Tuesday, October 18, 2011

how we lived, ate and didn’t wash

I was reading letters home from soldiers at work today (for an official Job Task, no less), and stumbled upon this collection of letters from Paul Hills, who served during WWI. He wrote his mother frequently, and the contents of his letters are some of the best writing I've read in months. Holy crap. Every comfortable first world author who thinks his work is dark (i.e. me) should read through some of these and see what real literary chiaroscuro looks like. Some of his passages go from funny to sad to heartbreaking and back to funny in a paragraph's time. My friend Justin calls that WW1 period "the peak of the highly literate middle class (in the sense of being well read and caring about writing)." 

Here, I'll paste in an example of what I mean:

There is certainly quite a satisfaction in locating some Heinie [slang for German army] outfit who has been worrying you, proving exactly where he is and then systematically blowing him up. Sometimes, tho, Jerry [also slang for German army] would get mad and shoot back which was as disagreeable as anything could be. 

One morning after we had made a raid he was very mad, shooting up most everything in sight but somehow not us and we were shaking hands with ourselves wondering how long it would last when a great big black one went up right in front of the house about 200 yards away. That was the first in that particular locality and we wondered what was up.The next one was in direct line headed for us about 50 yards closer and so the next one and the next with about 30 seconds between shots. Finally one hit just in front of the house, showering dirt all over the place.

The corporal and I were looking out watching things and had a fine idea just where the next one would hit. For protection we had some high grade tiles and a sheet of first class tar paper.The situation to say the least was tense. The Corp simply kept on looking and said quietly, “and the next one gets us.” 

I have had some really narrow shaves during this performance but never did I feel as I did while we were waiting for the next one that never came. Why it didn’t come heaven only knows but I do know that during that 30 seconds and the following two minutes I lived a hundred years. It isn’t the things that happen that scare you. It’s the things that might.

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