I love this time of year. Maybe in a past-life I was an acolyte of Janus. While I appreciate the promise of new beginnings, what I treasure more is the opportunity to look backwards, reflect, evaluate and learn, and at the same time, to look forwards, plan, resolve and imagine. There is no moving forward without looking backwards.
Every now and then, like at the turn of the new year, one has the chance to evaluate how one has grown and changed. For me, this day provides a more meaningful snapshot even than my birthday. Last year at this time, it hadn’t yet occurred to me to write a blog about life with Cleo. My weekly posts are a valued ritual now, and wow, what I’ve learned from writing them and from the emails readers send.
There have been obvious changes in Cleo, many of which I’ve chronicled here, but the one that John and I have noticed in the last couple of days is her need for society. There have been so many times at school that I’ve worried about the amount of human input she has. It is a rare day that she doesn’t have a dozen visitors or so, and even when students don’t come into the office, they are passing by the door non-stop. Many pause to greet her or pat her, but even when they simply walk by, she acknowledges them. The past two weeks of vacation, though, have narrowed her social circle down to Daddy and Mommy. When we pass someone on our walks, with or without a dog, Cleo morphs into a biped. Hopping on her back feet and balancing with her throat against the collar, she paddles her front paws in the air, trying to get the stranger’s attention. When someone she knows comes over to the house, oh my goodness! She forgets all the good manners she has learned and flings herself at the guest, paws, body, nose, tongue and teeth. When we make her stand to greet, she runs off to get a toy, tears back and shoves it against the guest’s shin, then races off for another. Within moments, the poor guest stands, dripping puppy slobber, surrounded by a pile of dog toys, faced with a grinning, tail wagging Bedlington. In a year, social variety has gone from something intimidating to a necessity of life.
But when I think about growth and change, my mind most often goes to a certain young man, age nineteen, who left a small town in Pennsylvania to join the Army. Extremely intelligent, curious and driven, he was, nonetheless, naive and sheltered. Two and a half years of war had a profound effect on him.
My sisters and I are extraordinarily fortunate to have the letters this young man—our father—wrote to his parents, grandparents, sisters and brother during World War II. He was a faithful writer; it was rare that a week went by without two or three letters home. There is something almost mystical about the opportunity to watch your father grow up. Here we are, all of us older than the age he attained, witnessing the adolescent become the man we knew, or at least, developing the soul of the man we knew.
So for this New Year’s Day, I wanted to share three short segments which I’ve edited from his letters, the first written on the last day of his first year in the Army, the last written one month before he walked in, unannounced, during his family’s Sunday dinner.
Ft. Bliss, Texas
Friday, December 31, 1943
It hardly seems possible that there are only a few hours left in ’43, for although I guess all years seem to have gone fast when you look back on them, this has been the fastest of them all for me. I hope it’s been the same for you. If they go on like this we’ll be home in no time, but I guess it won’t be so easy as that….
It’s Saturday morning now [New Year’s Day] and I’ve just come back from breakfast at the Service Club. I had coffee and four doughnuts. That isn’t much of a breakfast but it was the only thing they had besides eggs, and after the way the Army has been mutilating them for the past seven months I couldn’t even look a scrambled one in the face. They seem to think we like eggs for we get them about every morning. Eggs and potatoes or eggs and sausage or just eggs and eggs….
It seemed funny last night at 11:00 that we still had an hour left in 1943 while ’44 was already an hour old for you. The only thing I don’t like about the difference in time is that Fred Waring is on when we stand retreat and Harry James follows during chow. Of course we’re still on duty while Lowell Thomas is on.
A year later, he had been shipped overseas, completed additional training in northern England (he operated radar in an anti-aircraft battery), been to France and was now stationed in Belgium. What he doesn’t mention in this letter is why he failed to write a letter on Christmas Day. For that, they had to wait a year. Let’s just say that missing Fred Waring was no longer a pressing concern.
January 1, 1945
Another year come and gone. Little did I think last New Year’s day in El Paso that I’d be spending this one in Belgium. “Where do we go from here, boys?” [A popular song from WWI.] Even if I could know I don’t think I’d want to. Things happen too fast these days. But we’ll at least be able to see the end of the war next year at this time, whether we’re in New York or Nanking, and we’ll be a year closer to home. I wonder how much more of the world I’ll get to see between now and then. …
Boy do I wish for showers. These steel helmet baths are alright as far as disguising the smell, but all they do is spread the dirt evenly. I’d like to stretch out in a good hot tub right now and then crawl in between some sheets. I wonder if we’ll appreciate luxuries for very long after we get home or if we’ll soon drift back to taking everything for granted. Now even the most commonplace comforts seem as unattainable as a king’s palace. But I guess we’ll find as much to gripe about at home as we do here; if there’s only one thing we’ve learned in the Army that’s the art of eloquent griping. And it’s really an art.
Happy New Year.
This final excerpt is from his second to last letter home. He spent the months after VE Day demilitarizing different areas of Germany, finding and destroying guns and other weapons. He also got to know, and care for, many German citizens.
…I couldn’t help thinking last night how quiet this Christmas Eve was compared with last year’s. Have you read in the papers lately about that secret radar fuse that explodes when it nears the target? Supposed to be the #2 secret after the atomic bomb. They used it in the Pacific over water for almost a year before the Bulge but they were afraid a few unexploded shells might fall into enemy territory if we used it here in Europe. But they must have decided the situation warranted the chance last Christmas Eve…. Remember how I told you we stayed up the whole night on the gun? … We used some of that new ammo during the night last Christmas Eve. Intelligence heard that 50 planes were on the way up the river toward Liege to bomb out bridges, a big number for the Luftwaffe, so when only three or four came through we had to hold fire to keep our positions in the dark, and when they dropped flares we stood like a bunch of statues. Things really look weird under flares. Anyway, those planes were followed by only a few bombers instead of the 50. We finally opened up after they got half their bombs away, but no bridges were blown out and they say a few of the planes came down….
That was really a rough night for the people of Liege. They say 150 buzz bombs, or something like that, fell into Liege that night and Christmas day alone. They were going overhead all night, sometimes three or four in the sky at once. The sirens in the nearby towns screamed all night and it seemed as though a buzz bomb hit every five minutes. We really pitied those people on their Christmas Eve, after they had thought the war for them was over. They say as many as 25 houses were completely destroyed by one V-bomb hit. So whatever anxiety you might have experienced was nothing compared to theirs. And our only discomfort was the cold…. Still we could see artillery fire on three sides so we wondered a little too.
But now that we’re so close to home that all seems pretty far away. It’s hard to believe that that was a whole year ago, but with all we’ve been thinking about getting home it seems like something that happened in another army almost.…Anyway the new year will be a lot brighter this year.
There are any number of things that help us each to grow and mature. For some, it is rising to the challenges of war, for some it is the desire to take care of a beloved, for some it is simply an accumulation of days on Earth. At the heart of any growth, though, is the chance to look backward and reflect on where we have come from, and to look forward and dream of what’s ahead.
Happy New Year!
|Richard B. Lower, 1948|
University of Pennsylvania
Medical School photo