Nathan Hale Lerner and Evelyn Salzman were both born in New York City at the turn of the 19th century. Nat was twenty-four when he left for war, sent first to Camp Upton in Brooklyn, New York, and later France. Eve, two years younger than Nat, remained in New York City, and the two lovers wrote almost daily to each other. In the following excerpts, Eve's letters appear in italics.
Sept. 12, 1917
. . . You ought to see this place and this bunch and this house and this everything. The Bible says that the Lord created the world in six days and that on the seventh day he rested. Well, just before he rested, when he was good and tired, he made this place. It is miles from nowhere and we have to walk to get there.
But this is an enormous camp. There are sixteen square miles of it. And you can just watch it rise. Everybody hammering and busy as bees. The walls appear almost as if wafted into existence by a magic wand. Just substitute the foreman's hand for the magic and you have it literally. They build the walls flat on the ground and then stand them up on end. I've got a new ambition. I'm going to be a plumber. They get $52 a week here.
You ought to see this crew: ex-truck drivers, ex-booze artists, ex-ice and coal men, ex-brokers, ex-policemen, everything you can imagine—a real New York crowd. For the greater part they are an inspiring lot of men—inspiring one with—well, anything but joy. But they're a pretty good bunch at heart, I suppose. They seem to be willing and ready to do anything. We haven't gotten beds yet so we sleep on the floor on mattress covers stuffed with hay, straw twigs, and what not. But nobody is kicking. I suppose it won't do them any good if they did. And perhaps they aren't used to much better. It is surprising, though, the cheerful air about everybody and everything.
Oct 17, 1917
. . . I was going to say "boys", but an order was issued against the use of "boys" or "fellows." They want us to use "men."
Dec. 10, 1917
. . . I've been going to a school for scouting, sniping, and observation . . .
There are several rumors as to where we are going. Some say to Cuba, some to Mexico, and others say we are going right across. The captain thinks we'll go to Cuba. I think we'll go across. But of course these are only rumors and opinions. It is dead certain, though, that if we stay here another month we'll die of pneumonia or freeze to death.
March 21, 1918
. . . We had a rearrangement of the company today, had a company picture and a platoon picture taken. All of which excitement happened on a beautiful Spring day. We are now arranged the way we are going over. I am the assistant to the officer of one of the platoons. Which means that I do all of his work, listen to all the men's troubles, bawl them out quite frequently, see that their equipment, their drilling, their everything is all right. There are 56 of them.
Sometimes I dislike the whole thing. And sometimes I just feel like going around, yelling at everybody in sight. Yelling is what is wanted around here—by the officers. They think we're too good to the men. They say that rough treatment gets the best results. And some day I'm going to lose my stripes for that. I think I know when it is necessary to be hard with a man. And my opinion doesn't often coincide with that of the men who have a right to express theirs—the officers, I mean. It will break out sometime though.
What I do like is perhaps due to a feeling of conceit. But I do like to be able to tell a man things he wants to know to tell him how to do things he wants to do and to be able to tell him to do things. I suppose my love of authority is only human something everyone possesses, but I suppose I am a little conceited. Often, however, I grow tired of it all and feel like throwing the whole thing over. An ordinary private, in the rear rank, has no worries, he can think for himself, has more time to himself, and, oh, a lot of things. Why should one always want bigger things when he can be happy with smaller ones? But nobody can really be happy that is, in the sense of being satisfied. We wouldn't be human then, would we! We could get nearly what we want. I think that is what life is having an ideal, always working toward it, always getting somewhat nearer, but never reaching it.
You know, I have been learning something here that I couldn't have learned in ten years at college! It is the simple little truth that a man's a man, no matter who or what he is. We have, in the company, conductors, motormen, bartenders, clerks, college men, laborers, everything you can imagine. Living together as we do, pulls some off their high horses and lifts up others. They are leveled as if by a steam roller. But some of the good is counterbalanced by the lost [sic] of initiative on the part of some. It is wonderful, though, in the way it shows up men. Good points and bad ones can be spotted immediately. Nothing can be hidden very long.
Somewhere in England
April 30, 1918
. . . Did I ever tell you how I used to watch the ships pull out of New York and how I used to wish I were going along just to get away from the city to see different places? This is just what I wanted. But there is a pull at the heartstrings. I do want want isn't strong enough to sit beside you to look at you to talk with you. Well, it will only be a few months and we'll be home.
Somewhere in France
May 13, 1918
. . . I saw an air raid last week. I didn't actually see it; I heard it. It was in a neighboring town. The ground trembled, some of the shacks shook and the sky was lit up. Much excitement. But we were all disappointed. We thought we were going to see something real. Instead, we felt we were handed a Coney Island fraud.
. . . I don't know whether I told you before what attitude the men here take toward their God. These men, that is, those who have seen some fighting, are extreme fatalists. They have to be. They believe that all that is going to happen to them has been mapped out long in advance. You can easily see how they get to believe that. Their nerves would go to pieces in no time if they didn't. It brings us back to ancient times when religion was just invented when man's elemental feelings had more free play. He had to explain certain things and God was his explanation. So now one sees how the most careful get hurt or are snuffed out and the most daring escape untouched. And often one sees it work the other way. And one cannot account for it. You know, man always tries to lay down hard and fast rules for natural phenomena as well as everything else. Well, the only way he can satisfy his desire for a law which will explain all the erratic incidents that he witnesses is by becoming a fatalist. They haven't converted me yet.
Somewhere in France
May 22, 1918
. . . I said I would be back early in September, didn't I? I may be wrong by a very few days more or less the boat sailings are so uncertain. But keep that date open Labor Day. What shall we do that day?
As for your worrying, don't you dare do that. I am the Battalion Intelligence or Scout Sgt. Naturally it makes me intelligent. So when I say that there is nothing for anybody to worry about, even for me to worry about, why it must be so. Mustn't it? Say yes!
Somewhere in France
July 9th, 1918
. . . Eve, dear, I've been wondering what I will ever do when I get back. I've been wondering if I will ever be able to stay indoors day after day, as people do in New York. Of course, staying around in a dug out would make any room in New York feel like a palace. But I was getting used to walking around through woods and over hills, all over the country. I was called down once because I showed too much of a liking for flowers. It is unmilitary. Fill it in for yourself. I am going to mail you a daisy from No Man's Land. I saw a bunch of them growing there. I think I'm going out to pick it early next week.
June 14th, 1918
. . . I received another bunch of your letters last night before I went out. Need I tell you how I felt at getting them? I was going out on a patrol to take prisoners as they came out of the Bosch wire. It was my first trip like that. Naturally, I felt somewhat nervous, and the feeling became stronger as the time for departure drew near. Then someone brought me your letters. I read them and forgot about going out soon. That is, I didn't forget but it was thrown into the background. Then I began to think that you would be interested in knowing how one feels making his first trip into No Man's Land. After that I was able to sort of watch what I was doing.
I never quite realized how much bushes, trees, and even grass could assume likenesses of men. It was a pitch black night and it was raining. After about an hour I got chilled and began to shiver. I thought I was shaking with fear. But I knew I wasn't afraid. I couldn't account for it at the time. In the morning one of the men told me he felt the same way. But we did have some tense moments. We met nobody. But when a rat would hit the wire, making a noise that seemed to us to be as loud as a fire gong, there was some straining of eyes and ears. I can't tell the whole story the way I would like to. I can't give details and I am still to groggy and sleepy to think straight. Next time I go out I'll write you all about it.
Monday, July 22 1918.
I have always hoped, as everybody in the world has been hoping, that the war must end before my own people got into it. I have known till today that it was absolutely impossible that you would actually have to fight. But today the newspapers told us that the Upton men are in the midst of it -- they mentioned regiments that went over in April. And so, man, you're fighting, aren't you? And so I've lived one whole day with that thought as my one companion.
You know all the things I want to say to you. I cannot write them on paper. I've been talking to you so much today it isn't possible that you haven't heard me. Today I've felt like I do in those horrid dreams, when you want with all your might to do something or say something and you find yourself utterly powerless. It's been just that maddening sensation. I know it doesn't make you feel any better to have me tell you how I feel—but I want so to speak to you. It's now that I want to most, so how can I be quiet and pretend? It's small to be a coward—but even the most honest of us are concerned. I hope that being in the very thick of it will make it all seem more like a gigantic thrill rather than the horrible thing that it seems to us.
And Nat I'm always thinking of you even if you don't get a second to think of me. And when I'm having a nice comfortable time I always imagine you're with me I sort of think that it makes things nicer for you.
It's been miserably hot all day but now the air is clear and has a refreshing coolness. The moon the same shocked moon I told you about last night is clear as crystal and round as a ball. Tonight the man in the moon smiles faintly, halfway whimsical, halfway cynical smile. Is the wicked world of men making our moon cynical? How often have I said to you that I like the moon because it reflects our innermost thoughts so clearly I suppose its age and experience have given it a universal sympathy.
I never know what you're doing and can't even imagine you anymore crossing beautiful fields and picking flowers to send me. You'll tell me some of the things you do, won't you? And if there is a drop of good anywhere near you I hope you'll get it.
And when it's over how glad my living room will be to see you. Every inch of it is lonesome and impatient. You'll hurry, won't you?
July 24, 1918
. . . I almost forgot to tell you about something pretty that I saw last week. It was just before dawn in the trenches. The morning star had just appeared above the edge of the woods in No Man's Land. The men were all watchful, softly swearing at the cause of their sleepless nights. It was chilly and they were tired and none of them felt particularly pleasant. Then the sky began to get lighter, and just when the rosy tints appeared a lark rose up from the grass in front of us and burst into song. Faces began to clear of their frowns and smiles were seen here and there. And nobody seemed to realize what was really the cause of it.
You know they call it No Man's Land because nobody owns it, nobody wants it, and you couldn't give it away, as a rule. But down here it isn't so bad. Except for some of the scars, it looks like a badly ploughed place fenced off with barbed wire and a few other things.
It is surprising how men will show up when something serious stares them in the face. Some of the big strong men who always assumed proprietary rights in this world, and some of the noisy little men who wanted to own this world and went around with a bluster, just grew weak-kneed. And some of those timid fellows who always jumped when they were spoken to stood up real well. And there was another kind, that disliked it and were doubtful as to how they themselves would show up. They wondered if they would be afraid. And what has been said many times before in this war, they were afraid that they would be afraid. And that is what stood them in good stead. I think that the kind that are carefree and never give things a thought are very, very few. But taken as a whole, everybody acts splendidly.
August 2, 1918.
. . . It's queer how the world goes right on living in spite of everything. New York is the same old New York, in spite of all its mass of people whose lives must be so very different from what they used to be. With all the service buttons and all the things we know are happening, New York goes right on in its regular routine of politics and theaters and growing structures. I wonder what is a city if not the people who live in it. And yet today New York City opened a brand new subway line along 7th Ave., and the city forgets the world in its excitement at its own growth. I know our city can't stop still because the world is in a state of upheaval, but where are the people who can go on thinking of new subways and new theatrical contracts and new and growing everything, when ‘most everybody's soul is across the Atlantic? I suppose the human mind is a complex thing -- I suppose it is true that we go right on living our usual lives in spite of everything. My mind must be a trifle less complex than most—our new and wonderful 7th Ave. Subway meant so little to me in comparison with those other things that fill my thoughts now.
Sept. 15, 1918
. . . I never did say a word to you about the war. Our views were so diametrically opposite. I could understand your viewpoint, but you couldn't see mine. Your feeling for people as human beings was always too strong to see things any other way. But this time I am breaking the rule the war news of late has been good, hasn't it? And the Hun is beginning to learn his lesson. The end of the whole business is rapidly drawing nearer. But before it is all over I am going up once more. I don't think I've done my share yet.
Sept. 16, 1918
. . . Do you know, in a way, you are spoiling a lot of fun for me in this town. There are oceans of girls here but I cannot stand a single one of them. I think it is your fault you've taught me to expect too much from a girl.
Oct. 13, 1918
. . . You once thought that because men would go to war, and live under bad conditions, they would lose their appreciation of the beautiful and the nice. But it seems to work contrarywise (is there such a word?). The lack of what I like has made me want it all the more. In fact, it has made me all the more particular in certain ways. For instance, I've come across a number of books but I couldn't read more than a few pages of them because I didn't like the way they were written. It's a funny war, isn't it.
October 22, 1918
. . . Can you remember how enthusiastic I used to be about the army, and coming over here, and fighting, and all that? Well, I've lost most of that now. I've become what they call a good soldier: Take orders, execute them, express no opinion, etc. I was very keen once about going to an officers' training school. I would go to the next one, which starts the first of the month if I went back to the company. And I could work it to go back now if I wanted to. But I have no more desire for that. I am letting everything take its own course. I am not looking for any kind of advancement. I'm just doing my share of work -- like the old cog-in-the-wheel. Sort of ambitionless, isn't I? What do you think of it all. But one thing I am sure of. That is, that this attitude won't be mine any longer than I wear a uniform . . .
Oct. 25, 1918
. . . You tell me that I cannot understand the theory of war because I think only of the human side of an individual. By what divine right do any of the powers that be demand that we forget that we are human beings for a few everlastingly long years and remember only that we are inanimate tools for the making of history? It is useless to ask us to forget we are human, for all the time we are made to suffer what only human beings can suffer. I try so hard not to say these things—you know I do, don't you? But I can't help it sometimes. It must be my selfishness that still makes me believe that all this sacrifice can never be justified. And I don't want to sacrifice the most glorious part of my life—and I don't want you to sacrifice anything.
Jan. 14, 1919
. . . This afternoon, I heard someone resurrect that song "Pack Up Your Troubles etc." I was thinking I have no troubles, I should be smiling all the time. Isn't there a wonder girl, a dream girl, my sweetheart, waiting for me to come back? I am happy.
La Chapelle, Haute Marne
February 2, 1919
. . . Just imagine. It is almost ten months since we parted. Part of that ten months I enjoyed, but a good deal of it wasn't very pleasant. I had a much easier time than almost any man in the division. But I am sensitive to a number of things that many men are not. I couldn't harden myself to inhumanities. And if one is going to war, it is necessary to have one's mind calloused to some of the standards of civilization. I tried to do it in the states and thought I had succeeded—even assumed a sort of air of bravado to help along. But after I got here I found I was mistaken. Then I had to fall back on what I was fighting for. And it was belief in that which made me perform whatever duty came my way.
I came across a similar case in this company. We have a man who, in the states, refused to come over to fight. He had friends and relatives in Hungary and he refused to come over to kill them. The threats of court martial and imprisonment didn't scare him. Finally he was persuaded that if he came over he would probably be given some work which didn't involve shooting. So he came over, branded as being yellow and a coward. But in the lines he was made a runner and no one did more faithful work. He carried his messages back and forth in the face of everything and redeemed his reputation. If he had come face to face with the enemy, he would probably have been killed or taken prisoner, for I don't think he would have used his weapons I've found so few men who have any sort of principles that I admire anyone like that.
St. Loup, Mayenne
March 31, 1919
. . . I was going to do all kinds of fool stunts tomorrow #&150; April first. But everybody is too homesick. Some have even worried themselves sick, and eight out of the company are in the hospital with flu. Now we wear gauze masks indoors. We're a funny-looking bunch. We've been quarantined for a few days, but that will be lifted in a day or so, as the danger is past.
Very Early Friday Morning
[Mail Date April 17, 1919]
I know I'm back, but I can't fully realize it. In about two days I will actually see you be with you.
We are just outside the harbor waiting to travel in at seven o'clock. I think we are going to Camp Mills.
I'll call you up tonight, my love. I won't write more, I'd rather say it.
A toute à l'heure . . .
May 8, 1919
. . . We turned in everything but our blankets and those go in at 3 in the morning. We'll be paid off at 6, so I should be on the way to New York by about 9. Then I'll call you up and see when I can meet you. I'm going home in the evening and put on my old blue suit, and a real collar, and a straw hat. I wonder what it will feel like. I wanted to have all my clothes new, but I have to wait till they're made. And I must not forget to put on my new cuff links tonight. You're going to put them on for me.
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