Saturday, February 11, 2012

CENSORED Day 6 Trent

It’s easier to know when enough is enough in person – a glance at a watch, shuffling of feet, lifeless eyes. Here in print I tend to push the limits of conventional blog world wisdom. I’m typically over the suggested 250word limit, which is not to say I don’t do my best to keep a tight reign. But if I’m too net how can I do justice to the characters and stories I encounter? Today I’ve gone free-range and for a reason – I submit to you the Voices at Hand WEEKEND EDITION.

Herb finishes his letter home, “We can’t write anything about the actions out here as all the letters are censored and a fellow is liable to get into trouble. So long for now. Love from Herb.”

All wartime letters were opened and read before they were sent on their way, even so I learned more about what it was like to be under fire from Herb’s two letters than I have from other WWI or WWII letters in the collection.

Dec 27/15
We get shelled once in a while at our billets to make things a little interesting, but we are all pretty well protected except from high explosives and nothing can protect you from them. I saw a shell hole 30ft across and about 12 ft deep and they sure make some noise when they go off. You can hear a shell coming through the air before it gets to you. It sounds just like the wind whistling around a house, but you can hardly describe it. The only thing you can do is get out of the road of them is to flop on the ground and if you have time to get behind any of the (word illegible) or in any hole you see and take a chance on them getting you. A fellow gets used to them after you have been out here a bit and you don’t take much notice when they drop pretty close. They have to get pretty close before they do much damage when a splinter hits you. Well I will close now and write more next time.

June 10 /16 
I came through one bombardment by the skin of my teeth and I was just in the tail end of it. The shells were flying around like puffed rice and bursting everywhere. The Engineers are supposed to get out of the trenches during a bombardment except during an attack and then everyone is to stand to. But there was no attack this night so we got out. We have one fellow in our section who stutters pretty bad and as we were going down the trench at about 100 yds In 10 seconds flat a bit of shell hit him in the seat of his pants, just enough to bruise him and he started to splutter like an old gasoline engine. It certainly was funny, although we were liable to be killed any minute a fellow couldn’t help laughing. But we all got away alright.   

Often I have to work through a lot of  sorry I haven’t written sooner” letter writing pleasantries before I get to any real story telling.  The letters to Frances Stewart  (see Now This is Fun - Trent Day 1) all began with close to two pages of nineteenth century decorum. After a span of several months waiting for news from the homeland no doubt this added to the excitement.

A series of 13 letters from an ESL teacher in China I shared last Wednesday are a sharp contrast. I predicted they would be a crazy trip and they were. There is no holding back this young woman. You know where you are going within the first few sentences.

AUG 28/95
HEY MA’AM, WELL HERE I AM IN CHINA TOWN. I STILL CAN’T BELIEVE IT MYSELF. FIRST OFF, LET ME TELL You how much my life has changed. There have been no parties for this chick since we arrived at school. But let’s start from the beginning. BC was great. Martha met me at the airport... 
Sept 10/95
Dear Ma’am  - I was so happy to get your first letter the other day. I must have read it about 100 times now. Mail is a big event here. Thanks for the update. The Bruce quotes made me laugh – I’d forgotten about that. Good thing we have each other to remind us of these crazy events. As for the J situation. What are your feelings these days? I know it’s really hard...stick to your gut feelings  + give things time... 
Sept 26/95
Hey man – I just got your letter at lunch – They brought it to me while I was having my daily fill of slop – I nearly dropped all my rice + started screaming with joy –All the Chinese were staring at me – not uncommon. Anyways thanks for the pics... 
Oct 8/95
*WARNING: This letter is not suitable for the weak stomach.Hey man, It’s Sunday noon + guess what I’m still in bed. Jen just brought me your letter – I was so excited... Anywho let me fill you in at what’s been going on Huamee – First problem – for the last 4 days, I have been pissing out my.... –  pardon my French, but that is the only way to describe it...  
Oct 22/95
Dear Ma’am,I got your 5th letter last night – I was so happy + I just want you to know that for every letter you’ve written me I’ve written back – So the problem must be the god-damn China postal system. It takes forever to do anything in this bloody country – do you sense a little animosity? I’m just having one of those frustrating days – but you must believe me they are not all like this. Anyways, by your letter it sounds like there is some doubt in the J break-up saga...
Dear Ma’am, Hey dude – what’s up? I taught that phrase to my Class 2 today – They thought it was hysterical- Everyone wanted to come up to the front to practice it – cuz you got to do the “HOMEY” arm movements with the greeting – I love teaching some days. Today was one it was so much fun. In the same class a really funny incident happened. We were learning “My” + “Your” – Well this one kid Danny just couldn’t get it – we went over the exercise about a million times + he was still screwing up – finally I got so frustrated I jumped out of the window – the whole class went nuts – it was really funny  - I walked around the building + came in the door they + they started clapping and cheering – Danny still hasn’t gotten it! Maybe by next July? 
Nov 12/95
Hey there ma’am – just got your letter yesterday. As always, I was excited to hear from you. Jodie’s party sounded like a blast. I’m glad Kelly was with you – J!! What’s up with the attitude? Probably hurts him too much to talk to you. And the referendum – Wow even in China we got the news that very day. What a relief – we wouldn’t want to come home to a civil war – ha. 
Dec 6/95
Wow what a box of Christmas Cheer! I was feeling so bummed when the package arrived too – it certainly brightened things up. I love those nutri-bars man –How’d you know they were my favorite? Thanks so much guys. Well the Christmas countdown has begun. The advent calendar is up, the cards are on top of the TV, the bells are hanging on the wall. There are only a few things missing – you guys of course, my family and snow. Ya I guess there is a little part of me that’s going to miss the winter.  
Jan 3 1996
My dearest ma’am!I got your letter a bout your shank-fest with Mark. Wow man- I can’t believe it my mom’s bed! That bed has seen more monkey eh!? Hilarious-  
Jan 24th 1996
What’s skakin man?!Well, I’ve been packing my stuff – tinkering around the apartment not quite knowing what to do next – feeling overwhelmed, disorganized  - and sheet –yea I have to write my resignation letter to day. Should be a doozy – just kidding. 
Feb 8th Selamat Pagi
Howdy ma’am – So here I am – I’ve been waiting so long for this. I forgot how much I love Bali – I LOVE BALI    
I think I’d love Bali too; her letters may be the closest I’ll ever get. I know I’ll never take up farming in South Africa, but I ‘m delighted a British man rose to the challenge in the 80s. A dentist by trade, he continues to pull teeth to make ends meet. He begins his first letter to his sons, “If I can find enough teeth to pull out, giving me a net profit of about 30 pence each, we should be able to keep the wolf from the door.” and goes on to describe the pineapple crop he hopes to plant:

I still remain overall optimistic. Because pineapples are the very cheapest fruit to produce they could form the basic material for a vast range of products. Frozen pines are superb, especially if you use the very small ones from the 3rd crop in the cycle they are so sweet. At present they are just left to rot in the field as the factory will not take them - nothing under 95 mm in diameter – not even for juice. Fresh chilled, peeled pineapples last for days – irradiate it and it would last for months. Use pines as principle base in fresh fruit salad – could be even more popular world-wide. Pineapple sticks in yoghurt makes the mouth water. Curried pines could vie with pineapple chutney to replace pineapple rings at present served with pork or chicken. 
Pine wine could replace “plonk” or be Chateau Bottled. Pine Beer is already a pleasant experience. Pineapple liqueurs could be made from the real thing – or pine sugar used to make a special spirit... 
All I lack is time, confidence, expertise, drive, luck, perseverance, contacts, youth, and capital, not to mention experience.
 Overall I am enjoying it as tomorrow will bring something new – it always does, and it is so different to the mouse on the treadmill of dentistry.
  Love Dad.  
You get the picture – some ideas, some stories, some people are impossible to reign in and with an attitude like our ex-pat farmer, really who’d want to?

Those of you who have been following Voices at Hand for a while know I use various methods to engage passersby. At Gzowski College I read excerpts from letters and asked people to guess the date when they were written. The closest guess won a handmade Valentine by local artist Jill Bishop of the Urbantomato or a hand-pulled card made by Jeff Macklin of Jackson Creek Press.

Often people psych themselves out thinking they have to be historians to do well, but the clues tend to be so obscure they don’t even register on the “low history” radar. These are two of my favourites. (Leave your answers in the comment section — sorry no Valentines left.)

1.  I made a big purchase in September after returning to school and bought a mountain bike. The reasoning behind this is easy if you could see the roads of Thunder Bay and the conditions I used to ride my old Peugeot through. However, this new mountain bike is something of a wonder to me. I don't know if you've seen one of these bikes, but they have big fat lugged tires with usually about 12 gears and an extremely strong steel frame pedals and other parts...The thing is virtually indestructible and can go up any hill (almost any hill!), yet cruise at a good speed on paved roads. About the only limitation the bike has is its rider.

2.  We are staying at the Savoy... After our late dinner we have barely time for a good night’s rest, just enough to wash our undies and shirts. Nylon is a wonderful thing in that it dries so quickly. We have learned it is also very hot.

Many of the conversations I've had with Trent students have centered on what meaning is conveyed in details and how technology has changed the way we communicate. My "date the letter challenge" served as a playful way to highlight this and a postcard writing station I set up last week, complete with pens and stamps, was a small act of sabotage aimed at correcting it.

Another question that has arisen over this incarnation of Voices is what the broader implications of the decline of letter writing might be  what does it hold for writers, historians and archivists? Next week when I’m back in the Trent University Archives I intend to ask the archivists if they have already started to see a change in the trace of an individual's life and work? After all, our letters speak to future generations as well.

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