The First Day of the Rest of His Life

Though none knew it at the time, Lester’s letter home on December 3, 1941 was written on the first day of his last year on earth. It was a routine letter, upbeat and chatty. Nobody suspected that in only a few days, life would change drastically for all of them, or that Lester had only 365 days to live.

December 3, 1941

Dear Folks:

I want to drop you a line to let you know that I am feeling fine.  I hope that dad & granddad are better by now.  I’m sorry that I can’t find much news to make my letters more interesting but we live very much of a routine life here, one day is just about the same as another.  Today we had another bag inspection & this time nearly everyone passed it.  Mr. Baker said it was the best bag layout any of his companies had ever had.  By the way, that picture of the “other boy” was Mr. Baker.  He is our commander or boss.  We all like him just fine.  He is going to sea when he gets through with us.

The U.S. Navy hospital ship USS Solace (AH-5) ...
The U.S. Navy hospital ship USS Solace (AH-5) circa 1941 in Hawaiian waters. She arrived at Pearl Harbor on 27 October 1941 and handled hundreds of casualties on 7 December 1941 during the Japanese attack there. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new officer is working with Mr. Baker so as to be able to train recruits.  We call him Bakers’ shadow & “The Little Colonel”.  He is a mighty fine fellow too.  We joke & have a lot of fun with him.  He came into the navy as a petty officer, has been in five months & is drawing $110 per month.  Of course he had special training to do that.

I forgot to tell you in my other letters about Mr. Baker.  I sent you the little booklet about Navy life but I didn’t know what was in it as the envelopes were sealed when we got them.  You asked about the training here.  We drill with rifles nearly every day but it is all marching.  We haven’t fired a shot & won’t while we are here.  I don’t get along with the marching any too well.  It is hard for me to keep in step.

Postal card from the U.S. Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, Ill. 1941
Postal card from the U.S. Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, Ill. 1941

We won the red rooster flag this week.  It is a flag with a rooster emblem on it which is awarded on points won on drill.  There is a blue rooster for next week.  Our bag inspection, barracks & personal inspection count on it.  We are working for it.

Something To Crow About
Something To Crow About (Photo credit: cobalt123)

Does the climate agree with me?  Well, the last time I weighed I had gained about twelve or thirteen pounds.  The grass is still green here & we don’t wear coats or gloves except once in a while.  I’ll probably freeze when I come home.  It is damp & foggy a good share of the time.

Yes, we will have to pay our own expenses home but I will have enough money & there isn’t anything I need, thanks.

That sounds like a dirty deal about Lillian & her boy friends.  Did you go to her program?  Ernest is ready to mail a letter so I’ll close & let him take this one too.  Write again.

P.S. I got a letter from Wylie.                                                               Lester

November 12, 1941

I’ve had a challenge to keep up with Lester’s letters over the past week, given a whirlwind race a thousand miles distant to greet my new granddaughter, with three letters dated during the week. But the amazing thing about today’s technology is its availability from almost anywhere you might go. Hours on the road provide ample time to ponder the circle of life, from a peek into history through letters written more than seventy years ago to a peek into the future through a fresh, new life. My new grandchild, Arya LaRue, is Lester’s great-great-niece. Perhaps life is more than a circle. It is more like a spiral, cycling ever upward and onward, built on the foundation of the loops which precede us. The loop which represents each of us starts rather tight and small. With age, it will expand to support more loops as the spiral grows. So Arya, meet Lester. His story is part of your own.

Nov 12, 1941

Dear Folks

I received your letter today just before drill so didn’t get to read it until this evening.  Sure am glad that it isn’t raining all the time now.  It cleared off here today & the sun shone for the first time in a week.

No, I haven’t had any more boils except the one on my arm which had started when I left.  It went ahead & developed & is ok now with no signs of any more.  I do have some pimples but I’ll be careful of them.  Too bad about Ola, hope she gets along ok.  Is Mabel Bruton still working at St. Marys?  No, I haven’t been out on the ‘big water’ yet.  In fact, I haven’t even seen the lake.  Of course, since I haven’t seen the lake, I haven’t been on a ship, either.  We sleep in barracks, not ships.  The barracks are built in this shape.

Sketch of barracks floor plan.
Sketch of barracks floor plan.

The ends are where we sleep, sixty on each floor & each end.  The toilets, work rooms, showers, clothes dryer & clothes wash room are in the center.

We will have our pictures taken Friday but I think that I will wear my hat.  It doesn’t look so good but it is better than the haircut.  I watched the clock when the barber cut my hair.  It took him one minute & twenty seconds.  He was a little slow on me.  We don’t think anything about our hair but sure notice the shaggy locks of the new recruits.

Lester F. Harris. (He didn’t wear his hat.)

How much did it cost to get my suitcase?  We weren’t allowed to pay for it here.  I don’t remember what Ernest had except a bottle of hair oil.  Did you get my film from his suitcase?

What’s the matter, can’t Junior get along without his mama?  I had heard that Wirsigs were going out there.  You don’t need to send me any papers unless I get settled for awhile & that won’t be until after I come home.  Josephine has been sending me a few clippings & you might do the same if you want to.

We took a bunch of tests this morning which will help to decide our entrance into trade schools.  I think that I made it OK.  Sure hope so.  If I didn’t, there will be a lot of the others that didn’t pass either.

Yes, I do like it better all the time.  When we first came in we were the target of a good many jokes & remarks.  The tables are turned now & we are the ones that shout, “rookie.”

Well, Aunt Mabel did have to answer Uncle Loren’s letter after all.  I’m sorry if she felt left out.  I didn’t mean it to be that way.  I wrote to Aunt Nelia the other day so she knows that I am ok.  Is granddad ok?  I’ll try to get him a letter some time.  I have written about fifteen letters so I should have some coming in along.

The boys are sure busy tonight, rolling clothes.  We will have a bag inspection tomorrow & most of them haven’t kept their clothes rolled.  I just have one jumper to roll so that won’t take long.  I had a good bag the other day.  Hope I get by tomorrow ok.

I guess that we will probably get off from here Dec. 12 & so will have to be back here Dec. 23.  Pretty close isn’t it.  That isn’t certain yet but that is the schedule now.  If I could get some new recruits I could get an extension on my leave at the rate of one day for each of first three recruits, two days for the fourth & three days for the fifth.  If you hear of anyone who wants to join, let me know who they are.

We’ve sure been having good eats lately.  Tonight we had chili minus the broth, rice, apple & cabbage salad, butter, two slices of bread, a cookie & cocoa.  Usually we have coffee.  I haven’t tried to drink it yet.  For dinner we had boiled meat of some kind, sweet potatoes, gravy, carrot & raisin salad & cake.  The carrot salad was made of shredded carrots, raisins & cream, I think.  It sure was good.  We have ice cream two or three times a week.  If you want to send me anything, make it candy.  You don’t need to send anything as we have enough to eat & can buy candy at the canteen if we want to.  We aren’t allowed to have much except what they furnish us.  I’ll have to get busy now.  I’m always glad to hear from you.  Hope all is ok with you.  Everything is fine here.

Lester