Visiting Friends from Home in the Nation’s Capital

Lester with his 7-year-old brother Paul.
Lester with his 7-year-old brother Paul.

Tuesday evening   September 29 – 1942

Dear Paul

I enjoyed your letter very much and I can imagine that you had a lot of fun on your train ride and at the fair too.  My train ride to Washington was fun but coming back it was very chilly on the train.  I never did get to see the white house as it rained nearly all the time I was there.  I had quite a time to find a room but another sailor and I finally got a room together.  It is almost impossible to find a place to stay in Washington.

After getting the room I called the girls at Mrs. Eaton’s.  Irene answered the phone but she didn’t know who I was.  Mrs. Miller had told them that I had asked for Anne’s address but they weren’t really expecting me.  I talked to all of the girls for awhile but didn’t go out to see them as it was raining. Irene and Anne were going bowling while Alice was expecting a call from another boy.  Alice had to work on Sunday so Irene, Anne and I planned to see the sights, go to dinner then pick up Alice after work and go out to Cobbs.

The next morning it was still raining so we cancelled the tour.  I went out to the house about two o clock to get the girls. Who should open the door but Alice.  She had gotten off work at noon.  It wasn’t raining right then so Anne took a picture of Irene, Alice and myself.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn our way out to Cobbs, it started to rain.  We were riding the street car but got off so that Ann and Irene could buy a couple of umbrellas.  We finally got out to where Cobbs live.  They live about fifteen miles from where the girls stay.  We rode the last ten miles or so on the bus.  Walter lives about half a block from the end of the bus line.

When we got there it was raining cats and dogs so the bus driver let us off right at the gate.  We ran up on the porch but the door was locked.  It was only a small porch and the wind blew the rain right in on us.  I went around to the back and the door was open so I called the girls and we went inside.  Our shoes were wet so we took them off and left them on the kitchen floor.  I forgot to tell you that no one was home.

The bus had already gone and it was half an hour until the next one so we made ourselves at home.  We closed the windows for them then made ourselves at home.  They had some Cappers Weekly and Kansas Farmer papers which we enjoyed.  We missed the first bus but Walter and Mildred came soon after the bus went so we were glad that we missed it.  They were surprised to see us and especially to see me.  Floyd Cobb had been with them but he joined the navy on Wednesday.  We left them about a quarter til seven, went downtown and finally found a place to eat supper, then went to the show “Holiday Inn”.   We saw the Three Little Pigs too.  I think it was the same as you saw in Council Grove.  We got out of the show at midnight so I took the girls home.  It was one o’clock when I started back to the station.  I got on the train to leave at one fifty but it didn’t leave until three.  The train was so cold I couldn’t sleep and it was after six when we got into Philadelphia.  I came on board at a quarter til seven.

Lester and high school classmates. Alice is in the upper right hand corner.
Lester and high school classmates. Alice is in the upper right hand corner.

Mom, you asked what I could use for Christmas.  Well I can buy nearly all my clothes cheaper than you can but I could use a pair of black leather gloves.  We don’t have to conform so closely to regulations now.  Also I could use a thin, small pocket knife to carry in my dress clothes.  My whites fit so tight that I can’t carry a regulation knife.  All of us are supposed to carry sheath knives.  Even the captain carries one on his belt.  I can buy that myself, though.  It looks as though we will be getting winter clothing after all.  We were told we wouldn’t need any woolens but I think we will be getting some.  The woolen sweaters cost two dollars which is less than you would have to pay, I imagine.  I had my shoes half-soled and heels put on for a dollar and a half a pair.  The laundry has finally started to function so I don’t scrub many clothes any more.

Mom, I don’t suppose I’ll get off to get a present for your birthday but I’ll be thinking of you and I wish you many more happy birthdays.

You mentioned that the club intended to send packages to the boys.  May I suggest that they don’t send food unless it is certain to be delivered immediately as it would no doubt be stale by the time the boys would get it.  Probably most of the boys would appreciate cigarettes as much as anything.  There really isn’t much we need.  What do you folks want for Christmas?  You know, I believe I would rather have a shower of letters than any gifts the community might send.  It wouldn’t cost them much and would be a lot of fun for me.

It is getting rather chilly back here but not too cold.  I like it better than when it is so hot.

I forgot to mention the states I went thru over the week-end.  I was in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.  In the buses in Virginia there was a sign directing all negroes to sit in the rear of the bus and whites in front.

I can’t think of anything else right now so will write again later.

Love to all.

Lester 

P.S. I won’t be able to send you a picture of me in whites as we are wearing blues all the time for liberty now.  Sorry.

Lester’s letter: November 10, 1941

(Interestingly, this letter from 1941 clearly indicates that the days of the week this year closely match those of 1941. Here is it Sunday, November 10, 2013. Lester’s long letter postmarked November 10, 1941 was also written on a Sunday. Probably he wrote the letter on November 9.  In it he described the daily routine and activities of his experience so far.)

Dear Folks

This is Sunday evening, six-thirty & I have just finished shaving & cleaning up for the evening so I will try to get a letter off before I start to study.  It is three hours yet till we have to be in bed though we can go to bed any time after seven-thirty.  We have supper about five o’clock on Sunday evening.  You asked what we did each day so I will try to go thru an average day for you.

We get up at five-thirty, dress & lash up our hammocks by six o’clock.  Then if we are having late chow, we clean up the barracks before eating.  We sweep, wash, wax, polish & shine everything.  By this time it is seven-thirty & time for late chow.  After chow we go to the field to drill or to a lecture.  We drill till eleven or twelve then back to the barracks for a little rest before noon chow.  The rifles we carry for drill weigh about eight pounds without bayonets.  The bayonets add another pound but we haven’t used them yet.  About one-thirty we go to drill again until sometime around four.  Again we rest before evening chow at five-thirty.  After that we are free to do as we please which means that we wash clothes, shave, take showers, get our beds made up, write letters, play cards or study.  You see we manage to keep busy.

Keeping busy at the training station. Photo postal card 1941.
Keeping busy at the training station. Photo postal card 1941.

Someone has to stand guard all the time.  The guards are four hour shifts which is plenty long to walk the floor.  My first guard was from midnight till four in the morning.  I had to walk back & forth about a distance of seventy-five feet.  Four hours of that gets pretty tiresome & monotonous.

This morning everyone except the guards & the Jews went to church.  This afternoon we went to a concert by an all-girl band.  The boys sure got a kick out of that.  I think the girls enjoyed it also.  On Monday, Wednesday & Friday nights we can go to shows if we want to go.  I have gone twice.  They are the same shows which you see at home.  Last night we went to a special show & lecture.  A Norwegian boy who had escaped from the Nazis in Norway told how they were annoying & fighting their Nazi conqueors.

I had a letter from Aunt Mabel the other day, also one from Frances.  I have received several letters, about one every other day, I guess.  I’m always glad to hear how you are getting along.

By the way, Wallace, if you had pants like we wear here, you would have to wear gloves to keep your hands warm as you can’t get your hands in the pockets on these.  There are only two pockets on the trousers, both at the waistband.  There is a flap in the front which requires fourteen (14) buttons to close.

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Lester in his US Navy uniform.

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When you reach for the pockets, your hands just slide on over a row of buttons.  We wear an undershirt, a black woolen sweater & a navy blue jumper which ties tight around the waist above the trousers & then hangs down over the trouser waistband.  We carry most of our stuff in this pouch.  We have two of these outfits for every day wear & one heavier dress outfit with white braid on the jumper.  We have to wear leggings here.  They spoil the looks of the outfit but they do help keep the pant legs clean.  We have one pair of Sunday shoes & one heavy pair for everyday wear.  We have plenty of clothes, especially when it is time to wash them.  We have to do this in a bucket & with a scrub brush.  We don’t use clothes pins to hang them up with but tie them up with clothes-stops, pieces of trot-line cord.  We have a dryer room which we use in bad weather instead of hanging them outside.

We get our mail delivered at noon & again at about four in the afternoon.  Practically all of the mail comes in the morning.   I got your letter at eleven this morning which is the quickest of any yet.  Usually it takes two days.  If you have a chance you might send me some envelopes as I am almost out of any that are any good.  We received stationery here at the camp but the envelopes won’t stick.  You don’t need to send stamps as I can get those here.  I would rather have the self-sealing kind if you can get them.  Don’t go to any trouble as I can write cards of course.

I’m about pumped dry & really should study some as we are going to have some tests this week & I don’t have time during the week to study so I had better bring this to a close.

We will get twelve hours leave when we transfer to Camp Paradise but I think I will stay here probably & save the money I would spend.  We won’t have much left from this first check.  Write whenever you can as we are all anxious to hear from home.  The mailman is quite popular here.

I hope the rain has stopped for awhile.  Paul, I enjoyed your letter a lot, write again.  Did you get my stuff from Ernest’s suitcase?  I had a roll of film & some other stuff in there.  I may want my camera as I hear that we are allowed to have them.

 
                                                                                                                                                           Lester

 P.S.  I have plenty of paper.

Setting Sail

Lester F. Harris
Lester F. Harris

When I think of family and losses, my thoughts turn first to an uncle whom I never met. Lester Franklin Harris was the older brother to my father. Born the 21st day of February in 1918, Uncle Lester came of age during the depression era. He helped run the family farm for a few years after graduation from high school. In 1941, with conflicts escalating all over the world, he joined the US Navy and headed to the Great Lakes for training.

Lester did not make it home from World War II. His loss came years before any of my generation arrived, so none of us had the chance to know Uncle Lester. But we heard about him. My cousin, the son of Lester’s older sister, was named after him with a middle name of Lester. Additionally, David Lester’s life was so impacted by his mother’s love for her brother that he later joined the US Navy himself and remained active in the Navy reserves for many years beyond his active duty.

When the telegraph bearing news of Lester’s presumed death arrived at his home, the family–my family–bore a tragic shock. His parents had lost a son. His sister and younger brothers had lost their brother. His fiance had lost her soul mate. And those of us who came later not only lost an uncle, we lost the aunt he would have brought into the family, and any cousins who might arrived. Growing up, we didn’t know we had lost anything in particular. We’d never known the world with Lester in it. So how could we miss him?

Decades later, after the deaths of his younger brothers, I have found a box of Lester’s letters. And I understand. My grandmother saved everything. She filled a scrapbook with postcards he sent, photos, and other memories. Through his own words, I am now learning who my uncle was, what he meant to the family, and the scope of his tragic and untimely death. Over the next few months, I will post those letters, on the anniversaries of their origin, and share a few of the memories from over seventy years ago.

Today’s post is a speech he gave at his high school graduation. As salutatorian of his class, he was expected to address those in attendance. Surprisingly enough, or maybe without surprise, he spoke of a ship setting sail as a metaphor for graduates launching into their lives after school days are over. I post it today, for it was possibly on this date in the year 1941 when Lester left home for his basic training.

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Setting Sail
This week will see members of senior classes from all parts of the United States receiving their diplomas and setting sail on their life vocations.
 
When a ship starts on a voyage it is loaded with fuel. If the ship is large or the voyage long, stops may be made at several fueling stations. So it is in our life. Our fuel is knowledge, gleaned from our school life. Our first fueling station is the eight years of grade school. Our second, high school, and for those doing larger things in life, a third, college.
 
Ships are always in danger of being veered from their course by storms, of running onto hidden reefs or rocks. Our storms are discouragements, financial reverses or perhaps choosing the wrong vocation. The sunken reefs and rocks are perhaps the association with the wrong kind of friends.
 
However a ship does not by any means sail blindly. It has a pilot, lighthouses, and buoys to guide it and mark the dangerous spots. A young graduate’s pilot can be a number of persons—his parents, his teachers, or his friends. Usually each has a large part in determining what route the graduate will take. The lighthouses and buoys are perhaps business partners or others who can help to mark the best course for the graduate who is “Setting Sail” on new seas.
 
Lester F. Harris, Salutatorian
Senior Class of Dunlap Rural High School
Dunlap, Morris County, Kansas
May 13, 1936OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

August Birthdays

           ??????????????????????????????? A theme for the chronicles of summer has emerged. In the midst of chaos, when my feeble brain overloads to the point where I feel one more thing will surely short-circuit the whole affair, a new revelation presents itself. Through hours of mind-wandering road trips, bustle-to-wait airport adventures, and the monotony of slathering new paint over walls of a vacant house, or peeling buckets of apples to preserve, I realize the month of August carries significant import for me. August was the month when several of my significant people were born.

            This realization started with an invitation to the 100th birthday party of a lady, born on August 2, 1913, who demonstrated to me what it meant to be a good neighbor. At a time decades ago when repeated crises in my family nearly got the better of me, she was there to help, quiet and dependable. Once I despaired. “I don’t know how I’ll ever pay you back.”

            “No need to pay me back,” was her reply. “Just do the same for someone else someday.” Pay it forward. Don’t pay it back.

            Then, of course, there is my youngest child, born the 25th day of August twenty-four years ago, whose impact on my life continues to this day, wondrous and unique.

            Between these two, the old and the young, I think of my niece, the precious and oldest grandchild of my own parents, now capably raising a family of her own.

            There is my sister-in-law. The better I know her, the more clearly I see our kindred spirit and I understand why I love this family so much.

            I have been reminded that my good friend, writing coach, and life mentor, Marvin Swanson, celebrated an August birthday, on the 23rd day of the month, if my notes are correct. Marvin left the earthly life fourteen summers ago, but through the collection of letters he sent me, he lives again, almost as if he was still nearby.

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            Born in western Kansas in 1923, Marvin became afflicted with debilitating arthritis when yet a teenager. For over thirty years, he was a correspondence instructor of writing at Fort Hays State University and the University of Kansas. Living close to the campus of FHSU, he rented rooms to students and served as a mentor and a kind-of-foster-parent to those who shared his walls.

            Marvin was a founding member of the Western Kansas Association on Concerns of the Disabled. The founding principle, possibly penned by Marvin himself, reads:

            We, the members of the Western Kansas Association on Concerns of the Disabled, believe that all disabled persons, regardless of their disability, have the right to choose their own lifestyle. Along with this right comes responsibility. Therefore, we also believe that all disabled persons, no matter the degree of disability, can and should contribute something to society. We have dedicated ourselves and WKACD to the continuation of these principles.”

            If contributions could be measured, those of Marvin Edgerton Swanson would rank among the highest humanity has to offer. Though imprisoned in a body wracked with pain, he transcended that condition. His mind, ever observant and quick to compile subtle nuances into gems of wisdom, connected with young and old to contribute to the betterment of life for all.

            I met Marvin when I attended college at FHSU. We corresponded regularly for decades, until shortly before his death. His arthritis compromised his ability to wield a pen. Thus the thoughts he inked onto his monogrammed stationery were deeply considered and well-planned in order to wring the most meaning from each word. Reading them again today, he comes to life in my mind. The years drop away and it is almost as if I am young again, curled on his sofa, relating my thoughts to him in exchange for his ageless wisdom.

            This new blog category will feature gems of Marvin’s wisdom, gleaned from his letters, because they are worth sharing with the world. His writing career lacked a blog site. Were he still here, that situation would likely be much different. Thus, Marvin, here’s your blog. Should other friends of this remarkable man eventually find their way to this page, I welcome additional gems they have savored from their relationship with him.

 

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            Today’s gem, in honor of those letters, and in celebration of Marvin’s birthday, reflects on the importance of writing letters. His letters, surely, carry vitality on their invisible and timeless wings.

In his words:

            I’ve been working on an article about the dwindling act of writing personal letters. Up to 80% of our reduced 1st class mail consists of business letters. Will the personal letter exchange gradually disappear in the electronic communication revolution? The personal letter has many unique advantages.

            Ellen Terry, an actress, began writing to George Bernard Shaw when they were both single. They never met. Both married. They wrote for 25 years. Shaw wrote about their correspondence, which has been published: “Let those who complain that it (the Shaw-Ellen Terry “romantic correspondence”)was all on paper remember that only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love.”

            Imagine, I can read a letter Christopher Columbus wrote describing America or Edgar Allen Poe’s letter revealing the secret of the real tragedy of his life. They’re in a book with many more entitled The World’s Great Letters.  I have it.

            “Letters . . . are, of all the words of men, in my judgment, the best.” (Francis Bacon)

 Letters are poignant keys to the souls of friends long gone. We can live through our letters, as Marvin lives on his pages. For the young generation of today, which is so dependent on quick, electronic messages, how will their words echo in bits and bites for those yet unborn?

A Mother’s Dream

Soon I will be traveling to spend a special birthday with my youngest, a beautiful woman now of 24 years. By this time next year she’ll have a child of her own crawling around, maybe tottering some first steps. I recall the wonder and anticipation I felt awaiting her arrival. And I remember the instant love, a mother’s bond, a determination to do whatever I could to see that she had a chance for a meaningful life.  I would give my life for my children. I suspect that many mothers–and fathers–feel this way toward a new life entrusted to them.

That was about the time when I renewed my interest in protecting the earth, our home planet, to preserve its vitality for generations to come. I wanted my children to experience the beauty of nature, to revel in the wilderness as I had when young. I wanted them to grow up with principles, and goals, and a sense of justice for the good of all, even wild creatures of God’s creation.

I imagined that mothers the world over held high hopes for a new baby, though the hopes might differ in their content. How would my hopes for a child in Kansas differ from the hopes of a new mother in Haiti? What hopes do new mothers harbor today? What hopes do you have for your new sons or daughters?

Below is a poem written when my youngest was weeks old. Thanks to my good friend, Lynne Hunter, for the photos from Haiti.

A Mother’s Dream

From a Kansas perspective                                            From a Haitian Perspective

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Her brown eyes filled with wonder at the moment of her birth

And they have yet to lose the spark that miracle did place.

I wonder, Baby Girl of mine, as you arrive on Earth

What is your future?  Can I see a hint within your face?

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His brown eyes filled with wonder at the moment of his birth.

But will that spark begin to dim, this miracle a waste?

I wonder, Baby Boy of mine, as you arrive on Earth

What is your future?  Will you be granted one with grace?

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My girl, I thank the Powers that be for your sake on this day.

There is a list for which you’ll never have to pray.

A home with food and clothing and a roomy place to play,

Security for all you need to make a life each day.

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My boy, I thank the Powers that be for your sake on this day.

There is a list for which you’ll never have to pray.

A character built up through need, through learning to say nay;

You will be patient, understanding, quick to share your play.

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And yet, my child, there are some things that I would ask for you.

Dear God, please give her challenges enough to grow within.

Spare her the clutter of a life empty of all that’s true;

Too many options, too much ease, affluence her great sin.

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My child, there are a lot of things I ask in your behalf.

Kind Father, grant his needs be met so he’ll become a man.

Give him this year good nourishment.  Protect him with your staff.

See that he grows to have a chance and thus fulfill your plan.

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My little child, whose birth inspired in me unequalled awe—

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I’d give my life if I could know your innocence will prevail.

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Lord, give her character built by patience; teach your loving law—

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Dear God, protect him; let him grow; our hope do not impale.

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My girl, refuse a life of idle ease.

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                                                            Son, learn to fight. Do not let go of things you need.

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                Daughter, reject the load of justices denied to others so we can live right.

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Grow up my son.

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Be strong, my girl.  Choose your road with care.

 

His brown eyes filled with wonder at the moment of his birth

And they have yet to lose the spark that miracle did place.

I wonder, Baby Boy of mine, as you arrive on Earth

What is your future?  Can I see a hint within your face?

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Her brown eyes filled with wonder at the moment of her birth.

But will that spark begin to dim, this miracle a waste?

I wonder, Baby Girl of mine, as you arrive on Earth

What is your future?  Will you be granted one with grace?

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Letters to Septanna

Contemporary American culture is notoriously short-sighted. We can’t see beyond the tips of our noses, or into the next hour, let alone the next century. Gratification must be instant–because after all, we deserve it.

PICT0634Yet there is a growing need to evaluate our lifestyle choices for the consequences forced onto unborn generations. Native Americans put it this way, “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”   (From the Great Law of the Iroquois confederacy.)

Just how long would that be? It would vary from family to family, of course, but in my own, seven generations covers about 200 years. Could my great- ancestors-times-seven have imagined life in the twenty-first century? I doubt it. Nor can I visualize everyday life in the year 2213. But perhaps there will live a child two hundred years hence, the great-granddaughter of my yet non-existent great-grandchild. She’s the thread of an idea right now, but I’ll call her Septanna. “Sept” for seven and “Anna” for my progeny. What would I tell Septanna about life in my time?

This new category will include letters to the twenty-third century.