E. S. Church, France 1919, Chapter 3, Intervalle

Letters Written by Elsie S. Church of Ithaca, NY to Her Family and Friends from France in 1919.

Re-transcribed by W.C. Atkinson, her son, in 2000

In 1919 my mother was 29 years old.

These letters were originally transcribed from the handwritten by Elsie’s elder sister Edith mainly for the purpose of their subsequent publication by the Ithaca Journal in the winter and spring.
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Chapter Three
Intervalle: Valdehon, Battlefield Tour, Paris (flying!)

19061506_LeBourget
Le Bourget

A.P.O. 704
Le Valdahon, April 6 1919

Dear Family:

I am certainly living under changed conditions.  I no longer inhabit a cold upstairs room with a high French bed and a boar-skin rug.  I am living in a barracks called the “Women’s Annex” which is built of homely boards within and without and resembles a bath house as much as anything.  The rooms are very comfortable with army cots and blankets and I have a mirror that I can see my neck in for a change.  I certainly do miss the local color afforded by life in a French family and, if it weren’t for the fact that a French madame takes care of our rooms and comes in to build my fire for me every morning, I would have no occasion to talk French any more at all.

I wish I could describe this camp to you.  It used to be a French artillery school and has now been turned over to the Americans.  Various artillery outfits come in here for practice with the guns and they send for infantry regiments to practice with them.  Various divisions are represented and there are many different insignia to keep straight.  I don’t know how many thousand men are here; and the place is simply teeming with officers.  Some of them belong to the outfits and some of them are here at the school.  The place is like any camp—rows of uninteresting looking barracks, stables, kitchens, etc.  They say there are some wonderful saddle horses so my equestrian education may have a chance to be continued.

As for how I happen to be here of course you know.  The 2nd Battalion considered me part of their “Lares and Peanuts”, as Dr. Davidson says, and wrote to Mrs. Cottle in Chaumont to see if I couldn’t be transferred when they moved away from Bay.  At first it seemed impossible, especially when the M.G. Co. was going to move into Bay.  So I stayed on in my little Hut on the hill and gradually, after the first strangeness, began to like the men in the Machine Gun outfit.  Anyway, I was getting along very well and liking it as usual, and had given up all idea of rejoining the Battalion when, like a bolt from the blue, I got my orders from the “Y” to proceed to Chaumont and Valdahon.  They sent down a Miss Neville from Colorado to take my place in the Hut at Bay [1].  She came on Monday, and as I didn’t leave ‘til Wednesday we had a very nice time together.  I wish you could have seen my chess mate when he found I was going.  We had such fun playing together and the last day while I was straightening around in the Hut he kept begging me to play him a farewell game.  So we each won one, and played off the rubber at 10:30 in the evening.

I got off Wednesday morning, trunk, duffel bag, and all.  Juliette went with me to do some shopping in Chaumont.  We traveled 60 miles in a Ford truck, bumping around on top of the trunk.  Chaumont is a most interesting place.  Of course, you know G.H.Q. is there and we passed Gen. Pershing’s chateau, and saw so many black-and-gold braided officers and Cadillac cars and giddy divisional insignia that we were quite bewildered.  We stayed with Mrs. Cottle in a funny little French city house with a rez de chaussee and deux etages.  The poor little madame who rented it [out] was a refugee from the St. Mihiel district and had such a sad, sad tale, and yet not as many imprecations against the sal Boche, as you might expect.

All day Thursday I rushed around getting my transfer papers fixed up, doing some necessary shopping and getting my hair shampooed.  A real shampoo and wave; the first since Versailles.  Thursday afternoon I was on my way to the station to see about my trunk, preparatory to a long and tedious train ride to Besancon, when whom should I meet but Mr. Peacock, the secretary from Valdahon, who had been at a meeting in Chaumont and was on his way to Valdahon the next day.  Wasn’t that luck for you?  He had a Ford car with no one else to take along but me and my trunk and duffel.  I thank the day when I sent home all my extra stuff so I may travel as easily as that.

On Friday morning there was a big event in Chaumont.  Big that is to us country girls, though it is an everyday occurrence at G.H.Q.  Field Marshal Haig was to arrive in town on the 9:15 train from Paris, and Gen.  Pershing was to meet him at the station.  So down we piled and the girl we were visiting, being a great friend of the M.P.’s [2], we got a fine place of observation.  The drum corps and guard were lined up on one side of the road leading to the station and on the other was a straight row of M.P.’s. Pershing’s car rolled up amid much ceremony and soon the train whistled.  After it had come into the station and the Marshal and his escort were ready to march up the street, the band swung their horns into the air and blew a very impressive welcome.  Presently out they came.  Pershing and Haig and behind them another imposing American dignitary and Gen. Lawrence of the British Army.  They were splendid looking, all of them, and I sure was proud to be an American and have the privilege of being so near our great General.  I wish you could have seen the guard as they passed.  Absolutely frozen to attention, without a muscle moving, those fine American soldiers made one solid, motionless line.

Well, after that excitement, I beat it for “Y” headquarters, Mr.  Peacock joined me in a few minutes and we started our 150 mile ride southeastward.  The trip was wonderful.  We saw so many interesting sights such as German prisoners and French Colonial troops and a dog-cart and a queer craft pulled by a team consisting of a donkey and a camel; and a Dodge truck straddled across the ditch with its nose in a tree and three wheels off—whose driver, after having recovered from the shock of a broken steering rod, we fed cream puffs; and oh, I can’t tell you in one breath.  We arrived in Besancon about 4:30.  It is a wonderful city, resting in a great elbow of the Doubs River and surrounded on three sides by great hills.  On the tops of the hills are Roman fortifications, in fact, Besancon was Caesar’s citadel when he was conquesting Gaul.  You can read about it, I believe, in the 48th book of Caesar’s “Gaul”.  At Besancon I ran into one of the Co. F men who is now driving a truck and he brought me on out to camp that night, trunk and all.

So now I have a different job—all under canteen work and yet I am still with the 2nd Battalion.  There are three other girls here, one a Mary Crissman, a Kappa [3] from Minnesota, who is a perfect dear.  We are going to have an awfully good time together, I am sure.  She and I are in the big Hut with Miss Pretlow, an older woman, and Miss Locker is in the officer’s Hut.

One thing I do miss and that is the homey atmosphere of my little Hut in Bay.  The one here is so huge and rather hard to make homelike.  To be sure there are about 2,000 men to serve and that makes a big difference.  In the afternoons and early evenings we serve chocolate and cakes and the rest of the time we are with the men, just as it was in Bay.  There are more regular hours, however, and in a way I have more time to myself; from 1 to 3 P.M. is practically my own.

I took a walk this afternoon and potted a lot of daffodils and brought them back to the Hut.  Imagine daffodils just growing wild in quantities all through the woods!  And among them, the most adorable little blue flowers like stars.  Am sending you some of the blue flowers and others.  The woods are a wealth of them now.  They come up under the snow for the ground is higher here and it is still cold for April.

Love,

Elsie

[1] Elsie revisited Bay while on her honeymoon on Sept. 27th, 1921.
“Mon. Got a Ford (in Langres) and went to Bay.  Mongin’s to lunch.  Mme. Delaume(?) entertained us royally.  Great fun seeing everyone.  My Hut was still there, ivy and all!  Took a train at Langres for Dijon.” See 1921 photo’ of roman church and “Hut”.
[2] Military Police.
[3] Kappa Alpha Theta; my mother’s affiliation at Cornell.
[4] It was at Valdehon that Elsie met Joy Hawley who became one of
her closest friends in life.

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A.P.O. 704
Le Valdahon, April 14 1919

Dear Family:

My minutes for letter writing seem to get fewer and fewer.  At present I am taking the noon hour since I had a very late breakfast with Sandy Crews in the company kitchen and am not hungry.

I just received letter 14 with all its clippings and things of interest.  You don’t know how I enjoy them.  The letter was sent direct from Paris and didn’t have to be forwarded from A.P.O. 777 [1].  On the whole it is better to send them to Paris if I am going to be on the move continually.  We hear now that the 6th [Division] is on the move to Allemande.  If I had stayed on a week longer I might be on my way too.  Of course that may be the usual army rumor, since Bn. H.Q. hasn’t an official news as yet.  At present the 2nd Bn. may stay in camp here ‘til June or July and then may be detached and sent home separately.  In that case I shall be S.O.L (simply out of luck) but maybe I can get back to the 6th Division.

This is a great life in the S.O.S. [?].  It’s almost like civilian life as far as activities are concerned.  There are many traveling entertainments and two permanent movie machines so one doesn’t have to tax one’s ingenuity every minute to think of things to amuse the men.  Anyway, it’s very different from living in a town where only one company is stationed.  You really couldn’t reach all the men if you tried.  Mary Crissman and I are in the Hut all day serving chocolate twice and selling cakes, fruit and sandwiches.  That is all we can have now that the army has taken over the canteens.  At present a new plan of decoration is being formulated and the Hut is in a stage of transition.  By the time we get it fixed up they say the camp will be breaking up.

Yesterday I had one of the most beautiful auto trips of my life. Mr.  Peacock, our Division Secretary, let Mary and me have a half a day off and three officers took us on a trip through the valley of the Loue River past Pontarlier on the road to Neuchatel in Switzerland.  Of course when we got to the border [2] we could do nothing but step over the line into a little chocolate shop where we bought beaucoup Swiss milk chocolate.  Of course it was fun to get into Switzerland but the ride up that valley was the gorgeous part of the day.

The Loue River gushes out of the rocks at its source and follows a blue-green course broken by white rapids and dams and bordered by fir trees and nestling villages and busy lumber mills and factories.  But even the factories are built on artistic lines and fit right into the landscape.  The sides of the gorge rise hundreds of feet and the road follows along the top of one cliff so that you can look right down into the water.  The colors were magnificent, gray, red, yellow, brown rocks, green fir trees, budding undergrowth—and in the distance blue and purple hills and peaks.  As we approached the border there was snow in the crannies and the wind was bitter cold.  We also passed through a forest of primeval pine trees as tall and gigantic as the pines in the Palmaghat at Minnewaska.

Just as we came out of this forest into the open, what should dash across the road but a wild boar, big as life.  My, how he could cover the ground on those small hoofs of his!  We were so excited looking on his side of the road that we almost missed a whole flock(?), six of them, on the other side, just beating it for the woods.  One boar led and the other five followed all along in a string.  They are strange looking creatures with their coarse shaggy hair and great thick heads and necks.  I was so excited to think I really saw some after having eaten boar meat and seen their skins and heads on the walls and floors of the French houses.

Another interesting sight was just before we reached Pontarlier.  The road led through a regular canyon and on either peak, commanding the pass both going and coming, stood a great fort or castle built out of native stone and looking like a part of the bluff on which it stood.  The enclosed sketch is supposed to give you a very poor idea of how it looked.  They were grim relics of medieval days, if there ever were any.  It positively thrilled me to see them.  You might almost expect to see a knight riding down the steep road that led up the hillside.  If we had had time we would have gone through them but we were bent on getting to Switzerland.  On the way home we had dinner at a little hotel in Ornans.  French style: potage, omelette a mousseron, petits pois, viande, du pain, gaufres, fromage, etc., each thing almost on a separate plate.  There is a darling lace store there but we were too late to buy anything.  Some day I am going back to get some Cluny lace.  You can also get Rose Point there, I believe.  Wish I knew more about laces.

Well, I must get to work.  Soon I am going to send you some pictures Mary and I had taken on horseback the other day.  I do hope that package comes through all right, and [that] I get my camera.

Loads of love to all,

Elsie

[1] Letters, of course, traveled by ship and delivery from the U.S. to France might take as long as two weeks.  ‘Phone calls were not even an option.
[2] Probably at les Verriers.

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A.P.O. 704
Le Valdahon, May ?? 1919

Dear Family:

This will have to be a short letter since for once in my life, I have a chance to go to bed early and nothing will deter me from my fell design.  I have never had such a gay time out of Canteen hours since I came to France.  Every day there is some new and interesting experience before me.  Guess I told you about firing the guns [1] last week, well this week Joy and I were invited to lunch at the Balloon Camp nearby and there we witnessed the launching and landing of the great unwieldy creature which looks like a cross between an elephant and a catfish.  How I would have loved to have gone up—but that is defendu [2] for ladies, even when attached to the A.E.F.

[1] 155mm Howitzers
[2] Forbidden.

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A.P.O. 704
Le Valdahon, May 16th[?] 1919

Dear Papa:

This is going to be a very scrappy letter. I haven’t had one minute to write or even to sit down.

Everything is much upset here at Camp.  The Artillery School has rec’d orders to go back to the States and already the paraphernalia belonging to the establishment is being shipped away.  The artillery outfits are also moving and the latest is that the 52nd Infantry shall not rejoin its Division but go home toute de suite.  Of course the men are tickled to pieces and I am so glad for them.  You can’t imagine how it breaks the strain of uncertainty and waiting.  They are as happy as kids.  As for what will happen to me that is a different matter.  If the 6th Div. is recalled from the Army of O. [1], which is the present rumor, I will be completely out of a job.  In that case I shall no doubt go with the 2nd Bn. to its port of embarkation and then try and be reassigned.  But Mary [Crissman] has just come down from Chaumont with the news that both “Y” and R.C. [2] workers are being shipped home in great numbers, and unless we can get some place in Germany, we may have to come trailing back to the U.S.A.  So my “year” in France may resolve itself into a 6 month’s sojourn.  Anyhow I can wear one service stripe at least!

So—we live in the present and await developments and my how strenuous that living is!  And to fill in the spaces between the regular duties and good times, I have been having lots of fun with a violin.  It belongs to one of the men in G Co. but he keeps it down at the “Y” and lately I have been using it every day right after lunch.  The man who accompanies me was a music teacher in St. Louis before the War and reads like a streak.  We certainly have had a good time together.  I had the nerve the other day to play in church service and after getting into it once, have been asked to play for various occasions.  It’s a crime to do it when I am so out of practice and add to that the fact that I suffer from my usual attacks of stage fright—but even so I manage to “get away with it” and that’s all that’s necessary in the army.

It certainly is funny what different things you are called upon to do in this work.  Last Sunday morning the men had assembled in the Hut for service and no preacher appeared at all.  So we sang hymns for about 20 min. and then in sauntered one of the “Y” sec’ys and a singer who had given an entertainment the night before.  So I grabbed them and with their aid managed to lead some kind of a service myself.

I have been having such fun with one of the sergeants [3] from the Radio Detachment of the school.  He takes Joy and me down to the radio station and lets us “listen in” on messages being transmitted some from Paris, some from Lyons, New York, Tokio, Berlin—anywhere.  Then they give us the messages so they are all taken down directly on the paper.  They started to kid us about sending a radio graph home, and even got us to write the messages and then faked an answer.  At the rate that cable went, we decided that the wireless message could go clear around the world and catch up with itself and still be ahead of itself.  Joy and I went out on the range again the other day, but this time it was pistol practice, not 155s.  They have promised to give us a ride in one of the Baby tanks before it leaves.  Honestly, the men take so much pleasure in showing us girls things that you’d think that they were here to entertain us and not we them.

Yesterday and today we are making ice-cream at the Hut.  It is a laborious process.  Frank has to go 20 kilos for ice, and then we have to freeze the cream by turning a huge milk can around and around in a [wooden] barrel of ice.  But believe me, these days, it is most too hot for anything else.  I have never been jumped so suddenly from winter into real summer.  Il y a dix jours [4] there was over a foot of snow, and now everyone has a coat of real sunburn from playing base-ball, etc. in the heat.  This morning was so wonderful that Joy, Miss Arnold (another R.C.  girl) and I got up at 5:30 and rode horseback over to the Balloon Camp where we had breakfast out of a mess kit.  Besides the regular slum [5] and oatmeal, they insisted on our having oeufs and, of course, the inevitable jam.  I really don’t blame some of the men for saying they don’t ever want to see jam again.  I am really getting so I love to ride horseback.  Lieut. Waters lets me have his mare most any time and she has a fairly gentle trot and a wonderful canter.  Tonight we are going to ride by moonlight.  The nights have been simply gorgeous all this week.  You can almost see to read by the moonlight over here.

I have been more than busy this last week.  Frank had a chance to go to the Front in a machine and was gone four days, as was Mary who had to go to Chaumont to see about being reassigned.  So I was on the job both day and night.  But I enjoyed it immensely.  There are such nice men in this man’s army.  We had such a time at the Hut this morning!  A Sgt. in the 140th F.A. just got his commission yesterday and today came in as usual only resplendent in a new uniform, a Sam Browne belt and bars.  The men kidded the life out of him saying he should report to the Officer’s “Y” and accused me of having “Sam Browne-itis” (which is the ailment of some “Y” girls) because I was just as nice to him today as I was yesterday!  They hollered “’tenshun” when he entered and he was a rather fussed “Louie II” for a few minutes.

By the way, one of my good friends among the officers is a Lt. Church from N.Y.C.  His family came from the South and his father is now living in California.  We tried to find a bond of relationship somewhere.  His name is Oliver.  See if you can find any track of him in the genealogy book.  He has taken us riding several times and is a very good dancer.  I have about worn out my dancing slippers.  There is an officer’s dance once every week and so far there has been one for a certain group of enlisted men, and then the Band comes to the Hut often and plays for stag dances and, even when we girls can all be there, we are about danced off our feet among the many men.  At present the supply of girls is getting low.  Four nurses left on Sat. for the U.S.A. and the rest of us don’t expect to be here for more than a week anyway.

Later:
The 52nd has just rec’d orders to proceed to Le Mans on their way to a seaport—so my dreams of Germany are all shot.  In a way I envy Juliette Whiton who had a chance to go up through the Front on her way to Treves even though they don’t stay there at all.

Tell Edith: I certainly am glad she sent the violin music.  I have played the little Italian Tre Giorne twice, and it has been quite a success.  It will be great when I get my package.  Yesterday I almost cabled you to hold it, but I imagine we’ll be in France for another two months anyway and the things will come in very handy.

I know there are some questions you want answered but I haven’t your letters at hand and if I don’t send this letter now it will never go.  I almost wish I didn’t live in such a rush but it seems to be my fate wherever I am.

Lots of love,

Elsie

[1] Army of Occupation.
[2] Red Cross.
[3] Sgt. R.A. McGuire
[4] Ten days ago.
[5] Sloppy, non-descript army food.

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[Note: Readers of Eric Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” will have been given a real understanding of the scenes described in the following letter.

A.P.O. 704
Chaumont, June 9 1919

Dear Family:

This is the letter that I have been waiting to write for so long about our wonderful trip to the Front last week.  We came to Chaumont on Sunday night and were told that a trip started Monday morning in four Ford automobiles and that we stood a good chance of getting one.  So we went over to the transportation office (“we” being Mary Crissman, Joy H.  and myself [sic]) and by dint of jollying and persuasion “managed” a car.

1919 Driver
Our “affable” driver

We started at 10 A.M. Monday with an affable soldier to drive for us, making a very jolly party of four.  We were armed with one blanket and a pillow apiece and beaucoup food, having been told that it would be hard to find places to eat.  It was a gorgeous day, the Ford spun along like a breeze, and we could hardly contain ourselves under such a wonderful combination of circumstances.  We reached St. Dizier in time for lunch which we ate at a little hotel by the roadside.  You can get the most delicious meals in France in sometimes the most out-of-the-way places.

We did not reach the devastated district for a long while.  It was hard to believe that there ever had been a war.  The country seemed to be just smiling and the people in the red-roofed villages seemed all to be happy, despite the fact that there was a great preponderance of black dresses and you saw few, if any, men working in the fields.  [One] thing we noticed several times as we would pass a house, and that was a bunch of flowers or herbs hung from the eaves, usually over the front door.  We learned that that was a notice to the outside world and to possible suitors that there was a marriageable daughter dwelling within!

From St. Dizier we went to Revigny and St. Menehould.  Here signs of the great conflict began.  We plunged suddenly into a road sheltered on our right by a hillside and on our left by what remained of elaborate “camouflage”.  Our first sight of it.  A web of wire, shaggy burlap and dead branches rose for about 12 feet, supported on poles about every 15 feet.  Of course the burlap was faded and the leaves dead but at one time it must have presented to an enemy a front of elusive, quivering underbrush.  And behind it you could imagine all sorts of trucks and ammunition trains and guns winding their way to the place of action.

Soon the country lost its happy, smiling aspect.  The trees looked clipped, there was no cultivated ground, rank weeds grew everywhere and we began to see great shell holes, bare piles of rock, barbed wire entanglements, dug-outs and even the remains of trenches.  We were getting up into the Argonne Forest where the Americans did much heavy fighting.  Piles of ammunition and hand grenades lay by the roadside and here and there were helmets, German and American, an old boot, part of a coat, all the riff-raff left by a fast advancing army.

By this time there were few trees left standing and those that were so battered and torn that nothing remained but their bare distorted trunks.  I could think of nothing but the pictures of the Front I had seen in the New York Times and all the papers last year.  And the graves, with their pitiful little white crosses standing out against the dark scarred earth and stones!  And the little dog-tag tacked to one arm of the cross—all that is left to identify the poor lad who lay down in that awful waste to give up his life for an ideal.

And everywhere poppies and buttercups and daisies and, around the edges of some shell holes, lilies-of-the-valley—as if the tiny flowers were doing their best to cover up the scars of the torn, wounded land.  We even saw some human skulls and bones, and the bones of a great many horses.

The roads by this time had become frightful and we got out and walked a bit over the fields, stumbling on all sorts of gruesome things.  We entered a valley where was lost a battalion of the 77th [Division]—the famous “Lost Battalion”—and stood where many bodies had been buried in a great grave with one cross for them all.  All through the valley the ground was strewn with mess kits, rusty rifles, and bayonets and here and there a doughboy’s coat or a wrap of legging, or a canteen.

It was rather late in the afternoon when we entered that part of the Argonne which was practically “settled” by the Germans under Max Baden, under the misapprehension that they would not be disturbed.  They had been living there four years and the hillside was one mass of dug-outs and cliff dwellings built with every sign of permanence, and with attempts at decoration.  It was on the east side of a great hill and in one spot there were as many a 500 “cliff-dwellings”, some of them extending way back into the hillside.  We entered one through a rustic porch.  Here was a mess room, a bedroom with bunks in it, a living apartment, a rude fireplace or a stone stove whose flues ran upward and opened into the underbrush that covered the ground above one’s head.  Doors opened into black staircases.  We ventured down one flight whose steps and wall were covered with ooze and slime and a deathly chill enfolded us.  By the aid of a candle we descended three more flights, flashing the light into all sorts of subterranean passages and rooms, some of which were lined with bunks; followed long winding passageways, ascended some other stairs and found ourselves in an entirely different “house”—almost half a block away!  It certainly was uncanny.

But the most interesting of all was Max Baden’s own apartments.  The walls of the rooms were covered with paper, one with burlap with a stenciled pattern, and the bathroom had marble walls all cut in a diamond pattern.  There were graveled walks leading to his front door edged with wine bottles stuck, nose down, in the sand, and just below his front porch was a beer garden with a pergola roof.  It was so incongruous here in the midst of the forest, such a sheltered, quiet beautiful spot— like a deserted anthill which had once been teeming with life and activity.

After clambering up the steep paths of this queer village we went through more torn country, over horrible roads which never seemed to phase [sic] the Ford, past deserted dug-outs, mess tables, field kitchens, broken-down trucks, piles of ammunition and general salvage dumps: and rolled into the remains of a town—such a desolate pile of stones with a few deserted army barracks and one “Y” Hut. A “Y” man greeted us saying that the 28th Engineers has just pulled out and that he was going to join them soon.  But we were going to stay all night in Varennes so I thought we should be pushing on.  So when the car stopped and our driver “Pat” started to climb out, we said: “but why don’t we wait until we get to Varennes to stop?”  Why, “This is Varennes”, he said.  That is, all that is left of that once flourishing town where Louis XVI was turned back on his memorable flight from Paris [1].

The next thing to do was to find a place to sleep.  Joy and I went out scouting and found a little cottage-like affair near the barracks of the departed engineers.  It had “belonged” to two corporals and on the door was a sign “to let”.  We immediately decided to lease the house, found there was just room for three beds and so we got Mary and all moved in, bag and baggage.  We took down the names of the corporals on the sign and are going to write them telling how we enjoyed our stay in their house and enclose a picture I took of it the next morning.  We were so sleepy and even the hard wire “springs” of those beds looked good despite the lack of mattresses.  But it wasn’t quite time to turn in yet and in our wanderings through the sad remnants of the town we found the most interesting group of people.  They were refugee workers, their organization being under the American Red Cross, but their personnel was composed of Friends and Mennonites and two charming English women.  They were very hospitable and gave us some real milk (I hadn’t seen milk  that wasn’t in a can for so long [2]) and one of the men, a delightful youth from Pennsylvania, told us where we could get a hot bath!  Joy and I looked at each other and licked our lips.  We thought he was joking, but he led us to a dug-out (similar to the ones in the Argonne Forest) which had been made of cement but the Germans had equipped it with white enamel tubs and showers, and a big boiler to heat the water.  Well, Joy and I went to it.  Imagine! in the most devastated of devastated villages in France, to be able to have a bath in a white enamel tub!  It isn’t exactly table talk but it certainly has furnished conversation to Joy and me, ever since our trip.  On Tuesday morning we left Varennes and rode to “Split Hill” on which once stood the

1919 Vauquois
Vauquois

village of Vauquois [3].  (Possibly you can follow [all] this if you have a good map.)  The hill has been riven absolutely in two by continual shelling, partly by the Boches, partly by the Allies, and is a picture of utter desolation if there ever was one.
As you climb up you pass more dug-outs and tangles of barbed wire and shell holes and the remnants of a “dinky” little railroad line.  In the top, like a great crater, is a shell hole at least 100 feet deep, full of dank, stagnant water.  There was not even one stone or a piece of metal or anything that looked as if human hands had ever built a village on that site.  Yet everywhere you saw the poppies nodding in the breeze and some lovely corn  flowers.  I am enclosing the flowers we collected on our trip; they were the only sweet living things to be found in all that desolation.
From Vauquois to Romagnes the roads were still bad, but improving.  You see they had German prisoners at work “policing up” all that territory for  many months.  We passed squads and  squads of them in their queer green and brown suits and flat green caps.  At Romagnes we had a chance to see the great work that the Grave Registrations Department is doing.  They are gathering in the bodies from the Argonne battlefields and are placing them in a huge cemetery.  They bury 1,000 a day, we heard.  The place was just teeming with labor battalions, both colored and white, fixing up the cemetery for a big service to be held on Memorial Day in which Gen. Pershing was to take part.  We had our lunch there and went on, as there was much to see.

At Montfaucon we saw one of the most interesting sights of the whole trip: the Crown Prince’s Lookout—a solid concrete structure built inside of an innocent looking chateau.  The walls were at least three feet thick, of solid concrete.  Inside were three flights of stairs and in the very tip-top under the cupola of the original building was an observation room with slit-like openings at the height of a man’s eyes which commanded a magnificent view of the country ‘round.  Of course we climbed to the top and as we gazed out over the battlefield from the security of this supposedly bomb-proof shelter, I felt more than I ever had the atmosphere of the “mailed fist” that I used too feel sometimes in reading war books.

1919 Forges
Forges

After leaving Montfaucon we got absolutely lost.  There were few signs along the roads and they seemed to be contradictory.  But it was interesting and we knew that we were going in the general direction of Verdun.  Finally we found ourselves (on the map) at Forges—of which there is nothing left but the road sign and two arches of a ruined church.  From there on we skirted around “Le Mort Homme”, or Dead Man’s Hill where so many thousands lost their lives in 1916.

Here the desolation was indescribable.

There wasn’t a stick or a tree or a flower: just ploughed up earth and stones, yawning shell holes, rubbish, barbed wire and ruined dug-outs.  Once in a while to or three gaunt and shattered trees stood out and remnants of “camouflage” hung from the stumps along the road.  There we saw a pitiful little procession—a peasant woman riding a horse and a man plodding by her side—the only sign of life in that dead countryside.

Arriving at Chatancourt (why our trusty Ford wasn’t knocked to pieces over those shell-torn roads I shall never know) we found some French refugees living in a deserted American barracks.  At the moment we came by, their two children were decorating with flowers the graves of two American soldiers.  They had been dug, along with some French graves, along the roadside.  Getting out to get water, we took a picture of the children, as they bent over the graves.

We arrived in Verdun just at twilight.  I did not expect to find as many houses standing as there were.  Of course there are no complete structures standing, but there were many tottering walls and a few city blocks were very habitable.  We went through the underground citadel where 20,000 reserves could be housed and fed, and had dinner at a hotel to which the concierge had only just returned.  We then looked for a place to sleep, found some “Y” men who said it was absolutely “defendu” to stay there and that we should have to go on.  It was late, however, and, what was more, we wanted to see Fort Douaumont nearby and were not to be deterred from our purpose.  Finally one of the men, a bluff doctor from Kansas City, beckoned to Joy and told her not to worry but to come back to his billet in half an hour and he would fix us up.  So he literally smuggled us into a little back room in his house (the only house in Verdun, by the way, that hadn’t been hit).  So by candlelight we fixed up three bunks with some blankets that he provided for us, in this musty old room that had once been used as a tapestry workshop and whose windows were covered with glazed paper, there being no glass in the city.

It was at Fort Douaumont next morning that we shook off that feeling of depression that the sights of the battlefield had given us and really acted foolish once more.  It was absolutely incongruous and we felt guilty all the time; but we did have such a funny experience!  You approach the fort by walking for a mile along a queer little narrow-gauge railway, up a gradual incline.  We, however, found a little flat-car sitting on the track and had the happy idea of pushing it all the way to the top, in order to ride back on it!  Which we did, taking turns riding while the others pushed.  In fact, we made such good time, and seemed so in earnest about it, that as we approached another little car on the track ahead of us two German prisoners rushed out, grabbed the other car and took it bodily off the track, in order to get it out of our way!

Arriving at the top, we removed our car from the track, left it upside down on the ground, looking very much like a beetle with its feet in the air.  A French poilu took us through the fort.  It is a second Verdun only it can hold more than twice as many men in its underground recesses.  It was taken by the Germans in Feb. 1916 and retaken by the French the following October.  From the depths of the earth we went to the top of the fort and saw the “Tourelles de Canon”, like so many armored helmets, sticking up out of the rock.  We picked [up] many fragments of the German 355mm shells which had practically rained on it for so many weary months.  The top was just one mass of shell holes and shattered rock.  The view of the surrounding country was marvelous.  No trees to be seen—but fields on fields of buttercups again, doing their colorful bit.

The ride down from the fort must certainly have been a funny sight.  “Pat” fixed two brakes by means of stout sticks held against the back wheels of the car through a crack in the top.  The four of us clambered on and off we went.  In fact we presented such a funny sight that half way down the slope we saw a lonely sight-seeing captain waiting for us with his camera all set!

From Verdun to St. Mihiel was the usual succession of dug-outs, trenches and barbed wire.  The roads grew better, the trees less battered, cultivation began again and the houses in the villages, instead of being reduced to ruins, were merely peppered with holes made by machine gun fire and shrapnel.  In fact the country began to smile again and from Toul to Nancy was perfectly enchanting.  The fields stretched out in a pleasing pattern of cultivated, ploughed and grass-covered strips.  Dark, cool forests rose and crowned the hills, deep bells tolled the hour from picturesque church steeples, cow bells jingled, and the Front with all its horror seemed far behind.  At Nancy we went to a lovely hotel where there was music with a delicious dinner and billowy mattresses and nice hot water.  My! how dusty and tired and hot we were!

Next morning we started off again, ate lunch in the car by the roadside, and just at one o’clock chugged into Mirecourt where Joy’s little war orphan lives.

Joy was certainly all a-flutter to see her, and what should greet her but the [sad] news that the Cunin family had left town months ago.  The whole village turned out to see us as if we were curiosities, there having been no Americans in that section.  A neighbor of Joy’s god-child was very nice to us and took us to the house of a friend of the Cunin family; and what should Joy see but a picture of herself on the wall, in a velvet frame.  It was the very one that Joy had sent the child last year and for some reason it had been left with this other family.  Wasn’t that strange? If you could have seen our car, surrounded by eager, curious old women and children, just literally swarming all over the running board, you certainly would have been amused.

From Mirecourt we went to Domremy and saw the birthplace of Jeanne d’Arc, and sat in a cool, sleepy little garden where she is supposed to have seen great visions; and peeked into the quaint little church where she used to worship.  It is all so old-worldly and quiet and untainted.

Thus ended or trip to the Front.  Do you wonder I waited ‘til I had time really to write it up?  Am sending you some postal cards in a package.  The piece of burlap came from the wall of Max Baden’s dug-out in the Argonne.

Lots of love to all,

Elsie

[1] Attempting to escape “incognito” during the French Revolution.
[2] And, reader, how long since you’ve seen milk that hasn’t been commercially packaged?
[3] Vauquois seems not to appear on later detailed maps of the 1930s. I visited this site in the summer of 2000 and was able to send the director of the musee a photo’ that Elsie had taken there.
[4] A French, WWI army private.

-o0|0o-

Hotel Roblin
Paris, June 16 1919

Dear Edith:

I don’t know if you have been able to keep up with my many movements, but I am finally back in Paris applying for a discharge from the Y.M.C.A On this side of the water mind you.  Don’t faint.  It’s simply because Joy Hawley and I are transferring over into the Friend’s Society so that we may stay on over and work among the French refugees.  You see, neither of us had served the terms we promised ourselves when we came.  I am willing to spend a year here and this other work will make a much more worthwhile summer than lying around at home, pleasant as that would be.  As far as the work is concerned, we ourselves don’t know a great deal about it except that you visit around among the families who are coming back into the Regions Libere, find out their wants, sell them clothing, household utensils, etc. through “Co-op” stores, and make yourself useful generally.  I think it will be very interesting, We have promised to stay until September anyway, and it might be longer if we are needed.  The Friends will assume my expenses and the responsibility of getting me home and by that time the sailings will be less crowded and things will be better.  I know you have all been expecting me home and in one way I am so homesick I could get on the next boat, but in another I really want to stay on if I can be of use.  After our visit to the stricken villages, and the sight of the work that the Friends were doing, it made us very enthusiastic to stay.  I can give you no further details now, but will send the address on when I’m all transferred and settled.  For the present, 12 Rue d’Agresseau will get me.

Do you know, I only just got the packages when I came to Paris.  Four of them! It was just like Christmas.  The shirtwaists have been a godsend, for it has been very hot in Paris, and I couldn’t stand my high-collared waists.  The magazines I gave away but am hanging on to the music, though everyone laughs at the thought of “Ja-da” in a Quaker settlement!  It’s too bad I couldn’t have arranged for the plays and things sooner when I really needed them in Bay.  Of course, now the Welfare work is practically over and there is little time for such things.  Anyway, it’s perfectly wonderful to have the camera [1].  I’ve been like a child with a new toy.

I have seen a lot of Freddy [2] in Paris.  On Saturday night we dined and went to hear “Louise” at the Opera Comique.  I never thought when I first heard it in Boston that the next time would be in Paris itself.  The very City.  On the way home we met Grace Bird with two officers.  She was looking splendidly.  We could only see her for a few minutes, but I hope to have lunch with her soon.  Last night we heard music in the Gardens of the Tuilleries and walked down to see Notre Dame and the Seine by moonlight.

The chief object of the letter this morning is to introduce you to Joy Hawley.  I am with her now, she is my dearest friend in France and a perfect peach.  She is planning to come to Cornell in the Fall to do special work in English and Psych. and wants a room as she tells you in her letter.  Her credits from Rockford College, Ill., are being transferred, so perhaps she can enter in a real class.  Will you please send to her address here in France “toot sweet” a catalogue of the Arts College 1919-20 and also an illustrated circular of Cornell.  Also, if Papa isn’t doing much and is interested he might look up her record at the Registrar’s office and help her along from that end and get her in the way he did me.  You can imagine how difficult it is to do at such a very great distance!

By the way, have rec’d no Sat. Even. Posts and guess something is wrong.

More later,

Elsie

[1] It is possible this is the Vest Pocket Kodak that I still have— it is like the one that was lost on Everest with George Leigh Mallory in 1924.
[2] Felix Fredericksen.

-o0|0o-

Hotel Roblin
Paris, June 18 1919

Dear Edith:

Excuse this pink paper.  I am sitting at the “Y” waiting for my final discharge papers which will make me a free woman.  For a whole day I shall be a civilian in Paris, since I don’t actually sign up with the Friends until tomorrow.  Last night I put on civilian clothes (my voile dress and a hat of Joy’s) and went out to dinner with Lt. Olaf Osnes of the 52nd Infantry.  You can’t imagine how strange you feel out of uniform in the street.  You don’t feel that you can speak to every man you see in khaki, the way you usually can, and when I was introduced to any “Y” girls I always hastened to add that I was one of them animals myself, but didn’t have my uniform on.

It looks now as if Joy and I will be in the field again on Saturday.  We are to go to small towns between Reims and Epernay right in the section of the country that was devastated in the process of the big Soissons drive.  I am sure it is going to be more than worthwhile and there’s no telling how or in what we will live.  Maybe a German dug-out.

19061501_ECA Caudron
Elsie and “her” Caudron

But in the meantime I must tell you what I have been doing in Paris.  Besides relieving myself of beaucoup francs in their perfectly fascinating stores, I have managed to see quite a few of the sights and, from a strange angle for, let me announce to you the fact that on Sunday I was 700 metres above Paris in an aeroplane!  Yep, its the actual truth.  Joy and I were in the Hotel Petrograd for lunch on Saturday and found that there was a French aviatrix who would see that people went up in her plane for the small sum of 60 francs.  She herself didn’t take them up, but her pilot [did], a Capt. in the Escadrille [1]. So—along with four other adventurous souls we went with her to the airfield on Sunday afternoon.  After waiting from 3 until 8 P.M. we all six got separate rides of about 20 min. each.  The only time I was really scared was when they hoisted me up into the little front seat and clamped a seat belt around me.  After the propeller started with a whirr and the machine actually moved I lost all fear entirely and just enjoyed every minute.  You can’t imagine

19061504_LeBourget
Joy Hawley & Caudron (will it fly?)

how wonderful it feels to go soaring over the country, to look down on buildings, fields, roads, trees, gardens and mere mortals stalking around on the ground.  It was a wonderfully clear day and the view of Paris was superb.  We went towards the city and turned around just about over Sacre Coeur.  Underneath us lay the Seine winding along, spanned by bridge after bridge, on the left was the Eiffel Tower, and on the right was the Place de Concorde, The Louvre and all those lovely public buildings near the river.  It was a sight I will never forget.  You had the whole city before you in a mass and at the edges stretched fields which were finally lost in the surrounding hills and they in turn in the haze of the horizon.  The ride was over all too soon, but I would have paid twice the price I think to go.  Joy is about to go on a trip to Brussels with two other people this afternoon in a fighting plane.  The one I went up in was a Caudron.

Have just been talking to Mr. Coleman.  He took me over to look at a picture in a Sunday paper of Mrs. Vernon Castle with four strings in her hand.  On the end of one was a former admirer, and on the ends of the other three were two dogs and Bob Treman [2]! Ithaca certainly is on the map now isn’t it?

I must run along and shop for gray chambray dresses with white collar and cuffs—my future uniform.

More later, Loads of love,

Elsie

[1] The LaFayette Escadrille.
[2] Bob Treman was an Ithaca boy and Cornellian who married Irene Castle the famous stage and film dancer—he built a stone mansion for her on Cayuga Heights road which later became the Sigma Chi fraternity house.

-o0|0o-

Hotel Roblin
Paris, June 25 1919

Dear Family:

It’s all fixed an I am to become a “Friend” and go out to a little village called Nanteuil-la-Fosse to begin an absolutely new kind of work.  Imagine my feelings when I got all your letters saying you expected me home in July!  It sure did make me homesick and I certainly do feel low tonight when I realize that I leave tomorrow and am all signed up for at least three months more.  Of course there’s the possibility that I may like it well enough to stay on in the winter, but I imagine I’ll be _good _ and ready to come home in November.  I will have stayed out my year and had the satisfaction of really living among the French people.  My French is going to undergo a good stiff test.

Speaking of French, I met Mr. Pumpelly in the Red Cross Headquarters yesterday and he came to lunch with us at the Hotel.  He has been to the Balkans and wants to go to Poland for a month or so but fully intends to get back the Ithaca to teach in the fall.  Grace Bird took dinner with us too, on Sunday, as also did Ruth Skinner, Elizabeth Skinner’s older sister.  She is on her way home.

I must tell you the tragedy about this work with the Quakers.  Joy Hawley and I of course planned to go together, in fact neither one of us would have actually gotten into the work without the other.  Well, after we were all signed up, Joy got a letter from her mother telling of illness and an operation and Joy began to get worried and homesick which, combined with the fact that she was more tired than she thought, upset her terribly and she has been released by the Friends and is going home as soon as she can get a sailing.  That leaves me high and dry to go alone.  I’m terribly disappointed, but I suppose it will do me good.

Since I have been in Paris I have been having the most wonderful time.  Between Freddy F. and Lieut. Osnes of the 52nd Infantry, both of whom are here in the Sorbonne, I have been introduced to most of the pleasures and palaces of the great city.  I have been again to Versailles, to the rose gardens of the Bois de Boulogne, have been down the Seine on a boat trip to St. Cloud, have seen opera as well as the gay musical comedies made for the benefit of the A.E.F., and have eaten in every imaginable kind of restaurant including the outdoor kind where you sit at a little table on the sidewalk and watch the world go by.

And shopping, my heavens, there isn’t a thing I haven’t bought.  I have had to pay out so little for my keep since I have been in the army, that I find I have saved a really great deal.  So I haven’t stopped at lovely underwear and even some inexpensive jewelry and beaucoup lace.

Well, I must run along.  Freddy has come for me and is going to take me as far as Reims where we are going to look at the cathedral and the city on my way to Nanteuil-la-Fosse.

Will write again when I am settled.

Loads of love,

Elsie

                                                                             -o0|0o-


 

Aeroplanes (1930-1943)

1912_2 FkaFlyer
My father, (Francis) Kerr Atkinson

My father was connected to flight as a member and builder for the Cornell Aero Club in 1912. He took part in the design and building of single-seat bi-planes which  were then “flown”—towed behind autos—around a large circuit on the playing fields above Schoellkopf stadium in order to learn flight control.  The Wright brothers had made their epic flight at Kitty Hawk only nine years earlier, and Wilbur his historic flight at Le Mans in 1908.

In June of 1919 my mother, too, took flight in an airplane over Paris. She was between assignments, having left her attachment to the AEF (American Expeditionary Forces) as a canteen girl in Bay-sur-Aube and waiting to join a Friends Service group in Epernay,

In her own words:

“But in the meantime I must tell you what I have been doing in Paris. Besides relieving myself of beaucoup francs in their perfectly fascinating stores, I have managed to see quite a few of the sights and, from a strange angle for, let me announce to you the fact that on Sunday I was 700 metres above Paris in an aeroplane!  Yep, it’s the actual truth.  Joy and I were in the Hotel Petrograd for lunch on Saturday and found that there was a French aviatrix who would see that people went up in her plane for the small sum of 60 francs.  She herself didn’t take them up, but her pilot [did], a Capt. in the Escadrille. So—along with four other adventurous souls we went with her to Le Bourget on Sunday afternoon.  After waiting from 3 until 8 P.M. we all six got separate rides of about 20 min. each.  The only time I was really scared was when they hoisted me up into the little front seat and clamped a seat belt around me.  After the propeller started with a whirr and the machine actually moved I lost all fear entirely and just enjoyed every minute.”

19061501_ECA Caudron
Elsie Sterling Church at Le Bourget, Paris

“You can’t imagine how wonderful it feels to go soaring over the country, to look down on buildings, fields, roads, trees, gardens and mere mortals stalking around on the ground.  It was a wonderfully clear day and the view of Paris was superb.  We went towards the city and turned around just about over Sacré Coeur.  Underneath us lay the Seine winding along, spanned by bridge after bridge, on the left was the Eiffel Tower, and on the right was the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre and all those lovely public buildings near the river.  It was a sight I will never forget.  You had the whole city before you in a mass and at the edges stretched fields which were finally lost in the surrounding hills and they in turn in the haze of the horizon.  The ride was over all too soon, but I would have paid twice the price I think to go. The one I went up in was a Caudron.”

My own first memory of airplanes is that of having just stepped off the DL&W sleeper from New York City [probably on July 17th, 1929 with mother, my sister Holley, then three, and “Nanny” Bennett] to the platform at the Lackawanna station in Ithaca, NY where Aunt Edith [Church] had come down the hill in her new Dodge touring car to meet us.  I would have been four and a half.

Someone must have remarked an airplane in the clear sky and we all looked up.  “Aeroplanes” were hardly twenty-five years old then and still a novelty.  It was a biplane.  I was transfixed.  It was tiny but seemed to me to be extremely close like a drifting mote or toy that I could have reached out and taken into my hand and I long wondered how that illusion could have been.  Many years later I decided that it had been an optical illusion—that in reality there had been two planes flying in tandem and that my (slightly crossed) eyes had merged them into one seemingly much nearer; the way two images are fused in the stereopticon, or the way the bathroom floor tiles sometimes seem to merge and to hover in the air above the floor when you are musing on the toilet.

It was on this—or another of these Ithaca trips—that we had seen Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis as we passed through Grand Central Terminal in New York City.  It was elevated on display in the great concourse.  We climbed some wooden steps and mother lifted me up so that I could see into the cockpit [1].

For many years mother was part of a sort of therapeutic women’s “Rhythm” group who, as near as I could tell, spent their time dancing and swaying in flowing and diaphanous gowns, all with a classical Greek motif.  [Such a group would today be seen definitely as “New Age,” in fact, the same Noyes Rhythm movement exists still; I found it on the Web.

So it happened in the summer of 1932 that Holley and I were sent to Cobalt, Conn. for six weeks of family Rhythm group camp where, incidentally, I learned to swim in the lake and was exposed to the humiliation and the terror of boxing.  My memory of the adults is one of ghostly dancers in the waning light of day, in diaphanous gowns and crowned with flowered wreaths, clasped hand-in-hand, weaving in and out among the trees in the twilight.  Incongruously it was here that I first became aware of model airplanes.

The older boys—I was seven—had been given model airplanes to build at camp workshop.  They had wingspans of about 24 inches.  I was fascinated and remember that the wings were of thin silk somehow attached to bent loops of fine wire or bamboo.  At that moment all I wanted in life was to have a kit of my own to build but, in spite of tearful cajoling, I was told that I wasn’t old enough.  Model airplanes were deferred.

Autogyro
Autogyro

Planes were then uncommon enough that one always looked up at the sound of an engine overhead.  As the years passed flights increased—we would even see autogyros (planes with no wings but with helicopter-like free rotors driven by the forward motion of the craft)—and the novelty began to fade.

One afternoon in 1933 Holley and I were playing in the back yard in Wellesley [Massachusetts] by the inlet to Rockridge Pond when we heard a huge, deep, and growing noise in the sky overhead.  Suddenly, at first filtered by branches and then in the clear over the water, a huge silver airship loomed moving majestically eastward seemingly just above the treetops.  We ran pell-mell toward the house shouting for the others to “come see” but too late; it was immediately lost to view.  The next day we learned that it had been the huge American dirigible USS Akron en route to East Boston Airport.

Mother notes in her diary of 1933 that [daddy] helped William with an aeroplane and later, in 1936: “Wm. worked all P.M. on an aeroplane.”  The first was probably some crude assemblage of parts but the second could have been my first model in kit form.  It wasn’t of silk and fine wire but of balsawood and colored tissue paper.  The company that made the kits and the glue was Megow’s.  The direction sheet spoke of “templates” so I asked Dad what was a template and he had no idea.  This surprised me because until then I had always thought he knew everything there was to know about technology.

This model was the first of uncounted successors.  I set up a card table in my room and had an old soft wood drawing board of mother’s that would take straight pins with only moderately killing finger pressure—a permanent callus formed on my thumb and forefinger from planting endless pins to secure the work over the plan outlines while the glue dried.  Wax paper, eventually shredded by the cutting, covered the printed plans so that the glue would not stick.  Eventually “X-Acto” knives replaced the stiff single-sided blades borrowed from dad’s razor.  The glue was orange “Ambroid” and later clear “Duco” cement which built up on the fingers to be eaten off in layers.  It had a sharp chemical flavor and, when not quite dry, a real bite.

Often I would be up long before breakfast for days on end to have extra time to work on the current model.  Waiting endlessly for glue and lacquer to dry was a real frustration; an introduction to the virtues of patience.

The outlines of the fuselage bulkheads and wing airfoil “formers” were printed on thin balsawood sheets to be carefully cut out with the razor blade.  Some models had formers only for the wing sections; the boxy fuselage being made only of sticks.  The stringers, long and thin, sometimes of bamboo, were glued into notches in the formers and three-dimensional skeletons began to take shape eventually ready for covering with the tissue paper.

Covering was fun and went pretty fast.  A surface of the skeleton would be painted with banana oil which came with a brush in a little bottle and had the wonderful fruity pungency of the overripe fruit.  Then the paper would be laid on the oiled form and later trimmed around the edges.  The result when dry was loose and wrinkled but when sprayed with water (using one of mother’s charcoal drawing fixatif aspirators) and dried it shrank to a skin, tight as a drum, which could then be painted with lacquer which also came in little bottles and in various colors.

The result was a real airplane that would glide and fly when the rubber band (propeller motor) was wound up to “double” or “triple” knots and the plane released.  Some were “ROG’s” which meant they would take (Rise) Off from the Ground if given a runway with enough scope.  If the balance was right some would even land again at the far end of the basement playroom—or down the street—before veering off into some obstruction.

Daddy would sometimes take us to the East Boston Airport (now Logan) to watch the planes.  One fall [1936] mother noted in her diary that I had made a Beechcraft and in October she took me to Richard Knight Auditorium at Babson (Institute, now College) to hear Amelia Earhart lecture [she was lost in the Pacific the next summer].  We sat high up, in a balcony, and the afternoon light streamed through the vast arched windows.

I remember nothing of the lecture but after it there was an indoor model air show that used the great height of the hall to advantage.  I had never imagined that models could have been built like these—endurance models designed to circle, for hours it seemed, gradually gaining altitude and then descending, gliding down after their rubber band motors had wound down.  They were large—three or four feet wing span and light as feathers.  I think some of them weighed no more than three or four ounces.  The wings were of “gossamer”; actually films of collodion only a few molecules thick applied by immersing the wing skeleton in water, applying a drop of collodion to the surface where it would spread out instantaneously into an invisible film, and then lifting the wing through the surface to capture the layer.  The collodion rippled with rainbows like those seen in soap bubbles.

The propeller lobes were made the same way—collodion covered loops of bamboo like the wings of dragon flies.  They turned slowly, perhaps once per second, as the planes rose majestically gaining maybe a few inches of altitude at the end of each fifty foot circuit.  Each remained in the air for at least fifteen minutes it seemed.  I was fascinated but never aspired to enter that school of model building.

When I was twelve I began a really big model of five feet wingspan.  Dick Haward, a school friend, also had a big plane and for it a small gasoline engine.  We would try his engine in my model when it was finished.  It was common then to invite various school teachers to dinner occasionally and that spring my airplane was being proudly shown to Miss DeLura, the school principal.  She took it unexpectedly in hand and—crack—broke one of the stringers in her clumsy grasp.  I could have fixed it, and perhaps I did, but I have no recollection ever of having tried it out with Dick’s motor.

One Sunday in October of 1937 Holley and I were awakened unusually early by mother and dad and told to prepare for a surprise.  We drove into Boston and out to the airport.  We were to fly to New York City for the day!  The plane was, I imagine, a Douglas DC-3 37100301_DC-3and seemed in my memory to have had about two dozen seats in rows of one and two.  At 10:20a we taxied out to the runway and took-off.  What excitement!  We were enthralled.  On the way a steward(ess?) served snacks.  We landed in Newark and got to 42nd Street by 12:30.  We saw the science museum at Rockefeller Center and went to the Planetarium.  The taxis had folding jump seats in the back and we had lunch at an Automat—a wall of cubbies with glass, coin-operated doors behind which were sandwiches, chicken pot pies, shiny bowls of jello, and a corps of workers dutifully refilling the empties from behind—the grand daddy of all fast food.  Later we went to friends of mother’s [the Fairchild’s] for dinner.  We came home on the Pullman sleeper from Pennsylvania Station. This was mother’s first flight since her sight-seeing jaunt over Paris in 1919 and surely my father’s first flight ever.

At one time daddy worked on a model of his own design; a kind of helicopter device.  The rotor, elaborately constructed of thin paper, looked like an unfurled umbrella with curved vanes—like the chambers of a nautilus or the fine gills of a mushroom—on the underside.  I still have the propeller and the wooden stick frame that stretched the rubber band motor.  I haven’t the least memory of how it was supposed to have worked.

When I was fifteen I conceived and built a balsa wood and yellow tissue paper ornithopter; a plane that flapped bird-like wings.  I fashioned tiny cranks and levers out of piano wire with needle-nosed pliers.  A rubber band powered it.  It flew—sort of—mainly flopping toward the ground with a sound like a broken window shade and much sooner than I might have wished.

Gradually my room filled with models both flying and (more detailed) solid models aiming for realism.  Some were suspended on wires overhead.  My best was the Beechcraft, a biplane of about eighteen inch wingspan with staggered wings (the lower forward of the upper) and a radial engine.  I photographed them all once but the photos are now lost. Eventually the planes found their way to the attic to be retrieved several years later for the final act.

By 1942 the War was well under way.  Somewhere in that period a friend and I conceived the idea of simulating, in a small way, aerial combat.  This began by the opening of the front window of my corner room at 85 Ledgeways. Those models that would fly were wound up, anointed with kerosene, ignited, and launched out the window to circle, dive and to crash and burn in the driveway two and a half stories below.

43121001_WcaPiperJ3
WCA & Piper J-3

During my later service in the Army Air Force in training at the University of Cincinnati we had occasion to be taught to fly in Piper J-3s. We learned a long list of maneuvers in addition to simply taking off and landing with a minimum of jolting, careening from side to side, and bouncing clumsily back into the air. We learned to keep the nose up during turns—with the wings at an angle vertical lift is reduced.  I had trouble with the rudder controls because they were counter-intuitively the opposite of what I had learned as a kid on my Flexible Flyer. We memorized and executed a codified “series of turns” without losing track of our bearings, and had to be able to recover from a vertical tailspin in a prescribed number (like two-and-a-half) wild gyrations while trying to keep track of how many times the highway below had rotated. I was not much good at this emergency counting but in the end my instructors gave me a good report.

After the War, while a freshman at Cornell, I made a last detailed solid airplane model.  It was a B-29 carrying the markings of our 20th Air Force, 498th Bombardment Group on Saipan in 1945: T-Square 37 on which I was the radar navigator.  I have it still.

B-29Model1
My Last Model Airplane (~1947)

[1] As of this writing I can find no proof of my ever having seen the Spirit of Saint Louis in Grand Central Station. An exhaustive Google subject and image search seems to confirm that the plane was never there on display. It is possible that it was the German plane “Bremen” on display in 1929 during one of our passages through the station. It had just completed the first east to west Atlantic crossing. But the plane was suspended in air with no possibility of having a close look.