By Eric Olsen
Some of my earliest memories concern my father neatly folding toilet paper and tucking it into his shirt pocket before leaving the house. Also my father now and then breaking spontaneously into Italian, often at the dinner table, and sometimes even into snatches of Italian opera. As I recall, he had a good voice, but I was a little kid, so what did I know? There he’d be, a little tuft of white toilet paper sticking out of his shirt pocket, belting out a few lines of Aida or something. It was all so very, very not Norwegian.
The toilet paper was a habit my father had developed during nearly four years in the Army Signal Corps in North Africa and Italy in WWII, where toilet paper was apparently in short supply. It took him several years after his return to the States to get comfortable with the notion that there was now plenty of toilet paper to go around. But I guess there could never be enough Italian as far as he was concerned.
The day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, my father had gone to the nearest Navy recruiting station to sign up. He picked the Navy since he was Norwegian and he figured Norwegians belonged on boats. But he was also ferociously nearsighted, even with glasses, and the Navy preferred sailors who could see what they were shooting at and rejected him. Not the Army, though. The Army signed him right up. Half blind? No problem . . ..
Yet I guess even the Army eventually had some qualms and decided my father perhaps ought not to be shooting at stuff he couldn’t see. Besides, he’d been to college, and he’d grown up speaking Norwegian at home, which as far as the Army was concerned was practically German, and so they put him in the Signal Corps and shipped him off for training as a cryptanalyst. Word is he even spent time at Bletchley Park in England, but it was all very hush hush and to this day the details are elusive. (Bletchley Park was the center for allied code-breaking, inspiration for many good books. See Enigma, a novel by Robert Harris, and Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II by Stephen Budiansky, for more on Bletchley Park.) From Bletchely Park, or from wherever, it was on to North Africa with the allied invasion force.
My father spent the next three-plus years listening to coded radio broadcasts in German and Italian, trying to figure out what the enemy was really saying. Family legend has it that Eisenhower even showed up in his camp one day in North Africa, shook his hand and said, “Well done.” My father would later say that he thought Ike was dumb as a post, and that Patton was even dumber, hard as that was to imagine. But then my father thought all officers were dumb as posts; he had issues with authority.
Unfortunately, as a kid I had no interest in WWII or in my father’s adventures in North Africa and Italy, and so I never asked him about any of it. In any case, he was Norwegian, and so even if I had asked, I probably wouldn’t have gotten much out of him, beyond what a bunch of dumb bastards all officers were, a topic he never tired of.
By the time I did get interested in my father’s Army days, he was dying and so we had other things to not talk about. Later, lacking facts, I began to fantasize, and so it was that my father’s adventures in WWII formed the basis of one of the first short stories I wrote after I decided I wanted to be a writer. Maybe it’s just as well I knew so little about his time in the Army, since my ignorance gave free rein to my imagination, for better or worse . . ..
The idea for the story took shape in a bar in Iowa City, where I was discussing the typical New Yorker story with a couple other Californians one night after workshop. As Californians, we had issues with New Yorker stories, which we felt were always about effete East Coast suburban trust-funder angst or something, or so it seemed to us. We determined, over rather more than a few beers, that the five essential elements of a New Yorker story were: (1) a visit to an art gallery; (2) a train ride from Philadelphia to New York City; (3) a dead grandparent; (4) a conversation over tea; and (5) someone who speaks French.
To test our thesis, I wrote a New Yorker story. It was set in North Africa during WWII. The main character was a young, multi-lingual Army cryptanalyst with very bad eyesight and an attitude problem. I contrived to work in the art gallery, tea, dead grandparent, and even a train ride from Philly to New York City, and promptly shipped it off to the New Yorker. Some weeks later, I got a nice note back from Roger Angell himself—an entire (short) paragraph!—thanking me for sending the story, but it was a bit too “writerly,” but do send him something else, etc. etc. etc. Later, a literary quarterly took the story and paid me $25, the first money I ever made off my fiction.
More recently, I started reading Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn: the War in North Africa, 1942-1943, imagining that I was reading about my old man. In a way, I suppose I was. In fact, one of the photos in the book includes my father, his head freshly shaved, gazing myopically at the camera with a huge grin. He’s standing in a group of young men all having their heads shaved. They’re on a ship, about to land in Morocco as part of the Allied invasion force. They’re part of the Army Signal Corps and members in good standing of the Bald Head Club. Just why they thought they needed to have their heads shaved is never explained. But this was war, so maybe no explanation for such behavior was needed.
An Army at Dawn is the first volume of a trilogy. The second volume is The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944. The third volume, about the Normandy invasion, is forthcoming.