What’s It Like Now for the Greatest Generation?

Our lives appear to be a procession of dates marching ever forward, but in reality, Life is a huge collection of moments, each one a little life-cycle unto itself. Each one has a beginning and an end; thus, the arrival of any given moment marks its passing as well. Viewed on this level it is easy to see why Time seems to fold in upon itself, especially as we get older and have collected a greater number of moments.

I was thinking about this recently while making the final edits in I’ll Remember You All, the third installment in The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy. I wrote last month that we have no idea what those moments of uncertainty were like during World War II, but neither do we have any idea regarding the intense joy experienced in that moment when victory over Japan was announced on August 14, 1945. Perhaps, the intensity of that moment can be measured by how tightly, almost desperately, folks on the home front tried to stay in that moment. The celebration here in Winchester, VA began as soon as President Harry Truman concluded his announcement on the radio around 7:00 p.m. that Japan had accepted the surrender terms. There was literally dancing in the streets and people made noise, joyous noise with pots, pans, voices, and anything else that was handy. By midnight the most the police were trying to do was minimize the horn-honking. It was dawn before the final celebrants retired for the night, a time that is quite symbolic. Those desperate moments of uncertainty, pain, and sacrifice experienced during the war had contained the seeds of peace and joy; and now, the joyous moment contained the seeds of other moments. Most of them would be mundane moments, punctuated by marriage, babies, jobs, the first house, the second house, grandbabies. Soon, it was 1946, then 1947, then 1951, 1962, the Bicentennial, the new millennium, and now, here it is 2019. Somehow, that 18 year-old boy who fought in Europe or the Pacific, or that 18 year-old girl who waited at home and collected scrap iron and bought War Stamps and Bonds, looks in the mirror today and sees a 90-something year-old staring back. I imagine that this is a wondrous, but somewhat unsettling thing.

I began The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy because I wondered what that time of World War II was like, and how it affected the kids who saved the world. I concluded it wondering what it’s like right now for those same kids, that is, the few who are left. What they remember and how they remember it is as much a part of their tale as what they were doing on December 7, 1941 or August 14, 1945. Right now is still part of their war story. I’ll Remember You All takes the reader through the conclusion of the war, and then through certain post-war moments in the lives of the main characters, until finally there is one character left to reflect upon those moments of uncertainty, pain, and sacrifice, and that final, triumphant moment of joy.

I’ll Remember You All will be available from Amazon later this month.

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Here’s a Treat with a Boogie Beat

As with most holidays during World War II, Halloween was a subdued affair compared with what came before and after. Not only were the treats in short supply because of sugar rationing, but so were the tricks. Soaping windows had been a popular trick (one that I remember as a kid), but soap and other products such as gum, shampoo, and cosmetics that required glycerine (a component of both explosives and lubricants) were restricted in their use, or removed from civilian consumption altogether.

The Brian Sisters, the subject of last week’s blog, gave us a treat in 1942, however, with a song that should be considered a Halloween classic: “The Boogie Woogie Man.” Careful, though. This song will make you jump; 8 beats to the bar, that is.

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The Brian Sisters

One of the most famous musical acts of the WW II era, if not the most famous act, was the Andrews Sisters. There were, however, actually a multitude of sister acts in the late 30s, the premier one being the Boswell Sisters out of New Orleans. (A blog, dedicated to the group is entitled, “Get Bozzed.”) The Andrews Sisters began as imitators of the Boswell Sisters who disbanded in 1936, although Connie Boswell continued as a solo artist. (As a point of reference, “Bei Mir Bist du Schon” was the Andrews Sisters first hit, debuted in 1937.)

There was another sister group out there, mostly forgotten now, but very popular at the time, namely, the Brian Sisters. It was Connie Boswell who helped launch the careers of Betty, Doris, and Gwen Brian. They were aged 12, 9, and 7 respectively, when they appeared in their first movie, Our Gang Follies of 1936. Cute beyond words, they sang, “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm.” The Brian Sisters appeared regularly in film and on radio until 1945 when Betty got married and the trio broke up. Perhaps one reason the sisters are largely unknown today is that they made only one record during their careers, “Swingin’ On A Star.” Recorded in 1944 with the Freddie Slack Orchestra, for whom Ella Mae Morse (one of my favorites) was the lead singer, the record made the Billboard Charts, but Bing Crosby was riding the same song all the way to #1 at just about the same time.

Nevertheless, that same year of 1944, saw the sisters appear in the B movie, Beautiful But Broke, in which they sang, “Blues By Any Other Name,” providing me with some of my favorite lyrics ever:

Then someone got the notion that I could revive.

He took away my sadness, and gave me jive.

He added boogie woogie, and when he got through,

He made my blues a blues that anyone could do.

To me, I’m just another blues.

 

I’d like to thank you, for the boogie, right?

Thanks for the eight to the bar.

Now I’m on the solid side,

Biggest attraction by far.

I’m just another blues, but now in ‘43

Everyone is sayin’ what a hit I’ll be

Who’d ever guess that this success could all take place?

Because somebody put some boogie in my bass.

He took away my sadness and gave me jive . . . somebody put some boogie in my bass.

Those are classic lines from the time, and the Brian Sisters should be remembered for “Blues By Any Other Name,” if for nothing else. Well, that song, and a Halloween tune that we’ll explore in next week’s post. It’s a song about a slasher, at least I think that’s what it’s about. There was some mention about cutting a rug. 🙂

For more on the Brian Sisters, visit their website, which was clearly created by someone who has deep affection for a long-ago, but not quite forgotten trio.

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Buck and Boots

It should come as no surprise to my long-time readers that the only historical figure to appear in The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy is a baseball player. Cletus Elwood “Boots” Poffenberger was the most colorful character in professional baseball during his career which lasted from 1934—1948, excepting 1943-1945 when Boots played for the United States Marine Corps.

Readers will remember that Buck Marsh was a well-regarded baseball player himself in and around Marsh Point. He enlisted in the Marines and, after fighting on Guadalcanal and elsewhere, he was assigned to the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) in Hawaii. Boots was assigned to this same branch of the Marines, although Boots main (only) job was to play baseball, for the Parris Island team initially, and then for FMF. From the chapter, “May 7, 1945” of I’ll Remember You All:

Buck looked around Furlong Field and at the players playing catch. The Fleet Marine Force team was taking on the Aeia Barracks team and while this might officially be a 14th Naval District Baseball League game, the only way that Buck would ever see this much major league talent again was to go to a major league ballpark. Sure, Bob Feller was on a battleship—at his own insistence—but most big leaguers had been assigned to service teams. Their contribution to the war effort was to keep the fighting men entertained by playing ballgames. In fairness, it would be awfully bad for morale if Pee Wee Reese, who was playing for Aeia was killed in battle or half the St. Louis Cardinals were lost at sea.

All the details in the above paragraph are historically accurate. The only item that isn’t is the game itself, but I have a poetic license, and I used it! Boots starts for FMF and pitches a complete game victory. After the game, Buck meets Boots in a bar—no surprise to anyone who knows anything about Boots—and the two discuss Buck’s potential as a baseball player.

As you know, I wrote Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser, and, therefore, did not have to do any additional research when looking for details for a service baseball game in Hawaii, but there is another reason that I included Boots in the trilogy’s final installment: It was researching Boots’ life that inspired The Secret of Their Midnight Tears in the first place.

Boots was from Williamsport, MD, where we used to live, and the town was the first in the United States to publish and distribute a newsletter, the Dug-Out for its men and women in the armed services during World War II. The town museum houses a complete collection of the Dug-Out, and Jerry Knode, Boots’ step-son who was the museum’s caretaker, was only too happy to lend me the collection. I read about the Army Aircraft Warning Service, which had placed an observation post in Williamsport, on a hill overlooking the Potomac; I read about rationing, and who was stationed where, and what service men and women did on leave, and abuot news and gossip. I knew facts about the home front, but I had no idea up to that time how people (i.e. my parents among others) felt about events, what they laughed at, what they hoped for, and how they all coped.

An entire way of life sprang up on December 7, 1941 and essentially disappeared on August 14, 1945. Given the loss and the sacrifice that occurred during this time, it is no wonder that folks were far more interested in moving forward then they were in preserving the war-time way of life. Having that way of life revealed to me is really what The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy is all about, and if you have enjoyed the series, you can thank Boots Poffenberger.

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We Can’t Reenact the Uncertainty

Several members of my dance family and I will be attending a USO Dance in Edinburg, Virginia this coming Saturday (October 12). Most of us have a real affinity for the music of World War II, and we can enjoy it so much more than those for whom it was contemporary music, for we know how—and when—the war ended. Had this dance been held 75 years ago, on October 12, 1944 (a Thursday night, by the way) uncertainty would have hung over the dance floor like the cigarette smoke from a couple dozen soldiers and sailors.

Sure, the Nazis were retreating. Paris had been liberated some six weeks before at the end of August, and the Japanese were on the defensive. There was talk that the boys in Europe would be home by Christmas; but Christmas Day would find Allied troops fighting the Germans and the cold in the Ardennes Forest in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. In the Pacific, the 1st Marine Division, and later, the Army’s 81st Infantry Division were slugging it out with the Japanese on the island of Peleliu. Casualties were high, and the fighting was hard. Eight Marines would win the Medal of Honor during this fight; five posthumously. No one had yet heard of Iwo Jima or Okinawa.

Reenactments and USO Dances can give us the flavor of the times, but there is one key ingredient that will always be missing: the uncertainty. Would we win? Would my son/brother/father/husband come home? And, what then? Everyone knows the answer to the first question, and in I’ll Remember You All, the other two questions will be answered for Buck, Johnny, Jimmy, Elizabeth, Veronica, and the other characters in The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy. I hope that you will enjoy the conclusion to the story that began in 1941 and will end later than you might expect.

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The Secret of Their Midnight Tears Trilogy is About to Be Completed!

It is heartwarming to know that many readers of this blog are also fans of my books, and, therefore, I am pleased to say that I’ll Remember You All, the final book in The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy, is almost ready for publication. It is about to be copy-edited, and once that task is complete (thank you, Martha!) I will format both the electronic and paperback editions, and publish both versions. Formatting probably takes 10 hours or so, which means a couple of hours to format 95% of the book, and 8 hours trying to remember how to format the other 5%, especially those page numbers!

As the publication date draws near, I’ll sample certain sections and provide some background on some of the novel’s characters and plot twists.

 

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What is the Saddest Song?

Living life to the fullest isn’t just about maximizing the happiness in it, it is also about embracing the sadness and the pain. I use the word embrace very deliberately. After all, one can’t know happiness without knowing its opposite and all that one may feel in between. If you want one side of the coin, you have to put the whole thing in your pocket. Embrace the sad, the grief, the frustration, the disappointment. Trying to ignore or suppress it only makes it worse anyway.

All of which brings me to the idea that when the sadness falls, a really sad song might be very helpful. It is reassuring to know that someone else out there is hurting, but more than that, and at the bottom of that well of tears, there is this gift: Someone has put words to your sadness, a melody to your grief, and when that gift is delivered by the perfect voice, then you have a tool by which to embrace the sadness—to face it, talk to it, understand it, and begin heading towards the next happy wave in the ups and downs of life.

I got to thinking about this while watching the PBS documentary, Country, which is really a biography of country music. No one writes or sings sad songs like the old-time country musicians, and I expect it’s because they were people who happened to sing, and not singers trying to be real people. An example from Country is the fact that Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins became immediate friends when they discovered that both had scars on their fingers from picking cotton as kids.

Most sad songs are about love that is no more, but not “Blue Bayou.” Written by Roy Orbison, who also recorded it, the most haunting version is by Linda Rondstadt. The song captures the longing for home: “I’m going back some day, come what may to Blue Bayou,” and images of that beautiful place drift by in the lyrics that follow. The sadness lies between the lines, however, for we all know that quite often “some day” never comes, and if it does, home won’t be the way we remember it.

Another “between the lines” sad song is “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The most popular version was by Bing Crosby. Released in 1944,  it’s the historical context that gives the song its sad flavor. Many families no doubt sent their boys and girls off to fight with the words, “I’ll be seeing you,” but they were said with false courage, for everyone knew that they might be parting for the last time. Another Crosby song, released the year before, contains the same theme, waiting until the last line before facing the reality: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

Roy Orbison’s “Crying” should be on everyone’s list. “I was all right for a while, I could smile for a while . . .” And right there, after the first line everyone starts nodding. Orbison’s delivery is perfect. He just stands there, straight as can be, his voice strong and steady, but he makes you feel that at any moment, he might drop to his knees and start sobbing. But he doesn’t, and we think, Well, if he can stand there and sing that song, then I can go to work, or do whatever it is we need to do to carry on.

Many Patsy Cline songs are like that. “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Crazy” wouldn’t be so sad were it not for her strong delivery. She seems to shake her head and say between the line, “I’m doing this to myself,” and we shake our heads and say, “Yep! Me, too.” Perhaps, her saddest song is “Faded Love,” the very title of which is haunting. As Patsy sings the final line, her voice catches before the last word—“I’ll remember our faded . . . love.” Some in the studio thought this ruined the take, but producer Owen Bradley left it in much to his credit. (To add another level of poignancy, “Faded Love” was recorded in Cline’s final studio session, a month before the plane crash that took her life.)

As much as I love Patsy Cline, I’d have to say that “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams is the saddest song I know. It’s not until the penultimate line that we learn what caused the emptiness about which Hank sings, but by that time, it doesn’t matter. We say we’re down when we’re sad, but this song shows just how far down down can get.

There’s no sense in me talking about it, anymore: Just listen. Then tell me the saddest song you know in the comments below.

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