What the Church Means to Us in WAR-TIME

Some of the war wives of Tylers Street Methodist Chrurch.  Virginia is seated on the ground at the left-hand side of the picture.


*The following talk was given by my grandmother at the Sweetheart Banquet Friday evening, December 8th, 1944.  I think it’s brilliant.  Anything I added to it would be superfluous.

There is a legend from China about two surveyors who were crossing a trackless desert and to guide them they carried a map showing certain trees, streams, and contours of land which they were to follow. The journey was comparatively easy until one night a terrible storm came, during which they found refuge in a cave. On the following morning when they again started their journey, they found that all of the landmarks had either been swept away by the wind or washed away by the rain. They were lost—both were desperate—for their maps were now useless. All day long they tried to figure out a way to safety but could find no help. About midnight, one surveyor ran into the cave, crying out “Were saved…we can find our way through this desolation.” “How?” his friend asked, thinking he had gone crazy. “Because,” replied the surveyor, “The stars are still there.”

When the storm of war came into our world, taking from us for awhile that person dearest to the heart of each of us, in many instances we felt alone and lost and desolate—until suddenly, we realized that God’s universal laws still prevail and that through his church we might find the stars of faith and hope in a better day to come, the star of courage to face each day with our chin up and a smile, the star of prayer—that safety, good health, and cheer might attend our loved ones wherever they may be, a star of love—great enough to shine out over Bethlehem so that shepherds watching afar might see—great enough to cause four men of God to give their lifebelts so that others might live—great enough to strengthen the tie between two hearts so that even though they may be parted by continents or oceans, they are still together.

We would not forget the fun and fellowship which this, our church, has made possible for us, nor the things which have been done in Tyler Street Church in honor of its members serving in the armed forces. In remembering them, you have struck the closest chord to our hearts. As a concrete example and just to show you what the picture service rolls in the vestibule means, I know of one girl who never enters the sanctuary without first looking at the picture of her husband. Then I know, she must enter feeling a little closer to him and they a little closer to God. We would not forget the inspiration found in any of the church services. For instance, I do not think there is a girl who has participated in the Communion Service each first Sunday without feeling somehow a little closer to her absent love one.

There is a radio program from Chicago each morning called the Breakfast Club. No doubt, many of you listen to it. It is full of fun, good music, and is a peppy way to start the day. Recently, they have instituted on this program, a short period of prayer for the boys in the armed services and the speedy coming of V-day. It is a magnificent thing that a program of this character should set aside a few minutes for prayer, and I would not detract one bit from the thought which inspired this prayer period—but after V-Day, what then? Will it not be just as important that we pray then that we shall not fail in keeping the peace? Every wife and every sweetheart honored here tonight has within her heart a dream, yet unrealized or unfulfilled, a dream of her world to be when the storm of war is over. When we again received our own, we must also keep our eyes on the stars that we have found through this, our church, so that our returning servicemen will find friendships, hope, faith, understanding and love. For their eyes, too, have been our stars—the stars of home, and we must not fail them.

We look to this, our church, to recognize them, to extend to them first the warm hand of friendship and welcome, and then to open avenues of service, perhaps in an official capacity, through a Church School Class, or in some other way. For we are ever mindful that it is not what is give to us that keeps our eyes on the stars, but the things we, ourselves, are privileged to give.

So through this, our church, we will keep our eyes on love, faith, understanding, and courage, and we will keep our hopes high that these, our dreams, may yet come true.

-Virginia Durham

An episode of the Breakfast Club for your listening pleasure:

A few memories

There wasn’t anything unusual about the list: a jug of milk, a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, light bulbs, and a six-pack of extra-soft, 2-ply toilet paper (this last item, having been repeated several times, was clearly an urgent necessity). I was on my way in less time than it took to drive to the store in the first place. The bulk of my journey still lay ahead.

I was headed for my grandparents’ house. It wasn’t that the distance of the trip made for such a long journey, but that, for some reason I don’t remember, I was driving my grandparent’s Lincoln Continental. It was from the early 1980s and best described by the words ‘land yacht’.

Now I am, as my brother has said on numerous occasions, “vertically challenged.” I could barely see over the wheel and was terrified of driving over something, or (let’s be honest) someone, which in a tank like that would have felt as insignificant as a speed bump.

I crept down the highway and then through the suburban streets of my grandparent’s neighborhood with my two eyes peeping over the dashboard, my hands—in line with my ears—clenched to the steering wheel, fully aware that I looked like something out of a cartoon. Just as an aside, I later remedied the problem by sitting atop two phone books while driving the car. I was far too impressed by my ingenuity to be embarrassed by the appearance of it all.

I arrived at Mimi’s and Päpä’s house and immediately began putting the groceries away. The milk and the eggs went into the refrigerator, of course. I was told to leave the bread and the light bulbs on the counter. All that was left was the toilet paper.

Hmm, toilet paper

I stood there smiling stupidly with the six-pack in hand trying to remember where they kept it and quite certain I’d never been told. The bathroom seemed the most likely place, but the only place to store anything in the bathroom was under the sink. I’d seen under there a hundred times and never once caught sight of a roll of toilet paper.

Päpä shuffled by at that moment, a New York Times crossword puzzle in hand, and waving dismissively said, “Just put it in the hallway closet.”

The hallway closet? The hallway closet with the metal, accordion doors that I’d never seen opened, not even once? I was in my late twenties at the time, even still a childlike rush of excitement swept over me.

I was raised to think it was rude to look in people’s cabinets. It was like reading through their diary. Not only was it rude, but also you’d instantly regret it the moment you did. There was no way to erase the memory of what you found lurking behind the door. But you couldn’t help but wonder. For all you knew they could be hiding ill-gotten gains or a collection of garden gnomes. Neither of which you wanted to know about. It’s always something best left alone.

I approached the closet with all reverence due the occasion; it was a rite of passage after all. I carefully folded back the accordion doors and there with my eyes wide with wonder beheld a tower of toilet paper, shelves lined from floor to ceiling with the stuff. I couldn’t hazard a guess as to how many rolls there were. The closet was filled them, all except one vacancy large enough to fit a six-pack of extra-soft 2-ply toilet paper. I drew back in awe and honestly wondered if they’d gone without toilet paper during the Depression and at some point made a solemn vow to never let it happen again. It seemed the only plausible explanation.

It wasn’t long after this that I received a call from Päpä while I was answering the phones at Tyler Street UMC (the same church where Mimi and Päpä met at a prayer meeting and the church where my father now was the pastor). Päpä’s doctor told him he needed to go to the hospital, and Päpä wondered if I’d give him a ride. The good thing about having your father as your boss is that you can tell him you have to leave work early to take your grandfather to the hospital and he is eager to have you go.

I climbed into the Continental and drove out to Päpä’s house puzzled at the vagueness of his call. The hospital seemed like a pretty big deal, but Päpä seemed completely unconcerned.

I arrived expecting that he’d at least meet me at the door, anxious to get to the hospital and be assured that all was okay. He did not. I let myself in, and he was surprised I’d arrived so soon. I spent the next thirty minutes sitting on the couch, waiting for him to have a snack and then gather all of his uncompleted crossword puzzles and a few personal items, just in case he had to stay over night. Mimi would periodically come into the room and offer me bean dip or Vienna sausages from the can (the answer was, and always will be, no).

When at last Päpä was ready I asked, “Where exactly did the doctor want me to take you when we get to the hospital?”

“To the emergency room,” he replied, nonchalantly. “I can’t feel my left arm.”

“WHAT!?! Get in the car!” I yelled. “Get in the car right now!” This was the only time I ever raised my voice to any of my grandparents. I believe it was well deserved.

It’s easy when reading the war-time letters of Fred and Virginia (those poignant and so often romantic letters) to forget that it is the same Fred and Virginia who drove the Lincoln Continental and hoarded toilet paper rolls; the same Papa who refused to invest in a good hearing aid, preferring instead to rely on cheap imitations—my favorite being an aid with ear buds that looked just like a miniature, hand-held radio. He kept it in his shirt pocket and would often switch out the hearing aid for the radio. There was really no way for people to know if he was listening to the conversation or some radio program. But on Sunday mornings during my father’s sermons, we all knew it was the radio and Päpä was listening to the Cowboy’s game.

My father was in town this week, and we were laughing about these memories when he remembered getting a call one night from the hospital. They needed him to come right away, because Päpä had been admitted for a possible heart attack but was trying to leave. He was insisting on driving Mimi home and taking care of her.

And here is the consistency between the man I knew and the man who authored those letters. Päpä always loved Mimi and wanted to take care of her.

 

Goodnight Sweet. Here’s hoping we meet in our dreams for I love you and want to be with you always. With all my love, Fred.

 

September 11, 1944

I’ve spent the afternoon reading through letters.  The romantic in me loves this particular letter…

Dearest Virginia,

We finally got our radio fixed today.  Naturally it made us all very happy to again be able to have at least that contact with the outside world.  The news which concerns us most is seldom mentioned on the radio until days after it happens but even so we get a big kick out of hearing the voice of an excited newscaster telling his listeners all about it.

I personally feel that the end of Germany is very near.  Sure hope I’m right for believe me I’m way past being ready to come home.  As anxious as I’ve been ever since leaving to be home again with you it seems that the nearer we get to the end of this engagement the more anxious I get.  Right now I’m at the point where I just sit and look at your picture and wish for you every moment I can.  Of course I’ve always done just that but now it seems I wish harder every day.

I forgot all about Labor Day.  Did you have a holiday-if so I sure hope you had a nice time.  Remember the plans we always used to make for that particular day.  Usually a picnic with J.D. and Ruth or some of the family or maybe just you and I would have dinner out somewhere and then take in a show or just drive around. Those were the times I always liked best-the ones when just you and I were together.

Just keep on keeping that chin up Sweet and maybe who knows?  I may get to see you some day soon after all.

                                                                                                               With all my love,

Fred

Letters to Mother 

I’ve wanted to write about suffering. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve started about fifteen different posts on the subject but have trashed each one feeling they were wholly inadequate in conveying what it is I want to say. And there’s a lot I want to say.

But I fear any attempt to consolidate those thoughts into a single post would create a collection of trite sayings that not only trivializes suffering but also maligns any well-intentioned effort to console. A careless word can cause considerable damage to a person in pain.  For now I will only say a few things.

The temptation in suffering is to cuddle up with your pain like a warm blanket on a cold, lonely night. But stay there long enough and it will become the noose around your neck (Stick with me. I swear I’m going somewhere with this and promise to bring in the letters, and WWII, etc). As counterintuitive as it is, you must learn to pull your gaze away from yourself and turn it upon another. Among other things, it gives us perspective.

There’s a great quote from Regina Brett that reads, “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.” I’ve admitted before that this is in large part the reason I started this project, for the comfort in saying, “Good Lord, at least I don’t have to deal with that!” But I’ve also found there is a great deal to be learned from the way in which people responded to the unthinkable atrocities and immense suffering inflicted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. But even before the war these men and women were well acquainted with pain.

“F. Durham. Mama’s baby’s boy”

Päpä’s father died when he was four. I think from a heart attack. His mother couldn’t afford to keep him and so Päpä was sent to live with his Aunt Ora and Uncle Traylor. Uncle Traylor was, like my own father, a Methodist minister. He taught Päpä to ring the church bells, something my grandfather was quite proud of.

Aunt Ora was the only teacher of a one-room school. She took Päpä with her every day and sat him with the first graders until he was old enough to progress with his peers. Päpä sometimes joked he was in first grad for 3 years. Ora and Traylor loved Päpä as their own, but he missed his mother deeply.

“Dear Mama, I wish I could see you.”


Those letters, at least 100 years old, come from the hand of a little boy who aches for his mother and cannot understand why they aren’t together. Why doesn’t she come? Why doesn’t she write? The mother in me can’t read these letters without grieving for the poor, little boy who is so broken and confused and feeling abandoned (my own mother wouldn’t even let me read the letters to her!). Children should be safe in the arms of their mothers.

Päpä started working part-time when he was 12, I believe as a newsboy. By the time he was fifteen, he was working fulltime during the day and attending night school to complete his high school education. He never went to college.

High School report card, 1926



Mimi’s father died the month after she met Päpä. He was a successful businessman, but the family lost almost everything during the Great Depression through, as my grandmother said, “good investments gone bad.” Somehow Päpä always managed to find work during the Depression, but other family members were not as lucky, and they would be called on to help.

The effects of the Great Depression were astounding. By 1933, 15 million Americans were unemployed. Homelessness rates soared, and families were torn apart as husbands and sons left to find work or simply to escape embarrassment. Domestic violence rates as well as suicide and crime rates dramatically increased, as well. Suffering was all around them.

There’s the old cliché “that which doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger’.” Anyone who has ever been told this in the midst of their own suffering will tell you how tempting it is to punch the person who said it in the face. It’s a statement that seems flippant and dismissive. And yet there is truth to it.

I prefer what Thomas Merton says:

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”

~The Seven Story Mountain

Suffering does create resiliency. It is also in suffering that you discover things more important than self-preservation, things worth fighting for. This is what allowed men and women to fight the shadow of darkness that was aggressively stretching across Europe, indeed the world.

I recently read an interview of a man who served in the 39th M.R.U. in Munich.  He was asked if he thought there was something special about his generation that allowed them to respond to the war as they did. He said, no.  Any generation would have done just as they did.  But I Continue reading → Letters to Mother 

The Germans in France

This weekend, while I was in Texas looking through the box of my grandfather’s letters (there are over 160 of them), I decided that I would post the letters in chronological order. It seems the most logical way to let the story unfold.

I’m already deviating from this plan.

This photo was taken of my grandfather only a couple of weeks prior to the letter mentioned.
I came across a letter from Päpä (in honor of Mimi I’ve decided to write it this way) written in November of 1944 that I cannot get out of my mind. I meant to grab it in the stack of letters I brought back with me, but somehow I missed it. My father has promised to copy it and send it along. Once I have it, I’ll post it here. It’s certainly worth reading.

In the letter, Päpä describes a trip into town he and his supply sergeant made. I’m not certain where exactly in France they were, but he mentions the area of Commercy, France.

They stopped at a bakery to buy some cookies to take back to their unit. The French family who owned the bakery was so thrilled to have the American soldiers visit that they insisted on feeding them pie and having their youngest daughter play the violin while they ate. During their visit, the owner of the bakery told a story to Päpä and his supply sergeant to describe just how terrible the German soldiers were while occupying France.

One day the Germans came to the home of a family down the road and insisted on taking the children to work in their factories. When the father refused to let them take his six-year-old son, the German soldiers killed him and then shot the young boy in both legs, leaving him fatherless and crippled.

Once while driving home from a Sunday church service, I listened quietly from the backseat of the car as a couple of college friends were engaged in a fierce debate over the theory of relativism. I was a nervous and self-conscious girl at the time and thought I wasn’t intelligent or articulate enough to engage in the conversation. But at some point I felt I had to say something lest my silence be misunderstood as consent.

I blurted out, “What about Hitler? Surely you can’t say that he was justified in what he did!” My friend paused for a moment and then, shrugging her shoulders, said rather impassively, “I can’t say that he was wrong. He was only following his truth.” The darkness in her statement was palpable. I was sick to my stomach as we all rode home in silence.

Of course, when relativism is followed to its end even Hitler bears no guilt for his actions. And the little French boy whose legs were shot and his father murdered had no right to demand justice, in this world or the next. But there is something within us that cries out this cannot be so.

I will end this tonight with a quote from one of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis. It comes from a BBC radio broadcast series he did during World War II. You can read it here.

c.s. lewis

 

The Night They Met

“Your world traveler is feeling mighty fine today–just been laying around wishing he was at home with you.  You can be certain sweet that he is every bit as much in love with his wife as ever and you can be even more certain that he is more in love with her than ever.”       France, September 22, 1944

 

 

Like most good Texans, we called our grandfather Pawpaw. Mimi, my grandmother (Virginia was her name) insisted on spelling it with umlauts, I assume in effort to preserve some sense of dignity. But we also had a Mamaw and a Papaw. Umlauts were lost on us.

I’ve always thought that the story of how my grandparents met was like something out of a movie. A young man, who’d known poverty and death at a very early age—his father having died when he was four, young Fred was sent to live with an aunt because his mother couldn’t afford to keep all of her children at home—caught sight of a wealthy young girl one night at a prayer meeting.

I heard the story countless times growing up and relished the romance in it every single time. I always imagined they met on a hot summer’s night at a revival. The windows of the church were open to let in a breeze. A neighborhood dog could be heard barking in the distance. The ladies in their cotton dresses waved their fans with a tactful rhythm, fans that were all decorated with water colored portraits of Jesus carrying a lost lamb or politely knocking upon a door whose only handle was on the other side of the door, which everyone understood symbolized the door to their heart. The preacher was deep into a passionate plea for souls, and everyone’s heart was, like John Wesley’s, strangely warmed when my grandfather saw a beautiful young woman with crystal blue eyes across the room, and the world stood still.

img_3472-1
Virginia Cooper Durham
IMG_0241
Wedding Photo of Fred and Virginia March, 1932

As it turns out, they met in February (February, 1930) at an Epworth League meeting (Today it is the UMYF—United Methodist Youth Foundation). I am now struggling to let go of the images I have replayed in my mind over these many years—a familiar consequence of my often-unchecked imagination.

The stock market crashed in October the previous year (October 24, 1929). It was just the beginning of the Great Depression. In the middle of the prayer meeting Pawpaw (Päpä!) sent Mimi a card marked “SOLD: I could pin this on me right now” through the crowd.

A friend sitting close to Mimi intercepted the note, hoping it was for her. He panicked and began waving his arms wildly, motioning to keep passing the note down the line. The friend reluctantly passed it along to Mimi, and after the meeting, he came over and introduced himself to her. He walked her home that night and proposed the next Christmas. They married in March, 1932.  He was 21, and she was just a few months shy of 17.

 

The letter posted above can be read in it’s entirety on the Page entitled Letters.

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France, August 24, 1944

I didn’t see my grandfather’s letters to my grandmother until the morning I was to fly back to Atlanta, GA. I quickly copied a few of them to bring back with me, but I don’t have many. Here is the first in the sequence of letters I was able to copy. I’m headed back to Dallas this weekend for a brief stay, and will hopefully be able to bring back more. The letter is difficult to read. I’ve typed it out below:

Dearest Virginia:

Honey I guess you had better send me some paper to write on as I’m nearly out and I don’t know how soon it will be before I can get some over here.  I’d like some more like this, at least no any longer than this for I can get it in my letter case without folding.

My tent is pitched under a large apple tree that’s just loaded with the greenest sourest apples I’ve ever tasted. Next to it is a large English walnut tree with more walnuts on it than I believe I’ve seen in my whole life, of course they’re green too. I have no desire to stay here until the fruit ripens but the abundant yield of these trees is certainly worth noting.

readers digest
I’ve ordered a copy of ‘Heyday of a Wizard’ and the Reader’s Digest magazine mentioned, thinking it would be interesting to read the article referenced.

I’m glad to hear that your table trick finally worked even if you weren’t in on it.  You had better go easy though for some mighty spooky things can be done with furniture.  I suggest that you read ‘Heyday of a Wizard‘ by Jean Burton. I read the short review which appeared in the July issue Reader’s Digest and thought at the time you would be glad to read it too for it names some mighty important people who have seen even stronger things hap end with furniture at the hands of the so called wizard. Daniel Home. You can now recommend it to the skeptics who have had a lot of fun teasing you about it.

Dag nap it. Honey it’s getting dark again. I only have about 30 minutes of day light of my own time. Naturally we don’t dare have lights in out tents and the places where we work are much too crowded by the men on duty at night to permit any letter writing there.  Those places are of course properly blacked out.  Maybe soon my shift will be cut down about four hours and then I’ll have more time to write.

I love you very, very, very much so do take good care of you for me.

With all my love,

Fred