Woman's Day, November 1942
Just an American town. Howard Fast, who wrote "The Town" (pages 8-9), is the author of "The Unvanquished." It is a study of the Revolutionary War and is perhaps one of the most moving portrayals of the American people we have ever seen. It was because of the warmth of understanding we felt that we asked Mr. Fast to write about an American town at war. Not an outstanding town, not a town bound, by its locality or its industry, to know the war; just a town which is one of the vertebrae in the backbone of our country. It gave us a feeling of new confidence to read what he found, the intangible in the war effort which is the measure of its success.
|Howard Fast and his dog, Ginger.|
TO a stranger, the town might have seemed no different, complacent, the war a million miles away, the sky hot and blue, and after a summer of even and plentiful rainfall, the people satisfied with themselves. A stranger might have been disturbed, if he were given to thinking about such things. No bomb had fallen and no shell had burst. This was a people never invaded and never threatened, and they say that in all the world only the Ukraine is as fertile as this place.
I asked the old man, who remembered more and longer than anyone else in the town, how it had been in 1861, when it was not a war with little yellow men nor with the mad-dog creed of fascism, but brother against brother and father against son. I was curious, not only because the town lay close to the Mason and Dixon line, but because I wondered whether anything on earth could move these stolid people.
"If you mean who we were with," he said, "we were with the North." He had been only a boy then, and he had to frown and ruffle up his memory.
"Did many go?"
HE nodded and tried to recall the regiment that had come out of this and two adjoining counties. Obliquely, he said, "It's hard to see kinfolk over the sights of a gun." And then added, "The town don't like war, and that was a bad war. They wanted to get it finished and come back." He was still trying to recall the name of the regiment, but unsuccessfully, frowning it was such a long time ago.
The town is ideally situated on a bluff overlooking the Wabash River. It is at a junction of two railroads, the Big Four and the Southern, and the Chamber of Commerce assures full cooperation and adequate labor for any capital that may be interested. The climate is mild and healthful, and being the county seat of Wabash county, the town is a shipping center for farm produce and livestock, as well as the manufactured goods of the four factories, two of which are engaged in defense work. The population is something over seven thousand, and while the town was founded in 1814 by two Methodist families, it now has sixteen churches of various denominations. And though the local newspaper is known as The Republican Register, the town usually votes Democrat.
The town has two moving-picture houses, located on Market Street, a broad thoroughfare that most people refer to as Main Street. It has a municipal swimming pool, a nine-hole golf course, and one of the finest waterworks in southern Illinois.
THE woman, whose son was on a little island in the South Seas, was speaking of temptation. She recalled that they sent missionaries to those places and he was just a boy. "He writes every day," she said, "but the mail comes just once a week, seven letters at once. We open one each day." She didn't know the name of the island He wasn't allowed to say, and the mail was postmarked San Francisco. "He likes the natives. He says they're nice people," she added, watching the old man who was mowing her lawn.
"It's strange," she said. "We are suspicious here. You can live here ten years and still
be a stranger. And then he goes five or seven thousand miles away and he likes the natives. That's curious."
I said, yes, it was curious.
One town is a good deal like another, and this is like a thousand others. If you drive through it, even at thirty miles an hour, you are likely enough not to see it. It is wrapped in cornfields, and the close-cropped grass on the lawns is yellow green. On a Saturday night, it is suddenly full of farmers and oil-workers, tanned, leathery-skinned men, who in waiting for their wives to finish shopping like to keep a foot on the bumpers of their cars. It's a slow place with a slow-speaking people.
"I like to think of it as an inhabited point," the pastor said "You've been reading the communiques?"
"Then you know how they speak about the inhabited points in Russia. Last week I wanted to preach something about Russia. Not without a good deal of thought," he added. "They are a Godless country can I forget that or ask my congregation to? But I couldn't help thinking about the inhabited points. You come to a small town from the city and you find something, like here, whatever you want to find. It's easy to hate a small town," he smiled.
"But suppose you were coming for a different kind of story, a communique. Then we would be 'an inhabited point,'" he smiled again, but with more pain than humor in his eyes. "Suppose there were no Russians nor Chinese to hold the line for us while we make ready, so that the light won't go out, so that there will be a little decency and honor left in the world? Suppose they landed on either shore and came inland, and then this would be an inhabited point, like a thousand other small towns?"
photographs by Arthur Siegel
"Then so many things they say about us, our narrowness, our ignorance, our stolidity, our prejudice then those things wouldn't matter, but only one thing would, our strength, the strength we had a long time ago when we made all this out of the forest. Would the women be able to watch their children die, and then take up a gun in their hands? My grandmother did that. Would we put barricades in our streets and throw kerosene bottles to stop the tanks? Would we burn our cornfields and slaughter our stock and dynamite our oil wells? Or would we give up?"
The pastor spread his hands. "That was why I wanted to preach about Russia, for what they are doing. But I didn't, because these are a quiet people and it would bother them to be told what is deep inside of them. But it's there, remember that. This is their land. Each time they go away to war, they go quietly, without bitterness and without hate, like a man repairs his house when it wears, and then they come back just as quietly and the town is as sleepy and narrow as ever.
"God willing, it will never be an inhabited point," the pastor said. "But if ever it is, you won't have to be ashamed of what you read in the communiques."
IF you were there before December 7, 1941, and came back now, you would see the difference. Not quickly at first the town is the same, the same slow-moving cars on the main street, the same shopping, the same lawns being cropped endlessly, the same trains shunting back and forth in the yards, the same drowsy policeman making a pretense of directing traffic.
But then you would notice other things about the town. The men between twenty-one and thirty are almost all gone. At first your mind would make adjustments and would say to you "They are at work, at lunch, behind walls." But not for long: a city can conceal its loss, but a small town with the boys gone seems to have had an essential and vital part of it ripped out.
You watch the women, and you see something in their faces. If you watch long enough, you begin to know what it means for a quiet people to keep everything inside of them. You watch the women shopping and see that it's a chop less, a pound of steak instead of two pounds; no cherry jam, no not for a while, no, I don't bake any more; but always a quiet people who keep it inside of them.
You hear words outrageously mispronounced. You hear a sunburned farmer, standing on the corner of Market and Fourth saying, "gestapo," calling it gestipoo, but with such quiet, murderous wrath and loathing in his voice as never came from any impassioned eastern orator.
They said, "Go and speak to the father of the boy who was on Wake Island."
I said I didn't care to go, that there was enough of that sort of thing close to me without wanting to intrude on strangers.
"No," they said, "you shouldn't feel that way. He'll be proud to speak to you."
But they didn't say what Wake Island meant to them. It's easier to do a thing than to put it into words.
The woman, wiping her flour-stained hands on her apron, said that her two boys had enlisted. She had a German name, not uncommon in that part of the country where so many Germans settled a hundred years ago.
"I know about the old country only what my grandmother told me," she said. "I tried to make my sons see that it was a place where there were good people as well as bad.
"I'm glad they enlisted," she said vehemently, her eyes not quite dry. "What they are doing there! we live in a quiet place and try to make something for our children, and then it's gone. I think about the Polish mothers, and the French mothers yes, and the German mothers too. Why should I be spared and sit quietly and see that all the good things are being lost?"
And then she added, "I'm sorry you caught me this way, in an apron. And I hardly ever bake now."
It seemed peculiarly strange that there should be any need for a blackout in this town, close to a thousand miles inland. But the instructions came through from Washington, and the Commission ordered a blackout.
And not a docile people either, they had come from here and there because they wanted their freedom as they saw it, but a people who would not quickly do a thing unless they saw need for it. So you watched them react to a blackout and wondered why they were so somberly intent on their purpose. After all, the war was five, six thousand miles away.
You might think that during the last war it would have been different bands and parades and banners, but not a Main Street staring at the dark sky with terrible, terrible grimness.
"They'll go through with it," the newspaper editor said, a soft-spoken man. He seemed lonely, but withal proud of this town of his. He looked out of the window as if he saw it for the first time now, this late afternoon, sunlit, insular.
"Do they grumble?''
He seemed puzzled by his answer. "They don't grumble.''
"You wouldn't say they hate?"
"They don't hate either. Hate itself is too slick. This is deep inside of them. Anger perhaps. Hardly any of the women cry when the boys go, but their faces...
YET you might say that the town is the same; you might even say that the war has done nothing to it. Coming over the Wabash, over a million acres of cornfields, the sun warms it each day, and at night there's a moon over the river. On Saturday night, one picture house plays a Western, one a Grade A picture; they're both full.
If the Gestapo has marked it and analyzed it with Nazi thoroughness, the report might read, "Of no account." And there are a thousand towns like it.
They don't understand a quiet people; they can't comprehend why a people well-fed and content should die for so nebulous a thing as freedom, why they should support a government that takes away their comforts. The more so when it is a people who do not talk a great deal about ideals, except once a year on the Fourth of July
They don't understand that. They chuckle gleefully when they hear about tires, gasoline, meat; and they say to themselves, 'Here is a people who will soon crack." And I don't think the people of the town would trouble to contradict them, for the town does not talk of what it knows so well its own deep terrible, and tenacious strength.