Friday, March 27, 2009

A Jewel Amidst the Rubble

This week I’ve been reading…well listening to…the audio book “America War Letters”. Well, most of it. The first disc was missing, leaving the American Revolution and half the Civil War AWOL, but the remainder, concluding with Bosnia, was fascinating. I know. Doesn’t sound like a cheerful way to spend a commute. I knew hearing about events like Pearl Harbor’s casualties would hardly qualify as entertaining.

But I’m a girl. When I was growing up, girls didn’t join the Marines, they wrote letters to them.

Curiosity led me to their stories. Personal stories. Letters written in the cold and dark, often surrounded by the enemy. Sure, I knew anything with “war” in the title meant death wouldn’t be far behind. You almost instinctively know that any writer who cheerfully boasted, “Hey, I’m too mean to die”, was doomed. Thankfully the book is a balanced mix. allowing for reflection on the past without sinking into a pit of despair over “man’s inhumanity to man”. It’s like stepping into history as it happens. This isn't a scholarly account but impressions of the “common man”, usually reporting from the front lines.

I came away grateful to have been spared their realities.

Letter writing is a fine art which we are smothering into electronic submission. But even machines can’t remove the human factor. Nor can time. The letters run the gamut from Grunt to General to Presidents. Some grabbed you by the throat, others by the heartstrings. Like the personal note of sympathy from Pres. Theodore Roosevelt to a grieving mother when his family had also just lost a son to war. A note telling Mom everything was fine and to please send cookies, while a letter to Dad admitted the harsh truth. Ranging from patriotic to scared, cheerful to lonely, the soldiers did their best to comfort those they loved…people who were safe and warm. Back home.

And each letter ended with the same belief: don’t worry, I’ll be all right.

It was the language of the WWII stories which made me love them most. Without the curse of “reality t.v.” people still used the most descriptive words to tell vivid stories. Words were the tune which twirled you around the room. Even horrifying stories often contained humor. One was from a nurse on a ship bound for home. Having packed all their clothing for the trip, the nurses decided to sleep nude. Their ship was bombed as they slept. The nurse described in great detail how all but one “poor unfortunate soul” had found their coveralls and shoes. Can you imagine taking time to get dressed in the dark when your room is filling with water and the ceiling is literally falling on your head? But “proper lady” etiquette ruled and only one woman went topside in her birthday suit. Their words didn’t just tell a story, they made it real. Tangible. Every soldier had a story to tell.

But none did it as well as Sidney Diamond.

Sid was 16 when he met 14 year old Estelle on a playground. Walking her home the second time, he knew she was the girl he'd marry. They pair even discussed marriage. Then came Pearl Harbor and Sid dropped out of college to join the Army. His letters to Estelle were heartwarming, funny, tender and so filled with love they made YOU feel better.

A true wordsmith, Sid’s sense of humor was interwoven with phrases that still haunt me. Only in that era did “Darling” and “Sweetheart” sound so sincere. Whether teasing or serious, there was no doubt how much Sid loved Estelle. On Leave for 2 days, he dropped to one knee in Central Park and put a ring on her finger. Two days later, he shipped out.

Their correspondence illustrated a true love story. With humor. After waiting for a care package which hadn’t arrived, Sid “addressed” the Postman. “You probably come from a very happy family. I love you. The girl receiving this likes you. So please allow her to send me a pen and cigarette lighter. And a kiss. Hey! In the letter. Tend to your own business and sell stamps.”

But it was Sid’s command of the English language which made you understand why women use to swoon. One of his letters ended,“For you, a very fond caress. A kiss. Because…just because.”

When his friends began to die, Sid turned to Estelle as “the only person to whom I can moan because it sounds so childish.” Asking her to forgive his melancholy, he suggested she dump the letter in the nearest trash basket. The war was wearing him down. Soldiers departed, Sid explained, never arrived. Even the Chaplain referred to the dead as the departed. Did that mean you could only truly arrive when you died? Sid wondered. Asking her to disregard his mood, he added, “It is terrible to live with memories only. I’m moaning and groaning on your very nice shoulders. I want to be with you. I love you. Your Sid.”

War began to grind Sid down. Only his love for Estelle made it tolerable. On a letter written Christmas Day, Sid noted, ”Poems, songs, stories of love and eternal devotion are written about everlasting, enduring, powerful affections like the love which holds us together. Don’t mind the overdose of sentimentalism. Maybe it’s the night.”

Tired of being practical and unable to share his whereabouts, Sid’s sense of humor was waning. Between death, the unrelenting cold and time spent apart from Estelle, Sid had grown weary. And yet he ended letters on a high note. After sharing the low points that Christmas, Sid added, “I love you Darling. Whatever happens, be happy. That’s my only request. Fill your life. Only keep my little niche open so that if I ever get home, there’s one place waiting for me. My corner of the world. Let it be a small alcove in your heart. Put a comfortable chair there and always keep a warm fire going. …It’s where I belong. It’s my home. With you. Estelle it’s not softness. It’s not weakness. It’s a fact. I need you. I need you. I need you. Enough of this. I love you extensively. Your Sid.”

Sid had warned Estelle it might be awhile before she received mail. A month later she received the following. “Darling, somewhere in the Philippines but…[a] very tired [b] very dirty and [c] busy as all hell. We’re moving constantly. Please excuse brevity. I love you. You make my foxhole warm and soft.”

Another month passed and Estelle was becoming worried. Coming home to the boarding house where she stayed, Estelle found an envelope in her room. Bearing her name in unfamiliar handwriting, it had no return address and contained only a newspaper clipping. Sid had been killed three days earlier in Luzon. He was 22 years old. Estelle had not seen him since the day he put a ring on her finger almost two years earlier.

In spite of knowing it could happen, I heard myself hiss in a wounded whisper, “No!” A tear rolled down my cheek. I felt a dull ache inside. After all those words of love and laughter, it was as if I’d lost Sid too.

Life went on, pushing Estelle with it and eventually she found love again. In 2004 she published a book which compiled the letters she and Sid had exchanged. It was entitled “An Alcove In The Heart”.

Funny, you look just like I pictured you.
Sid, you really were a jewel of a man.


Poetikat said...

What a fantastic way to spend a commute. I would love to do that.
It's a shame the Civil War part was missing. In the 80s I watched the entire Ken Burns' Civil War series with my mom and I remember well the number of letters that were read. I was so pleased when I bought the cd of the soundtrack that one of the letters was on it as well.
The Ashokan Farewell is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard too.

It's so nice that you treasure the past and history. More folk should do that.


Susan said...

Oh, what a darling, what a smile. How wonderful that after all those years she published their correspondence, so he lives again, in a way.

A friend who'd been through it once told me that he living in war meant living more deeply, more keenly, than most people ever do in their whole lives. He said you're aware of (and grateful for) every breath and sight and sound, every minute. I remember that often, but can't help thinking that it's a terrible shame there's any war at all to learn that in.

Oh well, I'm rambling... it's past midnight so I'll say goodnight. Probably will dream of foxholes and love letters!

hope said...

Kat, I'm a sucker for a good story, especially when it's based in fact. Guess that's why I'll miss Paul Harvey's "Rest of the Story" moments. Actor Giovanni Ribisi was the "voice" of Sid...he did a wonderful job of bringing him to life. And he did the "swoon" parts very well. ;)

Susan, as soon as I found that picture of Sid, I broke out into a grin. His smile was contagious. It's nice that their love can live's like Estelle's book is their love child. :)

Corker2 said...

I can understand and know what it feels like to write Home, but this was during an on-going War, that no-one wanted.

I would write letters Home to Mom while at sea for 62 day's over in Vietnam. You never really just how much you miss Home and your loved ones, until you do things like this. It can get real lonely out there, even though you have many more with you. I remember.

hope said...

Corker, I grew up in that era and even as the kid of a civilian it affected me deeply. If you want to see how so, I wrote about it from Nov 4-11, 2007 in this blog.

It's the story of the MIA bracelet I wore and how I found the son of that Capt. and returned the bracelet to him.

Just in case anyone forgot to tell you when you returned from 'Nam...thanks!

Peggy said...

What a wondeful love story. Even though the story did not have a happy ending,their love lives on. So tender.
I wrote to a helocopter pilot durning the vietnam war and the story reminded me of the feelings expressed in my letters. My pilot came home and is married and lives in Wisconsin. Very happy ending.
Thanks Hope for the memories.

Winifred said...

That was a beautiful story so sad it didn't have a happy ending.

What a fantastic treasure trove those letters are. Food for the soul.

hope said...

Peggy: nice to hear your "soldier" made it to happily ever after.

Winifred: it was odd and sad that Sid didn't make it and yet his beautiful words did. Bet he'd be thrilled to know he made the girl in me swoon some 60+ years after he was promoted to wings and halo. :)

Rutland Place said...

Really enjoyed this.

hope said...

Thanks visit again!