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 

Machine Records Units in the War

Researching the 39th Machine Records Unit has been a somewhat frustrating task as there is not much information to be found. On top of this, my grandfather’s letters don’t say much of what they were doing in Europe.  All he ever told us was that they logged soldiers’ deaths.

I read a book yesterday called General Patton’s Punch Cards (I highly recommend this book if you’d like to know more about M.R.U.s. It’s a very short read, yet incredibly informative) and was relieved to find that the author of the book had experienced the same frustration. It turns out that everything about Machine Records Units was top secret.

In Province’s own words: “The soldiers were told not to report, write in their letters home, or take pictures of the trucks, machines, or anything having to do with the operation of the units. By the time the top secret clearances were lifted—decades later—most of the historical material had been either destroyed or lost.” (33)

It wasn’t that my grandfather didn’t want to talk about his time in the war. He couldn’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if he died without ever knowing the top secret clearances had been lifted. Just before I left Texas I found an envelope with photo negatives from my grandfather’s time in Normandy and Germany. I wonder what we will find once they are developed. Stay tuned…

May 13, 2017

My grandfather, Frederick Leighton Durham, served in the 39th Machine Records Unit during World War II. He never spoke much about his time in the war. He only said that he logged soldiers’ deaths. As a young girl I got it into my mind that he was nothing more than a desk clerk, filing papers far behind the lines of any real combat, and I was disappointed. I wanted to hear stories about storming the shores of Normandy, capturing unsuspecting Germans, and deciphering codes. The only person my grandfather ever shot was the mess sergeant who wandered off one night and didn’t answer in time when they called out for the password. My grandfather shot him in the ass.

 

The fact is, the Machine Records Units were a vital part of the war effort and gave the Allied forces an enormous advantage over the Germans, communicating supply needs and keeping track of soldiers, casualties and missing persons. They went everywhere combat troops went and at times were under enemy fire. They were so valuable, German officers were given orders to hunt them down and take all machines, records, and personnel alive.

Here are a few good articles on M.R.U.s if you find yourself, like me, knowing very little about their role in WWII:

https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2000/fall/top-secret-1.html

http://mbiconcepts.com/the-story-of-world-war-ii-and-machine-records-units-mrus.html

http://pattonhq.com/ibm.html

 

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Munich City Hall, 1945

I came across an interview yesterday of a man that served in the 39th Machine Records Unit at the end of the war. He was stationed in Munich, Germany along with my grandfather. From reading the interview, I discovered that they lived and were headquartered out of the Munich City hall, which was still intact though certainly battered. They spent their days interviewing and training civilians, working towards the denazification of Germany, and at times they guarded prisoners and cleaned up debris in the city of Munich.

It seems my grandfather was far more than just a desk clerk.