39: Nervous Apprehension, Poignant Nostalgia.

Tuesday night[1]

Dear Girls,

There is so much to say–somehow I’ve been unable to just sit down and scribble off any kind of note–things have been so rushed—“So Little Time” as J. P. Marquand says.[2] And you are not always in the mood to say things that are tender and loving.

This has been a sad time in a lot of ways. Of course, I am glad that we are at last under way–I am eager to be tempered in the heat of battle. I want to know the result of the last year and a half of work. I’m not sure that battle will show any result at all. I don’t think that it will have as momentous consequences for me–for my way of life and thought, as we of this generation have been led to believe. I think that I subconsciously expect to be shaken down to the marrow of my moral bones, and if battle should be anything less than “All Quiet” then its effect should be slight.[3] This is all surmise, of course; I have no way of knowing what battle will be like. The one thing I do want to find–expect to find–is proof of personal courage and competence under fire. I have no qualms about that. I know it will be there when I need it. But still the mind dwells on it. In idle moments now I find myself fighting imaginary battles–leading my men–hand to hand encounters with lone Japs fought desperately, in silence–stealthy night patrols which invariably, though rather childishly, bring me great glory.

It’s hard to explain my state of mind right now–perhaps not even necessary, because it’s so traditional. Take equal parts of nervous apprehension and the most poignant nostalgia, and you have it. Wondering, not knowing, even fearing what is to come, yet glad that it will be soon. Yes, fearing–not bullets or pain, but that through them I may somehow lose the great happiness that I have come to identify with life. For I have had much more than my share–I sing instinctively. Though Daddy and Rusty are gone, I still love them.

I keep thinking of the past–always with longing. Minturn Avenue–Rex The First and his game on the aqueduct after dinner–Gretchen’s white dress with wide, red embroidery–Shredded Wheat in the morning–sawing wood in the cellar–Mother and Daddy sitting on the patio outside my window talking in low tones, all night, it seemed–Gretchen looking for fairies under the Queen Anne’s Lace–Kim throwing spears of dried goldenrod taken from the lot across the street–Texas–the crazy kid who lived below the Nelsons. Selling the Literary Digest–the day Jeanne Palmer embarrassed me terribly by saying that I kissed her in the garden, which I never did do![4] Tennis with Mike on the Gould’s court–playing, it seems amazing now, with Mother, and inwardly seething because she beat me. I used to be a hell of a poor loser. Daddy laughing as he shook the old silver cocktail shaker with the battered spout that you had to hold your thumb over. Granddaddy standing by the radio that stood on the tall white bookcase and telling a story. Alec and Alma, in the days before she was a butcher, coming up to see me when I was in bed with a cold and bringing some horrible candy.[5] Watching Daddy shave in the bathroom when it was painted light blue and arguing with him about how to spell “promise.” The little love seat that we were all so proud of, and Mother appropriated–her one selfish trick–of establishing as her own the most comfortable chair in our living room. Remember the deck chair that rocked somehow? Rheumy [?] Charlotte with all her beads and rouge and throaty groans.

The memories pour out–of Carlo, the dog that never slept, but always smelled–Aunt Iz laughing about Sistie and Buzzie’s latest antics–the faint musty smell of warm brown shingles in the sun–the but faintly understood quarrel with the Groners [?]. Aunty Buck’s “grove” down by Broadway of half a dozen trees–Nana buying chokecherries by the cup, and Mother secretly but eagerly filling cup after cup perched precariously up on the roof.[6] All this and volumes more of Minturn alone, before I was eleven, Christmases that were always happy and light-hearted and together, and all red balls and silver garlands–laurel over the fireplace, and presents rewarded by a kiss, however inadequate my blue box of powder bought at Jacobson’s Drug Store might be–and now we are separated by distance, and more than distance.[7]

And there is so little time to do so much remembering in–for I want to be sure I know what lies in back of me and what it means before I go on.

Now is the time to evaluate the proceeds of a third of a lifetime–to take stock of oneself, measure the capabilities and limitations–though I must be far from mature yet, for I can realize but few limitations in myself so far. I haven’t failed yet–though I haven’t tried to do much. Or was Rusty a failure?

My mind is in a state of uproar at times–questioning purposes, wondering just why I am here today. For I am certainly not fighting for any political theory–they are all too impermanent–not even for a way of life, for I have none that I know of–my only aim in this war is the extremely personal one of securing the safety of two charming women whom I love very dearly. The book says I should have more of a Holy Grail feeling–if that’s good, then I hope I get it.

What did I do on Christmas?–nothing much–I thought of going up to the Wings’ but decided against it, and stayed in my room. Christmas morning I opened my presents as soon as I awoke–shame on you, Mother, for thinking I would do otherwise! And then we got the word that we were to be packed and ready to go completely by noon on Christmas Day–which we did.

Thank you, dears, for your wonderful package–especially the pipe–which I remember asking for as we crossed Third Avenue going to see Gretchen–and the Bedside Esquire, which I now have to pull out of the grasping hands of one or another of my bunkies every night–and the socks which I shall wear for luck.[8] Uncle Ham and Aunt Kit sent Woolcott’s Long, Long Ago among other things–but best of all, a handful of pictures of them–us–the Vineyard, and some treasured ones of Daddy as a boy–the old days–gone are the days. Fred with a package of goodies. Howard with some needed handkerchiefs, writing paper, and a volume (of course) of Mr. Tutt, lest I forget.[9] Oh, and could you send me more of this paper, Mother, several tablets of it–it will supplement V-Mail.

I had planned a big box of things for you all–Mexican shawls, perfumes, et al–but when I saw the ring it seemed just right for you, Gretchen–it is an aquamarine–and gold of course–but it made any further gifts impossible for the time. You’ll only be able to wear it on special occasions, formal afternoon, black dress and high heels, but I think that you could carry it off, dear. And it will accent your very lovely hands.

I have gotten several letters from Olga asking that I go back any weekend, but I think not–not for a while, anyway.[10] I like her very much, and enjoyed talking over the family with her–laughing about Uncle Gus’ exploits and going over her picture albums–which are incidentally still full of pictures of Uncle Dud.[11] She asked me many questions about him, and I thought all the while of Rusty.[12]

But I don’t like the world she has built up around her. I didn’t see Ray–but neither does she from one month to the next, though he is managing an air base post exchange only a hundred odd miles away. Bruce is a pretty nice guy, but dully wholesome and can talk of nothing but airplane designs and the beauties of the filter plant for the swimming pool. And Jean is an almost completely negligible item. Heavyset in mind and body. Little Douglas, aged 8, is a very cute youngster, though. But somehow I don’t like the terror with which the three of them view the prospect of Bruce’s someday being called into the Army. Douglas Aircraft it seems would have to close its doors if he went away. He does look something like me except that the ravages of a lack of tobacco, liquor and women in his life have left his face an interesting blank. He never went to college, cannily figuring that the sooner he became vital to Douglas the better off he would be. But perhaps I am being unnecessarily harsh.[13] After all I did have fun playing ping-pong with him–beat him.[14]

Phil (right) visits with Bruce, Douglas, and Jean Cambell.

I’ve been working awfully hard lately–the usual thousand and one details–also I am the company’s loading officer, and have loaded our gear on each maneuver. I know quite a bit about the longshoreman’s trade now–our ships are new, and built for the job they are doing–though the crowded life in a transport is no exaggeration. The other night I figured out that sixteen other officers sleep within an arm’s length of my sack. Usually you have to sleep in just your scivvy drawers–not even a sheet. And the ventilating fans and blowers whir and whistle day and night–you can feel every step in the companionway overhead, and these lights are feeble and flickery.

A sad time in a lot of ways–the ending of almost a year of good times in California, for one thing–a year in which I learned a good deal about what is called fast living–or at least learned enough to know that I don’t care for it, or for the hollow but pretty women you meet–I wouldn’t trade Nan Ragan for this whole coast full of them.[15] I would love to write to her if I felt that she would think it something more that the desire of every soldier to have someone at home to write to. I would have to see her again to prove that to her.

Of some things I feel sure–and one is that it will be a fierce but short fight. I like that. A man can take almost anything for 76 hours and not have it affect him too much.

It can’t come too soon now–preparations are over and a deadly period of waiting has begun. I know we will all do well, for we are Marines, but I want to see it–and soon.

It is very late–“I will write more later, dear” (quote Mother).


P.S. I have your Christmas card pasted up in my locker, Gretch. Pinned up, you might say.


[1] Recorded by GWW as Camp Pendleton, California December 30, 1943.
[2] So Little Time was then a recently published novel by Marquand.
[3] A reference to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
[4] Jeanne Palmer is recorded by GWW as “the girl next door,” and lived around the corner from the Woods. She was the niece of “Aunty Buck” mentioned below.
[5] Alma–possibly Alma Forsburg, a maid employed by the Zinssers.
[6] “Aunty Buck” –Mira G. Buck, next-door neighbor. “Nana” – nickname for Emma, matriarch of the Zinsser clan. According to Gretchen, the Woods had “someone in the friendly circle” who concocted wine from the sour chokecherries.
[7] The Woods’ only extravagance at Christmas was a tree bedecked in silver and red decorations–Gretta’s signature contribution.
[8] “Bedside Esquire” – a compilation of the best short stories from Esquire magazine, published in 1940.
[9] The adventures of fictional Mr. Ephriam Tutt, “the best known lawyer in America” created by Arthur Train, were popular reading–especially among aspiring lawyers.
[10] Phil was visiting Ray and Olga Campbell in Los Angeles. Olga (Wiksell) Campbell was Phil’s first cousin, once removed. It was a difficult place to visit; Phil Wood Senior was staying at the Campbell’s house when he died in 1940.
[11] Uncle Gus: Gustave Percival Wiksell (1863 – 1940) was Phil’s great uncle on his father’s side, the older brother of his grandmother, Julia Wiksell Wood.
[12] Uncle Dud, referenced previously, was at one point engaged to Olga, but she was “whisked off to the West Coast” by disapproving Wiksell parents. The parallel with Phil’s experience with Rusty is painfully evident.
[13] Phil is being very unfair to Bruce Campbell, who looked up to his older cousin and enlisted in the Marine Corps himself the following year.
[14] This uncharacteristic bitterness from the normally even-handed Phil is the nadir of his winter depression; the Woods and the Campbells were normally quite close. Perhaps for this reason, the entire visit was cut from GWW’s transcript.
[15] Aside from Rusty, Nancy Ragan is the only romantic interest Phil mentions by name, and was apparently a friend or colleague of Gretchen’s. It is later implied that Phil met her while on furlough in New York.

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