Friday, March 24, 2023

I saw the aurora for the first time last night!

The Northern Lights. They are both more spectacular than my photos reveal, and less, too. They are like immense silent ghosts frolicking across the sky, curtains of mist, columns of smoke, here one moment, gone the next.

Photos cannot capture the size of this ephemeral event, nor the movement. Sometimes they fill the entire sky and surround you, sometimes there are only one or two giant lonely will-o-the-whisps dancing in the north. The real thing was less colorful than our photos suggest, mostly shades of white and gray, with just the barest hint of color, but the colors I saw in photos other people took last night show that conditions were better elsewhere. But it was so neat where we were, that I cannot complain.

I got to see the lights last night because of my daughter Kivi, and because of the National Weather Service out of Duluth. I’m normally asleep by 10pm but last night Kivi and I had been texting about a story idea, and my imagination was in overdrive (I never sleep very well when I’m in creative mode, regardless if it's writing or knitwear design) and I was having trouble relaxing and was weary but wide awake. So I start scrolling through Facebook on my phone when the National Weather Service post slid through my feed alerting people that the aurora was on display.

People had posted SPECTACULAR photos with ripples of electric-kelly green and bright hot pink as responses to the NWS post, and I knew I HAD to check to see if we could see them too. So I walked barefoot (27F/-3C!) onto our deck. I didn’t have my glasses on, but I thought I could see some misty lights in the sky; I went back in, crept into our bedroom and said as quietly and gently as I could, “Chris? I think the northern lights are out. It may be a bust, and it may ruin your night of sleep, but do you want to get up to see them?”

“What?” he asked sleepily.

“The National Weather Service posted that the northern lights are out. Do you want to try and see them?”

Chris sat up. “Yes.” He was very slightly grumpy and groggy, and our past experiences trying to see them had not been worth losing sleep over, so I really hoped it would be better this time.

It was. It totally was. My first hint was when Chris followed me out onto the porch and looked up, and there was this giant column of mist rising into the sky, and Chris muttered “Jesus,” under his breath. Given our lack of religious belief, that should tell you just how amazing it was.

We’ve been trying to see the lights for years, ever since we moved to Minnesota in 2004. I think I tried to see them 2 or 3 times when we lived in in a small town near Minneapolis, but that town is south of the Twin Cities which puts the metropolitan light pollution directly between us and any aurora that might have been there. And of course, we went to Duluth and Canada regularly where the conditions are better for the lights, but we did those things almost exclusively in the summer (the aurora is a winter phenomenon). Then we moved north to the Duluth area in the fall of 2020 and we thought we'd be more likely to see the lights, but in three winters, we'd not had much luck.

It’s funny - there are definitely pros and cons of moving north. We get a lot more snow, and surprisingly, winter is noticeably longer here (only 2.5 hours north of our last home). There are also no Mexican or Asian groceries in the area (something we had easy access to in the cities), and there are no good Chinese restaurants either. Access to Mexican restaurants is marginally better. Pizza Luce, Fitgers, and Duluth Grill help make up for the lack of our favorite kinds of restaurants, though. But our summers are less hot, and it’s quieter here, we have some land and space, and it’s MUCH MUCH MUCH darker, even living only 25 miles south of Duluth (240K in the metro area, as opposed to over 3 million in the MSP metro area). Our night skies are amazing and sparkly with stars and I can see the Milky Way on every clear night, something I could never see from our house in Jordan.

Love the blue wireless access point showing just under the peak of the roof.

Anyway, I’m tired today, but last night was a gift.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

1940s: Dealing with Foreign Languages, Specifically French and Polish

When I embarked on this project, I knew I was likely to have to deal with at least one language I don't speak: French.  

Between the fact that I studied Spanish, which has a similar structure and lots of cognates with French for three years (but 30-something years ago) had a semester of French (also 30 or so years ago), and most importantly, Google Translate, I was confident I could at least get a reasonable amount of information out of any materials I came across.  Besides, I know quite a few French speakers if I run into problems.

I didn't realize this until later, but French is easy enough to work with because it also uses almost exactly the same alphabet as English. The diacritic marks are painful, though (French. Uses. So. Many. Accent. Marks!) 

For example, just to type the town where my grandparents lived for 3 years during the war, Beaumont-lès-Valence, I type the "Beaumont-l" part as normal, then hold down the letter "e" until the foreign-language variations appear in a pop-up menu, and then I select the "è," then type the "s-Valence" as normal.  

French also uses a LOT of abbreviations (way more than in English). Those aren't so bad, because English-language keyboards have a key for the apostrophe, and anyone who learns to type knows where it is.  

But get a load of these two sentences: 

Avant d’arriver en France nous ignorions complètement que les lois de l'émigration ont été changées. Nous supposions que du côté des autorités américaines il n’y aura point de difficultés, vu qu'à deux reprises le consulat des Etats-Unis a Anvers nous a admis comme ici me présenter
Before arriving in France we were completely unaware that the emigration laws had changed. We assumed that on the side of the American authorities there will be no difficulties, since on two occasions the consulate of the United States in Antwerp has admitted us (as here) to present myself.

Black text is no big deal. Still slow because I have to pay careful attention to spelling (especially painstaking because I was typing handwritten documents. I do OK reading cursive writing in my own language, but reading French cursive is much harder. Fortunately, the cursive handwriting rules are basically the same between the languages).

Purple text is also no big deal - those words include punctuation marks that I know how to type without even thinking about it (apostrophes and dashes).

Blue text IS a big deal. For those words, I have to stop for each letter that needs a mark, hold it down, and select from the menu.  

I discovered that it's MUCH faster to just type the word without the marks, set the document language to French and let the spell-checker fix the accents. I type "completement que les lois de l'emigration ont ete changees," run the spell-check and it corrects it to "complètement que les lois de l'émigration ont été changées." Easy-peasy.

And in fact, because I was transcribing cursive handwritten French, I often had to guess at spellings, and the spell-checker usually fixes those, too. Once I have a few sentences typed in and spell-checked, I plop the paragraph into Google Translate and read it carefully. If the translation is nonsensical, I go back and experiment with alternate spellings of the problem words until I get it right.  Then I give it to my mom and aunt (who I suspect are feeling a bit put-upon by this point) because it's their dad's handwriting, and there's a pretty good chance that if I cannot decipher a word, they can.

But, as it turns out, Polish has come into my world, too. My grandmother was Polish, and my grandfather was Belgian (and half Polish), and I came across two handwritten letters in Polish. Except for the occasional cognates (or where my great-uncle wrote the word in English) I couldn't decipher it AT ALL.  Oh, and the Polish alphabet has a somewhat smaller overlap with English alphabet. To reasonably type it, you need a Polish keyboard  

But, how do I find Polish speakers? I know a couple, but they've been in the US for 40+ years and they are quite Americanized. And neither have a Polish keyboard. My husband had a pretty good idea: surely there are Polish students studying in the United States, and surely one of them also has a Polish keyboard. From there, a distant cousin gave me a great idea - write to Columbia University Polish Studies department. 

So, I did.  And from there, it got easy. They announced it at a meeting, and I suddenly got an email from a student named Filip offering to do the transcription and translation.  

After he was done, I got the idea that it was somewhat hard for him, too. My great-uncle's handwriting isn't as neat as could be desired.  Polish spelling rules have also changed in the 85 years since my letters were written, and evidently my great-uncle wrote in an old-fashioned, super-formal manner that is no longer common. But Filip was engaging, smart and fun, and he did a FANTASTIC job.

Anyway, here's what Polish looks like:

Wszystkie te dokumenty są in triplicate. Bardzo możliwe że konsul będzie uważać te dokumenty za niewystarczające i zarządzi ażebyś mu dowiodła że ja jestem Twoim bratem. Dla tego celu przesyłam Ci moje świadectwo urodzenia. Jednakże moje świadectwo urodzenia powinnaś nie załączyć do tych dokumentów i pokazać konsulowi jedynie jeżeli zażąda ażeby dowiodła Ci pokrewieństwo nasze. 

All of these documents are in triplicate. It is very possible that the consul will deem these documents as insufficient and will make you prove that I am your brother. For this reason, I am sending you my birth certificate. Although, you should not attach my birth certificate to these documents, and only show it to the consul should he make you prove our kinship.

Anyway, if anyone needs some Polish translation work done, I whole-heartedly recommend Filip.  His contact info is as follows:

Filip Przybycień


Friday, March 10, 2023

1944: Truth is Stranger Than Fiction (Or: What do you do when you cannot verify an elderly man's stories?)

Some conscientious objectors WERE trained
how to parachute, but for stateside service:
Smoke jumpers (aka forest fire fighters)

The main source of information for Biscuit is the oral testimony I recorded in 1988 when Grandpa Arthur was 78 years old. He was slowing down quite a bit by then, but mentally, he was still quite sharp. 

I've managed to confirm quite a few of his stories, and when I compare his stories to earlier primary sources, his stories have remained consistent over the years.  He was also personally extremely honest, so it's safe to say he was a very reliable witness.   

However, he was not infallible.  No one is.  In something like 15,000 words of primary sources, I've only confirmed two minor mistakes:
  • The date of his landlady's murder (he was off by 3-ish weeks)
  • The size or form-factor of the tank traps his factory produced prior the invasion of western Europe in May of 1940 (his description doesn't match any tank-trap that I can find).
There are probably other minor errors, but my research has shown that he mostly got stuff right.

But what do you do, when an absolutely pivotal story, perhaps THE most important one in the whole book might not be entirely correct?

Through the efforts of some friends, I've discovered that he got some combination of details wrong about the first American he ever talked to:

In August of 1944, during the heavy fighting that followed D-Day, my grandfather (who was serving in the FFI/French Resistance) met an American conscientious objector (CO).  That in itself isn't all that unusual - by the end of WW2, there were more than 40,000 non-combatants serving in the US Military

Anyway, Grandpa had heard about the Thompson submachine guns that apparently everyone in the US military carried (not really). He asked the young American if he could see the man's Tommy gun, and to Arthur's shock, the man stated that he didn't carry any weapons at all, that his religion forbade the taking of a life.  Grandpa thought the man was crazy (but courageous), and admired his moral stance, even if he himself didn't subscribe to it.

It's funny because this story is one I grew up hearing, and so I never thought to question it.  And for the scene in the book, I don't have to rely only family lore or my memory, as he wrote about it twice and also mentioned it in his oral testimony which I recorded in 1988.  If you are interested, I've quoted his actual words at the end of this article. They are really quite powerful.

But, as it turns out, my Grandpa's CO was exceptional to the point of seeming unrealistic:
  • He was a paratrooper.
  • He was a radio operator.
  • He was part of a 15-person commando unit
  • He brought an enormous transmitter to France that apparently allowed him to talk to the pentagon in Washington DC (from France!).

But, two of my beta-readers who are knowledgeable about history were tripped up by the CO story, because:
  • Conscientious objectors who joined the military overwhelmingly served as medics and chaplains.
  • It doesn't make sense to send a non-combatant as part of such a small team, where every person's ability to fight counts.
  • Radio transmitters that were at all portable didn't have the range to send intelligible singles across the Atlantic.  Here's one that was in use: SCR-299. It's maximum range was 2300 miles, about 1700 miles short of being able to talk to Washington DC from southern France. And parachuting one in seems unlikely; they would likely have been boxes of broken glass by the time they reached the ground. These radios had their own generators and were normally housed in the back of trucks.  Sending such a unit seems unrealistic for a parachuted team with no expectation of transportation.
  • The SCR-499 was a better candidate - it was basically the same radio as the SCR-299, but was hardened for airborne use and was modular, so it could be assembled once the paratroopers got themselves and the radio to safety. It only had a range of about 100 miles but I suspect that it would have been possible to bring along a better antenna.

The SCR-299 had a range of 2300 miles, not the
4000 miles between Valence France and Washington, DC.
And the size isn't conducive to a parachute drop

SCR-299 housed in the back of a panel van.

As my beta-readers pointed out, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and just because we can't prove or disprove the CO's details, doesn't mean it didn't happen. Besides, it was wartime, and sometimes the Allies did crazy and seemingly illogical things when they had to.  Maybe a greater percentage of small units survived if they took a medic along? Maybe the guy was actually a medic and only the backup radio operator, and the main one was killed before he reached the ground?  

I do believe my grandfather met and was inspired by an American CO -- that part isn't in question.  But there is some chance he conflated two events into one, though I doubt it.  I just wish I better understood how it came to be.  

As for the radio, I suspect that either the American was pulling my grandfather's leg about being able to talk to the Pentagon, he was speaking metaphorically OR my grandfather misunderstood (he did speak English but not-quite-fluently by that point, and Grandpa did say he had difficulty understanding the American's accent.

[Added: It turns out the SCR 299/499 probably COULD talk directly to the eastern seaboard of the US, depending on time of day, antenna, and atmospheric conditions, using techniques like bouncing the signal off the ionsophere]

I've written to the U.S. Army Center of Military History to ask about the CO and the transmitter to see what they can tell me.  I'll get back to you, if they reply. 

Anyway, here's how he described it:

1974 Yellow Pad Stories:
    I kept on going and did find them. But I have not been the first FFI to contact them. They were with another company of FFI, whose patrol stopped me at gunpoint. A minute later I have been in their camp. All the Americans were asleep except one, busy with a huge and heavy trunk-like box. 
    “What is this?” I asked in English. 
    “A radio transmitter” answered a tall and handsome soldier with a strange accent, which I could hardly understand. 
    “Show me your weapons,” I asked. 
    “I don’t have any,” he answered. I could not grasp “Parachuted/behind the enemy lines, in mountains infested by them, without any weapons; did I understand you properly.” 
    “Yes Sir” he said. “I am a conscience objector and I volunteered to be parachuted as a radio operator to prove once for ever that my objection to bear arms is not due to cowardice but to my belief.” He seemed so strange, so great to me, the first man of the land which will become my country in the future. 
    In Belgium and France, the freedom of an individual to think, believe and say whatever he wishes is the utmost, but in it disappears in war time and the fact that conscience objector to [not] bear arm may be respected in wartime seemed unbelievable to me.

Feb 1988 engineering award speech:

    Then suddenly and unexpectedly Germans left our mountains in a hurry. The reason was that they have detected the fleet of the secondary landing approaching the Mediterranean Coast.
    Then came an electrifying news, An American commando was parachuted somewhere in our mountains.
I was ordered to search for them and to contact them. Here I was hiking at night, from valley to another valley, from a high pass to another high pass. I met a shepherd on a high pasture.
    “Have you seen some Americans here?”, I asked. He said "no, but 5 minutes ago Germans were here.”
    I kept going and finally joined the American commando of 13 people. They had a radio transmitter, as I remember, maybe 6 ft. by 4ft. by 4ft. It was huge, as this was a long time before transistors, printing circuits and chips. But they could talk to the Pentagon in Washington.
    I reported that I was supposed to contact the commanding officer. They told me to wait. By the way, I was only a sergeant.
    Then I started to talk to a soldier, a tall, handsome boy. I asked, please show me your Thompson submachine gun. Mine was a British made, Sten.
    He answered, “I do not have any. As a matter of fact I have no weapons at all.”
    “Why?”, I asked.
    “Because my religion does not allow me. I am a conscientious objector.”
    “But, hell, what are you doing here, beyond the enemy lines, without weapons? Your odds of survival are very, very slim.”
    “Yes,” he answered, “I know. But I wanted to show that I am a true conscientious objector, not a coward.”
    I looked with great admiration at this first American I ever met.
    No less was my respect for America, my future country, in which the religious freedom extended to conscientious objectors.

May 1988 Oral testimony: 

     You read my speech in Dallas. It was not exactly correct, because I say that the first American I ever met was the radio operator – conscientious objector. 
    I already met – I already saw at least, didn’t meet him, didn’t talk with him, a parachuted team of one American officer, one British officer and one French noncommissioned officer, who spoke as a translator. They came to Ourches, and I remember, they were thirsty so they were given water and the English and French drank this water, but the American took a pill dissolved in the water before drinking to avoid contamination. Well, that’s very normal for Americans – I am American now – to behave that way. But in France at that time, everyone laughed like hell. “What’s the matter them? Why are they different?” 
    Well, in any event I saw them, but the one whom I talked freely was only the guide about which I talked on my Dallas acceptance speech of the ... which you know the story.

According to family lore, Grandpa tried to find the man after he immigrated here in 1947, but was unsuccessful.  I also wish I knew the man's name, but that may be lost to history.

Perhaps the most famous CO: Desmond Doss receiving the Congressional
Medal of Honor in 1945 from President Harry S. Truman for
saving the lives of over 70 wounded men during WW2.


Monday, February 27, 2023

1941: Made-up details that turned out to be actually true

 I know quite a bit about my grandparents' experiences in WW2 through three main primary sources:

  • Recorded oral testimony from 1988
  • A journal he wrote in the 1940s surrounding the events of May 8-11, 1940 (the birth of his daughter and the Nazi invasion of Western Europe).
  • The Yellow Pad Stories - 30 or so handwritten pages written in (I think) 1974, not long before his oldest daughter died of MS, about his time in the Maquis.  
And when I wrote Biscuit, I used his experiences as my outline, and when I didn't know something, I sometimes made up detail to fill the gaps, just enough to make a coherent narrative.  Because not everything in it is factual, I'm calling it a historical fiction novel based on the life of my grandparents, but I am sticking to the truth where it's known, and I'm trying to make the rest at least plausible.

One of the gaps I had to fill was based on the following exchange between myself and my grandfather in the transcript of the oral testimony:
Me: You told me of the third place that you lived in Valence. What about the first two?
Arthur: No. The first, I arrived in Beaumont-lès-Valence, where I lived at three different places. I already talked about the last one to make a long story shorter.
I thought it was odd that he wouldn't talk about the first two places they lived in Beaumont, and I got the sense that he just thought of it as a waste of time, but ... (shrug)

I elected to write about only two of the three places they lived, the main one, of course, which he did tell me about:

In Beaumont-lès-Valence, we lived at two different addresses; let's not talk about the first one. Oh, no, three, three. Let's talk about the last one, which lasted the longest. We were living in a house, a home several centuries old. Which was not used for a long, long time. It had inside one room and no floor, and the floor was dirt, hard dirt because it never rained inside, and the roof was covered with straw. Thatched roof.
But I did write about a second place - when they first moved to Beaumont, I wrote that they moved in with a widow who took them in, subletting her extra bedroom. The widow's home served as a breather for them. A small place of calm and safety before she dies, and because they cannot afford to pay all of the rent themselves, they move into the home where they were to live for the next three years.

Anyway, last summer, my aunt sent me a folder of materials, letters, telegrams, postcards, etc., which provided some missing details. And two of them gave their return address in late 1941, right after they moved to Beaumont.  

Chez Madame Charles Mouriquand means, house of Mrs. Charles Mouriquand.  The second address (that's my grandfather's handwriting) says "Veuve," which means ... widow.  The house of Widow Marquand.  

Holy mackerel... I just made that up, and it turns out to be true! They really did live with a widow.

My historian friend in Etoile told me that in 1936 when Monsieur Mouriquand was still alive, the house was in the Les Granges neighborhood, and there are many houses now in the same place, and my friend is looking for which address is the actual house. He also told me her name: Maria Marthe.

Oof. I should find out when Madame Maria Mouriquand died - because I might have contradicted a historical fact. 

Custom-modifications to a gardening tool-belt pattern

Note: You can click on any image to see a bigger version.

Chris modeling his nearly-finished gardening belt.

    So, for Christmas (2022) I made shop aprons or tool-belts for my brothers and mom, using Spoonflower fabrics that reflected each person's interests.   It was a blast, and they were well-received.

    One of the patterns I used was the Helen's Closet Dogwood Apron from an indie-pattern designer. It looks like an apron that waitstaff might use, but it's designed for easy customization, for any activity where you might need a variety of different tools.  Note the cool pockets in the images below (I love pockets!). I thought it was a good candidate for gardening tools, so I offered to make one for my husband. Note: the pattern designer calls it an advanced-beginner pattern. I personally would call it an intermediate pattern - the welt pocket opening is a little tricky.

Image from the pattern designer.

Image from the pattern designer.

    Chris wasn't sure he'd wear or use a tool belt (no matter how well-designed it was) but he was willing to give it a go, as long as I understood he'd try it, but that he might not end up finding it useful.  I like a challenge, so I agreed.

    Right off the bat, I knew I wanted to modify the pattern: 

  • I used 2"  heavy-duty cotton webbing for the waistband instead of matching fabric.
  • I didn't bother with the snap loop, and moved U-shaped loop on the left, to the right.
  • I placed the buckle on one side at the hip, not in the middle of the back. Much easier to manage on one side. (I probably should have checked with Chris on that one - he finds a center-back buckle easier. If the belt proves useful, I'll pick out the stitches and re-attach it so the buckle is centered).
But what other changes should I make? His response:  "I want one big pocket in the middle for general use, one pocket for a gardening pen, one pocket for secateurs, and a way to attach my hori-hori."* Then he brought me all three items so that I could use them for sizing purposes.

So that meant the following changes:
  • I made the height of the bottom pocket band about 3/4" taller/deeper, so the gardening clippers (hopefully) couldn't fall out.
  • The bottom pocket band has only three pockets:  a narrow pen pocket with an adjusted bottom depth so it wouldn't slip too far down on the left side (his right when worn; he's right-handed).
  • A 2.5" wide pocket on the right side for the gardening shears. It's lined with faux leather so the blades wouldn't cut through the fabric (or stab my husband).  I also made the front of the holster slightly wider than the back, so when I sewed the edges together, the front bowed out a little, making it easy to drop the blades in without catching them on the fabric. I hand-sewed the edges of the holster/liner inside the pocket, so he couldn't accidentally insert the shears between the layers.
  • Loops or ties on the side to hold the hori-hori holster in place.  The spade comes with a hard-plastic sheath with an attached belt loop, so I simply hung the loop from the apron belt. The belt loop on the spade is about 2.5" wide, and the webbing and buckle are just small enough to slip through. So he can remove it and place it on another belt if he wants to.
I also had him pick the fabric he wanted from Spoonflower and a favorite was a rainbow of vegetables on a white background. The print came from an indie designer and I requested they add the same print but on a black background (so it wouldn't look instantly dirty), and they were happy to create that option. So I bought one yard printed on Spoonflower's heavy-denim fabric. I used tightly-woven cotton batiks as the lining and backing fabrics.  

Note: I washed and dried the denim three times once it arrived.  Denim is a "progressive shrinker" and to avoid it shrinking weirdly after the garment is made, you should wash/dry it at least 3 times (flannel is another fabric like that).

At first, I thought the hori-hori should have ties, as I thought ties were better to add flexibility, should he want to put something other than the hori-hori there.  But the fabric ties were stiff and hard to use:


    So, I removed them, and fashioned loops that are fitted to the hori-hori scabbard, and that worked much better:


Pen pocket and small
decorative pocket above.

Big middle pocket for general use.

Welt pocket flap

Hidden welt pocket

Secateur pocket lined with heavy-duty faux leather. 
I added the leather lining after the belt was constructed,
and should be easily replaceable if it wears through.

Belt as a whole

What I would do differently: the welt pocket should be much bigger. It's only a little wider than the flap, and 2-3 (?) inches shorter than the height of the apron itself.  I would make it 3-4" wider (or perhaps nearly as wide as the apron?) and extend down to the bottom edge of the apron body.

* For the non-gardeners: a gardening pen is like a Sharpie, but with UV-resistant ink, secateurs are gardening shears/clippers, and a hori-hori is a Japanese gardening spade/knife/soil-depth measurement tool.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

1940: In which Arthur smuggles a letter to America

     On pages 60 and 61 of my grandfather's immigration folder, there were two letters from my grandfather to two different people. The first was to a Monsieur Tuck, the (vice) president of the Belgian American Education Foundation in Brussels.  Here's the letter: (click on the image to enlarge it). 

     Here's a (rough) translation of the letter:

Brussels, July 15, 1940.
286 May Ave.

President of the “Belgian American
Educational Foundation Inc.

      I offer you my apologies. I so unnecessarily importunate you. Please attribute it to my great nervousness due to the present situation.
   I enclose herewith the letter that you may send to the addressee after arrival in the United States. If however you think it is better not to take it - tear it up without further ado.
      If you were to return to Belgium soon, as you told me about, could you not notify my brother-in-law, the recipient of this letter, before leaving the United States? This only if the time available and your occupations would allow you to do something for an individual.
      Thanking you and once again presenting my apologies, please believe, Sir, in my deepest respect.

P.S. Address of my brother-in-law:

Engineering Laboratories Inc.
709 Kennedy Building

Note that this letter has my grandfather's name and (then) current address in Brussels, and it has his brother-in-law's address in Tulsa.

Here's the second letter (which immediately followed the letter to Mr. Tuck in the folder), from my grandfather to my great-uncle, who was already in the United States.

    Here's a rough translation:

Brussels, July 15, 1940.


Engineering Laboratories Inc.

709 Kennedy Building


      My dear Jacques, 

      Our child was born on May 8th. The state of health of the young mother formally prevented us from leaving at the start of the war. We left unnecessarily by taxi on May 15 and arrived in very sad conditions in Montreuil in France, from where we could no longer continue the journey. After a restorative rest of 3 weeks on a farm, we returned to Brussels. I temporarily resumed work at the Company that previously occupied me. We are all in good health.

      Currently it is impossible to go to the United States. Besides, we don't have a visa. Until the day when Washington suspended the issuance of visas. So we wait. [Handwritten: Refuge!]

      We have no news of your parents.

      Paul is in the south of France.

      We embrace you wholeheartedly

    At first glance they don't appear to be related, but upon further inspection, there are some interesting connections and oddities:

  • They are dated the same day: July 15, 1940, nine weeks after the invasion of western Europe.
  • The letters are on exactly the same kind/color/weight of paper whereas everything else in the file was on a variety of papers, different colors, sizes, weights. This implies that they were written not just on the same day, but at the same time/place and by the same person.
  • The two letters have the same goofy formatting, with an approximately three-inch (7.5 cm) left margin, and almost no right margin, as if my grandfather improperly set up the left margin on his typewriter, then didn't bother to reset it when he typed the second letter.
  • The letter to Mr. Tuck has my grandfather's name and return address, while the letter to my Uncle Jake is not signed and has no address on it, which implies that Jake would know who it was from, and where he lived. It also implies that if the two letters were separated, and if the letter to Jake were intercepted that Grandpa Arthur didn't want anyone to be able to trace it back to him.
  • I also think the letters are carbon copies. If you look closely at the text, it's slightly smooshy, like a carbon-paper copy would be.  But, I can't be sure about that.  If I'm right then these were just copies that Grandpa kept.  If I'm wrong about them being carbon copies, then it implies that either a) Grandpa never sent the letters, or b) Mr. Tuck gave BOTH letters to Uncle Jake, and Jake returned the to Arthur after the war.  Given that the letters are towards the back of the folder (pages 60-61 out of 92), and that the folder is generally (though not entirely) in backwards chronological order, then they were placed in the folder very early on. So I think Grandpa never sent them, or they are copies. 

The letter to Jake also provided us some information that we didn't have before:
  • The town in France where they stayed after they joined the French Exodus.  Montreuil-sur-Mer in the department of Pas-de-Calais in northern France.
  • The date they left Belgium (May 15th), and while we don't know when they returned, we know at very least that there were back in town by the date of the letter (July 15). BUT, it's 165 miles (265 km) from Brussels to Montreuil, and Grandpa said the roads were so clogged they couldn't go more than 10 miles (16 km) per day. That means they arrived in Montreuil 16 days after they left Brussels. That means they arrived in Montreuil on May 31.  They stayed for three weeks and returned (easily, no clogged roads) and returned on or around June 21.  It is of course, still guesswork, but it's a far more educated guess.

So, who was this Mr. Tuck that my grandfather was writing to?  The Belgian American Education Foundation is still around. And on their history page, I found someone named Tuck mentioned twice (on the "First Quarter Century" and the "Second Quarter Century" pages):

During the invasion of Belgium in May 1940, the Brussels office continued its activities and the officers undertook to render emergency help to former Belgian fellows and Professors as well as to those organizations with which the Foundation was closely linked. A new Commission for Relief in Belgium, Inc. was incorporated on May 16, 1940, by means of a direct gift of the Foundation, to render such service as it could in Belgium. The Secretary in Belgium, Mr. Jacques van der Belen returned to the Brussels office on June 3, 1940 from his army service. The Vice-President in Belgium Mr. Tuck left Belgium on July 17, 1940. Communication of the New York office with the Brussels office ceased in December 1941.

In the face of declining B.A.E.F. resources, the first reverse flow of funds among the sister Foundations of B.A.E.F. occurred in 1956. The Francqui Foundation donated annually $8,000 and later $10,000 to B.A.E.F. in order to permit two Belgian B.A.E.F. Fellows to be brought to the United States, under the designation of Edgar Rickard Fellow and Millard Shaler Fellow. These two men were early officers of B.A.E.F. Moreover, Millard K. Shaler and William Hallam Tuck were the first Representatives of B.A.E.F. in Belgium, before they each became Vice-President in Belgium

The history page states that Mr. Tuck left Belgium two days after my grandfather wrote those letters. Did the man receive my grandfather's letters? Did he carry them? I may never know, but I AM going to write to the BAEF to see if they have any knowledge. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

1944: Transcribing and translating an old handwritten letter

     Ok, I'd like to whinge a little about the difficulty of translating a letter written almost 80 years ago.  It's hard work.  It's in French (which I mostly don't know), it's in cursive (which I do read, but still...), it's tiny and cramped, it's written on super thin onion-skin paper (so that you can sometimes see the writing on the reverse side) and the paper is sometimes stained.  It's about 3000 handwritten words on only two sheets (front and back, so four pages) of paper.  He writes between lines sometimes and sideways on the left margin, and sometimes he crosses words out.  Take a look at page one to get a sense of the project (then multiply that by four).

Page 1 of the letter

    Before, during, and after WW2, my grandfather kept a folder of information that he needed to get an immigration visa to the USA. It included about 80+ pages worth of:

  • Affidavits from Great Uncle Jake (my grandmother's brother) who was already in the US, swearing that he would not allow my grandparents and their children to become public charges and that he wouldn't allow the children to work before the age of 18.  These also included notarized letters from his banker swearing to the amounts of money he kept in his accounts, his employer, stating how long he'd worked for them, and how much he made, 1945 income tax returns, and lists of US. savings bonds he'd purchased. His naturalization certificate number, etc.
  • Letters from Jake to the US Foreign Service.
  • Telegrams back and forth between my grandparents and uncle, sometimes urging my grandparents to flee to any other country that they could.
  • Letters from Uncle Jake to my grandparents and vice-versa.
  • Inquiries to the American Red Cross
  • Letters from my grandfather to a diplomatic official begging for a visa, and a reply from that official saying that he had no power to issue a visa, that those decisions were made in Washington DC by the State Department and to STOP ASKING HIM.
  • Etc.
    He saved that folder for the rest of his life, it was that important to him. After he died, it wound up in my aunt's possession, and last summer she sent it to me.  I finally got around to scanning it about 10 days ago, and now I'm working through it.  And the contents tell a wonderful story, of desperation, love,  heartbreak, and family.

    The letter I'm currently working on is one of the letters from my grandparents to my great-uncle that was in that folder. It is (I believe) a draft of a letter that he mailed to my great-uncle right after postal communications were re-established after their area was finally liberated in the fall of 1944.  There are enough crossed-out words, that I suspect that he re-wrote it and sent a cleaner version to my uncle, then kept this version as a copy (or perhaps my great-uncle returned it to him after the war?).

    The letter is tremendously difficult to work with. To put it in perspective, the four pages are very slightly smaller than a standard sheet of printer paper, yet contain approximately 3000 words (that's about 10-12 typed, double-spaced pages). To put that into perspective -- that's a term paper's worth of writing.

    Making it doubly difficult, is that it's written in French, and I speak very little French. At this point, I'm pretty comfortable reading Grandpa's cursive, but I when I'm reading his writing in English, I do have to depend on context clues to read some of the words, and when I'm transcribing French, I lose those context clues.  

    So, I type it in word by word, letter-by-letter, trying to determine the spelling as best I can. The difference between m and n and u can be very subtle in cursive! Or i and e, or v and r. or L and T if the latter isn't crossed. I ignore the diacritic marks during this stage (French uses an insane number of accents and other markings, and they are a complete pain in the ass and require I press and hold the letter I want, which brings up that letter's mark options so I can choose between say, à and á or â).  Fortunately, I've gained enough experience reading French over the last year that at least I'm starting to recognize the more common words, and don't have to transcribe them letter-by-letter.  

    Once, I have it typed in, I spell-check it. I have the spell-checker language set to French, and it adds in all the accent marks for me. But, I compare each and every word it flags as a misspelling to the original to see if it looks like a plausible transcription before accepting it.  

    Next, I copy and paste the text into Google Translate, and anywhere the translation is nonsensical, I go back and try different spellings of the problem words until I find the one that looks like it matches the handwritten word, AND makes sense once it's translated.  That's basically where I get my context clues. And what remains - that's when I get help.  I average about 1-3 words problem words per several sentences or about 10-15 or so words per page

    Finally, I send the text with a screenshot of the appropriate portion of the original letter to my mother and aunt, both of whom know their father's handwriting better than I do and ask them to check the remaining words that I was unable to transcribe/translate such that it is recognizable.  Unlike me, they do know French -- they grew up speaking French at home -- though they have both told me they are pretty rusty as they've both been speaking primarily English for more than a half-century, and only English for a couple of decades. :-)

    Then, if there are any remaining words that the three of us cannot figure out (about 3 words per page), I go to a few native French speakers I know and have them look them over. 

    But, the good news is: The letter is pure gold.  There is some new information in that letter, and it also confirms some guesses I've made.  It also shares some of the more mundane daily life stuff that Grandpa didn't tell me 44 years later when I interviewed him.   Anyway, it's exciting and frustrating all at once.  

Thursday, January 5, 2023

How would an AI handle my stories?

 My brother sent me this link, and asked me to play with it:

And the results are .... interesting. Both amazingly, surprisingly good (like it writes better than many people), but also a little flat and emotionless. 

So here is my first interaction:

"Tell a story from the point of view of a member of the French Resistance from WW2."

Here is what it gave me:

     It was the year 1943 and I was a member of the French Resistance, fighting against the Nazi occupation of my beloved country. My name was Marie, and I was only 25 years old, but I had already seen and done more than most people do in a lifetime.

     I lived in a small village in the countryside, not far from the city of Lyon. Our group was made up of about a dozen men and women, all of us united in our desire to free France from the grip of the Germans. We did whatever we could to sabotage their efforts and aid the Allied forces however possible. 
     One of my main tasks was to gather intelligence and pass it on to the British and American spies who came through our village. I would listen to the gossip of the Nazi soldiers and try to overhear any useful information, then write it down and pass it on. It was dangerous work, but I knew it was important. 
     One day, I received a message that a high-ranking German officer was going to be passing through our village, and that he would be carrying important documents with him. This was a golden opportunity to get our hands on some valuable information, and I knew I had to take the risk.
     I enlisted the help of a few of my fellow resistance fighters, and together we set up a plan to intercept the officer's convoy as it passed through the village. We chose a spot on the road where the convoy would have to slow down, and when the time came, we emerged from our hiding places and attacked the vehicles with all the weapons we had.
     It was a chaotic and violent scene, but somehow we managed to emerge victorious. We seized the documents and made off with them into the woods, where we took them back to our safe house and began to study them. 
     As it turned out, the documents were even more valuable than we had hoped. They contained detailed plans for a major offensive by the Germans, and with this information, we were able to alert the Allies and give them a crucial advantage. 
     I will never forget the sense of pride and accomplishment I felt as we sat around the table, studying those documents and knowing that we had made a real difference. The war was not over yet, but we had struck a blow for freedom, and that was a feeling I would cherish for the rest of my life.

Not bad!   It's clear and easy to read and follow.  Nothing jumps out at me, other than it wasn't very exciting. It also seems a bit emotionless and lacks detail.

So next, I asked it to re-write a scene (that I had written) but from a different character's point of view.

 Specifically, my instructions were, "Re-write this scene from Roma's point of view."

The side-by-side format is a little hard to read. I'd advise reading until you reach the double-line break, then move to the right.

My Scene (Arthur's POV) AI's Scene (Roma's POV) My comments
    Arthur drove Roma to the hospital then helped her inside.  A doctor took her into an exam room, and Arthur started to take off his coat, then realized the room was very cold, that he could still see his breath.  
    The doctor brought Roma back out.  “She’s not quite ready, perhaps another few hours.  There’s no one else in the delivery room today, so you may wait with her there, until it’s time.”  The doctor led them to the delivery room. “We lack fuel to heat the entire hospital, so the only heated rooms are the ORs and the delivery rooms.”  That explained why the lobby was so cold.

    Roma watched as Arthur drove them to the hospital, then helped her inside. A doctor led her into an exam room, and she noticed that the room was very cold, with Arthur's breath visible in the air. The doctor informed her that she was not quite ready to give birth and that they could wait in the delivery room until it was time. Roma noticed that the lobby was also freezing, and the doctor explained that due to a lack of fuel, only the operating rooms and delivery rooms were heated. Notice that it did NOT add a description of the exam to Roma's scene.

Roma also only noted Arthur's breath in the cold, not her own.
    Arthur pulled a book out of his pocket. It was a new copy of Madam Curie by Éve Curie. They’d left their first copy behind in Brussels. “Shall I read to you? It might help pass the time.”  
    Roma smiled — she was between contractions — and said, “Yes, I’d like that very much.”
    So he read to her, for hours, pausing when the contractions came, or when a doctor or nurse came in to check on her. After one such pause, he asked her, “So what are the names we picked out again?” 
    “Jean after your commanding officer, Jean Georges or Sylvie Jacqueline,” she reminded him instantly. When Liliane was born, they’d chosen a name with a common English cognate, and they’d done the same thing this time, still planning to go to America someday.  And while they weren't religious, the Jewish prohibition against naming a child after a living relative perhaps still informed their decisions. To name the child after Isaac, or Teofila or Lola meant that they had lost that tiny bit of hope that Roma’s family had survived. 

    Arthur pulled out a book, Madam Curie by Éve Curie, and offered to read to Roma to pass the time. Roma happily agreed and listened as Arthur read to her, pausing during contractions or when a doctor or nurse came in to check on her. Arthur asked her about the names they had chosen for the baby, and Roma reminded him that they had chosen Jean Georges or Sylvie Jacqueline, both with common English cognates and not after any living relatives, in keeping with their plans to someday move to America and the Jewish tradition. The AI did a lot of summarizing here, and got rid of the dialog. The summarization got weird at times. It's also not clearly from Roma's POV, and is kind of from both POVs.
    Finally, something seemed to change in Roma, and she said, “Arthur, I think it’s time.”  
    He opened the door, and went to find the doctor, but the man was already on his way in to check on Roma. 
    Arthur remained in the hallway outside, his hands in his pockets, and he paced to keep warm.  The doctor came out, and said, “the baby is coming soon; please go to the lobby.”
    “May I retrieve my coat?” Arthur asked, rubbing his cold hands together.
    “Yes, of course.” 
    Arthur collected his coat, hat, and gloves, then left the room, pulling them on as he left. Two nurses came in, and the doctor closed the door behind them.

    Finally, Roma felt that it was time to give birth and told Arthur. He left to find the doctor, but the doctor was already on his way in. Roma watched as Arthur remained in the hallway outside, his hands in his pockets as he tried to stay warm by pacing. The doctor eventually told Arthur to go to the lobby, and Arthur collected his coat, hat, and gloves before leaving the room. It did a reasonably good job switching at the beginning of the paragraph, but the POV got unclear in the middle and end.
    Arthur was freezing. The waiting area was very cold and he could see his breath. If he sat down, he got cold, and soon began shivering.  So he’d get back up, blow into his hands to warm them, and bounce and pace and run in place to warm up again. But then he got tired, and sat back down, only to start the freeze-thaw cycle again.  
    He was terribly uncomfortable, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask for a blanket. The patients needed the blankets far more than he did. His nose was cold and his toes were numb.

    Roma was grateful to be in the warm delivery room as Arthur struggled to stay warm in the freezing waiting area. He tried to keep active by pacing, bouncing, and running in place, but eventually sat down, only to start shivering again. Roma knew he was uncomfortable, but he didn't ask for a blanket, knowing the patients needed them more. She worried about him as he sat with numb toes and a cold nose, shivering and chattering his teeth. Same as above - the POV is Roma's at the beginning of the paragraph and it added a nice little detail about how she felt about being in the warm room.  But here's where it got bad: Roma was busy giving birth, and it didn't describe her birth experience at all.
She is also describing (as if with ESP) what Arthur was doing and feeling, even though he wasn't in the room.
    After two hours, the smiling doctor came to find him. “Mr. Lubinski, you have a lovely, healthy daughter, and your wife is just fine.”  
    Relief poured through Arthur, both because he knew his family was safe, but also because now he could get warm.  “May I see her?” Arthur was shivering, and his teeth chattered as he spoke.  He had been planning to get up and begin his warm up routine, but stepping into the heated delivery room sounded much better.  
    “Yes. Come in, warm up, and see your new daughter.”  
    After two hours, the doctor came to inform Arthur that Roma had given birth to a healthy daughter and was doing well. Arthur was relieved and eager to see his new daughter and warm up in the heated delivery room. The doctor welcomed him in, and Arthur finally got the chance to get warm and meet his new daughter. POV not well switched here at all.

So, there you have it. As a storyteller, the AI is surprisingly good, but not as good as well ... a human storyteller (like me!). At this time, it doesn't understand how to integrate dialog with narrative, and it does an incomplete job of switching the POV. It also doesn't know to add to the story - what were the things Roma experienced, that Arthur didn't see?