Role of Women

My Aunt Florence—A Young Woman in Wartime

Earlier this week I posted a tribute to our veterans and told the story of our family’s soldier, Daniel Leffel, who fought for our freedom in World War II. Today I want to honor the women who helped to win that war. One of them was my aunt Florence, Danny’s wife. This is a repeat post, slightly edited.

Recently I was looking through my Aunt Florence’s photo album. My mother’s much younger sister, Florence, was like a big sister to me.

One of the first photos in her album is of her high school glee club taken in 1935 when they presented an operetta called “Maid in Japan.” The girls are dressed in kimonos, most of them carrying fans or parasols. The boys who played the part of Japanese appear to be somewhat confused about what a male counterpart of the girls might wear. But they seem to have settled on tent hats worn at a rakish angle, and a few Fu Manchu moustaches.

The greatest generation when they were just kids
Lansing (Kansas) High School Glee Club, “Maid in Japan,” December 19, 1935. These are members of the greatest generation when they were still kids.

When the picture was taken in 1935, Florence (center of photo in white kimono) was 16 years old, as I assume the others were—more or less.  Six years later, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they were  21-22 years old. They would give up a good chunk of their young lives—perhaps even life itself— in a war involving an enemy they had so recently found interesting and charming. If you tried to incorporate this bit of irony in a work of fiction, you’d probably be criticized for trying too hard. Because of their determination, bravery, and sacrifice in defense of the nation, history has come to call them “the greatest generation.”

Unless they were exempt for medical reasons, every one of the boys in the picture was probably drafted.  More than 11 million able bodied men between the ages of 18-45  were conscripted into military service in the World War II draft.

Government poster featuring Rosie the Riveter
Government poster featuring Rosie the Riveter

And the women did their part. There were, of course, female branches of the armed forces: the WACS, the WAVES, and the SPARS, and then there were the WASPS, over a thousand civilian women aviators who already had pilot licenses and were recruited to fly non-combat missions freeing male pilots for combat.

Women on the home front stepped forward to do the jobs that men would traditionally be hired to do. They worked in shifts around the clock, welding, “manning” assembly lines, manufacturing the weapons of war. Rosie the Riveter was the iconic image representing these women.

Typists and stenographers played a crucial part in wartime.
Typists and stenographers played a crucial part in wartime.

But there was another army of women whose skills were essential to the war effort and who are not often acknowledged because their jobs did not challenge gender expectations. They were the typists and stenographers who were recruited by the thousands to produce the incredible amount of paperwork necessary for the prosecution of the war. Florence was one of these. She worked at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Army majors came to learn to be Colonels and Generals. She and her compatriots could take rapid dictation in shorthand, type a gazillion words a minute on clunky manual typewriters, while making multiple copies with carbon paper. That was the way Florence helped win the war.

Command and General Staff College
Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1944
Florence Leffel at her desk in the Command and General Staff College, 1944
Florence Leffel at her desk in the Command and General Staff College, 1944

One day in April of 1945, Florence was at work when she received a telegram with the news that her husband, Lt. Danny Leffel, had died in a Hawaiian hospital from wounds received three days earlier on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

I remember the moment I learned of Danny’s death. My mother and I were visiting my grandmother’s house where Florence was living during the war. It is one of those isolated moments that memory illuminates with a torchlight.  An unfamiliar car pulled up in front of the house in the middle of the day. My grandmother started to the door as Florence accompanied by two women we did not know came in.

“What’s the matter, Sissie?  Are you sick?” And the awful stone-faced reply: “Danny’s dead.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Florence eventually remarried. She was the proud and loving mother of two little boys when she died of breast cancer at the age of 43.


Loveliest of Trees

In the springtime, Housman thought it was the cherry.

In the fall, I think it is the ginkgo.

Gingko tree

That time of year when the lovely ginkgo
Paves our streets with fans of gold,
And we like royalty lightly tread upon them.

Gingko leavesAnd this from Herb:

It rained this afternoon,
and before I got home from work,
It was dark and cold.

Passing absent mindedly beneath a streetlamp
I found myself
on a pavement of gold.

Ginkgo leaves—
only a carpet of fallen ginkgo leaves,
but too much like the streets foretold.

paintings · Poetry · Political Correctness

This Is The Day The Lord Has Made. Let Us Rejoice And Be Glad In It. Psalm 118:24

After the sun was up and my coffee drunk, I checked my favorite blogs. Alas, the country is going to hell, just like yesterday and the day before. In California a man shouting, “F——Trump!” tried to stab a Republican candidate with a switch blade. He failed because he had a defective knife. (No details about what was wrong with the knife.) And I read that the New York Times has hired a woman who fantasizes about killing all white men, and says she thinks President Trump is Hitler.


I feel like I’ve wandered into an Alice in Wonderland Humpty Dumpty world where words mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean.

But even in the midst of all this upside-down-ness, there are still times when I feel it’s absolute bliss to be alive. It’s not the same “bliss” I knew in my ignorant, vigorous youth, but it’s still bliss. Is that okay? Or have we reached the point where a prudent man must conceal his happiness in order not to agitate a swarm of resentful, depressed ANTIFAs, all insisting on universal misery in the name of social justice and emotional equality?

The following poem isn’t as well known as it should be.

Early in the Morning—Robert Hillyer (1895-1961)

Early in the morning
Of a lovely summer day,
As they lowered the bright awning
At the outdoor cafe,
I was breakfasting on croissants
And cafe au lait
Under greenery like scenery,
Rue Francois Premier.
They were hosing the hot pavement
With a dash of flashing spray
And a smell of summer showers
When the dust is drenched away,
Under greenery like scenery,
Rue Francois Premier.
And I was twenty and a lover
And in Paradise to stay,
Very early in the morning
Of a lovely summer day.


You are sitting on the terrace of the Brasserie Wepler. (It is still there, I understand.) Your waiter is at right. He has brought you your breakfast. You are sitting under the awning that runs across the top of the frame and can see portions of empty tables in front of you. You are watching two little girls trying to cross the street. The painting is called Place Clichy and is by Pierre Bonnard.

Childhood learning · Culture · Education · Role of Women

The Lesson Learned is not Always the Lesson Taught


Herb is the one who usually writes about poetry, but I have something to say about a poem.

Miss Mary Braden, my fifth grade teacher, was a throwback to the Victorian era. Her skirt came down to her ankles, she carried a cane, and her long gray hair was tied up at the back in a big bun. She was a regular Gradgrind. and she hated children, or so it seemed to me. To Miss Braden poetry was a trusted pedagogical tool; To this day I can still remember many lines of the poems we were required to memorize and recite.

In School Days by John Greenleaf  Whittier was written in 1870 at the height of the Victorian era. It tells a charming story about children, but it ends with a discouraging message:

Self interest is the motivating force that informs almost all human interaction. So don’t expect to be given any consideration just because you are likeable (or even loveable).

 That was the lesson we were supposed to learn, but what we took from the poem was something quite different.

The setting is a one-room schoolhouse  at dismissal time. A boy and a girl linger behind.  There has been a spelling bee that afternoon in which the boy and girl ended up as the last two contestants, and the girl turned out to be the winner.

In School Days

Still sits the school-house by the road,
A ragged beggar sleeping;
Around it still the sumachs grow,
And blackberry vines are creeping.

* * * * * * *

Long years ago a winter sun
Shone over it at setting;
Lit up its western window-panes
And low eaves’ icy fretting.

It touched the tangled golden curls,
And brown eyes full of grieving,
Of one who still her steps delayed
When all the school were leaving.

For near her stood the little boy
Her childish favor singled:
His cap pulled low upon a face
Where pride and shame were mingled

* * * * * * *

He saw her lift her eyes; he felt
The soft hand’s light caressing,
And heard the tremble of her voce,
As if a fault confessing.

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word:
I hate to go above you,
Because,”—the brown eyes lower fell,—
“Because, you see, I love you!”

Still memory to a gray-haired man
That sweet child-face is showing.
Dear girl! The grasses on her grave
Have forty years been growing.

He lives to learn, in life’s hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss,
Like her,—because they love him.

Now we ten-year-olds knew nothing about life’s hard school, not yet having experienced it. The lesson of the ultimate stanza was therefore lost on us, but we could identify with these children.

I had brown eyes; I was a good speller. I was in love—_with Jack Sevier— as was every other girl in our class. “Tangled golden curls”? Well, okay, three out of four; I could still identify.

And although I could not have then articulated it plainly, here was a potent message packaged so that even a ten-year-old could understand it. It was a lesson girls were taught over and over in subtle ways long after Whittier and Miss Braden were around to teach it.  It taught girls how to behave and boys what to expect from girls:

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word,
I hate to go above you,
“Because,”—her brown eyes lower fell,—
“Because you see, I love you.”

Girls need to disown their accomplishments if they want to gain favor with boys.  And there are certain techniques that girls can use to be appealing   . . . the lifted (and lowered) eyes; the caressing hands, the trembling voice, the frank apology.

In spite of the genuine progress women have made since 1870, when Whittier wrote his poem, sad to say, some women still are reluctant to own their accomplishments, and some men would just as soon they didn’t.

Do you still remember a poem you were required to memorize in school?To leave a comment scroll to the top of the post and click on the word “comments.”


Culture · Poetry · Uncategorized

This is the Day We Learned that the War Was Over


We were jubilant; the war was over!

August 14 is VJ Day—victory over Japan. Ancient history to some. A war about what? Nobody remembers. But you don’t have to remember the past to be affected  by it. It helps, though, if you remember. I was reading Escape from Davo (a Japanese prison in the Philippines) the other day. Each chapter is preceded by an excerpt from a poem by Henry Lee. Who? There is nothing about him on the Poetry Foundation’s website.


Captured on Bataan, he survived the Death March, and was imprisoned in Cabanatuan. Reports from Philippine spies about Japanese plans to massacre the prisoners caused the Americans to launch a raid behind the Japanese lines to save them. It is celebrated in Hampton Sides’ book, Ghost Soldiers and in a movie, The Great Raid. 

However before the camp was liberated, Lee and some other prisoners were sent to Japan. He did not survive the war, but he had buried his poems at Cabanatuan. His friends dug them up and gave them to a reporter. Many were published in the Saturday Evening Post. They do not reflect Wordsworth’s “emotions recollected in tranquility.”

They are patriotic:

“Our faith is in the blood of weary men / Who take the coral beaches back again. / My country—Oh, my country—well we know. / That final victory will be your part,”

and blunt:
So you are dead. The easy words contain
No sense of loss, no sorrow, no despair.
Thus hunger, thirst, fatigue, combines to drain
All feeling from our hearts. The endless glare,
The brutal heat, anesthetize the mind.
I can not mourn you now. I lift my load,
The suffering column moves. I leave behind
Only another corpse, beside the road.

After he’d been in Cabanataun for three years, he wrote:.

“Teach me to hate,” I prayed — for I was young,
And fear was in my heart, and faith had fled.
“Teach me to hate! for hate is strength,” I said
“A staff to lean on.” Thus my challenge flung
Into the thunder of the clouds that hung
Cloaking with terror all the days ahead –
“Teach me to hate — the world I loved is dead;
Who would survive must learn a savage tongue.”
And I have learned — and paid in days that ran
To bitter schooling. Love was lost in pains,
Hunger replaced the beauty in life’s plan,
Honor and virtue vanished with the rains
And faith in God dissolved with faith in man.
I have my hate! But nothing else remains.

But that wasn’t quite true. He had “one treasure nothing can destroy.”

Somewhere there lives a woman I suppose
Who once was you. All night I fought my brain,
All night with burning eyes that ached to close
I probed the whirling darkness while the rain
Played on the nipa with a rhythmic stamp,
And as forgotten memories seared my heart
The restless mutter of the prison camp
Mocked at the empty years we’ve been apart.
But now the hills that race the tropic dawn
Across a sky ablaze with pagan joy
Have touched me with their strength. Though you are gone
I guard one treasure nothing can destroy—
Across a spring green, a sunlit campus lawn
A golden girl laughs with her dark-haired boy.

Henry G. Lee’s one book of poems, Nothing But Praise, was published after the war by the Philippines Asia Museum. It’s out of print. The hardcover costs $495. Even the paperback at $88 is outside my range. But a few of his poems can be found on the internet.


Survivors from Cabanantuan

While searching for Lee’s poems, I came upon a site that published “Three Years After” along with this accompanying photo of two surviving prisoners. The blogger said she’d read Ghost Solders and it “disturbed” her. She couldn’t accept the idea that the Americans were admirable and the Japanese despicable. So to reassure herself (and to sound wise), she claimed she saw “disturbing parallels” between what happened in Cabanatuan and “what has been done in our ‘war on terror.’” (Note the queasy passive voice.) What parallels? Do any of the Islamist prisoners at Guantanamo look like the Cabanantuan prisoners in the picture? I know, she’s young, so maybe I should go easier Unknown-2on her. But she read Ghost Solders!