Ordinary People (Past and Present) 


By Wayne Allensworth

I was looking through my late father’s personal effects recently and ran across a letter. It wasn’t just any letter, but one he had kept from among his late brother Harold’s belongings. A gunner on a B-24, he died on D-Day in World War II. It was from a young lady named Virginia in his hometown of Houston, Texas. Harold went through training in San Antonio and was subsequently stationed “somewhere in England.” I have a number of his letters to his parents — my grandparents — asking them not to worry about him. But I found this particular letter especially poignant. It was emotionally touching in that it was a small slice of the life of a young man — his plane went down before his 19th birthday — who had his future ahead of him. And the family, I think, never quite got over the loss of him and that future, which would have been theirs as well.

The letter is dated Wednesday, September 8. It would have been in 1943. Virginia opens by telling him “hi!”—she called him “ole’ thing”—and hoping her letter wasn’t a surprise. He did remember her, didn’t he? But how, she asked, could he ever forget? Virginia exclaimed that she “bet the army is crazy ‘bout you!” And she was curious. Had he found out what he would be in the Army Air Corps, navigator, bombardier, pilot…“Lemme know, will you?” Virginia noted that she had seen his mother and had told her that she would write to him.

Virginia told Harold she liked to go to baseball games, and that his mother and father and his younger brother Billy (my father) had promised her they would go with her to a game at Buff Stadium, home to what was then Houston’s minor league team, the Buffaloes. I don’t know whether they ever did. I like to think they went to a game together, and that the Buffs won and everybody laughed and had a good time. That was over 20 years before what my grandfather called “the domed stadium,” the Astrodome, was built. Buff stadium stood until 1965. It was badly damaged by Hurricane Carla just two years before, which in my boy’s mind was the major catastrophe of that time. But my carpenter father had built us a house on the highest spot he could find, and it didn’t flood. I digress, but memories have a way of flowing all together.

Virginia wrote that Harold would probably miss school, “especially football and stuff,” but that polio delayed the fall semester. He had missed out on a long summer. “Oh well,” she lamented, “it could be worse!” Virginia ended by asking him to write to her sometime. “Bye now.” There was a postscript: “I got a new watch band and gee, I’m so pretty! Ha ha!”

Reading Virgina’s letter was like breaking through a dense historical barrier and experiencing another time. All that’s required is a little knowledge of the era for context and sensitivity to the kind of signals that are ever present in a real culture. The letter is so vital, full of humor, and the kind of innocence many teenagers still had then. But it’s all gone, as gone as Virginia’s beautiful cursive.

My people were ordinary people, ordinary core Americans of a particular regional type. As I wrote previously:

I thought of my relations from an earlier time. I had known some of the older ones when I was a boy. They were dreadfully poor by the standards of post-war America. Sons had been lost in that war, others maimed, and some bore invisible scars from events known only to them, for they did not talk about such things. My grandmother had lost a baby sister who was killed by a rattlesnake bite. And some of them had traveled West to look for work during the Depression. Some drank too much, and a few met bitter ends. The lines on their faces suggested stories I never heard.  But what I had left of them was the lasting surprise of how content they seemed. Maybe they didn’t expect anything else, and they certainly had no sense of being owed anything. It was gratitude. They were grateful for all the small things people in a more prosperous society no longer noted. And I envied them. As a boy, I had no words for it. I know now that the small things are actually the big ones.

Yes, they are. I think those small things — not something given much thought by the people who lived them — are what made what philosophers call an “authentic” life. There was less of a gap between them and nature, the raw grittiness of existence, and they were connected to natural phenomena. By mid-century, the urbanization and technologies that distance us from one another and nature — from a manner of being that was the web of life, something that was still extant to a greater degree than now — had weakened those connections. 

It’s not that those ordinary people were any better intrinsically than people today. Rather, they had a better innate feel for commonsense axioms forged over vast expanses of time, self-evident truths drawn from the wellsprings of human experience. They had what sociologists call a “thicker” culture, a thicker net of connectedness to one another and to the world than technologically advanced and atomized post modernity has. In a “thin” culture, one can, if one wishes, lead a practically cocooned nuclear existence within a technological bubble enveloped in a controlled environment. An environment that can lend the nuclearized individual a sense of delusional omnipotence. It carries with it an inevitable erosion of human ties and vitality.

It’s a world as different as text messages are from handwritten letters and, better still, face-face interactions that reaffirm human connections and reinforce our innate ability — an ability that can wither away — to “read” other people: to detect their emotional state, to involve oneself with them through the intonation of a human voice, facial expressions, and body language. To be, we can only become realized through such contacts. The human personality doesn’t merely need such contacts. It demands them.

I read somewhere about how much better a phone call is than a text message in regard to the psychological wellbeing of the people on the call. It’s not like we didn’t know that. Text messages and truncated emails provide none of the signals that we need to “read” one another. A handwritten letter at least carries something of the person who wrote it, in the style. It’s more personal, and the loss of such personal connections, a vital element in bolstering a sense of meaning in life, is what makes people these days so unhappy, even angry and emotionally unstable. Of course, that mode of communication is better. Anything that lessens the distance and increases the flow of human contacts is an improvement over that which diminishes them. It’s a matter of degree. A phone call is better than a text message. A handwritten letter is superior to an email. And face-to-face interactions are better than any of them.

Our ancestors lived with more physical discomfort and pain than we do. Everyday life was more arduous. And the diseases we have conquered could and did wreak a heavy toll on them, especially a toll of infant and childhood mortality. Great sorrow there was, but less despair. They had more hope, but less wishful thinking. The moments of joy were held and cherished, as fleeting as they were. Those people were steadier, more sane, than we are. That’s a matter of record and a matter of my own experience. As for children, many young people today don’t bother to have them. We wouldn’t want to diminish anyone’s “life chances,” would we? But that is precisely what is diminished by such a nihilistic attitude. Humanity itself, as some postmodern lunatics apparently desire, could vanish in a fit of spiritual blindness, a demonic numbness of the soul that even the most difficult of my old relatives and friends would never have understood.

I wish my children could have known them. I can only draw from memory’s well to tell them what was and what they must try and emulate as best they can in their own lives. There is no other way.  They were lucky to know their grandparents and that itself was a window into a world that for all its failings was, on the grand scale, a better one. Whatever it got wrong, and there was a lot, it carried on, reproduced itself, and gave another generation a chance, a chance to be. No amount of comfort, personal license, “empowerment,” or medical care could ever make up for the ultimate dead end, the end of being.

My grandchildren still speak of my dad, Grandpa Bill. They never knew my mother, who was as vital and vivacious a person as I have ever known. But she can still live in what memories we convey to them. Imagination and memory can do that.

We can only aspire to be as “ordinary” as they were.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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