Jewish World Review July 2, 2004 / 13 Tamuz 5764
Hi-Ya, Babe! The Spirit of '76 Goes Rolling Along
You would think they couldn't have had less in common, the New England patrician of colonial and revolutionary times who would see an infant republic into the world, and the immigrant girl who would sign up to nurse that republic's soldiers in a later generation. But to read their letters is to be struck by the spirit they shared.
It is the Spirit of '76, which is hard to spell out in words but immediately recognizable. It is a spirit of good cheer that keeps breaking out at the most improbable moments, and against the most improbable odds. It is the spirit that says: We can do this. And then does it.
You wouldn't ordinarily think of crusty old John Adams as brimming with good cheer. If ever there was a Calvinist convinced of the natural depravity of man, it was the patriarch of the whole dour Adams line. And yet it would be he, in a letter to Abigail, with the war already a year old and threats everywhere, who could scarcely contain his exuberance when he prophesied how Independence Day would be celebrated even to this day-"with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore."
What he might not have foreseen is that independence cannot be won once and for all, but that each generation would have to earn it in its own way. And that the Spirit of '76 would become the spirit of a Jewish fruit peddler's daughter who, transplanted from a ghetto in Poland to John Adams' own Boston, Cradle of Liberty, would see the coming of another war, and be tumbling out onto the beaches of Normandy with 17 other nurses just four days after D-Day, ready to go to work. And God knows there would be plenty of work to do.
As their field hospital moved across France, tending the wounded, seeing to the dead and dying, these nurses would become heroines to the GIs in the field, by turns adored and whistled at. To Frances Slanger the sound of artillery barrages would become part of the background noise; she said it reminded her of the rumble of the Boston Elevated Railway back home.
This year, there may be no better way to celebrate the Fourth than by quoting the letter she wrote one night to Stars and Stripes when she couldn't get to sleep. Her spirit, and America's, comes through in every word:
It is 0200 and I have been lying awake for one hour, listening to the steady, even breathing of the other three nurses in the tent..
The fire is burning low and just a few live coals are on the bottom. With the slow feeding of wood, and finally coal, a roaring fire is started. I couldn't help thinking how similar to a human being a fire is; if it is allowed to run down too low and if there is a spark of life left in it, it can be nursed back. ... So can a human being. It is slow, it is gradual, it is done all the time in these Field Hospitals and other hospitals in the ETO.
We had read several articles in different magazines and papers sent in by grateful GIs, praising the work of the nurses around the combat areas. Praising us-for what?
I climbed back into my cot. Lt. Bowler was the only one I had awakened. I whispered to her. Lt. Cox and Lt. Powers slept on. Fine nurses and great girls to live with . of course, like in all families, an occasional quarrel, but these were quickly forgotten.
I'm writing this by flashlight. In this light it looks something like a "dive." In the center of the tent are two poles, one part chimney, the other a plain tent pole. Kindling wood lies in disorderly confusion on the ground. We don't have a tarp on the ground. A French wine pitcher, filled with water, stands by. The GIs say we rough it. We in our little tent can't see it. True, we are set up in tents, sleep on cots and are subject to the temperament of the weather.
We wade ankle deep in mud. You have to lie in it. We are restricted to our immediate area, a cow pasture or hay field, but then, who is not restricted? We have a stove and coal. We even have a laundry line in the tent. Our GI drawers are at this moment doing the dance of the pants, what with the wind howling, the tent waving precariously, the rain beating down, the guns firing, and me with a flashlight, writing. It all adds up to a feeling of unrealness.
Sure, we rough it, but in comparison to the way you men are taking it, we can't complain, nor do we feel that bouquets are due us. But you, the men behind the guns, the men driving our tanks, flying our planes, sailing our ships, building bridges . it is to you we doff our helmets. To every GI wearing the American uniform, for you we have the greatest admiration and respect.
Yes, this time we are handing out the bouquets . but after taking care of some of your buddies; seeing them when they are brought in bloody, dirty, with the earth, mud and grime, and most of them so tired. Somebody's brothers, somebody's fathers and somebody's sons. Seeing them gradually brought back to life, to consciousness and to see their lips separate into a grin when they first welcome you. Usually they kid, hurt as they are. It doesn't amaze us to hear one of them say, "How'ya, babe," or "Holy Mackerel, an American woman!" or most indiscreetly, "How about a kiss?"
These soldiers stay with us but a short time, from 10 days to possibly two weeks. We have learned a great deal about our American soldier, and the stuff he is made of. The wounded do not cry. Their buddies come first. The patience and determination they show, the courage and fortitude they have is sometimes awesome to behold. It is we who are proud to be here. Rough it? No. It is a privilege to be able to receive you, and a great distinction to see you open your eyes and with that swell American grin, say, "Hi-ya babe!"
That swell American grin. Frances Slanger knew it, and had it. The next night, her letter on its way, she would be killed when an enemy battery shelled her field hospital. She would be the first American nurse to die in Europe after D-Day.
Frances Slanger had wanted to be a nurse, a writer, to make a difference. She did. Her full story is told for the first time by Bob Welch in a book just out, "American Nightingale." But it is a story being continued to this day. Once again American troops are in combat. The other day we read about an MP in Baghdad who had been wounded in two separate attacks there, and was offered the chance to leave. When he chose to stay, he was informed that anybody who got hit four times would have to leave. His response: "Then I have two more to go!"
The Spirit of '76 ("Hi-ya babe!") goes rolling along.
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