(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.)
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.
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.
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.
November 7, 1941
There isn’t much of anything new to write about but I suppose that you would wonder what has happened to me if I don’t write. It started snowing last night & has been snowing ever since but it melts as fast as it falls. It really isn’t as cold here as I had expected to find it. A boy from Kentucky sleeps next to me & he is about to freeze all the time. He says that fourty above is really cold there & two or three inches of snow is the most that he has ever seen. Did I tell you that I have a brother in this company. His name is Loyd Arthur Harris. Just the middle initial is the only difference in our names. He is from Michigan & a very nice boy. The officers have to call us by our full name in order to tell us apart. He is upstairs & I am on the first floor so we don’t see much of each other.
I’ve written so many letters to different people that I can’t remember what I have told you. Did I tell you about the gas drill? We put on gas masks & went into the gas chamber for two or three minutes then took the mask off & went outside. It wasn’t so bad.
I had a letter from Frances the other day. It must be getting muddy by now. Is anything new happening? If you could see the way we mob the mailman you would know that we are all anxious to receive letters.
I’m going to have to stop without finishing this page. Will write more later.Lester
Nov. 4. 1941
I won’t have time to write much of a letter tonight as we are really quite busy all of the time. Of course we don’t drill so long each day but we have to do our washing & cleaning up in leisure time. Also I want to do some studying before we take any more exams which will be next week. We took one exam today. It wasn’t bad so I think that I made a fair grade.
Sorry to hear that you are still having rains back there. I hoped that it would dry up some time. It has been nice here since Sunday & probably will stay that way for awhile. I can’t think of very much to write about as life is very much routine here. About the same every day. I’m liking it better all the time as I get accustomed to the new way of doing things.
As I told you, we sleep in hammocks & we have to air our mattress & blankets every day & then make them in the evening. We are learning something new all the time so that keeps it interesting.
We got our first mail Monday & when Earnest got a letter & I didn’t get any I was rather disappointed but the tables were turned today when I received two letters & he didn’t get any. We have been together all the way through so far. He sleeps right beside me. I am number 17 & he is no. 18.
We all have certain duties toward keeping the barracks clean. The jobs are passed around so that no one has a bad job very long.
We went to a show last night but it wasn’t too hot. I think I will stay & study tomorrow night. They have shows on Monday, Wednesday, & Friday. Josephine sent me a clipping from the paper saying that we could attend the roller skating rink, bowling & a few other activities that I haven’t heard anything about here yet.
Keep writing whenever you can & I will do the same.
Lester’s first letter home was post marked November 1, 1941 11:00 a.m. in Great Lakes, Ill. Notice the first-class postage stamp for 3 cents.
I have a little time now after dinner so will write a few lines. I am getting along fine so far & like it OK. We have pretty good eats & plenty of it. We sleep in hammocks which are rather hard to get in & stay in, however I haven’t fallen out yet. We are pretty busy most of the time, rolling clothes & etc. We roll our clothes instead of pressing them.
We have been issued clothes, bedding & toilet articles including a comb. After getting my haircut I don’t understand why they included the comb. We have absolutely no use for it. Maybe we will be able to use it someday, before I come home, I hope. We haven’t been vaccinated yet, probably get those this afternoon. If anyone asks about me writing them a letter I probably won’t be able to for the three weeks while in quarantine. Our time starts Friday.
There are 120 boys in a company, sixty on this floor & sixty on the floor above. They are a mighty nice bunch of boys, some are full of mischief of course but no bad ones.
I haven’t seen the sun since leaving Kansas City Tuesday evening. We rode all night & didn’t get into Chicago until about nine Wednesday morning. We crossed the Mississippi before daylight. I was awake but couldn’t see much. I think they must have been having a flood as it looked as though the water was all over the lowlands. There were seventeen of us from Kansas City & we had a Pullman car all to ourselves. We had breakfast in the diner at $1.00 per. But we didn’t have to pay it.
I talked to Gentry over the phone a few minutes but it was so noisy I could hardly understand him. I am sending my key in this letter. Will have to close now. Write soon.
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.Salutatorian Senior Class of Dunlap Rural High School Dunlap, Morris County, Kansas May 13, 1936
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.
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.
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?