Tomorrow morning, June 14, 2019, I set off on a journey that began in New York the early winter of 1947.
Questions from a lecture by my friend, Professor Mark Christensen haunt me as I pack my suitcase and map my route:
What is my state of mind before I leave? Am I on a quest? A journey?
As I travel will it also be an internal journey?
Will I learn something? What discoveries will I bring home?
Is the journey forced or by choice?
Do I expect to find something or not, or something unexpected?
What archetype might I symbolize in my journey?
What obstacles might I encounter—internal/external?
What will be my state of mind after my journey—if it ends?
How did it all begin? That early winter of 1947 a young man had recently returned from World War II, and as millions of soldiers have done over the centuries upon returning home from war, he must have been ecstatic to have survived. He and his friends celebrated life. He met a young woman who was alone, struggling psychologically, seeking comfort in the wake of a recent divorce. Nine months later I was born; I don’t think the young man ever knew. My mother never spoke of him. Sixty-two years later she went to her grave, secret intact.
Earliest photo of me–in buggy:
The winter of 2018, through the miracles of DNA and the persistence of a wonderful genealogist, I learned the identity of my late father and recently connected with siblings I never knew existed. I’ve been in correspondence and conversations with one of seven and in a few days will meet him and his family.
Last night we did a presentation at Bemidji Public Library based on a series of letters a friend and I exchanged while he was in prison. Our goal is to develop it into a Young Adult book of stories about how drugs and alcohol can take one down the wrong path and the consequences one must pay. It was humbling to hear the words of encouragement from the audience. Here are a few comments we received at the end of the evening.
My grandparents, 1915, my grandmother, a Vassar College Student, and my grandfather in his Williams College ROTC uniform.
This past Veterans Day I was invited to speak at an area school. I could not because of a schedule conflict. Bemidji School Superintendent Tim Lutz and I started visiting about Veterans Day 2018, the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day–the end of World War One. Over the past several months, the following program came into focus. Our hope is to make it a state-wide program, promoted through veterans organizations at community level. Below are details of the Essay Program. Please share it with your contacts–especially educators.
One century ago citizens referred to it as “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars”. It was only labeled “World War I” in September 1939, after the beginning of World War II. The end of WWI was originally known as Armistice Day – known today as Veterans Day.
November 11, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. Through student participation, we hope to bring history alive, across the state, for young people at the local level. Our goal is to provide an opportunity for students to explore their family histories – contributions, sacrifices, and service, during World War One.
An added goal, if applicable, is to encourage students to explore their family history in light of the context of race and ethnicity and how society, at that time, viewed minority groups including Native Americans and African-Americans, as well as immigrants from around the world and their contributions to the war effort.
• Students research a family member or local community member who served in World War One (WWI).
• Student researches societal perspective during WWI of a specific minority group and the impact experienced by those affected. (Students should be mindful that during the context of World War One, minorities may have included Germans, Irish, Mediterranean, Russian, or any other group of immigrants who were new to the United States.)
• 500-750 word essay
• Last paragraph to summarize what student learned
• Essays to be judged at local school level
• First, Second, Third place winning research essay (Prizes to be determined locally)
• Students will read winning essays at their community Veteran’s Day event in November.
Here are a few links for jumping off points:
A few years before my mother died I began interviewing her and making notes. After her death in January 2010 I discovered a treasure trove; 200 years of our family history locked in the chickenhouse—about seventy feet from where we had visited in the old farmhouse.
Over the next eight years I studied and catalogued thousands of pages from letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums, and a “Mental Health Journal” my grandmother kept.
I began writing—hundreds of pages, but not finding the door I was searching for. I discovered the Lonely Hearts catalogues my stepfather Herman had ordered after World War Two. From Cupid’s Columns my mother’s picture and advertisement jumped out at me and I realized the story started with Herman—he had made first contact.
My first memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers, picks up where Pawns ends. After bouncing through a series of foster homes and a summer riding the rails and living in hobo camps, I enlisted in the Navy in 1965—over the next three years, I did two deployments to Vietnam.
Herman free with the purchase of Pawns
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This print book includes the first singles catalogue that my stepfather ordered after he returned to his farm from World War Two in October 1945 and began his search for a wife. The $2.99 PDF download includes the compete book plus all the singles publications he ordered and a preview of Pawns (The Farm, 1950s), Chickenhouse Chronicles, Book II.
I recently read Thomas Childers Soldier From The War Returning (2009) in which he explores the lives of three Second World War veterans and their families. The book documents a part of our collective past—an inconvenient truth—that has been airbrushed from our national memory. Yet millions of Baby Boomers grew up in the shadow of that history.
By the spring of 1964 I was tired of my mother and stepfather’s constant feuding. As soon as school was out I left our farm in northern Minnesota and spent much of the summer riding freight cars and living in hobo camps—jungles—across the Northwest. I look back from more than fifty years out and try to recall the men I met. They’re faceless now but I remember a story passed around in the Wenatchee jungle that prompted many of them to hop a freight car. Witnessing the way this story spread like wildfire, even through the prism of a sixteen-year-old worldview, I realized it was somehow unusual.
The tale circulated that there was a state program in the South—I don’t recall what state—that was giving every homeless veteran fifty dollars, no residency requirement necessary; all one had to do is show up at the disbursement office. Younger men gave older and crippled men a boost up into slow-rolling freights. I realize now those old men were probably First World War veterans—possibly a Spanish American War veteran or two. The helpers, the majority of the hobos, were Second World War veterans. How I wish I had known to take notes; to visit with those men.
Statistics in the “Introduction” of Childers’ book are what first grabbed my attention. For example, he writes, “By 1943 the U. S. Army was discharging ten thousand men each month for psychiatric reasons, and the numbers increased as the war dragged on. During the Battle of Okinawa…the Marines suffered twenty thousand psychiatric casualties. …Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals were swamped with “psychoneurotic” cases, and two years after the war’s end, half the patients in the VA medical facilities were men suffering from “invisible wounds.” Post traumatic stress disorder was not diagnosed until 1980….” (page8)
My stepfather was one of those men who was discharged early but slipped through the cracks when he did seek help in 1948 from an overwhelmed VA system.
The majority of those hobos I lived with the summer of 1964 were no doubt a remnant of the legions of rootless veterans from those earlier conflicts. It was that summer I met my first Vietnam Veteran—of him my strongest memory is his drunken, unpredictable rages.
My grandmother’s diary entry: 11-18-1945: Walked through Central Park—a telegram from John Curry saying he had arrived in San Francisco from Tokyo and was leaving for New York on Friday.
This picture, taken two years before I was born, jumped out at me perhaps because of the date. My mother Barbara, oldest brother Chris, about two and half, and Tim, fourteen months, pose with a Japanese flag their father, John Curry, purchased while in Tokyo.
The picture, taken in Barb’s apartment, is very telling: Note the bare bed springs and cracked wall. Barb loved Chris’s “Little Lord Fauntleroy” look and the fantasy happy ending for the protagonist and his mother.
Two more of my grandmother’s diary entries add a layer of understanding to this time.
11-27-1945: John Curry called me much to my surprise—he’s a nice boy. He said he’d call again.
12-02-1945: A great event happened today. Barbara, John, and the 2 boys drove up in their car and spent the afternoon with H (Henry) and me. H. was very favorably impressed with John. He looked very well in his Naval Petty Officer’s outfit. The little boys are so cute—they were very good but rushed into everything. Barb did pretty well but she is not all right yet. I think John managed very well with her. She’s thrilled over the car—I gave her the lovely auto robe grandfather gave us—Henry was thrilled it all went so nicely. He returned to Camp Shanks about seven—I rode cross town with him. I’ll be glad in many ways when this Army business is over but a money security is a comfort after so many bad years.
A few months later John Curry filed for a divorce.
I stood in the rain this morning and listened to the minister outshout Herefords and Angus cows across the fence. Apparently some calves had wandered off, the moms lowing and the calves replying.
It’s natural on Memorial Day to remember back, and as the dripping flag fluttered I recalled the first military cemetery I visited almost fifty years ago.
In 1966 I was a kid fresh off the farm in northern Minnesota on a few days of R&R in the Philippines. I spent an afternoon at the Manila American Cemetery. I recall how shocked I was to see more than 17,000 white crosses set in perfect symmetry; astonished at the more than 36,000 missing in action (MIA) names chiseled into marble walls. http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials/pacific/manila-american-cemetery#.VWPFD03bKUk
As manure smell wafted across the graves of our little cemetery, I thought about a memorial service I attended two years later in Vietnam on the shore of the South China Sea. Those boys had been sent home to cemeteries like the one I was standing in this morning.
As taps echoed through lilac blossoms and budding oak leaves I studied the graves for a moment. I think our family plot is pretty representative of sacrifices made for our freedom. My grandfather who served in WWI and WWII. My stepfather, who served in WWII. My brother, who died when his Navy plane crashed at sea off the coast of Africa while on a training flight. One day another flag will wave in the breeze when I join them.
It’s sad how we so often let everyday events obscure our past. I received an email message from one of my brother’s crewmates that April 26 was the 37th anniversary of Randolph Leonard Affield’s death in a plane crash, bodies lost at sea. I knew that but had forgotten.
In our family of nine children alliances formed between siblings. Randy and I had the same interests and were a few years apart in age.
As I work on the family memoir I recall small details–for example, we children slept in the unheated upstairs of the old farmhouse. After a supper of bean stew and white bread it was off to bed. The gas built up until I would cut a silent one then spit into the air. Randy would quickly pull the covers over his head. A few moments later he’d come out, gasping for air and swinging at me in the dark.
And in this spring time I recall us splashing after frogs and picking Mayflowers. Rest in Peace, Brother
I’ve prayed so much that her life would straighten itself out – the more I think of it the more I feel it is possible her war experience unconsciously to her was eating out her vitals – how tragic life is for the world.
Henry O. Philips, January 23, 1943
Written by my grandfather, a World War I veteran. He recognized post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) forty years before the world put a label it.
Folded in half, tucked inside a scrap book I salvaged from the chickenhouse, I discovered this seventeen year old girl. She’s standing on the weather deck of SS American Farmer, lifeboat resting in the davits behind her, in New York Harbor. PROOF, NEWS EVENTS PHOTO SERVICE, PULITZER BUILDING, stamped across, dated September 24, 1937.
I studied my future mother, Barbara’s, face for the longest time trying to imagine what might be going through her mind. She is four months beyond high school graduation; less than two months beyond her first suicide attempt. Two years later, to the day in 1939, she will return to New York on this same ship, carrying memories that will impact her for life.
A month earlier, my grandmother wrote in her diary, “August 26, 1939: A frightful shock this a.m. in the air mail, mailed by Bar [Barbara] from Poland enclosing a letter from a young Polish Engineer asking us for permission to marry Bar—apparently immediately. We are simply stunned. We don’t know what to do—of course our inclination would be to cable to wait until xmas. Think of her beautiful talent being stored away in Poland, the tension spot of the world.”
(I believe they did get married. In a 1960 psychiatric report my mother speaks of a fourth husband.)
On the same day Elsie received that stunning letter, Saturday, August 26, 1939, Eva’s (Barbara’s friend) father put Barbara on a train in Nowy Sacz, Poland, warning her she must flee. She must have been frantic with worry about her new husband, Kristaw.
There is no record of her saying goodbye to him. He was probably bivouacked in the Gliwice area, less than one hundred miles from Nowy Sacz where the opening shots of WWII would be fired, one week later, on the night of August 31, 1939.
My researcher discovered that he was a Major in the Polish Army.
For that full story go to: http://www.wendellaffield.com/war/chickenhouse-chronicleskatyn-forest-massacre
As many of you who follow my posts know, after Barbara died in 2010 I discovered a treasure trove, our family history—thousands of pages and documents—locked in the chickenhouse on the old farm homestead in northern Minnesota.
These documents are the foundation for “Chickenhouse Chronicles” a nonfiction book series in progress.