On Mother's Day 1945 my wife Debbie's grandmother Grace Brown received the following letter from Dorothy Kilgallen a reporter for the New York Journal American. She later became a panelist on the 1950's game show called "What's My Line". Debbie's father, Private Johnny Phillips, had been seriously wounded and was recuperating in a Memphis military hospital.
I've just seen your boy.
He sends you his love
He's been wounded, as you know, but he want's you to believe he'll be all right. He doesn't want you to worry. When I told him I was writing you he sat up in bed, propped by his elbows, and grinned, and said: "Just tell her I'm getting along swell. Tell her I'm getting the best of care, and I feel okay, and they treat us fine here." Right then a nurse walked past and he gave her a wink and a hi-sign. "You can also tell Mom," he said loud enough for the nurse to hear, "that all the nurses around here are beautiful." That's the mood he's in, Mom. Not sad, not bitter. Not afraid of the future because of what's happened to him. Not complaining. He's in the mood to kid a little, to chin with the other fellows just the way he used to when he was in school, to whistle when a pretty girl goes by.
I imagine he's pretty much the way he alway's was, Mom. I have an idea most of them are. They've been through a lot of terrible and to us incredible things, they've seen and done things that perhaps we'll never know about, but somehow the closer they come to home and you and the rest of the folks the nearer they come to their ownselves and their old souls. They forget the noise of the battle and they begin to remember what the church looks like on the green hill of your town and how its bells sound on Sunday morning. They forget the sight of blood and begin to remember the sweet silken look of growing wheat when the wind plays with it in the clean fields. They forget the mud of New Guinea and the mud of Italy and the mud of France and begin to remember the smooth white sheets in a little room with class pictures and football souvenirs hung on the walls. They forget the cold taste of foxhole rations and begin to remember the smell of coffee and wheatcakes and sausages in a warm Ohio kitchen. It was remembering these things, or things like these, that made your son say to the pretty nurse : "Hey ask the doctor when I'm going to get out of this place. Tell him to just give me my shoes and I'll walk out." He's in a hurry to get home, no question about that. But because he won't be home for Mother's Day, we're sending you his picture.
When I saw your boy, he had just finished sitting for his photograph. The Journal-American sent it's crack cameramen to the military and naval hospitals in this area, and your boy's picture was just one of some 4,000 that they took. I think you'll like it. You'll notice it's a head and shoulder shot, and you'd never know to look at it that he'd been wounded. The photographers were careful to pose the boys so that defects and amputations didn't show. Not that sooner or later you and all the other mothers won't have to face your son's wounds - but when that time comes you'll have him in your arms again and you'll be able to see his grin and hear his voice, which is, believe us, a reassuring voice. When that time comes, his voice and his laugh and his presence, alive and noisy, will make the sight of a crutch less of a shock to you than you expect it to be. But for the Mother's Day picture, your boy wanted everything to look perfect. And the photographers fixed it that way.
Out at St. Albans Naval Hospital I watched veteran cameraman Jack Layer and Len Morgan snap these pictures at the rate of 40 in 20 minutes, yet every shot was posed as carefully as if it were to be used as a movie still. And it would have made you smile to see the boys posing. The shy ones were shy. The sober ones thought they weren't going to smile until Jack kidded them into it. The ones who used to be fresh down in Texas and up in Maine and back in Iowa had grins from ear to ear and trick poses and snappy comments. There were some who were neat as a pin, with pressed uniforms and slicked hair and scrubbed, serious young faces. There were some with tousled hair and some in hospital gowns and some in casts and some in wheelchairs. There were a lot of traction cases. They almost invariably cracked: "I'll pose if you get a nurse to sit in my lap." There were some who had spent an hour getting themselves prettied up for the event. There was one casual kid who posed without a shirt and - when Jack asked him if he didn't want to put something on - he shook his head. "Naw" he grinned. "My Mom's seen me without a shirt".
If I tried to describe the good spirits of these wounded boy's, Mom - your son and all the others - you'd be sure to think I was just trying to cheer you up. But actually I couldn't exaggerate it. They aren't at all like people in a hospital, except that so many of them are very sick and badly wounded. But they act like normal human beings; and they make it quite clear that they want you to act that way, too. One officer said to me: " I don't understand it myself, but here it is, you can see it with your own eyes. The tougher the case the higher the morals." I got the feeling from talking to your boy and the others, that they don't want to be kidded when they get home. They don't want any celluloid heroics from you or any false fronts on the part of the rest of the family or the neighbors. They know they've had a tough break and they know they've got problems. But they think they can lick them with a little help from you and the rest of the world.
So, when your boy comes home, If you want to cry on his shoulder, go ahead. You shed plenty of tears over him when he was a little kid and he got hurt; it won't surprise him too much if you shed a few more now. And after you've dried them let him sit around and loaf the well-earned loaf of the hero back from the wars, and stuff him full of the meals that only you make quite that way, and let yourself be surprised at how much he's like the kid who went away. He'll be thinking of you on Mother's Day, Mom. He hopes you like the picture. So do I.
God Bless you
|Dorothy Kilgallen on (What's My Line)|