Spots Of Time and other Fugitive Pieces:
They were married on December 17, 1940, a Tuesday, and the day Roosevelt announced he would begin lending and leasing arms to Britain aiding their defense. The afternoon Minnesota temperature had risen to about twenty-five degrees on the fahrenheit scale. Not quite one-half inch of soft snow had fallen in the morning, a lovely coating, clean and fresh. Most of the roads had been cleared by noon that day in Westbrook. Jesse Clayton Sundahl was just 24 and Eileen Aurel Peterson was just 21. And so young they were and thin with little fleshiness to share between the two of them. They were married in her parents living room, Roy and Anna Peterson, and by Pastor Brakke, a Lutheran of the old school, Geneva Collar. Aunt Luella prayed, as usual; Aunt Eldora brought out the roast beef platter. And everything that Tuesday was good. No one stayed up late.
She had a two-year teaching certificate and was teaching in that one room schoolhouse. He had spent three years in the Minnesota Civilian Conservation Corps, a regimented existence, thirty dollars a month, twenty-five sent home and five for himself. I imagine him there even to this day, near Lake Mille Lacs, a night off in Brainerd, “hello” to the astonishment of strangers passing by on Main Street, an overcoat and gloves in season, a white t-shirt for warm days in July. A good dinner and then a walk in a direction for a reason known only to him. A Hebrew first name, or maybe someone who held up banks, and Clayton, Old English, I think “clay” and “town.”
It’s interesting to me for the history, brief glimpses that we may get. He was married in his uniform, his National Guard unit having been mobilized. The two of them had less than a month together when in January 1941 he was off to Kodiak, Alaska, to build coastal defenses and to protect the naval base at Kodiak, chosen by the navy because the water was ice free. It was called “precautionary training.” Words….
She made her way to White Bear Lake, a smallish precinct north of the Twin Cities. She was there to live with three of her four sisters, Aunt Luella remaining behind to care for her husband Olaf, a drinker, and parents, Roy and Anna.
There’s more to this because less than a year later he was in El Paso, Texas, with the 599th for more automatic weapons training. Overseas then in mid-1942. And then North Africa, Italy, to Great Britain and a later landing on Omaha Beach, although not the first wave, and eventually with the Ninth Army into and around the Roer River during the Rhineland Campaign and crossing the Rhine early Spring of 1945.
The three sisters, then: Carol, Juanita, and my mother, all three married, Juanita with a son, working, taking care. I asked my mother once about that time. And I asked about the routine and what was the worst about that time. She said, “It was when the mail came.” Nights she must have sat there, paper in hand, thinking, “What shall I say to him? What does he want to hear?” She would write then a little about the local news, the morning in which a soft rain has fallen, the farmer who has just driven by on his yellow John Deere and how big it is and how it must weigh more than a ton and the store down at the corner where Juanita works and a guy who comes in every night looking for a label of cheap whiskey and pays and leaves and how time really does not go by but is really more like the old woman across the street who comes out and shakes her head and then goes back in….
And so she must have written….
War histories are interesting for their language. The Rhineland Campaign was conducted to reduce the German “salient.” It’s an odd word, dating back to Aristotle and in the later Latin, punctum salient which is likely not what is meant here. It’s more like an outward angle, a bastion even, an outward projection of some kind of battle line.
Here are some facts: The Germans had destroyed the dams upstream on the Roer River, this now some weeks after the Battle of the Bulge. But the Ninth Army was able to cross the Roer about two weeks after the flooding. They captured nearly 30,000 German prisoners and inflicted, another good word, another 16,000 casualties.
As the flood diminished, engineers began assembling portable sections of pontoon bridge. Artillery and automatic weapons battalions moved to the shore line and at 2:45 A. M. the barrage began to cover the crossing which at first was merely a foot bridge. The crossing was made but when the light came up the
carnage on the pontoon bridge and in the river itself was grisly.
My father had a copy of Life Magazine which I came across years later, the March 12, 1945 issue, pages 25-29 with photographs from George Silk. When I came across it I wondered for a time why, why this one issue?
But the truth is he was there.
If the history is correct, it was the first time American dead were pictured, just so. There are stories about this moment in time and even to this day veterans are being asked to contribute their own stories to “Operation Grenade” as it was called. Only a few survive, veterans, and fewer as time goes by, un-rehabilitated.
The dates are interesting: From the Battle of Normandy forward to the liberation of Paris in 1944, the Allies paused to re-group. The strategy was now a “broad front” gaining ground in all sectors from the beaten Germans. In February the Ninth Army was west of the Rhine and on the 23rd crossed the Rhine River at four points. German total losses were estimated at 400,000. My father’s group? The Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen.
I’ve seen the movie, George Segal, Ben Gazzara, Robert Vaughn. The movie concludes with long range scenes on the bridge, soldiers and vehicles crawling across the bridge.
What did he do, my father?
He wrote letters which were saved in shoeboxes, 986 total over the years. He would ask whether the yellow tractor really was a John Deere or could it have been a Minneapolis Moline with a tricycle front. Tell Carol he had seen Lloyd who was OK and a sergeant now, three stripes, and always signed the letters “Good night Eileen, good night Eileen, I’ll see you in my dreams.”
And so he would write….
He commanded a mobile anti-aircraft weapon very likely mounted on the back of a truck, a deuce-and-a-half. It was called a Quad Mount and possessed a gross amount of firepower, usually a quartet of Browning heavy barrel .50 caliber machine guns and a rate of fire per gun of about 450 rounds per minute. It could be electrically “tuned” to convert all that fire on a single point while in use and with every fifth round a tracer, well, imagine a laser-like stream of light.
The deuce-and-a-half could be driven close to the front lines to provide huge amounts of covering fire especially when troops would be pushing across rivers or crossing bridges. Imagine, too, German fighter planes or fighter bombers on strafing or bombing runs and what better way to ride escort and then one gunner and two loaders and who better to fire the guns except the best southern Minnesota “wing-shooter” I ever knew.
He was back home in late 1945, 500 days or so of combat, and all those letters.
And he had with him a Raggedy Ann doll, small, about fifteen inches, black-outlined nose, red/white striped legs, curved smile, black tin eyes. For Rebecca, his daughter.
As for that short time span back in December, though, and friends in small towns, and a few short days before that wedding. I know that Archie and Hilma kidnapped the still unmarried couple the Saturday night prior to that Tuesday wedding. With a good deal of help from many friends, they gave them a rowdy ride around town. It was called a “shivaree,” but not disapproval, rather approval. I know my mother was wheeled around in a wheelbarrow and my father followed along behind wearing a cowbell and around the streets with friends beating on pots and pans and making a spectacle. Kenneth Guddall handled the wheelbarrow, my father’s best friend and the man who stood by him on that wedding day. There may have been some drinking. And then later that Saturday evening the couple was taken to the local cemetery, cold as it may have been. But dressed warmly and with warm blankets, they were loosely tied side-by-side and left alone, and to their devices.
I think about this now-and-again because on September 14, 1941, my sister Rebecca Ann was born she having been conceived as I once told her in a cemetery.
I think the stars were shining brightly that night and the Milky Way was resplendent and it would be my prayer that the northern lights may have played their coppery ballet across the night-time Minnesota sky.
He was, I know, engaged in the Battle of the Bulge and I know it was cold. I know the skies cleared. And I wonder these days if at night he would lie there in a sleeping bag and look at the night sky and see stars shining brightly and remember that “shivaree,” remembering that and knowing that Rebecca Ann was then three years old and how old would she be when he came home and what to bring her for a present? And then how to get to know her and how to get to know again my mother.
I have a photograph of that 1945 “homecoming” and on the back in my mother’s cursive “These two people are Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Sundahl.” And it’s dated “Late December 1945.”
They are buried now in that same cemetery, my mother and my father, “These two people . . . Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Sundahl.” Bethany Lutheran cemetery, in the country, about a mile east of town, a quiet place.
As are the others who played a part in that “shivaree.” Kenneth is there, having not survived the war. Archie and Hilma are there, too, as are the Solmonsons, the Engelsons, the Iversons, some Hansons, and some Halvorsons. But there’s no cacophony, no beating on pots and pans, no wheelbarrow, no cowbell, nothing raucous except an occasional crowing pheasant from the fields surrounding that small postage stamp of a Minnesota cemetery….
“These two people are Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Sundahl!”
Late December 1945….
Another morning wells up from a night’s dream,
Another aching fabric of old desires.
This is the pattern of daily life:
My father died; my mother never again
Believed she could speak the word “heart”
Or the name of him she had taken as her own.
Insular and quiet she too entered the ground.
What then do they dream?
Their three children playing in the light of sunset?
Blossoms of memory from when they were young?
Another December I laid between their graves
Wishing snow were soft as eider down.