“The V-Letter: A Story Survived,” by John Felstiner

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nonfiction by John Felstiner from MQR 53:4 Fall 2014

 

 

A name and a letter

Clarie, first a word then a name, grounds this story and eventually breaks out from a war letter. To know a story, to discover its how and why, will mean recovering, digging back toward its beginning—and that means memory. For years I’ve been drawn to absorb a certain letter, a V-Letter my father sent one evening in 1943. Possibly this letter’s paths carry something vital. In any event, one’s earliest memories can keep a dreamlike grip, potent though surreal. They may revive early experiences.

 

First days and years

If only I’d been alert enough—Jesse Owens matching the hundred-meter world mark at Berlin’s summer 1936 Olympics. But I missed it. Then he broke the two-hundred-meter record, then the broad jump, then the relay after Hitler replaced Jewish-American sprinters. My parents, lovers of sport and born from European Jews, must have reveled when Hitler stamped out of Olympic Stadium over that non-Aryan, that black champion. But they didn’t tell me. Or maybe they did. Those were my first days of life.

Six weeks after my birth, in Maine, my father Lou with watercolor pencils sketched pine and birch, rocks, dock and boathouse, roughened lake with two folks in a sailboat. Recently I found this sketch. Next to the date he signed a clever LJF. Surely mother and I were nearby.

 

 

Serendipity like this urges me to recover more and more.

As for actually recalling a Maine summer, in 1939 I’m turning three on Long Lake. Daddy’s wading in chest-high water near the dock, jouncing me as I hang on for dear life on his tanned shoulders. Whooping and clinging I feel his smooth, firm, warm shoulders with a few fine hairs. Today I want to ask, “Have you too held onto this moment?”

Another memory finds me perched on my father’s shoulders at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. We’re craning up at the Perisphere and gazing at the Shape of Things to Come. Since one person’s lifetime incidents are almost infinite, any buried moment must really matter to be remembered.

 

The word Clarie

Tugging at me is a word, Clarie. By age three I was overhearing it crop up at home from time to time. Though I didn’t know what it concerned, there was always something special in my parents’ voices when they spoke this word. Soon I heard it as a name. Whoever he was, Clarie was a tender presence, always distinct, never explained. I grew up averagely and could never fathom that sound. It mildly haunted me.

Still, that sound was obscured by simple preteen joy and sometimes pride. For instance, memorizing Lincoln’s speech for my father’s dollar, and taking a tennis set from him for the first time.

There is one charming story around young Clarie—but my older sibling Susan and I did not hear it until much later. Back in 1927 our mother Gertrude (or Bobbie) had a beau. Her mother, it’s told, invited Clarie up from Boston to Maine for a lakeside weekend. Grandma must have liked him, as a visit to our lakeside was special. For the same weekend, Bobbie had unwittingly invited Lou, a fresh boyfriend. No one knows how those days went.

Throughout my own childhood, three months a year in Maine, then the rest of the time north of the Bronx, a cryptic aura hung around Clarie. Getting to know about this person did not occur suddenly or luckily. Sooner or later I would discover astounding things about him, but not from my parents, especially during the war.

 

FDR’s delegate to Hitler

After December 7, 1941, our dinner talk changed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s voice and acts permeated us (as did Jack Benny’s, Danny Kaye’s, Bob Hope’s). On the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad, Lou daily read the Herald Tribune to Manhattan and back. But Susan and I don’t recall dinners with parental war news, European Jews at risk, menaced relatives. Now I ask, why? Were those Holocaust years filtered for us? Coming home each evening, my dad did relay winsome messages to me from tree elves outside his station.

My own patriotic war teemed daily with bright color drawings of wracked battlefields where antiaircraft and Army Air Corps fighters bring down Messerschmitts in flame. This was “The Book of The ARMY, To Momy.”

 

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Later at high school, a visiting German friend told me that as a boy during those same years, he too was drawing planes above him . . .  American planes.

My war years were also whetted by the feel of yellow color kneaded into oleomargarine, carefully fingered food coupons, aluminum foil crushed into balls, wheelbarrows of newsprint, our family Victory Garden, blackouts, and my mother’s warden hours on the apartment roof. But no evening talk of losses abroad.

All this remains vivid, plus two wartime dreams. In one I’m gaping out my sixth-floor bedroom window, alarmed by Nazi troops marching up our block. In another dream I’m entering Adolf Hitler’s office, stepping straight toward his very high desk and pleading for peace. Evidently FDR’s delegate to the Third Reich.

 

Life grinds beyond belief  

After war this story runs a normal, somewhat fortunate life: my father a lawyer earning barely enough, my school, camps in Maine, sports, college, soccer, three Mediterranean Navy years, Ph.D., marriage, teaching and writing, and a welcome daughter.

Then in 1973, life grinds beyond belief. I fly east from California to sit at my father’s bedside in New York’s Montefiore Hospital, the night before his heart operation. We chat—if only I knew what we chatted about. Then, as I’d never seen, tears in his eyes. For what, I can only guess. The next morning a surgeon comes out. He says quietly, “I’m afraid we’ve lost him,” and mother jolts backward as if hit by a car. He’s lost, at seventy-two. That morning I’m asked to confirm that it is him. In a dim room I kiss my father for the last time. His face is cold, yet then I learn the spirit lives forever.

Mother seems just about able to cope in various ways, and sadly I live a continent away. I’m raked with unbearable loss, love unbodied, so many questions left on my tongue.

Seven years later my widowed mom, who once taught me how to spell, add, make fudge, talk to strangers, field baseball grounders without lifting my head, and tell police not to spit on the sidewalk—this seventy-three year old meets a nice young woman on the street. This nice woman walks Bobbie to the bank and withdraws her $3000 savings, to “have them handled better.” Susan in Boston seeks a rest home for our mom. Leaving behind my pregnant wife, Mary, I fly from California to my family home, this time to wean mother from our longtime modest apartment.

Meanwhile, among painful tasks, I receive an antique homework table where I watched Dad writing briefs and joined him happily for decades. Today in California I sit at that table, gazing at a timeworn receipt from March 1928, the season of my parents’ wedding. Mrs. George Talmey in New Rochelle has sold to Bobbie’s mother three items from Switzerland, gifts for the couple. Mrs. Talmey has delicately written:

 

1 Table Antique 150

1 Cupboard  ”  130

4 Chairs    25. 100

 

My sister now has the cupboard. The chairs are made with rough wood with no nails. One chair is carved “1825,” another “1755.” The table is alike. I love it. It’s for work, it’s not our dining room table.

 

At the dining room table  

It’s not easy, sitting at that same dining room table where Susan and I as children would often burst with hilarity at nothing in particular and have to leave the room, or sometimes we fled from the fury of an argument. Since Lou died, Bobbie has haphazardly been heaping this table with scores of old receipts, invitations, wedding lists, photos, letters, clippings—a lifetime’s duly saved detritus, a fading memory hoard.

I siftthrough, finding this and that, familiar and not. Meanwhile she putters nervously in the kitchen. After an hour a small sepia snapshot turns up.

 

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On a lawn under a spacious umbrella, they’re crouching as in a 1920s dance. Bobbie has one of those soft cloche hats pulled over her ears. Her gangly guy with a roomy woolen suit and large ears looks “like a big puppy,” as my uncle Dan later puts it. On the back of the photo, my mother’s young hand says, “Clarie Levin and me / All dressed up / Furs & gloves.” She’s twenty, he twenty-two. Both smile deeply into the camera.

Clarie Levin, I soon learn, was a Yale roommate of mother’s older brother Dan Shiman. Not surprisingly, her dining room table yields another snapshot: two young men in hiking gear on the way to Mount Washington, Clarie on the right.

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Around this time, Bobbie met Clarie through her brother. On the table I find a minuscule address book, two inches by three inches. “Clarence Levin” appears twice on different pages, first with a Brookline, Massachusetts, address, then Dorchester. At some point “Louis Felstiner” appears in these jammed but carefully written little pages. And it’s heartening to find, from a wedding list my mother made in 1928, that Clarence Levin was invited, as was another former boyfriend, Paul Levy.

Having done ROTC, Clarie went to Harvard Law, then practiced with his brother and married Mary Gorham, of Irish descent, living outside of Boston. He was associated with the Big Brother movement and was active in Jewish philanthropic work.

Peering more curiously into the table’s muddle, I feel genetically put at risk by Bobbie and her beau under an umbrella in 1927. Not that they wouldn’t have made a fine couple with cheerful children. But what about me?

Luckily for “me,” among scattered relics I come across a July 9, 1936, letter headed CLARENCE LEVIN / ATTORNEY AND COUNSELOR AT LAW / ONE STATE STREET / BOSTON. His letter congratulates a postpartum mother and her infant son in the hospital: “Lou says he’s going to be the President of the U.S. someday—so take good care of him, because he’ll need a lot of strength to properly hold down the job.” Another Clarie letter the same day, to Lou, says “I was much pleased to hear the good news about the prospective President.” And he complains my parents won’t be able to make the “annual sailing visit to Boston.”

 

V-Letter trembling in my hands 

All of a sudden the heart of this story beats speedier. Still sticking at the table and wondering what’s next, I lift up a slim item of frayed, folded pages: a letter, an airmail letter. It’s World War Two V ∙ ∙ ∙ — MAIL which I remember well, though less intimately than I recall the newsprint, foil, flimsy War Ration Books, V-Garden carrots, countless crayon sketches of US and RAF planes soaring above flame-drenched landscapes. Also an early stab of grief and loss: April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt dies.

This weightless V-Letter trembling in my hands is addressed to Captain Clarence H. Levin from Louis J. Felstiner, and postmarked NEW YORK, N.Y. JAN 22 630 PM 1943. The letter is coming apart at triple folds. Gingerly I try to read the address cover.

 

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But this horrific mess is too much to take in quickly.

Before this letter, better a brief fill-in of Clarie Levin’s story. He stayed in the Reserve after college, according to Uncle Dan. In 1941 Clarie told his friends “I’ve had some training. We’re going to get into this thing.” He was sent first to France with the Seventh Field Artillery Battalion.

Thus my father, after a week’s work at 70 Pine Street between Wall Street and Maiden Lane, prepares a letter. It’s Friday afternoon, January 22, 1943. He uses 8.5 × 14 legal sheets, then types them flawlessly as a V-Letter. It will be censored, photo-reduced for sending, then printed on paper for the receiver. Lou heedfully observes its instruction to write “within the marginal lines.” Aptly he rotates the sheet ninety degrees.

 

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Clearly Dad is alert to wartime security, if modest: “Bobbie and I eagerly examine every picture that we are permitted to see coming from your neighborhood, childishly hoping that you might be in it.”

Even bent alone over an old dinner table, knowing what my father couldn’t have known that winter evening, I warm to his sentences about Clarie’s interest in French language, wine, and mud. Then to Lou’s touch of wartime versus stateside experience. His sentences, casual and genial while keeping aware and respectful, still move me through war after war. Perhaps there’s a tinge of stateside shame in Lou’s remarks: “interesting news must come to, rather than from people at home,” “awe at the site of an officer or soldier,” “I don’t suppose you would have an odd picture hanging around, . . . signed with your full rank?” Most likely this is loving friendship. Anyway, he was forty-one then, four years older than Clarie.

Stateside there’s little to report: “Susan and John are growing up imperceptibly, and of course John is continually fighting Germans and Japs using me as his target. He is filled with awe at the sight of an officer or soldier, and he well remembers your gorgeous uniform which you showed him in Maine two years ago.”

Aha, 1941! Since our parents never linked Clarie to World War II, my memory and I must have failed to imbibe one particular event. Back at age five, I evidently met Clarie at Long Lake in his fresh Army uniform, which dazzled a five-year-old boy. Reading about it now, at forty-four, raises a strange feeling. Only now does Dad mention an aspiring summer moment when for the first time I met this Clarie Levin. Back then in Maine, I wonder, did Clarie also say, “We’re going to get into this thing”?

Lou mentions that “Bobbie is writing you separately and probably won’t let me see the letter.” But did Bobbie finish it? At the dining room table a generation later, I know Lou’s mild male irony clarifies love between Clarie and my parents.

 

Profitable enemy targets

Barely aware of my mother in the kitchen, I search her cluttered archive and alas, there’s no January 1943 V-Letter from Bobbie to Clarie. Then, stunned, I find a ragged, four-inch New York Times clipping from February 23, 1943: “Salvos Fired at Enemy / As Requiem for Officers.” In Tunisia, “Major Clarence Levin, Field Artillery, killed while reconnoitering for a forward position Jan. 31.”

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He was buried where he fell, and the salvos were fired “at profitable enemy targets.”

Even before Lou posted his letter, and before a card could be “signed with your full rank” for me, Clarie had left France and landed in the 1942 North African invasion, Operation Torch. A news photo, now lost, shows General Mark Clark climbing ashore with Clarie nearby smiling. At that time, Clarie’s sisters and a brother-in-law perished in Boston’s infamous Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire. He may not have known this.

Note the clipping’s underline, penciled by Dad or Mom. It wasn’t shown to Susan and me. In Africa, while the V-Letter was en route, Clarie was given battlefield promotion from Captain to Major. Then in the mud-sunk fight against Rommel’s tanks, only days after the letter started its long arc, Clarie stepped on a land mine.

For a while his wife Mary “went downhill,” Dan told me in his eighty-eighth year. Later he lost touch with the Levin family. But the death “haunted my father all his life,” Dan’s daughter tells me, “perhaps because he felt guilty that he hadn’t been in the War himself.” Possibly my own father felt guilt, but that’s unsure. He was too young for the first war and too old for the second. Exactly what he felt I can’t know and will not blindly guess.

 

Marked and “verified” KIA

Finally I see why this V-letter ended in my parents’ hands, not in the hands of the gangly young man whose name frequented my childhood. US Army hands have over and over marked and “verified” KIA, “Killed in Action.”

 

Deceased 1/31/43                       Verified By:

 Geo W. Gibbs                     JEH Ennersley [?]WOJG 7 FA Bn

Lt Col 7 FA Bn                            2/26/43

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As it happens, eighteen months later Lieutenant Colonel Gibbs, a Texan, was awarded a Distinguished Silver Cross for gallantry in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.

Someone has crossed out Deceased on the V-Letter’s front page and written KIA in bold red capitals. Bottom left there is what looks like a red symbol for KIA. On the back cover page, a WAR DEPT. item says CASUALTY STATUS VERIFIED: killed in action, VERIFIED BY McCracken Sept 1 43—so long after Dad’s fresh and careful V-Letter got its three-cent postmark.

The next day, a new mark: WASHINGTON D.C. SEP 2. The address page has a routine notice stamped across its dark red V ∙ ∙ ∙ — MAIL. These words move along calmly, riddled with passive verbs: IT IS REGRETTED THIS ITEM / COULD NOT BE DELIVERED AS / THE ADDRESSEE HAS BEEN REPORTED / KILLED IN ACTION. What’s more, a disembodied hand points its index finger back toward Lou’s office. This V-Letter—“V for Victory!”—circled correctly for seven months and eleven days before returning to my father.

“It would sound silly to close with the usual greeting to take it easy, etc.,” Lou’s letter ends. “So—good luck and write when and what you can.” Clarie Levin died nine days after the letter started aiming toward him, and a few weeks afterward came the Times news. Whatever instant grief kept Lou and Bobbie suffering winter and spring and summer, it did not occur in my presence. Bearing such grief, they eventually possessed a migrant V-Letter. Two hundred twenty-three days before, its instruction had said, “Print in plain black letters your return address in the space provided.”

Looking up from the littered dining room table, I call to my mother in the kitchen. She’s unaware why I’ve come all the way from California. “Mother, can you tell me something about Clarie Levin?” After long silence, she can’t place the name.

 

You bear him in your soul

Snapshots, tiny address book, letters, V-Letter, New York Times clipping, all rest in an envelope by my desk. Every so often I open it to peer into trees behind the umbrella, catch Clarie’s baggy cuffs and Bobbie’s tilted cap, hear those three salvos “near the spot where they fell,” search Dad’s 1943 fragile white-and-red letter in case I’ve missed something, even his FOR DEFENSE stamp with a “Torch of Enlightenment” and its statement: SECURITY EDUCATION CONSERVATION HEALTH.

Through World War II, the Morse code shared V’s “dot-dot-dot-dash” with V ∙ ∙ ∙ — MAIL. V stood for “Victory”—victory that had to happen before saving Europe’s Jews, said FDR, whom we revered. For months his State Department would not declare or diminish wholesale assassination. Jews were being slaughtered everywhere, such as Lemberg (Lvov, Lviv—now in Ukraine), the Austro-Hungarian Empire outpost where my father was born in 1901. Learning of his birthplace years before he died, I fell to musing. What if Lou’s parents had stayed in Eastern Europe’s Galicia? What would have come of him, and again, what of “me”? When I sat at his bedside in November 1973, did I mention I’d be teaching in Jerusalem the next year?

In a way, holding my dad’s letter sharpened my life, as did imagining my parents’ grief-ridden V-Letter seasons. Since then I’ve hewn to the vital German-speaking Jewish poet Paul Celan, who survived the Holocaust he called “that which happened.” It left him “stricken by and seeking reality,” until one day reality failed and France’s Seine River ended him. Writing these pages now, I think Celan’s tragedy someway reflectsdecades of Clarie’s aura, and vice-versa. Maybe there’s truth there. Yet Clarie Levin’s viable spirit seems to me sui generis—the photos, letters, and his New York Times death notice.

Tracing Clarie’s selfhood and at once losing him—well, that is pain. But as a keen friend said, “You bear him in your soul, as your parents did.”

I’ll never cease missing my father, as I miss my mother in different ways. During the years beyond jouncing on his tanned shoulders, he helped me become myself, including a few indecent qualities. At twelve I took a tennis set from him, and nowadays I want to know, “Were you annoyed or glad?” But never mind, I think I know the answer. Another question, about the day before he died in 1973: “At Montefiore before the operation, when tears entered your eyes, did we go on talking after that?” So painful, so fathomless. Our daughter Sarah was only four when he died, our son Alek never knew him.

 

Long Lake, Maine, summer 1973. Left, Sarah Felstiner; middle, John Felstiner; right, Lou Felstiner. Lou Felstiner died three months later.

Long Lake, Maine, summer 1973. Left, Sarah Felstiner; middle, John Felstiner; right, Lou Felstiner. Lou Felstiner died three months later.

 

Why would I ponder for years, waiting so long to write? Why has this story gripped me so? Yearning, hurling into a past always incomplete, not quite graspable. Struggling in present days that can ask but not alter what once happened.

 

A vector of one’s life

A strange word, Clarie, now utterly real. Sooner or later will this shock meld with wars, lost parents, common life?

We have no recording of Lou’s voice. Instead, his V-Letter voice and touch might speak. Caringly writing and reaching toward a friend might carry ways of growth. Whatever roused and drove this story’s pages might bring ease, purpose, a chance for truth. I for one might begin again by reliving those Maine minutes when my dad took a break to sketch summer land and lake with watercolor pencils. Or imagining his edits from draft to V-Letter.

Clarie never sensed Lou’s message, signed discreetly, “Yours, Lou.” Finally a son can sense it, absorbing his father’s voice, opening toward the onetime beau, reaping bits of his own past. Discovering the V ∙ ∙ ∙ — MAIL revives my father but intensifies his loss. No, not “but”! It revives my father while it intensifies loss.

The V ∙ ∙ ∙ — MAIL letter speaks playfully and respectfully, speaking unknowingly. A dad’s approaches, their concern and mindful writing, seem discovered and recovered as well. Their wording might reach offspring as they embody a parent’s moral spirit—which varies too, like us all. Maybe moments in a path of memory, joy, and loss will survive within us as recognitions. And even bring about a vector of one’s life. Perhaps such a story might pass to someone as a sort of ethical will.

 

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This excerpt is featured content from the

Fall 2014 issue

For ordering information or to find out more about the contents of this issue, click here.

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