During February and March 2015, the Veterans History Project will be running a series of blog posts discussing correspondence collections. The following is a guest post by Digital Conversion Specialist Matt McCrady.
Many of the young men drafted into service in World War II arrived at boot camp at the height of physical fitness, fresh from a school sports career, or from years of labor on a farm. One such Army Airman was even a former Olympic athlete.
Ralph Jaffe was not that young man. At age 37, he was almost 20 years married and the father of two teenagers when his draft notice came in the mail one day in late 1944. He owned a successful hardware store in Newport, Rhode Island. His life had long ago settled into routine or, as he puts it in a letter to his wife,
To my shame I must admit to you now, that for a long time I had taken you, our love and our life together, as a matter of fact and very much for granted. [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 9/20/1945].
Yet by his own admission, “I didn’t try too hard to stay out” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty 9/20/1945]. Just like men 15 or 20 years his junior, Jaffe wanted to see what war was all about. What followed was a grueling year of physical and emotional hardship intimately recorded in nearly 600 letters Jaffe and his wife and children wrote to each other. While a handful of the letters were sent by his daughter, Rita, and son, Stanley, the bulk of the letters are between Ralph and Betty Jaffe.
Jaffe’s first letters were written during basic training at Fort Bragg, a time when he was not at all certain he would survive the rigors of PT or the ridicule of the younger men. Once, ordered to double-time it from barracks to mess, a distance of about “two blocks,” Jaffe straggled in after everyone else. “The boys (18) were kidding me. ‘What’s the matter, Gramps–tired?'” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 12/21/1944]. Jaffe was often punished for his inability to keep up by being ordered to do push-ups.
At the same time, he faced another challenge of Army life for a middle-aged guy: loneliness. Jaffe didn’t fit in. For one thing, at the request of his wife, he had agreed to forswear drinking, smoking, gambling, and women. This left him alone, much of the time, as the other men socialized. Writing to Betty on the eve of his first Christmas away from her and the kids, Jaffe complained, “The fellows think of only two things–liquor & women & that applies to the 18 year olds & the married ones, too” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 12/21/1944].
While her husband, with his arthritic knees and bald spot, was doing somersaults and five mile runs, Betty was managing the family hardware store back in Newport. Betty’s letters are practical-minded, and much of her correspondence is consumed with the day-to-day management of the store. She often wrote or typed her letters on the store’s stationery.
Occasionally, Betty’s emotions cut through the mundane account of sales made and bills to pay and questions to be asked of her husband–“Should I order some qts. [of Venetian Red paint] or are ½ pints enough in that color?” [Betty Jaffe to Ralph, 1/12/1945]–and one does get a sense of her own loneliness. The store keeps her busy, which takes her mind off things, but she wrote, “I go to bed early & sleep makes time pass more quickly” [Betty Jaffe to Ralph, 12/27 – 12/28/1944].
Betty also displayed an occasional flash of anger at her husband. When she thought that he “can’t hold on to money” because the younger guys are tricking him into giving it to them, she gave him what she calls a “pep talk” about being too “soft.” A few letters later, she apologized for her pique, saying that he doesn’t have to account for his money to her: “I must have made you feel pretty miserable, and that was not my idea at all” [Betty Jaffe to Ralph, 1/9/1945].Another subject of Betty’s pep talks was Jaffe’s morals. She did not want her husband to come home changed for the worse. Several times, she took him to task for swearing in his letters. Jaffe admitted he swears “just a little–I’m a man” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 1/13/1945], but Betty’s admonition about cursing mostly served to make him abbreviate. He writes, for example, “S— details” and “Well the G.D. party is over and I’m pooped!” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 1/19/1945].
Overall, this vast collection of letters between the Jaffes is the correspondence of a long-time married couple unused to separation. Betty did not expect to be managing the family business at that stage of her life, and Ralph Jaffe was unprepared for the rigors and monotony of Army life. They knew each other so well, they did not have to tiptoe around issues of health, money, resentment, anger, loneliness, ennui, and maintaining one’s values in the face of challenges.
Jaffe’s story, which his letters document, is ultimately one of resilience. He did not want it to be said he used his age or infirmities as an excuse. In the end, Jaffe survived basic training and went on to serve overseas in the Philippines. Like thousands of much younger men, Jaffe played his part, and then he came home to fulfill the promise he had made: “I swore to myself many, many times that if I were spared, the rest of my life would be all for you” [Ralph Jaffe to Betty, 9/20/1945].