Saturday, February 03, 2007

MEMOIR: Wartime pen pals

I find that one of most interesting features of blogging is exchanging comments with other bloggers. The result has been a sort of "pen-pal" relationship I have developed via e-mail with several men and women I would never have otherwise known. I doubt very much whether we will ever meet, but the opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences with them makes the Internet so fascinating. The situation reminds me of "pen-pal" experiences I had during World War II.

Before my induction into the Army,I worked briefly as an office boy for RKO Radio Pictures, where I voluntarily joined a labor union, the United Office & Professional Workers of America. I was an idealistic kid who was highly sympathetic to the labor movement, reflecting my father's own liberal political views.

I don't recall enjoying any special benefits from my union membership. My salary remained at $16 a week and there were no additional fringe benefits offered to me. But the idea that I, a mere 17-year old, could affiliate with an organization of so-called "professionals" was another motivation to join the union. RKO's office employees were not required to become members.

After I entered the Army, the union continued to mail me its newspaper. Each issue contained a plea for the members to write to "our boys in the service." I sent my military address to the publication, updating it each time I was transferred to a new location. Like most other lonely young soldiers, I was eager to receive mail, especially since I had been shipped to India after only eight months of service. Frequent letters from my mother were not enough to satisfy my desire for links to the outside civilian world.

I didn't have any regular girl friend at the time. But I began to write occasionally to two girls who were college night-school classmates I had dated briefly. Both were journalism students like me. They always responded, but I don't recall the exchange of any meaningful romantic sentiments in our correspondence.

The volume of mail zoomed after my name and Army address were published in the union newspaper. I became the envy of the guys in my outfit whenever there was mail call. Because my civilian address was also listed in the paper, virtually all the letters came from single young women in the Metropolitan New York area. Invariably, the letter-writer included what presumably was her own photograph.

It was obvious that the wartime shortage of young civilian men had produced many lonely young women eager to know a man in uniform, even if it was only through the mail.I responded to every letter that I received, but I eventually narrowed down my regular correspondence to about a dozen girls who were the prettiest and appeared to be the most interesting.

In addition to the single New York area girls with whom I became pen pals, I began to correspond with a middle-aged woman who lived in Glendale, Calif. She had a son who was an officer in the Navy. Her husband was an insurance agent who belonged to my union. After seeing my name and address in his union's paper, I assume she thought it was her patriotic duty to write to a lonely young soldier stationed overseas.

Her frequent letters were often accompanied by fruit cake or other gifts. I believe she developed a special interest in me because I told her that my ambition was to become a writer. She had formerly been the secretary to Upton Sinclair, a popular author during the 1920s and 1930s.

Sinclair wrote more than 90 books. The most famous was "The Jungle," an expose of the horrid conditions in Chicago meatpacking plants. The book launched a government investigation of the industry, resulting in the enactment of strict Federal regulations on food processing. Sinclair was also an unsuccessful Socialist candidate for Congress, and his ex-secretary shared his left-wing political views.

Indeed, her extreme left-wing sentiments were so ardent that she seemed particularly interested to learn that my mother was born in Russia. At that time, of course, the Soviet Union was our wartime ally. Sympathy for the Communist state was not yet regarded as subversive as it became only a few years later.

I informed the lady that my mother had been brought to the U.S. from Russia as a child and had no emotional or family connections with the Soviet Union. As I recall, she was disappointed to learn that. But she did send me a copy of an Upton Sinclair book that was personally autographed to me.

Foreign policy and domestic politics, of course, never figured in my correspondence with the bevy of young ladies who survived my selection of female pen pals. After a durable postal relationship was established with them, a handful of the more adventurous types began to write in slightly erotic terms, which strengthened a libido that really didn't need a boost.

I was inhibited from responding in the same tempo. The problem was that all our outgoing mail was censored. In my case, the censor was my company commander. I was the company clerk and sat at a desk only a few feet from his.I was highly embarrassed that he was reading all my outgoing letters.I found it difficult to get too personal with my long-distant girl friends, knowing that the captain sitting next to me would enjoy reading any romantic sentiments that I might want to express.

So my letters were usually devoted to exotic, but certainly not erotic, material--descriptions of the Taj Mahal and the streets of Bombay and Calcutta and innocent details of my military life that were not subject to censorship. I always wondered how my unknown female correspondents reacted to my failure to respond to their postal romantic advances. They would have to wait until I came home.

When I finally returned to the U.S. after the war, I began to arrange dates with my lady pen pals. I narrowed the group down by eliminating girls I considered "GU"--geographically undesirables because they lived in Brooklyn, Queens or Staten Island. The GI Bill of Rights enabled me to return to college as a full-time student, and I was now living at home with my parents in the Bronx. I did not own a car, and I was not eager for long-distance subway trips.

None of the postal romances ever developed into serious relationships. Most of the girls were as pretty as the pictures they had mailed me. But none were as sexually aggressive as their letters had suggested. They had taken poetic license to satisfy a lonely soldier overseas.

Moreover, I was now steadily dating one of my pre-Army college girl friends. She had graduated during my absence and was now working as a newspaper reporter. None of the former pen pals could compete with her for my interest.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good reading---fun---many thanks.

Sunday, February 04, 2007 1:00:00 PM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

I loved this blog...especially about the Secretary to Upton Sinclair...but you left things up in the air at the end. 'fess up, is the female newspaper reporter your wife now of so many years, or did that come later? Inquiring minds want to know.

Sunday, February 04, 2007 2:38:00 PM  
Anonymous claude said...

Excellent story! Thanks!

Sunday, February 04, 2007 3:24:00 PM  
Blogger Mortart said...

To answer Ginnie's question: No, the female newspaper reporter is not my wife. The young lady also became "geographically undesirable" when I moved to Washington to work after college and she remained in New York. The romance was apparently not powerful enough to overcome geography.

Sunday, February 04, 2007 4:28:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

Enjoyed reading about your wartime postal penpal experiences. May have been something to be said for the limiting effects on your writing by having your superior officer so close by, so you didn't over commit yourself in a weak, lonely, homesick moment that I'd think many an 18 yr old might have. ;-)

FYI have missed reading you due to my limited erratic blog visits which may continue for some time, but looks as though you've written some pretty interesting commentary on which I must catch up.

Sunday, February 04, 2007 10:22:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

Letters are fantastic! I still love getting "real letters" though they are becoming more and more rare. Thank God my husband didn't think I was G.U. - We lived in different continents when we met! I still have every single letter he ever wrote to me, in a box in the loft, tied together with ribbon. Did you save any of those letters?

Monday, February 05, 2007 1:36:00 AM  
Blogger Norma said...

A fascinating story that certainly has meaning today as so many of our troops look forward to their mail, or e-mail. Certainly worth a link at my blog.

Monday, February 05, 2007 5:48:00 AM  

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