Friday, January 22, 2021

August 13, 1944: Small Town Hypocrites


Letter from Opa to Grandmother, August 13, 1944.


St. John
August 13, 1944.


My plan was to spend today writing letters and reading, but none of that was done. I knew that we had received a new motor for our drill, so I made the great mistake of going to the garage to look at it. There, Mr. Fetzer spotted me and said, "Tom, how would you like to help put the new motor in?" Innocent and unanticipating as I am, I told him I would, thinking about a two-hour job. Well, we started working at 9:30 in the morning, took half an hour for dinner, and worked on. It is now twenty after ten at night and I just got cleaned up. Well, this will give me some overtime anyhow. 

Thanks for your sweet letter, honey, and for the poem. You know how much such things mean to me. I just hope it won't be too long now.

Last night, I spent quite a while reading; mostly Bertrand Russell; I never had anticipated how good he was; reading him was like talking to an old friend. That guy has such a clear mind, logical approach, and brutal frankness in his conclusions -- it is hard to believe that he is so generally disliked and frowned upon. (Naturally, his best trait is that his and my ideas on religion, politics, and philosophy are so nearly alike. No kidding, though, he is the first modern writer I have encountered who thinks in my lines and does what I never could: to think it out.) I wished you were here so that we can read things like that together, and then talk and argue about them.

A man and his wife got arrested here today for prostitution. The man had hung around soldier camps and got the "customers" for his wife, and even took them in his car to his home. The entire town is now all excited about it, stories spring up everywhere and gossip is flourishing all over. Certainly, things like that should be stopped, but it gripes me to hear people talk about it the way they do. They act as though these people had committed a cardinal sin, while they themselves are as pure as lambs and as clean as our recording truck. People are so terribly hypocritical in these small towns. All I can think of in connection with this couple is that they are now spending night after night in jail for a crime which thousands commit without being caught. Also, it may be that things are completely different from what the papers say; like it was in my case. Did you ever read Stephan Zweig's "The Eyes of the Eternal Brother?" A good story on this matter of gossip and slander and calumny.

Well, it's time for us to get some shut-eye. Tomorrow morning, when I wake up, I give you your birthday kiss; if not in body, so in spirit. We need to be together, darling!

Always yours,

I really need to read more. Opa reminds me once again of the family legacy of reading, and I once again am determined to clear my mushy mind and read like I used to. When I was a child, nearly every evening you would find me huddled up against my night light, long after I'd been tucked in, with my nose in a book. I miss those nights. The feeling you have when losing sleep over a good book does not include the same shame and guilt you feel when you stay up late watching movies or scrolling endlessly through social media. I long for that feeling again of losing sleep for a good story. 

Opa felt a kinship with Bertrand Russell, which makes perfect sense. Russell was a bit of a mathematician meets philosopher meets theologian (only to say he didn't believe in God as far as I can tell). This tracked with Opa's mind which was full of math and distrust for religious institutions. I will say, it seems like it was commonplace for thinkers of the day to be mathematicians and philosophers. Today it seems we have created silos for our great minds now, where you are either a scientist or a poet, but you can't be both. It's too bad, because I think it's less about knowing a lot about one thing and more about, what Opa calls the ability to "think it out." Maybe we just need to give people more space to think it out. 

Grandmother's nice letter included a poem- did she write it? I never knew Grandmother to write poetry. That would have been cool to know about.

Opa's story about the husband and wife who were arrested for prostitution was really interesting to me for a handful of reasons. First: it seems like this was a recurring issue in St. John, and perhaps the proximity of a military base being a magnet for this kind of crime should have alerted people to a larger issue. I wonder if the military participants faced any charges. My guess is that they did, but within military courts (which is weirdly separate). I appreciated Opa's take on the whole thing. He wasn't so quick to judge, especially with his own experience of being wrongfully accused. It seems less likely that this crime was fabricated. Still, Opa seems to be less and less patient with the hypocrisy of the townspeople who act shocked by something, yet behind closed doors do just as bad if not worse deeds. Opa is really over this small town altogether, and I can tell he's ready to be done with them, to move on up and out with Grandmother by his side. 

Hypocrisy is not a small-town phenomenon, but I imagine the small towns function(ed) much like the "echo chambers" we talk about in social media today. The human ailment of hypocrisy is given voice, platform, and support in a community who above all, wants to belong and fit in.

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