|Herb ’n’ Lorna (A Love Story)||by Eric Kraft, as Peter Leroy|
|In Which Lorna Becomes a Legend and Herb Is Decorated|
CANNOT leave oneself behind. Emerson and Huber were right: one’s
giant always tags along. When we say that success or divorce or war
changes people, and mean by it that it makes great changes, we are likely
to be commenting not on the people, but on our perceptions of them.
In war, certain traits sometimes appear with a prominence that they do
not have or cannot have in peacetime. The bookkeeper who becomes
the fabled hero of his regiment, who astonishes us with his valor and nobility,
may have stoutly but quietly refused to juggle his employer’s books the
week before he enlisted, but that civilian demonstration of valor and nobility
may have gone unsung, may even have cost him his job. Of Herb’s traits,
the one that came to prominence in the Great War was his mechanical ingenuity.
Training in the muddy woods of North Carolina, Herb learned to fire a rifle and jump into a trench and breathe through a gas mask and throw a grenade and thrust a bayonet through a stuffed sack. He worried about his mother, and he dreamed about Lorna, and he was drawn with all the foolhardiness of a Piper toward the schemes that flourished in the camp. He was ever wary, though, of doing a foolish Piper thing, and his wariness kept him out of lotteries and pyramid plans and, most of the time, whorehouses. He brought his talent for salesmanship with him, but he found that he hardly needed it to sell coarse goods among his fellow draftees and recruits. When he realized how large the demand was, he decided, knowing how short the supply was, that he could increase the price by exaggerating the shortage. He invented a mysterious character who, he claimed, brought him the goods a few pieces at a time, from an orphanage, where young girls carved the items to earn their keep, using one another as models. To provide the unlikely detail that lends verisimilitude to a lie, he gave the man a mutilated right hand.
When he had time to kill, he often killed it, as he always had, by tinkering. He found plenty to keep him occupied. There was always something to fix, and there was always something that could be improved. By the end of the war, his love of tinkering had made him famous. He was known among the doughboys as “that guy from Boston,” who found a way to fix the handle on the mess-kit cup.
Each infantryman was issued a cleverly designed mess kit that combined all the essential containers and implements in one package. In fact, it became its own package, the pan mating with the plate, like the two halves of a clamshell, and the handle of the pan rotating to hold the two together. One component of this kit was a cup with a folding handle. This coffee cup showed how ill prepared America had been for war: the folding handle had never been tested under combat conditions, or even under rigorous training conditions. The handle couldn’t be depended on to stay in the open position, and it was most likely to fail when the cup was full. The first time Herb’s failed, coffee spilled down his right leg. He wasn’t alone in having this happen; it happened to many. He was, however, alone in his reaction to it. He immediately began thinking of a way to make the cup handle work as it should. He wore a little grin while he ate, though his leg was scalded and his food was insipid, because he was turning over in his mind ways that he might solve the problem the Army had given him to keep him from feeling miserable.
also threw herself into work. All over America, women answered the
call to do the work of men who had answered the call to war. In Chacallit,
there was much work to do.
When this terrible war is over, who will return to us? Will the men who return to our shores prove to be a greater menace than the Prussian bullies? Will they be the sons and husbands and brothers we sent over there, or will they be a syphilitic horde of Frenchified monsters? I am going to France to do my part to see that when our boys return we can embrace them without fear and loathing. I’ll counsel abstinence, but I will also provide protection, for no doughboy should be without his three safeguards: his helmet, his mask, and his condoms.Luther wanted Lorna to take over as supervisor of the coarse-goods division, but she demurred, for two reasons. One was personal: with Herb so much on her mind, she was embarrassed by her work and afraid of his finding out about it. The other was patriotic: she thought that she should be working on uniform fittings.
“Uncle Luther,” she said, “I can’t do what you want.” She took a deep breath. “In fact,” she said, “I think we should suspend production of ‘specialty items’ and put all our efforts into things that are necessary for the war.” She took another breath and pressed her lips together to keep herself from smiling with pride. She had been afraid to say what she felt she had to say, and she was proud and relieved to have said it. Luther stood and folded his arms across his chest.
“Necessary for the war,” he said, nodding his head. “Necessary for the war. And you know what is necessary for the war, do you? Do you think wars are won with bullets? Do you think wars are won with gas or grommets or belt buckles? Ha! Let me tell you something, Lorna my dear: wars are won with spirit! Wars are won with the will to win! I’d rather see the women of America writing lascivious letters to our boys than knitting socks and canning carrots! Spirit is what we want, and specialty jewelry helps build spirit.”
Turning partly away and taking his chin in his deficient hand, he said, “I wasn’t planning to announce this just yet, but I suppose now is the time. We’re going to begin producing specialty uniform buttons. They should be a wonderful morale booster.” He turned to look at Lorna again. “The tide of war turns in mysterious ways,” he said. “Who can say whether these buttons might not be enough to turn the tide in France?”
Luther gained the advantage, for the time being. He succeeded in making Lorna doubt herself and her motives. She hung her head and, with ambiguous feelings, agreed to take the supervisor’s job.
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WOMEN’S COMMITTEE of the Council of National Defense produced a long list
of efforts that they considered worthwhile contributions to the war effort,
but the writing of lascivious letters to soldiers was not among them.
A woman in Chacallit was likely to be asked to join the Back Yard Gardeners
(though the steep slope of the land in Chacallit limited the efforts of
this group), the Picklers and Canners (who specialized in sauerkraut),
the Children’s Bureau (which sought to “keep the living standards, spirits,
and chins of the children of Chacallit’s men-in-arms up”), the Chacallit
chapter of “America First” (which, lacking immigrants to instruct in English
and citizenship, had cast about for another project and had been steered
by Ben Piper’s original contact in Chacallit, Axel Schweib, whose wife
headed the Chacallit chapter, in the direction of the Doughboy’s Dozen
and so put its efforts into purchasing for departing soldiers subscriptions
to the entire series of books), or the Red Cross Knitters and Stitchers
(who specialized in bed socks). However, of all the kinds of volunteer
work that women were doing to support the war effort, the one that most
appealed to Lorna was the assembling of Red Cross Comfort Kits. In
Women and the World War, Ida Clyde Clarke describes these Comfort Kits
as “bags made in three styles with pockets containing comforts, buttons
and sewing outfits, games, soap, socks, and the like.” In the kits
assembled in Chacallit, “the like” included money clips, cuff links, collar
stays, and the like, donated by the manufacturers in town, who also donated
brochures describing their other products.
Lorna was also kept busy by her duties as Herb’s representative for Professor Clapp’s Five-Foot Shelf of Indispensable Information for Modern Times. These duties were sweet, for they required her, she had decided, to write to Herb more and more frequently. She began her early letters with news about the book business, as she did this one:
I finished delivering The Automobile: Its Care and Use. I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that everyone is quite satisfied with the book. Reverend Binder even stopped me the other day to say that he had been reading the chapter on “Housing the Automobile,” and that it has inspired him to build a garage. I knew you would enjoy hearing that.Soon, however, she would turn from business to other matters:
With those deliveries finished, I will go back to my work for the Red Cross, putting together Comfort Kits. Have you gotten one of these kits? I think about you sometimes when I’m working on them, because sometimes the thought strikes me that you might get one of the kits that I put together. What do you think of that? I think it would be quite a coincidence if you did. It has become a great game among us girls to slip some personal token into a kit, just some little thing that could only have come from the girl who put it together. Some of the girls write a little note. Others put a picture in or something else. . . .The “something else” that Lorna began putting into the kits she assembled made her a legend among the troops in France, anonymous, but the object of fantasies in miles of trenches.
One evening, when she gathered with the other women who worked on Comfort Kits, she brought with her, in a pocket that she had sewn into her skirt, a tiny ivory figure. It resembled the jewelry she carved, but this figure was not meant to be attached to anything else. It was not an ornament; it was a tiny piece of sculpture. Lorna had worked on it at home, in the evenings, alone in her room, using herself as a model, carving ivory that she had persuaded Luther to donate to the Comfort Kit effort.
She slipped her hand into her pocket and removed the carving. Working below the table while she kept up her chatter with Adelaide Hooper, she slipped the carving into a packet of tobacco. She let the packet rest in her lap until Adelaide turned away to get another sack of buttons; then she brought the packet up to the table and put it into the Comfort Kit she was packing. She couldn’t help smiling at the thought of its being discovered.
THAT MOMENT, Herb was in a field hospital, recovering from a wound that
would keep him hors de combat for the rest of the war.
Well, of course, if you know someone for as long as Garth and I knew Herb and Lorna, you’re bound to have to listen to the same stories quite a few times—you can count yourself lucky if the stories are at least interesting. Garth told his war stories over and over and over, God knows. Well, poor Herb really didn’t have much to tell. You had to twist his arm to get him to tell about being praised by Pershing, it embarrassed him so, and he only had one other story to tell—that one about the shell that exploded in the trench. Well, there he was in a trench at Someplace-or-other-on-the-Marne, and of course it was all just ghastly. Well, it was all ghastly, wasn’t it? Herb and his trench-mates or whatever you call them were supposed to come dashing out of the trench and overrun some Germans who were holding some damned hill or other. Well! Suddenly this shell exploded and Herb was tossed around pretty badly. “It was the darnedest thing,” he said. “I kept thinking that someone had hold of me by the leg and was shaking me. There I was spun around and flat on my back, and I reached down to try to push away whoever was holding me by the leg. Well, no one was holding me by the leg at all. I’d been hit, and my leg was opened up from the knee to the hip, just the way you’d cut open a baked potato.”Herb passed his time in the hospital, as soon as he was able, assembling kits to improve the drinking cup handle catches. He taught others of the recovering wounded how to make these, and soon he had a group of some fifty men working on them. The work was useful in more than the immediately obvious ways; the men who did it probably benefited as much as those for whom they made the kits. In Terror and Tedium, his important but neglected study of the psychology of war, Major Edward Keefe wrote of the work that Herb initiated:
The typical field hospital was behind the lines but barely beyond the range of the shelling. The war was still so close, such a constant presence, that there was no emotional escape from it. Added to the whole catalog of feelings that the war inspired in these wounded men was an almost overwhelming sense of frustration, of impotence, of not being able to do anything about it, not being able to participate. (We see another example of the effect of this feeling of impotence, by the way, in the flourishing traffic within the hospitals in pornography of all sorts—photographs, drawings, literature, even pornographic jewelry and tiny netsuke-like carvings.) Those on the mend would sometimes plead to be sent back into the fighting, even when they were obviously unfit. They worked at various tasks in and around the hospitals, of course—orderly work, supply-train work, and work on the “ice flotillas,” the trucks and ice-making equipment that kept the hospitals supplied with the ice so necessary for their operation. But this was not enough. A sense of distance developed among the wounded, a sense of being a class apart. The work they did was most often work for other wounded. They felt that they weren’t doing anything for their fellows who were still fighting, and they began to think of themselves as not belonging to the same group, not worthy of belonging to it. The cup handle repair kits were something that they could do for the men who were still fighting, and the wounded were eager to get in on the action, so to speak.In his letters to Lorna from the hospital, Herb began to devote more space to matters other than business, including personal matters:
A lot of the other guys complain about the food, but I’ve had worse. We generally have boiled potatoes and onions, and sometimes we have rice or stew. Breakfast might be just crackers and coffee, but it wasn’t many years ago that I didn’t have any breakfast. Lots of times, when I went to school, for lunch I would just take a potato. Sometimes I’d have an onion sandwich, which didn’t make me too popular with the other kids! I used to sell papers on the street and also a thing that my buddies and I called rat pie. We got these pies at a bakery so we could sell them, and we used to joke that they were made of rat meat. I think all of us thought it was probably true. If a rat pie got wet in the rain or if somebody dropped one on the pavement, I’d take it home, and we’d have that for dinner. Many nights we’d have just potatoes. So I don’t mind this food at all. In fact, sometimes when we have just bread and onions I make an onion sandwich and it reminds me of home. The truth is, I like onion sandwiches. . . . I’m glad that the books are arriving on time. I’d be pleased if you would continue to write to me to let me know how things are going, if it isn’t too much trouble.One of Herb’s letters to his mother was much like another, and they all included something like this:
So, you mustn’t worry about me, because, as I said, I’m all right. My leg is healing just fine, and everyone says that I probably won’t walk with a limp or be able to predict rain. I’ve arranged to have some money sent to Uncle Ben for you. I don’t need any money where I am, so don’t you worry about taking it.One of his letters to Ben was much like another, and they all ended in the manner of this one:
I’ve had a good week—prices are climbing. Please give Mother an extra twelve dollars. I know you’re keeping track of everything you give her, and you can rest assured that I will be able to pay all of it back and then some.In one, however, he had a couple of interesting questions to ask:
Here’s a funny thing. Some of the fellows here have been buying “special” carved buttons for their uniforms. Where do you suppose they’re buying them? Do you think we have competition? Some of the fellows say they heard that sometimes special carvings—not buttons, but very special carvings—come in packages from the Red Cross, but I don’t think that could be right, do you?
|Lorna (arrow) working at a cutting machine on the main floor at Cole & Lord’s Gent’s Accessories, in Chacallit, about 1918. Note flags mounted atop machines at Luther Huber’s suggestion, to remind the women that belt buckles could win the war. (from the National Archives, 86-G-2J-6)|
|Herb (arrow) behind the lines, somewhere near Quelquepart-sur-Marne, about 1918. Note cluster of doughboys behind Herb, examining mess-kit cup with noncollapsing handle. (photographer unknown)|
ONE AFTERNOON, about two months before the Armistice was signed, Lorna
sat in the lunchroom in the mill, reading a pamphlet. What she read
struck her with such force that she pounded her fist on the table, spilling
her soup and startling the women around her.
“Damn!” she said.
“What’s the matter?” asked Elsie Hensel.
“Oh, I’m furious with myself for being so—so—childish!” cried Lorna. She stormed out of the lunchroom and strode through the building. She hesitated for only an instant outside Luther’s door; then she knocked, with sharp, rapid taps.
“Come in,” said Luther. Lorna opened the door and went inside.
“Uncle Luther,” she said in a rush, knowing that if she hesitated she would surely waver in her resolve, “I want you to tell me how much you were paying John Caldwell to do the work I’m doing.” She took a long breath. Behind her back, she rolled and twisted the pamphlet in her hands.
Luther drew a long breath of his own. “Lorna,” he said, “I’m surprised at you. That’s not a polite question to ask.”
“Politeness doesn’t have anything to do with it,” said Lorna. She hoped that the anger and fear rippling through her wouldn’t make her voice quaver. “I’ve been reading this pamphlet.” She brought it out from behind her back, untwisted it, bent it back to flatten it, and held it out to Luther with both hands. “It’s about women’s working conditions.”
“Lorna, Lorna,” said Luther, rising and moving toward her. “You musn’t let yourself get into such a state. These are difficult times, Lorna dear,” he said. He put his hand on her shoulder, and Lorna stiffened. “We all have important work to do, and we all must make sacrifices. This is not a time when any of us should be thinking about personal gain.”
“I’m not thinking about personal gain,” said Lorna. She had to work to keep the p from betraying her anger.
“Now, really, Lorna,” said Luther. “What other name can we put on it?” He took the pamphlet that Lorna held out to him. “ ‘The National Women’s Trade Union League of America,’ ” he read. “Now who are they? Do we know anything about them?”
“I know something about them,” said Lorna. She was surprised (and, she would admit to herself later, pleased) to find that Luther’s attitude incensed her, made her bolder than she would have been. “I know that I like what they say.”
“And what do they say?” asked Luther. He smiled. Lorna thought that she might kick him if he didn’t stop smiling. She snatched the pamphlet from him and flipped through its pages to the place where she’d been reading when she’d struck the table with her fist.
“They say,” she said, “ ‘Equal pay for equal work.’ ”
“Oh, now, Lorna,” said Luther.
“Uncle Luther,” said Lorna, pressing her feet together so that she wouldn’t kick him, “I don’t want to argue with you. My mind is made up. I’m going to—”
“Stop,” said Luther, with maddening calm. He looked at her for a moment, deciding what he wanted to do. He had begun to consider Lorna a liability in coarse goods. Her work was wonderful, of course, superior in every way, but as a carver she had been bad for morale. She had set a standard that the others couldn’t attain. Half of them strained to measure up, taking pains that wasted time without improving their work, and the other half fell into grumbling and loafing. Production had fallen off. As manager, she was an even more imposing presence. The others in the specialty department feared or resented her ability, and Luther, though he admired her talent, wondered if he wouldn’t be just as glad to see her go. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “I have an idea. Why don’t you quit the specialty goods and go onto the regular line in suspenders or buttons? I shall be pleased to pay you just what everyone else is getting there.”
“I—” Lorna began, surprised and confused.
Still smiling, quoting her, Luther said, “I don’t want to argue with you. My mind is made up.”
Lorna stood straight and clenched her fists at her sides. “I think I’ll just quit work altogether,” she said.
“Lorna, Lorna,” said Luther with an exaggerated look of offense and disappointment. “There’s a war on, remember? I’m sure you want to do your part.”
“Uncle Luther—” Lorna began.
“You know, Lorna,” said Luther, as if the idea had just occurred to him, “it would break your parents’ hearts if they knew what you’d been up to here.”
Lorna took two steps backward, as if she’d been pushed. In an instant, she understood how rough a fight she was in, and she struck back with the kind of blow she’d been dealt.
“And it would make your brother furious if he knew what you’d been up to with his daughters,” she said with a calm like that she’d seen in Luther.
On the way out she repeated to herself, Do not slam the door; do not slam the door, and because she couldn’t trust herself not to slam it, she left it standing open. Luther slammed it.
ORNA DID go to work in the suspender fitting section. It doesn’t seem likely to me that she actually feared Luther’s spilling the beans about her erotica work if she didn’t do what he wanted. She must have known that their standoff was stable. It’s more likely that she took a place on the main floor, where an American flag was mounted on each of the machines, at each of the benches and tables, because she knew that more hands were always needed and because she would have missed the company of the other women. At her cutting machine, she worked among women who gave their work only the necessary effort. She made herself work in the same manner, letting her hands perform while her mind wandered. More and more often her thoughts were of Herb.
HAD BEEN assigned to a prisoner-of-war camp, where he and other recuperating
men supervised German prisoners who were put to the task of fabricating
cup handle repair kits. The men who ran the camp were a mixed lot,
thrown together from among the wounded of many divisions. They were
a group that represented the whole fabric of American society, including
men from the warp and men from the woof, the only truly integrated group
of soldiers in the American Expeditionary Forces.
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I should like to see the custom introduced of readers who are pleased with a book sending the author some small cash token: anything between half-a-crown and a hundred pounds. Authors would then receive what their publishers give them as a flat rate and their “tips” from grateful readers in addition, in the same way that waiters receive a wage from their employers and also get what the customer leaves on the plate. Not more than a few hundred pounds—that would be bad for my character—not less than half-a-crown—that would do no good to yours.
Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise
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Copyright © 1994 by Eric Kraft
Herb ’n’Lorna is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
First published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
Now available in paperback from Picador USA, a division of St. Martin's Press.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration
by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue
of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the
aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for