Article - Autumn 2012

Love in Wartime

Print

The epistolary romance of a Los Alamos scientist and a Radcliffe junior destined for poetic renown

The author and her husband in Amarillo, Texas, 1945 (Courtesy Maxine Kumin)

By Maxine Kumin

September 4, 2012


 

 

For half a century referred to in the family as the long-lost love letters, they were only recently discovered in the most predictable location—the farmhouse attic, snugged under several abandoned picture frames that formed a false bottom in an old metal camp trunk. Remarkably, thanks to their insulated incarceration, they survived in fragile but still-legible condition—575 letters exchanged between Cabot Hall, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was a junior at Radcliffe College, and P.O. Box 180, Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Victor, a Harvard graduate, was a sergeant in the U.S. Army. The Santa Fe address was a fiction, one that the top brass worked hard to preserve; Victor was actually stationed “on The Hill,” as it was locally known, at the Los Alamos Laboratory, where he was one of the soldier-scientists working to develop the atomic bomb.

We met on Patriots’ Day, April 19, 1945, on a blind date. During the five remaining days of Victor’s furlough, there was no war. We did not speak of FDR, one week dead. We did not know that V-E Day lay two and a half weeks ahead. We walked for miles along the Charles River. We went to the zoo. We went to the ballet. Evenings we repaired to a booth in the dark fastness of the Hotel Lafayette bar, nursing drinks until my curfew loomed: 10 o’clock on weekdays, midnight on weekends. Was this called falling in love in less than one week? Or was this Marvell’s “vegetable love” that would “grow vaster than empires, and more slow?” We had months and months to find out.

In his first letter, Victor described his heroic route back to New Mexico—one train from Boston to St. Louis, another to Kansas City, a third to Pueblo, Colorado, followed by a bus to Santa Fe: “The Road Back” was not nearly as unpleasant as I had expected but for a four hour stretch of standing on my head (it was the only way I could fit into the car). … The bus trip from Pueblo to Santa Fe … was nothing less than overpowering. As we rode easily down from Las Vegas to Santa Fe the metamorphosis from day to night took place painlessly as the brilliant sunset faded. And then the mountains, particularly “Starvation Peak,” standing erect in all their war-like glory. There was so much beauty that only a poet or a painter could capture it—the pueblo huts, the farms, and most of all the native Mexican Indians, people living life on their doorsteps and in their huts lit by kerosene lamps.

He is careful not to mention the last leg of the journey, a 36-mile climb up to Los Alamos, set more than 7,000 feet above sea level on a high desert plateau. Once it had been a boys’ boarding school, a site laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer had chosen for its seclusion. Now it housed the labs, machine shops, barracks, and dining facilities that had transformed the mesa into a bustling town.

On May 8, the war in Europe ended. I wrote the following to Victor: At 12:30 today a sea of white-capped officers and WAVES and army boys stood at attention in the Yard facing the steps of Mem[orial] chapel and the student body and good citizens of Cambridge stood on the steps of Widener. [Dean Willard] Sperry [of Harvard Divinity School] was at his simple best and altho it always strikes me that there is something incongruous in hearing the words of an unknown Deity echo hollowly thru a scientific apparatus known as a loudspeaker, it was a fine thing to hear these hundreds and hundreds of people sing their national anthem, while the choir on the chapel steps with their crimson and black robes flapping in the breeze made themselves heard over all the rest. Long sentences always seem to get the better of me, don’t they? Especially today, I think, because I was really so impressed. There was a color guard of Old Glory and the Harvard crest and sailors with guns—and high over University Hall three magnificent huge flags are flying—the stars and stripes, the unionjack, and … the hammer and sickle. Yup, the red flag high in Harvard Yard. There was a bright spring sun and the lawns had been freshly cut, the Yard a huge mass of people full of a warm relief, if not elation, the chapel bells and the organ music … we were rather carried away with it all. People seemed to be less jubilant than thoughtful, tho, knowing we are only halfway thru the job.

His rather doleful reply presents a sharp contrast: Thanks for the wee bit of godliness. V-E day was celebrated here in the same spirit, but a different manner. Free beer and sandwiches; a little guzzling, a movie, to bed. And so I honored the end of the European war.

Our early letters cautiously skirted mention of the intimacy that had begun to develop between us. We set about exploring half a dozen schemes to see each other again as soon as possible. A trip to Little Rock, where my oldest brother was stationed after serving in the North African and Italian campaigns, seemed feasible. I would keep his wife company and help with the new baby (I knew nothing about babies). I concocted a trip to Amarillo, Texas, where my newly divorced uncle was a captain in the army and his daughter, Bobby, my girlhood chum, was a dental technician. The price exacted for the train ticket to Amarillo, bought by my reluctant parents, was for me to spend two weeks in Little Rock on baby duty afterward.

On June 11: I asked Bobby to wire me about reservations in Amarillo; if the fates are kind, I’ll arrive there on Wednesday the 27th and leave there for Little Rock the following Monday. If I don’t sound too excited about it, the fault is all Oscar’s [my typewriter] because he’s all tuckered out from typing a 30-page paper on imagery in Henry James and so you mustn’t expect too many !!!s from him. The enthusiasm is all ours, Vic, but I must admit that mine is very tempered with a weight of responsibility … which amounts in my befuddled brain to being “mature and sensible.” … I’ll be on pins and needles until I hear from you definitely. I guess I just can’t believe that our plans are working out, and that may account for my sobriety. It seems too good to be true that we’ll see each other again in just about two more weeks.

Victor is almost as somber: This will probably be the last letter you’ll receive before I leave, if all goes well. Since I cannot fly without priority and priority is limited to officers, it means a twelve-hour bus trip which should get me to Amarillo 7:00 a.m. Thurs- day, June 28. The inevitable return must begin at noon Sunday. … And so, pursuing my normal routine of reveille, inspection, retreat I try to speed the burning of the days left before I see you. The bad feature of this, of course, is that the process of combustion will accelerate beginning June 27th and almost before it has begun, my 3-day pass will be over.

Only a few hours after I settled into Bobby’s apartment, a Western Union telegram was delivered, dated 7:02 p.m. June 27: “PASS SCHEDULE SCRAMBLED ARRIVE MIDNIGHT TONIGHT WILL TRY TO REACH YOU STAY AWAKE VIC”

Neither of us remembers the moment of our reunion, although I am certain either Bobby or my uncle shepherded me to the bus terminal. I know that we spent the rest of the night in separate quarters. I was assigned the pullout couch in my cousin’s living room, and Victor was shunted elsewhere.

It was 105 degrees in Amarillo the next day. My uncle lent us his car, and we spent several hours in an air-conditioned cinema, making out in the back row. When we exited, Victor had forgotten where he had parked the car. I remembered only that it was green. It took us half an hour to find it.

The day before Victor was to return, my uncle, on his own initiative, used his connections to reserve a prepaid hotel room for us in Albuquerque. Perhaps the fact that he was cohabitating with an army WAC elicited his sympathy for the lovelorn pair. We were surprised and grateful; the distance Victor had to travel back to Santa Fe would be narrowed, thus extending his leave. We took a late-night bus, which broke down in the desert. While the driver spent an hour with his head under the vehicle’s hood, the passengers all disembarked to enjoy the cool air. There was a gibbous moon. The cactus roses were in bloom. Twenty-four hours of privacy in Albuquerque ensued.


We both wrote to each other on July 2. Victor had seen me off an hour before his bus was scheduled to leave. My letter begins, Although I only left you some hours ago, it seems much longer and Alby and the weekend far away. … [T]his is not the way to start a letter to you, sweet, telling you that I miss you and I love you—but just wait. I’ll think of something else to say yet.

His letter is just as lovesick: To have seen you cry was the greatest thrill of my life … one of the things I shall never forget. … And now the everlasting struggle, the gnawing wait. … I’d like to be completely senseless for eight months. But since that’s impossible, I’ll conjure you up wherever I go. The pleasure of seeing you in every tree, in every cloud and every mountainside—that will have to keep me sane.

I was home in Philadelphia with my parents, struggling to get through the several weeks before I could return to Cabot Hall, when the news broke. August 7: Well, the most exciting news of the war—and of all time—broke today: the atomic bomb. We’ve been glued to the radio since 5 o/c when we first got news of it. Somehow the idea of harnessing the atom is almost too big to get around in a single thought—and it carries a lot of sobering thoughts with it. Obviously the nation that was first to discover the secret is the conqueror; and along with the confident thought that the war with Japan is now just about a fait accompli comes the tremendous realization that man has finally discovered how to destroy civilization. I don’t know if the comprehension of this will be the necessary restraining influence on a world armed to the teeth—on a world that suddenly awakens to a vast new knowledge that will revolutionize warfare. … I have that “Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour” feeling. … What a horrible world this is when mass extermination comes to be spoken of so calmly and with such calculation.

A powerful moment of dramatic irony here—I obviously had no idea that Victor’s “doing something technical” in Santa Fe involved him in the development and detonation of the atomic bomb.

Victor, the same day: One ear is still glued to the radio speaker. Over and over I’ve heard it. … This is it, and my emotions vacillate between ecstasy and real nausea. … [M]y uncle’s three words, war is obscene, apply more than ever. And this, though it is the crowning achievement not only of the past year’s trials but also of much of the time I spent at Woods Hole, makes me sick. Here I am, wallowing in the success of the most daring experiment ever attempted and the most important development in the history of civilized man. What it all means politically, economically, morally is earthshaking. … The successful mastering of the technique for releasing atomic energy (fission) can make life on earth vastly better—or it can destroy it. … I am naively proud to have contributed to it. July 16 was the first test—made here on the New Mexico desert at Alamogordo—and we stayed up all night to await the flash which was supposed to be visible in a radius of one hundred miles. News of its success made us want to write to everyone too soon but we were still bound to secrecy. We knew it would be only weeks before the launching over Japan.

But there was more. One day later: Dr. Oppenheimer thanked the men of the Special Engineering Detachment [to which Victor belonged], making it clear to everyone that detonating the bomb could not have been accomplished without their assistance. … For half an hour he spoke on the moral aspect of the discovery—of his intense hope these past months that the Japanese would surrender before the bomb could be dropped … that America is now using this awful weapon was decided by the highest men in government … that the necessity for using it makes the cruelty of it no less sickening, that the thought of killing perhaps a quarter of a million people in one blow rests heavily on his soul. He also stressed that possession of the fundamentals belonged to no one group of men. Such talk renews my faith in humanity. … You’re now free to tell anyone where I am and what I’ve been working on and also to discuss anything that is revealed publicly.


This was the first time I had heard of Woods Hole, or the circuitous path that led from Victor’s graduation in 1943 to Los Alamos in September 1944. Initially he planned to volunteer for the Naval Air Corps before he could be drafted into the army, but E. Bright Wilson Jr., the professor of physical chemistry who had been his adviser at Harvard, discouraged him. Wilson asked, would you rather be a dead hero or make a significant contribution to the war effort? He offered Victor a chance to join his group at the Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, where he was the director of the Woods Hole Underwater Explosives Research Lab.

Victor rented a room in a retired fisherman’s house. He and the other bachelors on the staff ate in an old Dutchland Farms ice cream shop, where their meals were prepared. At some point, three of his colleagues disappeared overnight, their living quarters mysteriously vacated. A steady stream of visitors from the Navy and elsewhere came to follow the program’s evolution. George Kistiakowsky, a Harvard physical chemistry professor, dropped in several times to consult with Wilson. They discussed the progress of Victor’s underwater detonation experiments.

And then in June 1944, the hammer fell. Even though Wilson and other Woods Hole higher-ups tried to get him deferred, Victor’s draft board was determined to meet its quota. He was summarily drafted into the army and sent on June 6, the day of the cross-channel invasion by the Allies, to Fort Devens, Massachusetts. From there he was shipped to Alabama for basic training in the infantry. After 16 weeks of up to 25-mile marches with a 20-pound pack, he was called back from final field maneuvers, given a train ticket to Santa Fe, ordered not to talk about his destination to anyone en route, and on arrival to call a local telephone number from a specific public telephone booth.

Victor never knew who ordered him plucked from the infantry and reassigned to Los Alamos, but when he met them on The Hill the morning after he arrived, he felt certain it was his two Harvard professors, Wilson and Kistiakowsky. A few days later, he encountered the colleagues who had gone missing from Woods Hole.

I don’t know when I found out these details, certainly not until the war was over. Whatever Victor was doing in Santa Fe, he couldn’t talk about it. He couldn’t talk about the male civilian, a putative German spy, who visited the Woods Hole facility and went from room to room chatting with lab personnel. Or that a chain-link fence went up overnight and a guard was posted at the only entrance to the institute the next day. He couldn’t talk about the person who sidled up to him at the Harvey House restaurant stopovers en route to Santa Fe, each time asking, “Hey, soldier. Where ya going?” He never knew whether he was being tested by the brass or spied on by a Nazi.

On August 9, Victor continued his dramatic commentary: The second atomic bomb has been dropped. Nagasaki is shrouded in a death-pall of smoke. We wishfully expect the surrender to be announced momentarily but honestly we expect it will take from 30 days to six months.

Unfortunately, I failed to date most of my letters beyond assigning them the days of the week. Here is part of my response to the news: I am so glad that you’re not a secret anymore, or at least only technical details are secrets. I almost turned into an india rubber ball on Monday when the news story broke and Santa Fe and Los Alamos made the front page, and somehow, probably irrationally, I am as proud of your part in this greatest discovery in history as if it had been your brain child alone. Your philosophical discussion of its implications is so superior to anything I might attempt to say now that I will avoid redundancy. … The Potsdam agreements are I think rational and sensible. Of course tampering with national boundaries cannot help but create irredentism, but we are faced with an impossible alternative. As for Truman: Certainly not a dynamic speech, certainly not an orator, but there is a quiet sort of confidence in his voice and his way of stumbling over polysyllabic words has I think a greater appeal to his “common man” than FDR’s magnetism. FDR is sorely missed.

The terms of the Japanese armistice were announced on August 15. The next day, Victor’s letter began, This is the second of a two-day drunk for most of the outfit. Monday night was a terror what with smashing up the recreation hall, leaving all the water faucets on, stripteasing in no less secluded a place than the middle of the street. … The radio says that Oppy is in Washington, and rumor hath it that he will buck for our discharges. No real news about that yet.

Mine of the same day: We’d been glued to the radio the entire day. … That the second world war is over is still not easy to believe, but our immediate reaction was pretty close to tears. The personal element means so much to this family [my three brothers had all served overseas] … it’s hard for me to grasp what the cease fire order means on a dozen battlefronts. I think today of what heartbreak there must be in those homes where peace will not bring back the dead and victory bells ring hollowly. … I’m skeptical that we haven’t won a permanent peace … reconversion will be painful and chaotic and so many of our boys will come home to unemployment and inflation and bitterness. … I’m wondering what will happen to Los Alamos now that the war is over. The duration obviously won’t durate for several months. … Releasing members of the armed forces is going to be slow, but if they’d just station you on this coast. … I know, dream on.

Daily exchanges about possible dates of discharge, even of actual furlough in November, followed. This disconsolate excerpt from Victor is dated August 22: Prospects of discharge within the next year look very remote. Nothing is definite and won’t be for 3 months, but we have every reason to expect a royal raw deal leading perhaps to basic training all over again and God knows what else. … Meanwhile there is November to think about and that’s soft solace to my soul.

My reply by return mail is an effort to reduce the gloom: Nine weeks is just nothing; it’s weeks, it’s not even months, and weeks shrink so much more perceptibly than months. It only takes a few days to make a dent in a week, whereas it takes weeks to make a dent in a month. Nine little weeks, then it will be November and it will be you. … Darling, I’m not incoherent, am I?

There were substantive issues as well. On the same day, this exchange, first from Victor: World events seem to be leading to a precipice, but not as fast as national ones. Truman is probably bucking for Term II but he’s gonna have a big problem on his hands come the mad scramble for raw materials, franchises, jobs, and discharges. The Wagner- Murray Bill [the Wagner-Murray-Dingell bill was never enacted] cannot in itself create full employment. … A plan for orderly reconversion is the necessary prelude. … Only a strong economic planning commission with authority to decide and power to enforce remedial measures could handle the enormous problems caused by Truman’s political maneuvers.

And this from me: The abrupt shutting off of Lend-Lease is a very discordant note. I could cheerfully throttle every big-businessman who sings the “why should we be Santa Claus” tune, and willingly orate from a soapbox to every misguided man in shirtsleeves who listens unwittingly to Wall Street wail. God, if we do the same stupid things after this war that we did after the other—reparation in gold, high tariffs, wildcat financing—well, turn from that and take a look at the state of unpreparedness we’re in for reconversion.

Our letters continually crossed in the mail. On September 17, Victor wrote enthusiastically about Henry Wallace, FDR’s two-term secretary of Agriculture, then his third-term vice president: Wallace’s “Sixty Million Jobs,” particularly his remarks on the budget and the “fuller life for all” have removed all doubt in my mind of his ability to become a great president. … I could quote for days the things that have endeared him to me—on the function of the federal government in stimulating private investment, on the necessity of planning the elimination of the business cycle without jeopardizing the freedom of initiative … on education as the basis of maintaining (or creating) political and economic democracy, the “fundamental decency of man.” … This is a man who has successfully embedded a practical course of action in a living philosophy.

My letter on the same day: Every day that things look a little grimmer I doubt … that capitalism can do the job. I am afraid of state socialism but I think that it is like being afraid of the dark, in that they are both inevitable. And I am infinitely more afraid of depression, unemployment, despondency and class war than I am of national socialistic economic planning.

A day later: Days are always nice when there’s a letter from you because no matter how brief or commonplace you apologize for their being (god wot grammar) they are always different and every day I learn something new, something that makes me think I either know you a little better or else that, my god, he is a complete stranger to me. I wonder if you ever get that feeling. Here we are struggling gamely to hang onto our ties to one another and to build on them and I think it is a tribute … to our high school English teachers that we have managed so well this far. You know, people generally do not do this— they write to each other, yes, and they are in love too, but they don’t pick up subjects and interests and dissect them and discuss them and tease them out day after day.

The contrast between our daily lives sharpened when I returned to Cabot Hall. I was immersed in an atmosphere of warm collegiality. Victor was grinding out day after day in a barracks shared with 59 other disgruntled soldiers as impatient as he. September 18: Final word: we are to stay here until we acquire the necessary number of points or years of service under the dis- charge plan as applied to the army as a whole. We’ll get no special consideration—and no more than one point a month … and so we go on sweating out endless days of morbid monotony and bitter boredom.

Victor’s two-week furlough—minus two days’ travel in each direction—was hec- tic and rewarding. We traveled from Boston to Philadelphia to announce our engage- ment. Victor, pro forma, asked my father for my hand. A brief dialogue ensued: “What would you do if I said no?” “I guess I’d just marry her anyway.” “In that case, I say yes.” A bottle of champagne was brought out, previously chilled. Victor borrowed money from his brother-in-law for a ring.

Back in Los Alamos on November 28, Victor wrote, As this day wore on, I realized I am chained again and all the mountains have enclosed me in a sea of apathy, bitterness and longing. … I am once again a soldier. I will do this and I will do that—all because we have a new post commander who bulges with West Point protocol.

Two days later, censorship was lifted. All my letters to Victor until then had arrived resealed with a tape that read “OPENED BY U S ARMY EXAMINER.” The face of the envelope bore a stamp that read “PASSED.” We had written freely back and forth discussing Marxist theory, the Soviet Union, the labor union movement. I was a fierce advocate for the CIO, having leafletted for its adoption at the Fore River Shipyard in Hingham, Massachusetts, during my freshman year. This had earned me surveillance by the FBI. My father was informed that I was “consorting with Communists” and ordered me to stop volunteering.

Nevertheless, nothing in our Cabot Hall–Santa Fe letters was redacted by the individual who scanned them. We were not on a watch list at that time. After he left Los Alamos, Victor told me this true spy story: each morning, walking through the tech area to pick up supplies for the day’s field operation, his group would see David Greenglass (brother-in-law of the ill-fated spy Julius Rosenberg) working on a lathe fabricating molds for casting the explosive lenses. When assembled, these components would form a hollow sphere, which would contain plutonium, the heart of the fission bomb. One of Victor’s colleagues always taunted him as they passed, calling, “Hey, Greenglass! Whaddya know?” Greenglass, who knew quite a lot, never acknowledged their presence.

(After Victor’s discharge, the FBI tracked us none too subtly for about three years, calling on our neighbors and paying me direct visits while Victor was at work. Soon thereafter, in 1950, Greenglass was arrested and accused of spying for the Soviet Union. We never learned whether the surveillance was carried out on all G.I.s in the Special Engineering Detachment of which Greenglass had been a member or whether we had been specially selected.)

On December 6, I wrote, Reading the morning Times these days is painful and worrisome—our policy in China, corruption in Korea, a lot of stupid people up in arms and ready to fight Russia tomorrow, Asiatic nationalism busting out all over, anti-labor legislation on Truman’s desk, an uninformed public ready to sanction a race in atomic armament. … Right on down to the inside page where the AMA is blasting the proposed national health insurance program. … I wonder if, when you crawl into bed at night, your mind turns eastward as mine does westward. You are with me always in a hundred different ways.

We began subversively planning 10 days in Santa Fe, where I would stay in “anything better than a Y” and work on my thesis. I even made tentative plane reservations; Victor’s brother-in-law had offered to lend me fare. It would be reading period, which meant I would have to miss only two classes. Victor could come down The Hill for two weekends.

On December 13, my bad news: I met with Prof. [Elliott] Perkins this morning and discovered to my surprise that the thesis is UPON ME. … Due at typist Feb. 28th. Tutor wants to see first draft Jan. 3. Preposterous. Got it moved ahead to the 10th. Still preposterous. … I have made a start and will be at it hammer and tong every minute from now till then. I am going home from the 20th to the 26th and then must come back, bury myself in isolation at St. John’s [dormitory of the Harvard Divinity School] and will try hard. If it is physically possible he’ll get his damn draft. … But Santa Fe, my darling, I can’t come. … Somehow I will get thru until May without you and I feel much worse for the disappointment it will be to you than I do for myself. I at least have Cambridge and the good life to keep me going, and you don’t even have that.

A hiatus in letters occurred between December 18 and January 10. The Los Alamos facility’s water lines, which had been laid aboveground, froze during an unexpectedly protracted cold snap. A deep well was dug in the valley 7,000 feet below the lab, and milk trucks were contracted to bring enough water up to The Hill to maintain essential services. Since the truck engines were burning out at a prohibitive rate along the steep incline, the decision was taken to drastically reduce the number of personnel until water flow could be restored. Victor was one of the lucky soldiers selected to receive an extra furlough.

It was Christmas week. The war was over. Service mem- bers were being discharged, and whole families were on the move. Congestion on the railroads was overwhelming. Passengers packed the aisles; some climbed into the overhead baggage racks. Soldiers raided the dining car on boarding; there was no food available en route. Victor managed to buy sandwiches and Cokes through the coach window when they stopped at stations along the way. He traveled east for three days, standing for much of that time, finally arriving at my parents’ house at 4 a.m. on December 22, unwashed, unshaven, and very hungry. He must have telegraphed at some point along the way, because I knew he was coming, but not when.

We returned to Cambridge the day after Christmas, I took up residence in the dorm at the divinity school, and Victor laid out the following schedule. I was to work on my thesis every day from nine to five. He would arrive punctually at five, and we would go out for dinner and be together until midnight. The bar at the Lafayette Hotel continued to serve as our hangout. This rigorous arrangement worked well. By the time Victor departed on January 9, I had a draft of the pretentiously titled “Amorality and the Protagonist in the Novels of Stendhal and Dostoyevsky” and went on under the guidance of my tutor, Harry Levin, to complete it.


The hazards of rail travel continued. On January 10 Victor wrote from the railroad station in St Louis: Arrived here four hours late … encountered a wreck in Ohio, got rerouted thru Alabama,[!] missed the streamliner to Colorado … waiting now for the 11:50 to Kansas City … should hit Santa Fe 11 a.m. Saturday. Just means signing in 12 hours late, risking k.p.

The next day he continued his saga: Hopped the cattle car in Kansas City—sat with a pilot over a leaking steam line—nabbed a porter who got us a little deal up front in a chair car … we shared eats and seats and sweated out the tortuous ride together. … The barracks, as expected, is still bursting with inane invective. Work conditions are apparently the same. … There is a plan in operation whereby men can be discharged to take jobs here under contract till June 30th.

Although it sounded tempting, Victor rejected this option. He was determined not to participate in stockpiling atomic weaponry. Initially, his group went out on the mesa each day to a site where it had worked on lens explosions and played touch football instead. A new group leader, a former naval officer, threatened to have him court-martialed for this. Nothing came of the threat. Ultimately Victor was reassigned to the procurement department and given routine clerking duties.

The remaining months inched past on The Hill. Sometimes Victor was able to procure a typewriter, one that desperately needed a new ribbon, but the news was unchanging—discharge not likely before he had completed his 24 months of service.

In Cambridge, I underwent orals, examined by professors Michael Karpovich, Crane Brinton, and Harry Levin.

No words, darling, could recreate for you the diabolical horror. … It was a very refined torture. The victim was allowed to cross her legs and smoke cigarettes and even blow her nose should she feel so inclined. … Every time I said yes I should have said no and conversely. … When Levin asked me what Turgenev and Tolstoy quarreled about, I smiled sweetly and asked, did they quarrel? Thereupon my magna flew out the window. Historical fact: Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel over the latter’s illegitimate daughter but later apologized.

Just before departing, Victor wrote, This is the last letter I will write to Cabot Hall … unless some twenty years hence we have a daughter of our own going through what you have just finished … and you are visiting her.

On June 5, I graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College. The next day, my 21st birthday, Victor was discharged. We were married in Philadelphia on June 29.

Two weeks later, we moved into a barely furnished apartment in Woods Hole in the old U.S. Bureau of Fisheries building. At night, seals barked outside our bedroom window. Every other morning the iceman came with a fresh block for our wooden icebox. Meat was still rationed, but we dined on flounder we caught off the wharf. Mussels and clams were abundantly available. Victor came home for lunch every day from the Oceanographic Institution, 50 yards away. We never wrote to each other again.


Maxine Kumin won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and was the Library of Congress poet laureate in 1981-82. Her 17th collection, Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010, won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 2011. She died in February 2014.


Comments powered by Disqus