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Monthly Archives: February 2013

How can Joan be so literate–and literary?

At a book reading at BookWoman in Austin, Texas, dear friends and colleagues came and listened to my reading of sections of Home Front Girl:  A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America.  They had wonderful questions and suggestions–even that I should make an audio recording of it, which I would love to do!

Reading Home Front Girl to kindred spirits at BookWoman

One person commented on how literate Joan was.  Some might ask how it could be true–that such a young girl was so literate.  But Joan came from a literate family.  Her parents, though working class, loved to read and discuss literature–fiction and poetry.  They even met at a night school called The Lewis Institute, now part of Illinois Institute of Technology.  Joan grew up reading Kipling, Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, O. Henry, and Christopher Morley, the novelist.  Their writings aren’t particularly “easy”–but if you don’t have easier things to read, you just read what you have and assume it’s expected of you to master such writings.

Joan falls in love with A.E. Housman at the age of 14.  As she writes, Wednesday June 16, 1937

If anybody had told me a year ago that I’d be taking poetry from the library and reading it not only willingly but joyously (!), I would have thought whoever it was crazy!  However, it’s true.  I got out “A Shropshire Lad” [by A.E. Housman] and am really liking it.  I never thought it in me.  I also got out Pope’s translation of the Iliad, but it looks forbidding so I haven’t started yet.  However, I’m still human as I also have (on my new “adult” card, of course) “The Garden Murder Case”[i] and a Christopher Morley book[ii].  So fear not for my mind.  But I do like poetry.  It’s quite surprising really.  I haven’t quite recovered from it yet.

Here is Joan reciting A.E. Housman to herself in the park.

Joan reciting poetry to herself under the forsythia

[i] By S. S. Van Dine; published in 1935.

[ii] Most famous for his 1939 book, Kitty Foyle.

“Isn’t life strange?” Meteors, Calamities, and Memories

The meteor striking the atmosphere over Siberia on February 15, 2013, was, of course, not the first such disaster to strike the region. In 1908, an asteroid struck Tunguska, Siberia, ramming into the earth with power 1,000 times that of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.  My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, saw that explosion when he was twelve years old on his parents’ farm near Sundsvall, Sweden.  Only when he was 83 years old, after he had immigrated to the United States and settled in the Midwest, did he learn what it was he had witnessed that summer day 70 years before.

Trees knocked over in the blast from the 1927 expedition.

Trees knocked over in the blast from the 1927 expedition.

As he told his story in his lilting accent, “Last week I went to a lecture given at the University of Chicago given by a famous astronomer from Harvard.  He told about a new theory they have now; that a tiny particle of antimatter–something very dense but very small–passed right through the earth in 1908. It left a big circle of wreckage in Siberia and it came out somewhere in the South Atlantic.  There was a flash of light seen over northern Europe at the time that it was supposed to have hit.  As he was talking, I remembered seeing such a flash, sitting in my farmyard in Sweden when I was a boy.  It was so bright it took the color out of everything, even though it was daytime when I saw it.

“After the lecture, I raised my hand and told the astronomer I had seen that light.  He became very excited and asked me where I was when I saw it and what year it was.  I was able to date it pretty exactly, because it happened at about the time of the death of a cousin of mine.  The astronomer wrote down my name and the place I lived in Sweden.  Then he told me I was lucky, because I was probably the only person in the room to have seen that flash.  In fact, I was the only person he had ever met who had seen it.  Most of the other people in the lecture room were young students, and the astronomer himself was only about forty years old.

“Just think. I had seen that flash from my farmyard in Sweden when I was a boy, and I had to wait till I was eighty-three to learn what it was.  Isn’t life strange?”

My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, in 1984 at age 87 after his first airplane ride.

My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, in 1984 at age 87 after his first airplane ride.

For my grandfather’s generation, waiting a lifetime to find out about a scientific or environmental calamity, would not be unusual.  Now, videos of catastrophes are uploaded on YouTube filmed by dashboard cameras and shared with the world almost instantaneously.  Isn’t life strange?

Sometimes stories don’t have an ending for decades, as my grandfather sensed with this event, tying his youth to his old age.  His story was recorded for American Mosaic, a book co-written by my mother Joan Wehlen Morrison.  My mother felt that everyone has a story, one that may not yet be apparent. As she writes at age 18 on October 19, 1941, “to understand one’s story is to weep with pity.”

Joan also writes about the coincidence of personal, political, and environmental calamity.  On Thursday, January 26, 1939, at age 16, she writes about the death of her best friend’s father.

“Gee, I came home and Mom told me. I used to play cards with him and tell jokes and I saw him last Saturday and today he is dead and the Spanish Civil War is over and the Chinese War is going on and 8,000 people died in the Chile Earthquake and people all over the world are eating their suppers and doing their homework (as I shall) and laughing and reading and moving about in lighted rooms and a man I know is dead.

"El Mirador Alemán", in Concepción, after the earthquake.
“El Mirador Alemán”, in Concepción, after the earthquake.

It’s funny . . . coming home on the elevated train tonight I made an equation—a geometric equation to prove that Life cannot be cancelled.

Matter + Energy + X = Life

Matter and Energy cannot be cancelled.

Therefore: you cannot cancel Life.

But I don’t know. I will not be speaking to my friend’s father any more.

I feel low to be eating and writing in here and doing my homework when someone is dead . . . but someone is always dead. . . . 8,000 people that other people knew are dead in Chile. Barcelona fell to the Rebels and a war is over and I talk thus.”

The actual death toll in Chile was much higher, estimated to be between 25,000 and 50,000.

50th anniversary  of 1939 Chilean Earthquake Commemoration placard

50th anniversary of 1939 Chilean Earthquake Commemoration placard

My grandfather, on learning what he had seen in the “old country,” asked, “Isn’t life strange?”  Now we know that an object half the size of a football field narrowly missed the earth on the same day that another object –thankfully, much smaller – slammed debris into it.  Life is strange—and precious.  All we have—the dashboard cameras, the YouTube videos, the farmyards, the diaries, the memories—could disappear in a flash.

A flash that may be remembered by someone decades hence.

World War II & NYC: New York Historical Society Exhibit

How wonderful that an exhibit has opened at the New York Historical Society on World War II & NYC.  This exhibit will be open until May 27, 2013.  The exhibit has four sections:

1. New York Before Pearl Harbor, 1933–41

2. The New York Home Front, 1942–45

3. Going to War, 1942–45

4. Victory and Loss, 1945

Be sure to explore the site if you cannot attend.  Or explore before you go to the exhibit so you can xero in on exhibits that more interest you.

This site has many wonderful photos.

Here’s a poignant Soldier Portrait by Ben Brown

General and future president Eisenhower

And what about this amazing poster!

Poster about Women in the War

And this chilling cartoon:

This cartoon about War Aims by Oliver Harrington pulls no punches!

Do let Home Front Girl Diary know if you have attended and what your impressions were!

This New York Times article by Edward Rothstein reviewing the exhibit has more photos, so be sure to check it out!

This is a lovely new review: I highly recommend Home Front Girl as a primary source for research and insight into the Greatest Generation as so many have called Joan and her peers.


Home Front Girl


I feel like I have a new friend after reading Home Front Girl. Joan Wehlen was so palpable on the pages of this book, that I wish I had in fact met her and could call her my friend. Full of historical snippets and teenage soliloquys, Home Front Girl is the Yin to Anne Frank’s Yang.

One of my favorite parts is something Joan Wrote at age 17:

“Oh you, my generation! –we were a lovely lot! Sharp minds—arguing all the time and brittle bodies and even more brittle laughter—and all the time knowing that we were growing up to die. Because we weren’t fooled, you know. All through those bright-colored years of adolescence we knew we were growing up to disaster. For at least four years—well, three, before it happened, we knew it was coming. Some sort of inner sense of war lay upon us. We were pretty…

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The Andrews Sisters and Popular World War II Music

The last of the Andrews Sister, Patty, died this week.  31andrews-trio-articleLargeHow iconic they and their music was and will continue to be!  Songs like “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen (Means That You’re Grand)” and, of course, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” are part of the panoply of the world’s music.  They also sang with Bing Crosby and his light baritone was jazzily accompanied by their energetic rhythms.  You can read the obituary of Patty here.


I like to think that their work in World War II, boosting morale, selling war bonds, entertaining troops overseas, also extends to their wearing uniforms.  I’m sure many a girl was inspired to join the forces:  “If the Andrews Sisters look so attractive in their smart uniforms, maybe I can.”

My mother writes about the one of the songs they were known for, a funny novelty song named “Mister Five By Five,” about a man who is five feet tall and five feet wide!  You can hear it here.

One of the poems of my mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison, was written about a year after the United States entered the war, in February 1943.  Joan references popular music, including some by the Andrews Sisters.  Read, listen, and enjoy!

….The songs that are trite to us now

May make us weep sometime because they bring back

Days that were when everything was yet to be done

And the world lay far below us—

Still to be ventured.

I don’t want to walk without you, baby” . . .

I left my heart at a stage-door canteen” . . .

This is worth fighting for. . . .”

We may even cry because we remember

That “Mr. Five by Five” made us smile once

And the “Strip Polka” will seem quaint and old-fashioned….

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