Up Front by Bill Mauldin: Finding Humor in the Darkness of War

Bill Mauldin

Thus far I’ve lived a quiet life, and I’m thankful for it.

Of course there have been sorrows and troubles, and ongoing struggles that may not end this side of heaven, but once I started studying history again, I quickly remembered to be grateful for these. At least my family has a home. At least my loved ones can get medical care. At least I’m not wondering where my next meal is coming from. At least…

However, living a quiet life and writing about unquiet times proved a challenge. If I were going to try to portray a difficult time- for instance life in the slit trenches and foxholes of the 1940s- how was I to do it well?

I focused on finding books and sources written by people who lived through the conflict. I devoured first-hand accounts, and books which used first hand accounts as sources.

My husband encouraged me to pick up some fiction again in the midst of this when the heavy topics made me gloomy. He also gifted me one of my favorite books from this era, Up Front by Bill Mauldin.

Published in 1945, Up Front isn’t exactly a history book. Bill Mauldin was a cartoonist for the Army newspaper The Stars and Stripes. This book is a compilation of his comics, narrated by the author. It almost reads like an interview, written in first person and giving his perspective on the time.

As far as his comics, Mr. Mauldin says:

“I haven’t tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I’m not old enough to understand what it’s all about, and I’m not experienced enough to judge its failures and successes. My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions in my drawings. Since I’m a cartoonist, maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it’s going on. The only way I can try to be a little funny is to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don’t think life could be any more miserable. It’s pretty heavy humor, and it doesn’t seem funny at all sometimes when you stop and think about it.”  (pgs. 7-8)

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He doesn’t paint war as clean and shiny with everyone behaving properly, (i.e. these aren’t comics for the kids! The text of the book isn’t either for that matter) but he doesn’t paint a bitter picture either. Mr. Mauldin focuses on the people, the camaraderie, the respect, (or lack of) they show each other, fear and courage and small acts of kindness.

‘Joe’ and ‘Willy,’ two scruffy infantry ‘dogfaces,’ are the stars of Mauldin’s comics. The book follows their progress, (though not exactly chronologically,) from the muddy mountain slopes of Italy, to the embattled Anzio beachhead, up to Rome, then over to France.

His comics and views of the war weren’t always popular. General George S. Patton’s hated Mauldin’s cartoons. The ‘spit and polish’ general objected to Mauldin’s portrayal of tired, sloppy soldiers, and to jokes at the officers’ expense. Mauldin himself admitted that he liked to poke some fun at the ‘brass.’ However, he qualified this tendency.

“Not all colonels and generals and lieutenants are good. While the army is pretty efficient about making and breaking good and bad people, no organization of eight million is going to be perfect.” (pg.16)

“I never worry about hurting the feelings of the good officers when I draw officer cartoons. I build a shoe, and if somebody wants to put it on and loudly announce that it fits, that’s his own affair.” (pg. 180)

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While he may have stirred up a little fuss with some of these comics, in the end, Mr. Mauldin’s hope for his characters was for them to find their own quiet life. A hope for peace.

“I’ve been asked if I have a postwar plan for Joe and Willie. I do. Because Joe and Willie are very tired of the war they have been fighting for almost two years, I hope to take them home when it is over. While their buddies are readjusting themselves and trying to learn to be civilians again, Joe and Willie are going to do the same. While their buddies are trying to drown out the war in the far corner of a bar, Joe and Willie are going to drink with them. If their buddies find their girls have married somebody else, and if they have a hard time getting jobs back, and if they run into difficulties in their new, strange life of a free citizen, then Joe and Willie are going to do the same. And if they finally get settled and drop slowly into the happy obscurity of a humdrum job and a little wife and a houseful of kids, Joe and Willie will be happy to settle down too.

They might even shave and become respectable.”  (pgs. 17-18)

It takes a gifted writer, and in this case cartoonist, to find real smiles in the middle of terrible situations. For those who appreciate this gift, those who are interested in this period of history, or those who just want to appreciate their quiet lives a bit more, Up Front is an excellent choice.

 

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Purple Hedgehogs Can Be Villains Too

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Is THIS the face of a super villain?

I’ve just completed my annual collaborative writing project!

For the past five years, my children and I have assembled a comic book to present to their Daddy for Father’s Day. They are the stars, acting as themselves and their alter egos, “The Super Kids!”

It’s been a journey. This started with one little 3 year old who improvised a superhero costume and stood where I told her as I took photos of her and the baby and used Publisher to add some speech bubbles.   This year’s production included pictures taken ‘on location’ at a local park, and all three heroes:  Gargantu-Baby, Skater Girl and Skunky.

As my kids have grown, so have their opinions, and their desire to direct the production. I try to keep it moving in plausible directions, (No, honey, we can’t actually have you fly,) but they do most of the creative work.

And it IS creative…

I wouldn’t have thought of a small stuffed rabbit being a ninja in disguise who secretly tries to trap us.

I would NEVER have thought of a giant, purple, spike-shooting hedgehog as a villain.

Nor would I have named my son “Skunky” and given him the power of shooting skunks out of his hands.

Part of the joy of the process is the adventure of seeing what will happen when imaginations run wild.

I think that this is applicable to writing in general.

Creativity can be a scary thing as we leave childhood. It means taking risks. It may mean writing outside of our comfort zones (as in my last post!)

It’s easy to get caught up in thoughts like, “this is what my genre demands!” or “this is what agents want” or “that article said that the way I started my story is all rubbish! It’s OVER!!!!”

I’m NOT suggesting that all writing advice be thrown out. Still, I’ve found that becoming too fixated on ‘the rules’ rather than on the joy of creating a story can be crippling.

Writing would be much more fun if I approached it like my kids do. Just tell a story. Think of a fun plot, and go for it, even if it’s unconventional. Try a crazy idea, even if it’s not currently popular.

The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work, we had some fun, and we can move on to something else.

And, if all else fails, just ask a 5 to 7 year old for help. They have PLENTY of ideas.

Deepest Fears #2: Writing the (Gulp!) Love Scene

wedding photoI do not come from an emotive people.

I’m a Midwesterner by birth. The joke goes that there are three standard responses in our conversations.

#1: “That’s not too bad.” This is suitable for any event from neutral to amazingly super awesome.

#2: “That’s not too good.” This choice works for anything from a minor inconvenience to tragedy.

If choices 1 and 2 just won’t do, the fall back is choice #3: “That’s different.”

Take that and apply it to romance…well, an old Ole and Lena joke comes to mind. (Best read in a thick Minnesota accent.)

Ole comes into the house to find Lena crying.

“Lena, what’s da matter?”

“Oh Ole,” she answers, wiping her eyes. “It’s just…”

“Yes?”

“Ole, you never tell me you love me.”

Ole walks over, and pats her on the shoulder. “Aw, Lena. I told you I loved you on our wedding day. If something had changed…I would’ve let you know.”

Ba doom, Ching!

It’s not that my husband and I are not affectionate, and it’s possible that we might be overheard using the “L” word, but we don’t generally gush poetry as we gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.

That much emotion, publicly expressed, is just not comfortable.

In the setting of a novel, I’ll admit it, a bit of romance is ‘not too bad.’ Still, even getting a book out of the library with a cover that clearly indicates “THIS IS A LOVE STORY” makes me squirmy. Thank goodness for self-checkout…

Unfortunately, the catalyst that gets the murder and mayhem in my novel moving is (you guessed it) a romantic interest. If I wanted to write my book, I had to write convincing romantic-ish scenes. That other people would read. Riiiiiiiiight.

I steeled myself. It couldn’t be that bad.

The first draft was…ok. I felt like some of it was heavy-handed, but I didn’t know how to make it better, and it sounded kind of like some things I’d read, so I went with it.

After substantial polishing, I entered the novel in a writing contest.

Guess what? I should have followed my instincts. They thought it was heavy-handed too. I got called out on the same bits that I hadn’t been entirely comfortable with in the first place.

Back to the drawing board.

With feedback from the contest and considerable editing, I found a few tricks that helped ease my discomfort, and (hopefully) improved the finished work.

First, I hacked and slashed unnecessary dialogue. Anything that didn’t sound like real life or made me squirm WENT AWAY, and I discovered that the story didn’t lose any clarity for it. Allowing characters emotions etc. to be implied rather than stated strengthened those scenes and helped the story move along.

Second, I changed points of view. Rather than using the ‘love interests’ to narrate, I shifted POV to my antagonist whenever possible. He’s really my most interesting character, and his observations kept things from getting sugary while still letting the reader know the essentials.

Third, I strengthened the characters. I knew the characters I was writing well enough to know exactly why they would end up together; I needed to show those traits in my writing and let things happen naturally.

Have I mastered the dreaded romantic scene?

HA! Nope. Plenty of authors handle that much better than I. BUT, I think I can safely say that I’ve come up with a story that fits my voice better than my first attempts, and something that I can hand off for others to read with greater confidence.

What do you like to see in a good love scene? Any tips, writers or readers?

A Taste of History: The Fabulous Carrot in World War 2

Having a hard time getting your kids to eat their vegetables? Maybe Doctor Carrot can help!

dr. carrot

Believe it or not, this goofy cartoon character had a serious role in history.

The summer of 1940 found London suffering under the German Blitz. Europe was overrun, the British Expeditionary Force having barely escaped annihilation on the beaches of Dunkirk. The United Kingdom relied heavily on imported goods; now the German U-boats threatened to isolate the British completely. (Prime Minister Winston Churchill recorded in his History of the Second World War that the only thing that ever really frightened him during the war was the U-boat peril.)

At risk of being starved out of the war, the Ministry of Food, steered by Lord Woolton, instituted a large scale program of rationing and conservation, and encouraged the people to plant their own ‘Victory Gardens.’

The programs were successful, but required the people to adapt. Many foods that had previously been staples were unobtainable.

The carrot was one instrumental filler food. Carrot recipes ‘cropped up,’ everywhere, from carrot curry to carrot ‘lollies,’ to Woolton Pie.

The carrot’s popularity was bolstered by hints the government publicized that perhaps one reason for the success of the RAF pilots during the Battle of Britain was their improved eyesight from large carrot consumption. Perhaps, posters speculated, carrots could even help members of the public see better during blackouts!

eat carrots

While the vision-enhancing powers of carrots may have been exaggerated, the programs were successful. The UK held on, and the Allies eventually triumphed.

Interestingly enough, (according to some sources,) the necessity of rationing and of food programs provided improved nutrition, health and I.Q. scores – blessings amid the trials.

If you are interested in finding out more on this topic, the following are a couple of my sources.

As for me, I’m craving carrot sticks!

Stolarczyk, John. “Carrots in World War 2.” World Carrot Museum. Copyright 1996-2015. http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/history4.html

Waller, Maureen. London 1945: Life in the Debris of War. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2004. Print.

On the U-Boat threat: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/battle_atlantic_01.shtml

 

Writing: “El Paso” and the Flawed Protagonist

marty robbins

With Father’s Day approaching, I’ve rediscovered a cd that my husband assembled a couple of years ago. We call it “Dad” music, because it’s a compilation of random songs that we listened to with our fathers.

(Tangent: Our families didn’t know each other before we met, but both being Midwest kids, we find a lot of familial similarities. For instance, if the word “well…” is uttered in front of either of our fathers, he will invariably reply, “Deep subject.” Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s my dream to get them both in the same room, say “well,” and listen to them do it at the same time. Someday…)

The opening song on the cd is “El Paso,” by Marty Robbins. My husband summed it up as “a four-minute western,” old-style storytelling in song. It’s also an excellent example of a character who manages to be sympathetic, in spite of his failings.

It shocked me a bit, listening to this song as an adult, to realize that the narrator is really the antagonist, or if not the antagonist a protagonist who is clearly in the wrong.

The song opens with a love story- ahhh, unrequited love. The narrator cherishes a passion for the girl Feleena. It doesn’t seem she has shown him any attention whatsoever, though he does call her ‘wicked’ and ‘evil’- I wonder if she ever toyed with his affections?

A third party enters the picture- a handsome young cowboy, interested in Faleena. Does she return his interest? Apparently, since the narrator challenges the cowboy, fights, and kills him.

Let’s pause here. What reason do we have to ‘root’ for the narrator at this point? Well…he loves the girl. Apparently. Though we don’t have any evidence of this except for the fact that he shoots someone who she’s interested in…and then runs. Maybe in the second half?

He steals a horse and flees, but his self-imposed exile is short. He must return. Why? Remorse? A need for justice? Nope. He wants to see the girl again.

Well, he’s faithful- you’ve gotta give him that!

The flight for the cantina, the description of his injuries, and his final reunion with Faleena drive the tragic story to it’s conclusion, closing the story arc neatly in four minutes and change.

Here’s what I find interesting. I like stories where the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good and things work out reasonably well in the end. There are exceptions, but generally speaking I do not gravitate towards the ‘bad boy’ tales.

In spite of this, I can’t help rooting for Marty Robbins’ narrator.

How does he do it?

It may be partially that I grew up hearing the song and feeling sorry for the poor narrator, gunned down just as he finds the girl. The catchy melody doesn’t hurt either, but I think the real answer lies with the way the story is told.

Robbins sings the song in first person. (My eldest just asked today, “How can he sing the song if he’s dead?” Time for a lesson on POV!) We listeners hear some of the thoughts and motives of the narrator. He knows what he is doing is wrong. He calls the murder a ‘foul, evil deed.’ His desperation is evident as he steals the horse and flees.

And yet, he can’t stay away. The despairing words- his life being worthless, nothing left- demonstrate the narrator’s mindset as he turns back to his certain destruction.

Even his thoughts as he’s dying aren’t the thoughts of a desperate criminal. In the end I picture him as a kid, not too bright, who made some pretty stupid choices over a girl and pays the consequences.

Therein lies the ability to sympathize with the character. His actions are evil, but his motivations aren’t deliberately so. How many of us haven’t made foolish choices, gone down roads we know we shouldn’t, because of love or pride or simple stubborness?

Flawed characters have an ability to resonate that perfect characters lack.

What gives your readers the ability to empathize with your characters- what strengths or flaws make them human?

Writing Inspiration: Revisiting Memory

IMAG0471Childhood summers meant one thing: Up North.

Every summer, my family would pile into our car, carefully crammed with fishing poles, coolers, baseball caps and bug spray. As the youngest, I always had the middle back seat, with most of the items stashed under my feet.

Our destination was the house my great-grandpa built, tucked into the sweet-scented pine forests off the coast of Lake Superior.

We’d go up with my grandparents and visit my great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, and various other relatives who bleared together in my childish memory. Sometimes my cousins and aunts and uncles would all cram into the house with us or camp out in the yard. It was great fun, but numbers sometimes made things complicated, as my great- grandpa also dug the ‘sewer’, such as it was, himself.

Busy and messy, full of card games and mosquito bites and fishing and laughter, those sun-streaked days are some of my dearest memories.

As the years went on, our ‘Up North’ family dwindled- our losses, heaven’s gains.

The responsibilities of adulthood and moving out of state limited, then eliminated, my summer visits, until last year.

I was finally able to bring my children back to the old house last summer.

We stepped out of the car and I was a child again, ready to run through the ferns and forget-me-nots and to build tee-pees in the clearing.

Everything held a memory. The shriek of the bedsprings in the upstairs room that 2 (or was it all 3?) of the sisters who grew up in the house shared. The steep staircase that Grandma descended, holding the lilacs and daisies her sisters picked, to marry my Grandpa when he came home from the war. The birdhouse reserved for ‘Chippie,’ Grandpa’s semi-tame chipmunk. Great-Grandma’s old treadle sewing machine that mom taught me to use.

It was painful joy to play with my husband and children in the woods, to hike and throw rocks into the lake, to relive small moments of childhood memory, while knowing that things had changed irrevocably.

The things were still there, but the people were gone, their stories and laughter an echo in the past.

Still, though bittersweet, dusting off the memories and saying the names of people I missed allowed them, for a brief while, to walk again. Alive in memory.

One of the greatest treasures I discovered when I began serious research for my book was BBC’s “WW2 People’s War” archives.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/

From 2003-2006, BBC sent a call out to everyone who had memories from the wartime years. The memories were written down, sorted by category, and archived.

47,000 stories reside here. Memories of joys and sorrows and day to day life. Memories of soldiers, wives, children, doctors, ambulance drivers and teachers. Memories told first hand, and memories passed on by surviving children. Memories that take some patience to sort through, that may be distorted by the years between, but that give a better picture of the texture and flavor of the life of these people than the most carefully researched textbook.

I visited the archives frequently, hunting for memories that would illuminate my research. I would always end up reading through pages of unrelated material, entranced by the voices of people who lived history.

For anyone interested in this era, I can’t recommend a visit to this site highly enough.

Summer moves too quickly. Our family’s visit to the north woods ended, but the kids still talk about it, reliving memories of their own.

What memories fuel the stories you share?

 

 

Deepest Fears: What If My Writing Stinks? (And I Don’t Know It.)

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“I was given a manuscript to read, but it was so bad I sent it back/deleted it immediately.”

“A friend asked me to read their writing. I tried, but I couldn’t think of anything nice to say, so I just gave it back and said I didn’t have the time.”

“I wrote my first novel and it still sits in my garage- I was so proud of it at the time, but now I realize how awful it is.”

Sound familiar? If you’ve poked around in the world of writing at all, you’ve probably run into stories like these.

These stories speak to the deepest, most neurotic corner of my heart, and they tell me one thing:

“Your writing is possibly, even probably awful, and you’re just too close to see it.”

The temptation to burn the whole mess, (in effigy of course, let’s not get crazy here. I still want my laptop for recipes,) is strong. Just kill the story, move on with non-creative pursuits, stay happy and safe from rejection. I’d sure get more house cleaning done…

Deep breaths. Stay calm.

Writing is an art. Taste is subjective, BUT there are definite markers for good vs. flame-worthy.

The following are a few things I’ve tried, hoping to ensure quality.

  1. Find Safe Readers.

I’ve run into a great deal of professional advice telling me not to lean on people I know as readers- especially not relatives or friends. As a newbie to this whole ‘biz, I’m going to come right out and say I ignored this. I needed readers who were going to leave me unbloodied from my first exposure as an adult author.

I was fortunate to have people who were both very literate, and honest enough to let me know if the overall project should probably be kept ‘just for me.’ After my book passed the eyes of four people I trusted, it was ready for the next step.

  1. Find ‘Scary’ Readers

I entered my novel- a much earlier draft- in the Athanatos Christian Writing Contest. I made the first judging cut, (yay!) but not the semi-finals, (sigh.) Besides the experience of exposing my writing to professional scrutiny, I received a whoooole bunch of feedback.

Warning: Taking professional feedback was hard.

Still, once I got over the initial “But…but…but…” reaction to some of the constructive criticism, I was able to put it to work for me and come out with a MUCH stronger draft of the story than I started with. The experience was valuable and enlightening.

  1. EDIT.

I’m not sure WHAT draft I’m officially on, and I still find sentences that could be strengthened and errors that I taught students to avoid. I’ve read, reread, taken a break and then read again. Articles by other authors have been invaluable in pointing out common errors- apparently I am very fond of adverbs, and unnecessary speech tags.

  1. Read Aloud

Especially in the case of dialogue, something might look great in type, but once you say the words you realize they sound bad enough to make angels weep.   I hyperbolize, but seriously, reading aloud has helped me pay more attention to word choice and flow. My kids look at me like I’m crazy as I go around talking to myself, but they did that anyway.

  1. Read Other Books

Apparently my female protagonist’s name was an extremely overused one. Who knew?

Avoiding clichés is easier if you know what other authors have written. Also, excellent authors encourage me to rethink word choices, to stretch and to grow.

  1. Don’t give up!

If we give up, we’ll never succeed, or even improve! If one piece doesn’t pan out, the next might be better!

Besides, let’s face reality. If I give up now, the house won’t really get any cleaner- I’ll just be out one more excuse.

Do you have any tips to share that strengthen your writing and allay your fears?

Writing in History: The D-Day Dodgers

How often have you heard the phrase, “timing is everything” ? Timing can mean the difference between success and failure, between ‘famous’ and ‘forgotten.’ Take, for instance, the case of the D-Day Dodgers.

Seventy-two years ago, on June 4, 1944, a military campaign that had dragged on for over a year and a half reached a historic milestone. The Allied forces liberated their first Axis capitol: Rome.

Months of slogging up mountains while under fire, of crossing river after bridgeless river, of mud, cold, and disappointment, had finally borne fruit.

This momentous event held the headlines for one day.

Timing, after all, is everything. On June 6th the Allies began their long-awaited landings on the beaches of Normandy.

Of course, the D-Day invasions were extremely important. Years had gone into their planning and preparation. It was thrilling to have a foothold in France for the first time after being ousted in ’39. However, the Italian campaign, considered controversial from the start, was now definitely relegated to a secondary position.

Soldiers in Italy who’d spent years and lost friends fighting through North Africa, Sicily, and up the foot of Italy, saw commanders, troops, and material sent away to support the efforts in France. Loved ones sent them letters telling them what a relief it was that they were ‘safe’ in Italy.

Perhaps Lady Astor, member of the British Parliament, wins the prize for the worst insult to the Italian effort. She named the troops the “D-Day Dodgers”- shirkers of the fighting in France.*

The response of the troops was so memorable that I’ve been caught singing it around the house. (This version- the clean one 😉

When I began my study of the theaters of World War 2 to pick a specific setting for my novel, I stumbled across this story and this song, and I stayed.

A few of the places of interest mentioned in the song:

“Salerno”- The first major assault on the European mainland had 4,870 Americans killed, wounded or missing. (This does not include casualties from the British 10th Corps.)

“Cassino”- The ‘Gustav Line’ of German defenses passed through the mountains by the town of Cassino. It took four Allied assaults over many months to break the line, the last being a huge effort of camouflage, false trails, and infantry.

“Anzio”- This beachhead was established north of Monte Cassino. The attack stagnated, and the Allies were trapped on the beachhead for months. The American hospital area was hit so often that it was nicknamed “Hell’s Half-Acre” and stories circulate of soldiers pretending they weren’t wounded to avoid being sent there for care. The Allied forces at Anzio suffered 29,200 combat casualties, (killed, wounded, prisoners or missing,) and 37,000 non-combat casualties.

Statistics from the http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/salerno/sal-fm.htm and http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/anzio/72-19.htm

* Some sources indicate that Lady Astor’s statement was due to a misunderstanding: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-two/10841035/Monte-Cassino-veterans-anger-at-D-Day-dodger-label.html

Thanks and God’s blessings to all who serve and have served.