Brooklyn in Love and at War

History of World War Two Told Through Letters

Posts Tagged ‘Navy

Lucky Star

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Alex has just learned that Sylvia is moving into their new home in the Brooklyn Navy Yard projects. He is so happy he can barely contain himself. However, he says, “here I am big and strong and can’t be there to help” with the move. Unfortunately, it looks like a couple of pages are missing from this letter and the subject matter involves Alex worrying about the faithfulness of his and other wives at home. He apologizes for mentioning the topic and explains, at length, how gullible and insane the men aboard the ship become after being so suddenly removed from their normal lives.

Once again, even the happiest of letters is tinged with a sense of longing, regret and guilt about any weakness Alex might feel while he is separated from his wife and daughter. What I find most fascinating about this letter is how on one page Alex can be so sad that he is not with his wife and in the same letter can talk about how impressed he is with how the Navy looks after it’s sailors. This is the contradiction of a man at war for “his” country. When Alex mentions how gullible the men have become I can’t help but think that this would be a useful mindset for the Navy and the United States to exploit with propaganda. What Alex chooses to accept and ignore in these letters gives us a little insight into how a sailor tries to keep control of his own sanity and emotional stability during such a turbulent time.

After the letter I share a few more thoughts on the meaning of this housing for Alex and Sylvia.

Sept 15th, 1944

Dearest woman in the world,

I just received you “V” mail, in which you tell me those wonderful news. Good luck to us in our new home! I know we will be very happy in those new surroundings! I wish only to have been there with you, to share the work and the thrill of moving into our home again.

            It’s today that you are moving, and here I am big and strong and can’t be there to help. I hope you won’t overwork yourself but take it easy and you get help from someone. We will have plenty of time to do all the things we have to when I come home.

            When I received this letter, I read it to my friends aboard the ship and I was so happy that I hardly could be stopped from jumping out of my own skin.

            To think that Cookie will have her own room where she can have her toys and bed and clothes, and you and I be able to enjoy each others presence without every moment someone prying into our business!

            Darling, you won’t have to[sic] much money this month to carry you through with all the expenses that I know they come when one moves. When you are short go to mom or one of my sisters and I know they’ll do all they can to help you.

            I shant spend more than what is absolutely necessary on this trip, and I expect that when I come home I’ll have 70 or 80 dollars pay coming or a little less, I shall use it for whatever is necessary. I am sure we will need additional furniture,  and perhaps I can use that sum for a deposit and out of my pay we will be able to complete the payments.

I thought that just to go away from your present surrounding was worth anything, but to think also that you are happy there, and you think the apartment is adorable is more than one can expect.

            Dearest, I think you ought to have a phone installed in the new home. I doubt that they permit them in the projects, but that is easily said than done, but if you give them the reason probably the phone company will give it to you. To pay for the phone bill we will manage some how, and if you have it installed ask for a buzzer that is not too noisy.

            Now, I am impatient to get back, I am very much at peace with the world.  It seems that somehow we have a lucky star which guides us and gets us out of any mess that we may get into. I am really pleased to see how much interest the Navy takes in the welfare of its men and they’re families, and I am glad that I found out this just by chance in time.

            I am happy that you have spent two days by my mother and I know it must have made pop very happy.

            By the time I come home you will have clearly in mind what you need and want for our home and we shall go out together and do some shopping. I won’t even make a sudjestion[sic] and everything you will want, will be —-

MISSING PAGES

[hers] to get rid of them somehow.

            This restricted life doesn’t help it either, the subject is continuously discussed, the war plant workers, the 4F’s ten shooters are continuously brought up, and held responsible for the married man’s woes to the ___ with sweethearts. The whole subject has percented so our minds, that it affects me too. There are no good and loving wifes [sic] or women, and somebody else is just waiting for the weak moment. Even the saints are conscripted, so why not our wifes. Dearest, day in and day out perhaps just in fun, but still it is continuously griping away. Having some notions about the biological urges and simple every day psychology, it works against one no matter how one may try to confront it. That is why I just had to write on the subject, as it may affect us.

Don’t feel uneasy about this, it is more like letting off steam than anything else. Then no doubts about you. Our life together has been too perfect to even dream that you may wanted it changed. Now I feel better.

It may sound to you that aboard this ship there are a bunch of maniacs. I assure you it is not true, this must be happening in every camp or ship that there is. When people have been taken away from they’re normal ways of life so suddenly, and herded together without seeing a strange face for stretches at the time, they can’t help themselves but to imagine that everyone is against them, and want to hurt them.

            The least occurrence aboard is known by all in no time.  If a launch pulls up along side the ship, everyone jumps and is there and discussing the feel and the wildest stories begin to go around. We are the most gullible people on earth, it is enough for one to come to the ____ and say, “the maid is here and was dropped by a sea gull” and there will be someone who will believe it, and I am not excluded. If the anchor chain just rasps the side of our own ship, they’ll run in and with bright eyes will tell you that we are on our way.

            So dearest love, don’t mind my mild form of insanity on the previous pages it will be disappeared the moment I see you.
Good night and sweet dreams to you and baby.
Your loving
Husband
***

It is striking how excited Alex is in this letter about the new apartment. This makes sense, since a young married couple would want a little privacy after living with their families. But it also strikes me as a sentiment that reflects the time period in America. The post-war era would be one of enormous middle class growth and a time when having a home was the symbol of achieving the American Dream. A home for the nuclear family (as opposed to a multi-generational living space) was the ultimate sign that had made it to the middle class. In addition to Alex and Sylvia finding a place for their new life together, this apartment symbolizes them finding a place among a community, and a larger society.  Sylvia and Alex have their own home, but may still have to ask the family for the money to cover moving expenses. Alex also wants to have a phone installed in the home. A few decades later, Nixon himself would point to consumer appliances as the most important display of an advanced society.

I am always surprised when I choose a letter and then find that it speaks directly to something happening in my own life. Just as I dig up a letter about Alex and Sylvia moving into their apartment I myself have moved into a house that was built for married G.I.s in 1947. This two bedroom home is a bungalow style unit attached to two other identical unites, sitting among 300 other identical units. Wandering the little cluster of houses it would be easy to mix your house up for someone else’s. The streets are named after Harrison, Eisenhower, and Marshall to name a few. For me, the boundaries of private and public feel much more confusing than during any time that I have lived in an apartment. Each home has it’s own small plot of grass and yet shares everything from laundry facilities to house numbers. On the other hand, there is no “public” walking around other than the other people who live in the community. I have moved to the postwar era. But unlike Sylvia who has to plan the best subway route to get to the family, I am now learning to drive.

Written by Molly

September 17, 2012 at 9:00 am

Valentine’s Day

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In a special (and somewhat risqué) Valentine’s Day post I give you two letters. One from Alex on Feb. 14th and one from Sylvia the same day in 1945. Alex’s letter is written during a sleepless night and recounts the grueling and mundane schedule of life on a Naval ship. Sylvia’s letter is… racy! Maybe it’s better that I’m getting to know her as a 20-something year old woman instead of as my grandma. This letter, by the way, is not even the most scandalous one I’ve read. But, hey, it’s (almost) Valentine’s Day and you have been warned (I wasn’t).

So here’s to love!

Dearest Love,

Today was Valentine’s day and my thoughts are with you. If you only could see me now! I am writing to you sitting on the toilet seat. It must be about 10M, but no matter how I tried to catch a little sleep, my mind is just wandering around, of course most of the time back home to you!

I am on the very much hated dog(day?) watch on this trip. It’s quite a grind. We get up about 11:15PM and take over our watches at ten to twelve. Then its 4 hours on the go at four we get relieved and we have a few hours of sleep till about seven. At that time we have the costumary dawn watch to which the whole ship’s company turns out. This lasts for an hour then breakfast and a few hours till 11:15 AM sleep. At ten to twelve noon we take over our watches again till four int eh afternoon. Again a few hours sleep if one can and we have dusk watch which also is traditional in the Navy. When that is over sleep again if one can and I can’t.

I can’t write on my bunk because I don’t want to disturb the rest of the boys in their well earned slumber.

Darling wife, how wonderful feeling it would be if this watch would be taking us back home. There is nothing that would be more cheerful than that thought. And perhaps it will soon! I hope!

We had a little excitement aboard before we left port. Some of the boys wished to get the last glass of beer, or kiss their newly made sweethearts in this place, so when the ship was already restocked they went ashore. Of course you can’t get away with it most of the time, and they didn’t.  A bed check was made and six were caught absent. And of course disciplinary action was taken. Fortunately it is not too severe. Well, so far I managed to keep out of trouble and I’ll continue if you give me a letter in couragement [sic], with a constant stream of mail.

Their isn’t much else to write about. We have ideal weather. The sky at night is really beautiful with all the stars. I elarned how to calculate what time it is by observing the position of the big dipper in the sky. During the day we have beautiful sunshine and the air is mild like in the spring. The afternoon we stood watches without our warm jackets, only sweaters, which is doing OK at sea.

Well darling wife I’ll write again in a sleepless night I’ll try again to dream of you. My love and kisses to the little angel and to you, sweetheart.

Alex
** Meanwhile…Sylvia wrote**

This is the second of two or three letters she wrote that day. In the first letter she wrote that she had not received any letters from Alex for a few days and was beginning to imagine that he was coming home. Then she received 4 letters at once.  The “Rankin” that I believe Sylvia refers to in recounting her conversation was Jeannette Rankin – the first woman elected to Congress and a pacifist who voted (alone) against the US entering WWII. No other woman has been elected to Congress from Montana since she was. Excuse my use of Wikipedia for this research but reportedly she said, “As a woman, I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else. It is not necessary. I vote NO.” As it turns out women didn’t need to go to war for war to come to their homes.

Sylvia moves the discussion from Trotskyism to sex pretty smoothly in this one page letter and for that I tip my hat (and then block it all out).

Darling- Decided to make up for not writing you everyday as I had intended. In one of those 4 letters rec’d this afternoon, you sent me Valentine’s Greetings. It made me feel good to see you thought of it. You might have received my Valentine’s card by now! Like it? Sorry the record didn’t (couldn’t) go out, but when you come home, we’ll both make a few for each other to keep during the next inevitable separation. This letter was interrupted by some friends who came by for a short while this evening. They’re swell guys- he’s a sailor (Yeoman) and expects to be shipped out in a few months.  He’s been here in NY for about two years and she realizes she’s lucky, but is getting sick at the thought of his leaving. Besides discussing Wallace, Trotskyism, Rankin, etc. we discussed one of our friends whose husband is a defense worker- anyway, the poor gal is sex-starved! Imagine that!!!! That’s something that can’t happen to us when you get back home! Baby, remember those showers we took in mom’s house last August? Sweetheart, I’m crazy about you! Hurry home, but don’t have any affairs while you’re hurrying! Because if it’s good enough for you, it’s good for me!

All my love,

Sylvia

Written by Molly

February 12, 2011 at 8:30 am

That’s me pushing a broom

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This letter is from the U.S. Naval Training Station in Sampson, New York. Alex wrote it to Sylvia in 1943.

My darling

A week from today I’ll be in your arms at this time. Sweetheart, forgive me if I don’t write you long letters, believe me I am going in circles from work. They gave us another Battaglion (Battalion?) Standby watch and where ever they need work to be done they send us. Today we shined the administrator’s buildings floors, and besides that we have our own work to take care of, particularly because we have had our extra work taken away from us. I received all your wonderful letters, I can’t do justice to them and I am sorry.

I wrote mom and told her the time I’ll be home, I think we still should do as planned and go over to her home when I arrive. I don’t know what will you do about the shows, but honey I really don’t care. The only think I want is to be with you, near you, to kiss you and make love to you. Everything else is really secondary. So don’t worry about that, if worse comes to worse you will go by yourself after I left and will try to console yourself. This will sound lousy, but honey don’t worry we together and nothing artificial will be needed to stimulate us. I’ll be so happy in the Cookie and Mummy and Daddy combination. What else can a guy want?

It is very nice that the girls wanted to present you with the tickets to make our get together so pleasant, that is really friendship.

Poor Cookie, so she has a rash, I am glad you are taking her to the clinic and I hope her cold is a thing of the past by the time this arrives. You can’t imagine how hard it is to imagine her, because I could believe she is as small as when I left her and I can’t imagine her any bigger.

So mummy’s clothes can already be remodeled, that is splendid, and so cheaply too. I always knew that my wife was an artist.

Don’t feel badly about my castigation, I’d suffer hell for your sake!

Don’t send any mail after Sunday, but Sunday send a long letter so that I’ll be to hold out till Thursday.

That’s me pushing the broom.

That’s me sleeping on my watch.

That’s me dreaming of you and Cookie.

That’s me and you at the station next Thursday evening.

My love to you and Cookie,

Daddy

***

This letter from Alex, written in 1943, is particularly interesting because it goes through such a wide array of sentiments in its short four pages. Each page seems dedicated to a different side of Alex and a different part of the life he is leading. Alex begins the letter in a tired voice, apologizing that he cannot write long letters like Sylvia does. He talks about the work he is doing and how he feels like he is going in circles. None of it sounds particularly rewarding.

On the second page Alex becomes sweeter – focusing on his trip home. Sure, it’s kind of uncomfortable to read about my grandpa wanting to have sex but once we get past that this page is a fascinating display of what kind of man he was. He is a little forceful in his opinion that he and Sylvia should go right to his mother’s house when he returns and spend the rest of their time doing whatever they want together. He does not want to go to a show that Sylvia has been planning to attend. He simply says he doesn’t care about the show and she will have to deal with it. He is  also saying this as a loving father who couldn’t ask for more than to be with his wife and child. The page ends with a kind sentiment that Sylvia has good friends. Alex is aware that he is being a little rude and this is the most tension I have seen so far in one of these letters.

The third page is Alex as a father and husband. He addresses Cookie’s cold and rash and then sadly relates that he cannot imagine Cookie any bigger than she was the last time he saw her. This leads him to tell Sylvia when she should and shouldn’t write to him. His somewhat bossy instructions just show how  important the letters are to sustaining his morale. I am not sure what castigation he is referring to his letter. Is there a family member out there who can shed some light on that?

Finally, the last page is comical and romantic. Alex draws little cartoons of him working, sleeping on the job, and dreaming of his family that are playful and wistful. I love that Alex is always wearing his sailor hat in the drawings and we also find out that he slept on the top bunk of a bunk bed! In this letter he is looking forward to a visit home and think of himself in his family role, signing the letter Daddy.

On a more general side note: I really enjoy reading Alex’s letters because of the way he writes in English. For the most part, he writes so well that you wouldn’t realize that English wasn’t his first language. But every so often you can see that he phrases something oddly and I am able to hear his accent and remember a small bit of how he spoke. In this letter he writes, “I don’t know what will you do about the shows…” There are not many solid examples in this letter but you can see that his letters sound formal sometimes because he doesn’t organize sentences in the same order, or speak as casually as a native English speaker might. It is just something to note and I will try to point this out when we hear more from Alex.

Written by Molly

July 29, 2010 at 11:09 am

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Is the boy dead yet?

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In the last post you read a note from Sylvia to Alex. So now let’s meet Alex. Born in Fiume in 1912, he was the youngest of 4 – Anna, Serena, and Eugene – and born very weak. The family story is that when he was born his upstairs neighbor asked, quite bluntly, “Is the boy dead yet?” In his last years Alex often retold that story triumphantly, since he, in fact, lived to be 91.

At age 7 Alex ran away with his older brother, Eugenio (or Eugene), age 13. They happened to do this smack in the middle of the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. They were mistaken for Communist spies and imprisoned with Communists prisoners. My grandpa recalled singing “L’internationale” with them – an experience that would  – if we want to mythologize a little – influence the rest of both their lives.  Their father, David (my father’s namesake), had to travel to Hungary and bring them back to Fiume (aka Rijeka), which is currently in Croatia. Of course, at this time Fiume was going through some changes of it’s own. It is a port city on the Adriatic Sea, a very desirable location, and it fluctuated between Austro-Hungarian, Croat and Italian control. My grandfather grew up in a town with two identities. Before he learned to speak English in America he already spoke Hungarian and Italian.

Skipping ahead a bit, Alex went to Chicago in 1929, just in time for the Great Depression. As he said the last time I saw him (in his lively but slightly confused old age), “Huge crowds were waiting for me when I got off the plane [he arrived on a boat] and they all sang ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.'” You may want to know, before going any further, that my family has at least two vices: Exaggerating and (you’ll find out) crude humor.

Alex was drafted into the Navy during World War II – an experience we heard very little about until he confided at the end of his life some of the fear he had felt during battle.

Alex spoke with a beautiful and thick accent. Often inserting “what do you call it” in the middle of sentences even when he did know what “it” was called. He was lovely and caring and jokingly misogynistic, often calling females in his family “woman” and asking me from the age of 11 when I was going to get married. He called me chipichoopie or puchicoocoo most of the time (the origins and spelling of which I do not know), and rarely by my name.  He made the best tomato sauce. I miss him dearly.

Written by Molly

April 18, 2010 at 9:43 pm

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Birth

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Dearest –

I love you…
And if you love me-
Come to the hospital
In a 1-2-3!
______________
Gone to Beth Israel –
Be calm, daddy. – (I am not!)

Love -
Sylvia

(First I’ll call the doc from the drug store.)

2 o’clock.

This note, scribbled to Alex on June 8th, 1943, the day Sylvia gave birth to my Aunt Adrienne, encapsulates Sylvia’s spunk and charm. On my best days I can only hope to be as clever and lovely as she when she was in labor.

This rhyming, calming, joyful message isn’t the beginning of the story and it isn’t the end but it certainly is one beginning and I’ve got to start somewhere. As this blog unfolds you, imagined reader, will read the correspondence between my grandmother, Sylvia, and my grandfather, Alex, as they navigated through one of the nation’s most trying times.

These posts will focus on their letters, the historical context of the letters, and my experience learning about Alex and Sylvia’s lives. Alex and Sylvia lived in the Fort Greene Projects of Brooklyn in the 1940s and 50s. Alex, like thousands of men, was in the Navy and sent abroad during World War II. Sylvia, like thousands of women, stayed at home with a newborn child, Adrienne – most often referred to in the letters as “Cookie.”

I never met Sylvia but I hope to begin to understand who she was as I read and write about her. She has long been a mysterious presence in the family history. She is someone who is never forgotten but hardly known by any living family members. These are the two protagonists in this unfolding story. The progenitors.

This week marks the 6th anniversary of Alex’s death at the age of 91. At a Passover seder that my roommates arranged I realized that the last seder I attended was just days before Alex died, my senior year of high school. I am looking to understand who Alex was as a person long before he was my grandfather.

This blog is about discovering who these two people – who are both typical and unique – were and what their relationship meant. I never knew Sylvia, but she and my grandfather wrote hundreds of letters during the years that Alex was stationed abroad – letters that I cannot adequately describe with a few trite adjectives.

This is the story of one part of the nation’s history filtered through one well-documented relationship. I think this is a journey that should be shared and valued.

Written by Molly

April 5, 2010 at 9:42 pm

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