Reflections on a 61-year old photo
One of the first things that I see when I wake up every morning is a framed 4"x6" black-and-white photo on my bedside table showing nine young American soldiers in their underwear. I'm one of them. The picture was taken at a U.S. Army base near a tiny village named Panagarh in eastern India during the early spring of 1944. I have no idea why we are in our underwear. We're lined up in two rows. An Indian boy with a water jug on his head is seated in front of us. We are all smiling, healthy-looking, and four of us have bottles of beer in our hands. In the background is a volley ball net with clothing hanging on it, drying in the torrid sun.
I study the photo daily to remind myself that I wasn't always an old man with aches and pains in every joint as I get out of bed. It reassures me that I was once as young, healthy and as happy-looking as the GIs in the photo.
Memory plays strange tricks. I often have difficulty remembering what I did last week or even yesterday. I frequently forget the names of people as I speak to them. Amazingly, however, I have extraordinary recall when it comes to this photo. In exquisite detail, I can remember the names and personal backgrounds of virtually every one in the picture.
On the extreme right on the top row stands Gordon Tombleson who came from a small town in Oregon. He was a handsome, always cheerful guy with a great sense of humor. He's pictured holding a water canteen on the top of the head of a man named Walsh who sits in front of him.
On Gordon's right is Marlan J. Miller (I even remember his middle initial), who always described himself as a "lapsed Mormon." Marlan was raised on a ranch in Mesa, Arizona.
About 25 years ago, my wife and I spent a day at a motel in Scottsdale, Arizona before starting on a bus ride to the Grand Canyon. As I usually do in a new city, I browsed through the local telephone book which covered the Phoenix metropolitan area. I noticed that Mesa was shown as a local suburb. The ranches that Marlan knew as a youth have obviously been replaced by shopping malls and housing developments.
I decided to look him up in the phone book. Sure enough, a Marlan J. Miller was listed in Mesa. I phoned and a woman answered. "Is this the home of a Marlan Miller who served in India during World War II?" I asked. "Yes," she replied, "but he doesn't live here any more. But I can give you his phone number in Tempe." That's another nearby suburb.
I assume that the woman was Marlan's wife and that they were separated or even divorced. But they were apparently on good terms, because when I called the Tempe number just a few minutes later, Marlan was expecting my call. The woman had alerted him that an old Army buddy was in town. He immediately drove to our motel, and we spent several hours reminiscing about the Army and India. My wife quickly excused herself to go swimming. Marlan turned out to be a retired art professor at Arizona State University and was now running an art gallery specializing in Western art.
In the photo, I'm standing on Marlan's right, staring at a beer bottle in my hand. My stare was probably prompted by the fact that I rarely drink beer. The troops in India received a monthly beer ration, and I became very popular because I almost always gave my ration away. Similarly, we had a cigarette ration, and since I didn't smoke, I also gave that ration away. (I hesitate to boast about my ethics, but less scrupulous non-smokers sold their ration to black-marketeers.)
Wally Swanson, a blond young guy from Iron Mountain, Mich., stands to my right. Wally was a serious beer drinker, which is obvious as he points to his beer bottle with extraordinary delight. Many years ago, I received a letter from him addressed to my Business Week office. I had reviewed a book about India, and the review was reprinted in a veterans publication that Wally had read. "Are you the Mort Reichek who was in the 903rd Signal Co. in India?" he wrote. "And do you remember me?" He provided his phone number and I called him.
"Not only do I remember you," I said, "but I remember that your mother is Italian." He was astonished by my reference to his mother. With his Scandinavian name and the map of Sweden on his face, the fact that he had an Italian mother obviously had made a deep-rooted impression on me (I have always been an ethnicity buff), and it remained in my memory bank so many decades later. In civilian life, Wally was a retired high school music teacher.
To Wally's right in the photo is Jerry Schaefer, one of the few married men in our outfit. Jerry came from Newark, N.J. and had been an industrial arts high school teacher. In our outfit, his job was repairing airborne electronic instruments. In his spare time, he had a private enterprise fixing watches for his fellow GIs. We became friends on the troopship taking us from Newport News, Va. to Bombay via Capetown, South Africa. We went on shore leave together during our brief stay in Capetown. I had lost my wrist watch aboard the ship. Jerry said that Capetown was an important jewelry center and volunteered to help me buy a new watch.
We found an upscale jewelry store that reminded us of Tiffany's in New York. The man behind the counter wore a morning coat and a white tie. He stared at the both of us and said: "You're Jewish chaps, aren't you?" We apparently had the maps of Israel on our faces. The man, who was a Jew himself, was the store's proprietor. He had never met American soldiers before, let alone Jewish-American troops. He invited us to his home for dinner that night, and we were entertained lavishly. When I moved to New Jersey from Maryland in 1965, I discovered Schaefer living in Livingston, N.J., not far from our new home in Parsippany. We had a reunion dinner one evening, boring both our wives with wartime tales.
Standing to Jerry's right in the photo is a man named Evans. All that I can remember about him is that he came from Cincinnati. In front of him sits Nick Palazzo, like me a boy from the Bronx. Nick was our outfit's machinist. He was also an opera lover and occupied the bunk next to mine. Almost nightly he would put me to sleep humming opera melodies. I don't recall how, but Jerry and I discovered that Nick was a chiropractor near Paterson, N.J., and we invited him to join us with his wife for our reunion dinner.
The years passed and I lost track of Nick until a couple of years ago when I received a phone call from him. I live in Concordia, an age-restricted community in Monroe Township, N.J. In Florida, where I also have a home, it would be described as "an active adult community." Nick had retired, sold his home, and had just purchased a smaller house in Concordia. "How did you find me?" I asked, astonished to hear from him. Our community publishes a monthly newspaper. One of its features is a listing of the residents' birthdays. Nick picked up the latest issue which showed me as one of the month's birthday boys. And so another reunion. Nick lives several blocks from my home, and I visit him frequently. I gave him a copy of the photo I'm describing here. His power of recall is apparently not as acute as mine. He can only recognize Jerry Schaefer with whom we had had dinner some 35 years earlier.
In the photo, crouching to Nick's left, with a water jug on his head, is the Indian boy Durga. He was what the locals called a "bearer." He made our beds, swept the barracks floors, washed the windows, shined our shoes, and spent his spare time sitting outside as if he were guarding our quarters. It was the first and only time I had a personal servant.
I believe we each paid Durga a couple of rupees a week. (A rupee was worth 30 cents at that time.) That probably made him one of the top wage-earners in his impoverished village. One day Durga, who was about 16, asked us for a day off. He was to be married that day. As a wedding gift we all chipped in and gave him the equivalent of $10, a magnificent sum for an illiterate kid who was either a very low-caste Hindu or even a so-called untouchable--the type of Indian consigned to such lowly work as bearers.
He invited the nine of us to attend his wedding. We got our company commander's approval to attend the wedding on one condition. We were not to eat anything. This presented a serious social problem. Treated as special honored guests, the villagers plied us with heaping portions of food we had never seen before. We politely begged off, claiming to have eaten before out arrival.
I wrote an article about our wedding experience for the weekly CBI Roundup, which was our war theater's counterpart to the much better-known Army newspaper, Stars & Stripes. It was published on the first page. As an aspiring journalist, I was thrilled by my first published appearance anywhere. To my dismay, I lost a copy of my article by the time I was back in the States.
I was delighted when Wally Swanson sent me a copy in his letter. He had sent a clipping to his local weekly newspaper, which published the article, much to Wally's embarrassment, under his byline. I can recall little about the two GIs crouching to the left of Durga in the photo. But I do remember that the one wearing eye glasses came from the Boston area and that he was of Lithuanian origin. Again, my bent for ethnic affairs, comes into play. Next to him is Walsh, with Gordon Tombleson's water canteen perched on his head. I believe that he was an upstate New Yorker.
And so, as I awaken each morning, staring at the 61-year old photo from India at my bedside, I try not to dwell on my current geriatric state and look back at a time when I was young, healthy and, I must admit, even happy, despite being in the Army in wartime, half-way round the world from my home in the Bronx.