Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Daughter of McLean's Newspaperman"

I was asked to talk at the Centennial Celebration of McLean, Virginia, about being the daughter of "McLean's newspaperman." That would be my father, Bill Elvin, owner, editor and publisher of a weekly, the McLean Providence Journal, for 30 years. Here's what I said about that:

Dad was an old-fashioned, "shoe-leather reporter." He loved writing and publishing news about McLean up until the very last.

The hallmarks of his work were integrity, fairness, and honest reporting without embellishment or editorializing.

He knew from early on that he wanted to be a reporter. While attending the University of Michigan, he was assistant editor of the Michigan Daily. During World War II, he served in General Patton's Third Army — they met the Russian Army at the end of the war in Austria. Dad was selected Designated Vodka Drinker by his company for the occasion, and was interviewed by a reporter for Izvestia. (I never got whether the interview took place before or after the vodka.)

After the war, he worked for the Washington Star for ten years, then decided to venture out on his own and bought the Providence Journal from Richard M. Smith. Some people called the paper under Smith a gossip sheet that served as a vehicle for Smith's extreme segregationist views, which couldn't have differed more from my father's. Dad charted his own way, steering away from editorial opinion, given "the facts, just the facts," and trusting the readers to form their own conclusions.

He intended to paper to be a local McLean paper from the very beginning. When he took over, paid circulation was about 2,000. He sharply reduced coverage of communities outside of McLean, losing about half the subscribers. But the additional news of McLean eventually won over new readers, and the circulation went to 2,000 and beyond.

The Providence Journal covered local fairs, back-to-school, holidays, elections, and material for columns such as In the Services and In the Colleges. He appreciated the unintended compliment from a reader that went, "I do not like your paper and am re-subscribing only for purposes of information."

Once when I attended a joint McLean-Marshall High School reunion, I noticed that in one of the suites alumni used to bring out old photos and memorabilia, clippings from the Providence Journal were laid out on table in abundance, yellowed by time. A glorious moment for one boy at a football game, a notice of enlistment of another, accomplishments, moments of their lives all noted in their local paper. When I told Dad, he was so pleased. He said emphatically, "That's what I always wanted it to be. The hometown newspaper."

Dad had acute powers of observation. I remember one afternoon as he mowed our lawn, he noticed a car parked on our street. It was unusual for anyone to park there, since the street was narrow and all the houses had long driveways. When he saw the car, he jotted down the license plate number — he was never without pen and paper, even doing yard work. Detectives appeared a short time later, fanning out to investigate an incident in the neighborhood. When they saw my father in the front yard, they approached him and asked if he'd seen anything out of the ordinary that day.

He told them about the car and in his understated manner, pulled out his notepad, read off the plate number, gave the model, year and color of the car, and the exact time of day he'd seen it. With that information, the detectives were able to send out an APB. Soon enough, a suspect was apprehended on the Beltway and was subsequently convicted of raping a teenaged girl who lived up the street.

In February of 1958 a double snowstorm prevented him from delivering the papers from the printshop to the post office for mailing. The snow was deep and blinding, and high winds created whiteout conditions. At the last moment, two young women on horseback rode up the rode toward the printshop and offered to take the papers on horseback. Saved by the Pony Express! [You can read the further details of this in my March 6 blog, below.]

I can remember driving from McLean to Oakton to the old print shop where the Providence Journal was churned out once a week in the olden days. It was one shack tacked onto the other. The floors were dirt, the presses were noisy, it was dark, and it smelled of printers' ink. All the men who worked there seemed covered in ink. And Dad loved that part of the weekly newspaper routine just as he loved all aspects of being editor, publisher, chief reporter, owner, and chief cook and bottle washer of the Providence Journal.

Things of course modernized and changed, but what never changed was his love of reporting or his integrity. By his example he taught me a great lesson: doing something for a living that you love and that is meaningful matters much more than money or satisfying someone else's wishes.

The picture shows my father a little over 50 years ago, trying to get some work done. My brother George is helping.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives — a great movie about war

The Best Years of Our Lives is an American classic, directed by William Wyler and produced by Samuel Goldwyn in 1946. The film, which won seven Oscars, shows a depth of insight about the psychological impact of war on the returning soldier that surprised and touched me. Set in a small town in post-World War II America, the movie tracks three men who have served overseas, and blends their stories upon homecoming. Each is excited that the day has finally arrived, but anxious as well. The bombadier played by Dana Andrews comments as they approach their fictitious hometown of Boone City, that they are all "...nervous out of the service."

Talented actors are featured such as Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Teresa Wright, among others. Harold Russell, an actor who had served in the Pacific, played Homer. Russell had lost both hands during a training accident. Some of the movie's most poignant scenes occur between Homer and his childhood sweetheart, Wilma, as they struggle to adjust to his war wounds. Wilma's the brave soldier here - she never wavers in her love for Homer when he nearly gives up, unwilling to burden her with the challenges he will face in life. The three men tried to cope with the conflicts, changes, losses and awkward situations they face upon their homecoming.

I thought of my father and mother and wondered about their reunion after the war as I watched Myrna Loy's and especially Fredric March's understated and honest portrayals. Wonderful acting shines through, such as when Loy realizes that it is her husband whom she hears coming in the front door after years of separation. You can almost see it in the change in her posture —
it's a profound moment.

For cinema buffs, the movie features deep-focus cinematography made popular by Orson Welles and his cinematographer in
Citizen Kane. In deep-focus, the foreground, middle-ground and background are all in focus. Notice this in the famous "long hallway homecoming" shot.

The photo comes from Nell Minow's Movie Mom blog/

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mesothelioma and veterans

If you are a veteran, you should familiarize yourself with the Mesothelioma Center. Mesothelioma is a life-threatening illness that usually results from exposure to asbestos. According to the Center's website, if you served between 1940 and 1970, you face a greater risk of developing this disease or other asbestos- related illness.

Asbestos has been commonly used in military applications, products and ships, primarily because of its resistance to fire. The Center will provide a list of occupations, ships, and shipyards that could have put veterans at risk for this disease. Since asbestos-related disease is not always recognized by the VA, compensation can be difficult to obtain. The Center will provide benefit counselors to help guide you through the process of filing a VA claim at no charge. Their job is to help any veteran obtain the maximum benefit to which he or she is entitled.

Ben Grayson is the Veterans Liaison for the Mesothelioma Center.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Honoring the Liberators

This week marked the commemoration of the National Days of Remembrance at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Some 120 World War II veterans in their 80s and 90s, wearing tags that said "LIBERATOR," came to be together, to be honored, and to remember.

I am familiar with the story of the liberation of Ebensee, Austria, where soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron had done advance scouting for the 80th Infantry Division and discovered the camp while the chimneys were still smoking from the burning of bodies. It was filled with piles of the dead and emaciated, dazed prisoners.

As an officer in the 80th, my father had gone to see the newly liberated concentration camp at Ebensee. He later said that, "In a way, it was worse than combat. I saw wounded in combat, of course, who were in terrible shape, but this was really bad. The smell of it was so overpowering....I didn't know why I'd come. I was sorry I had. It was so devastating, so depressing. Frightening, really."

Annie Gowen, writing for the Washington Post last Thursday, April 15, in an article titled, Remembering the Atrocities of World War II, wrote about Army nurse Dorothy Pecora, now 90 and living in McLean, Virginia, near Washington. Ms. Pecora brought photos to the Museum that she had carefully preserved, and she spoke of the prisoners she tended at Ebensee. I immediately thought of Lieutenant Jeannie Davis, another Army nurse whom I interviewed for my book. They may well have been in the same unit, the 139th Evacuation Hospital. Here's what I wrote in my book when I interviewed Davis:

Her job, along with the doctors and medical technicians, was to get the inmates ready to evacuate to a regular hospital. The men went up to the camp first but a full week passed before they allowed the nurses to go....

When we did go to the camp, and when I think of this, it was so idiotic — we took tablecloths up there. We thought we would try to make it pleasant for them. They had old wooden tables and they were bringing up better food for them. Of course, they were starving to death. They were in bunks, and they were still lying there, many of them dead. Every five minutes somebody would die, even weeks after liberation. It was so awful and there we were, these silly little nurses, putting tablecloths around.

But it didn't shock us as much as others who were not nurses. Through our training, we'd seen everything. The fact that it was done deliberately, in such mass, was what made it different. But we were able to talk to them and stand next to the bunks. I can think of women I know who couldn't possibly have done that, but we could.

Her humility, courage and confidence come through in those comments. I think the nurses are really the unsung heroines of wartime.

As I read through Gowen's article yesterday, it struck me that Dorothy Pecora, from McLean, Virginia, may well have crossed paths with my father. Since he lived in McLean himself for nearly fifty years, perhaps they stood next to one another in the line at the grocery store or the post office. Maybe they chatted about the weather or the rising price of postage, without ever knowing they shared this awful piece of history.

The arch marks the entrance to what remains of the camp at Ebensee. Houses have been built where the camp stood.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Old Liberators

by Robert Hedin

Of all the people in the mornings at the mall,
It’s the old liberators I like best,
Those veterans of the Bulge, Anzio, or Monte Cassino
I see lost in Automotive or back in Home Repair,
Bored among the paints and power tools.
Or the really old ones, the ones who are going fast,
Who keep dozing off in the little orchards
Of shade under the distant skylights.
All around, from one bright rack to another,
Their wives stride big as generals,
Their handbags bulging like ripe fruit.
They are almost all gone now,
And with them they are taking the flak
And fire storms, the names of the old bombing runs.
Each day a little more of their memory goes out,
Darkens the way a house darkens,
Its rooms quietly filling with evening,
Until nothing but the wind lifts the lace curtains,
The wind bearing through the empty rooms
The rich far off scent of gardens
Where just now, this morning,
Light is falling on the wild philodendrons.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Snowstorms and newspaper delivery — on horseback

Two hot topics in the news lately: first, talk of the United States Postal Service cutting back on delivery, and, second, in case you haven't heard yet —we had record snowfalls in our area. These two things bring to mind a story my father told about his days as editor and publisher of a small weekly newspaper in McLean, Virginia, the McLean Providence Journal.

It was a February 1958 snowstorm that dropped 14" of snow on Northern Virginia. The storm resulted in massive snowdrifts, whiteout conditions, and high winds. Transportation was paralyzed, and power was lost for a week.

The newspaper was printed at a country print shop near Oakton, Virginia. Even after Dad was able to reach the shop through the snow from the newspaper office in McLean, there was no electricity to turn the press. The print shop foreman, Earl Mutersbaugh, loaded the metal forms into his car and took them to the print shop at the Manassas Messenger, a distance of thirteen miles. The flat sheets were returned, having been printed, to Oakton, finally ready for folding and mailing. Then the second snowstorm descended.

Just when it looked as though some $2000 worth of advertising was going to be lost forever, two young women trotted up the road on horseback. After they were told about the delivery problem, they asked if they could help. Eagerly, the print shop people loaded the papers into their saddle bags. The two brave horsewomen headed off into the blinding snow toward the Oakton Post Office several miles away, saving the day.

My father, Bill Elvin, at his desk in the newspaper office.

Monday, February 1, 2010

February 4, 1945 — Luxembourg

I turned the page of the calendar from January to February this morning and as I did, I recalled that sixty-five years ago this Thursday my father returned to combat after nearly three months in the hospital.

It was February 4, 1945 when 1st Lt. Bill Elvin rejoined the 80th Infantry Division. The Division was exhausted from the Battle of the Bulge and was about to launch an attack across the Sauer River in Luxembourg. The war was dragging on.

On November 8, 1944, Dad had been wounded in Rouves, France. He was moved quickly to Paris and then to a hospital ship that took him to Ellesmere, England, on the Welsh border. He spent the next three months in the hospital there.

The sniper's wound made a moon-shaped crater in his forearm that was too wide for stitches. Infection was a constant problem, and when he looked down he could see the tendons in the gaping wound.

When the day came for Lt. Elvin to return to the war, what must it have been like for him? To know you had to return to the chaos of war after months in a hospital with people (nurses!) looking after you, tending to your wounds, making sure you got three squares a day — and where you'd been temporarily relieved of your awesome responsibilities. And thank heavens, your feet were warm and dry.

Clayton Warman of the 80th Infantry, had also been wounded, hospitalized for a time, and then returned to the front a few months later. Even though you knew what awaited you, he told me — the cold hard winter, the deprivation and most of all, the likelihood of being wounded again, or killed — the Army prepared you to go back, and also, you wanted to return to help out your buddies. It didn't feel right to be lying in a bed while they were fighting the war.

I said that if it were me, I would dread the very thought of going back. Clayton paused and said slowly, "Well, Jan, you woke up every single morning with that feeling. That feeling of dread was nothing new."

The badge is that of the 80th Infantry Division, also known as "The Blue Ridge Division." That's what the three blue mountains are on the badge.