that we military nurses simply cannot be expected to wear our traditional white outfits when we are operating in a field hospital. Are you pleasantly surprised at their grasp of the painfully obvious? Alas, they have not been able to agree on anything the least bit official and practical in this regard, and in the meantime, the interim solution is to issue us all several sets of Army overalls, which would be practical, except that … these garments are sized for men. Very large, very tall men! I tried on one of mine at first, to general hilarity. My friend and roommate, Ruth N. said, “Vennie, don’t you dare sneeze, or you’ll lose everything!” Honestly, one might have put two of me in these overalls or made them to serve as a shelter with the addition of a couple of tent-poles! We are busily employed in tailoring them to fit, or at the very least, to present a not so ridiculous appearance. We have also been issued helmets for use in the field. In overalls and helmet, I look like nothing so much as a large mushroom. I cannot even begin to find a pair of boots small enough to fit my feet, not without wearing several layers of heavy woolen socks. I am a martyr to blisters.

You asked in one of your letters, if I had heard anything more from my friend Helen Drinkwater, who trained with me at Sealy. She is a prisoner of war, I am afraid, as were all the Army and Navy nurses remaining on Corregidor. I had a brief note from her last month, carried by one of those who were sent out from there at the last minute before the Japs overwhelmed the fortress and tunnel complex. She said that she was well and hoped to continue being able to care for her patients, and that she would not have done anything the least bit different.

Has there been any word of Tommy? You would think, had the Japs any decency, that they would make a list of prisoners available to the Red Cross.

Love,

Vennie

Letter, dated 15 August 1942, postmarked APO, New York

Dear Peg:

Well, are you surprised at receiving this letter? I am in England now at regular garrison camp in a location which the censor likely will not allow me to name, with (redacted unit). There is a certain large prehistorical stone monument usually attributed to the Druids some miles distant from where I am now, which might give you a clue to the general area. I think this is not far from where your grandmother was born.

We could not say anything to anyone – loose lips sink ships, as it says on all the posters – nor can I say anything about the trip ‘across the pond’ except that it was refreshingly dull, against all of our worst fears. It was still a relief to be lightered off the ship, to look back and see how big it was, at anchor, and then to set foot on solid ground again. We came by train from the port of arrival – and I cannot say exactly how long the journey was – again, loose lips, et cetera.

What did I think of England, though? Oh, dear Peg – everything is small, terribly quaint – and I must confess, comparatively made sad, grey, and dreary by three years of war and rationing of every blessed thing you can imagine, even though it is late summer. There are boarded-up windows everywhere, and even those which still have glass in them are covered with ‘X’ of tape in every pane. There are sandbag barriers in front of important buildings, and not a road-sign to be seen, anywhere out in the country. At night, the blackout is almost complete. You could see the stars … that is, if it weren’t for rain. Rain in late summer – what a bizarre thing! We were at leisure for a number of days, and Ruth N., Muriel P. and I took the train to London to see the sights, such as they are. We got to look at the Tower of London from a distance, and admire Parliament, the tower of Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey – but oh, you cannot imagine the hopelessness of seeing row after row of bombed-out buildings, and not a sign of rebuilding. Those streets of houses on the outskirts of London and other towns seemed inexpressibly dreary, for the sameness of dark red brick all grimed over with black coal soot. But the people we met all along the way were most splendid to us, and the conductor on the train took the time to explain the money to us; a dear little man with an artificial leg and a country accent that we could hardly make sense of sometimes. (Neither could we make sense of the money, either – and not for lack of him trying!) He was a soldier on the Somme in the last war, you see, and couldn’t do enough for us when he found out that we were Army nurses. Most people that we met were thrilled to bits, and treated us almost as if we were Hollywood stars, although there was that one gentleman in the café  who grumbled, “Well, it was about time that Americans got into it!” but the waitress apologized for him, and upon finding out that I was raised on a ranch and knew all about roundups and cattle drives and all that – she asked bashfully if I knew Mr. Gary Cooper personally.

Well, such was our brief holiday. I have bought some English picture-books at Foyle’s the bookshop for little Tommy as a Christmas present from your devoted Cuz. I will try to mail them to you when I can – and hope that they arrive in time. I like to think that they will have a shorter journey, going from England to Australia now!

Love,

Vennie          

We received a letter a few days ago from the sponsoring organization for the Giddings Word Wrangler; this an event that my daughter and I have participated in as authors for at least five or six years. Most usually in September, it was rescheduled to November, and then cancelled entirely for 2020. We are quite disappointed at this, but thoroughly understand the concerns which led to this.

In a normal year, it was the bash that kicked off our fall/winter event season, where we signed up for local markets, a couple of craft fairs, and one or two other strictly book events. The drive to Giddings meant an overnight stay, and in recent years two nights, since we volunteered to do talks at the local middle school English classes. It was a chance to relish some small town doings, meet up with other authors – a good few of whom we had hung out with before at other book events. Alas, we’ll have to wait until next near to visit again. I honestly am resigned to the fact that most Christmas markets and fairs will be cancelled this year. The Christmas craft fair in Bulverde is held mostly in an indoors venue, the senior center – and that has been closed for all intents and purposes since March. About the only one that I can see happening might be Miss Ruby’s Author Corral at Christmas on the Square in Goliad, which is all outdoors.

So – we’ll see. Looking on the bright side, not being committed to exhausting, day-long events with a long drive to and from, gives me a bit more writing time on weekends.