Volume 74, Number 32 | December 15 - 21, 2004


Thinking back to another December, and another war

By Jerry Tallmer

We had put out three papers, maybe four papers, in two days — two regular editions of The Dartmouth and one or two extras — and now, early on the morning of Tuesday, December 9, 1941, Babe Fanelli and I sat hollowed out over two cups of scalding, bitter black coffee in the Hanover Inn Coffee Shop.

Babe looked across the table at me in that pregnant way he had (pregnant with meaning) and said: “I guess we should go, what do you think?” It was I who had for months now been writing all those highly unpopular interventionist editorials under the heading “In Deserto,” with Babe offering moral support and, most recently, a lighthearted breather edit of his own entitled, in riposte, “Camel at a Coke Stand” — and now, hell, here was the guy beating me to the punch in saying the time had come for us to live up to our convictions, or pretensions, and go off to war.

Which we did, that day, saying goodbye to one or two people on the paper, letting them know where we were headed — I can’t remember who, but it must have been Farl (James Lawlor Farley), sports editor cum elf, and Craighead (J. Craighead Kuhn Jr.), movie reviewer cum Pinocchio, my roommates both and both now dead long before Babe. Or maybe it was just a note, telling them how, if it turned out we got into the Marines or whatever, they and the rest of the staff of ’42 would have to keep The “D” running until the kids of ’43 took over.

It was now the winter. Only a few months earlier, Farl, and Craighead, and Mitch-bitch (William J. Mitchell), and De Sherb (Michael J. DeSherbinin), and Joe Palamountain, and Proc Page, and Babe and I — the 1942 directorate of the strongest fraternity on campus, the newsprint fraternity — had spent many a lovely spring and/or fall afternoon careening over the grass out by the Bema in a beery dogfight between two much-overloaded old convertibles, somebody yelling: “Achtung, Schpitfeuer!” to the other car’s shout of: “Messerschmidts at nine o’clock! Oh, jolly good show!”

But now was now. So Babe and I lit out for Boston, whether by car, train, bus or thumb I also do not remember. But I do remember that December 9, 1941, was my 21st birthday, the day you are supposed to become a man.

Some almost 30 years later, during the height of the Vietnam lunacy, I would be sitting over a bottle of whiskey in a Dartmouth dorm, trying to “establish a dialogue” (vile phrase) with a bunch of young guys who were horribly upset by Vietnam, the draft, this country, life and death, Johnson, Nixon, Kissinger, everything. Look, I said, 30 years ago I left this campus for the very same reason that you’re thinking of leaving school now.

What I meant was love of country. The other word for it is not a word I cared to speak out loud, then or now. It has a bad reputation. It’s the last refuge of scoundrels. But these boys in their torment were anything but scoundrels.

Babe’s real name was Alex Fanelli, or in full A. Alexander Fanelli, or in even fuller, Arnaldo Alessandro Fanelli. It was Tom Braden, the tough Dubuque-bred editor in chief of The Dartmouth, class of 1940, under whom we both had heeled — freshmen trying out for the paper — who dubbed him Babe, after a volatile National League umpire of the time, Babe Pinelli. The name stuck with this other Babe for the rest of the life that ended in a Vermont nursing home on January 31, 2001, eight months before 9/11.

Speaking of baseball, somewhere in the archives there must exist a photograph of myself and Babe, the self-conscious New York City Jewboy and the poetic Italian-American from just over the city line, at microphones of WDCR, Dartmouth College Radio, in the hills of New Hampshire, earphones clapped to our heads, rebroadcasting a play-by-play account of the Yankees-(Brooklyn) Dodgers 1941 World Series for the benefit of the Hanover campus.

In Boston, on what must have been December 10, Babe and I hunted up a Marine recruiting office, and were both rejected out of hand as soon as they saw the heavy horn-rimmed eyeglasses we each wore. (Standards were more exacting at the beginning of the war.) At the Navy recruiting office, ditto ditto.

What was left, then, was the U.S. Army, and at that recruiting office, the collection center, as we saw it, for castoffs, they afforded us an eye test. Babe went first. (I used to be pretty good acting this out at drunken parties.) He was instructed to take off his glasses and read down the chart as far as he could go. If he was unable to even start reading, he was instructed to walk forward until he could make out some of the letters. Babe walked forward and walked forward and walked forward, and about 2 feet from the chart he stopped and said: “E.”

I went next. I took one-half a step forward — and tripped over the doorstop at the entrance.

But they took us in anyway. We went home — Babe to Pelham, New York, I to New York City — said goodbye to our families, and a few days later at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, took the oath of allegiance and donned the olive drab of privates, U.S. Army Air Corps (as it was then called). For the duration.

We were dispatched, in separate shipments, to Scott Field, Illinois, to learn radio and Morse code, then were reunited at Boca Raton, Florida, in castle-like country-club premises that neither of us could have walked through the door of in peacetime, to learn about something very new and very hush-hush called radar.

A snapshot: On the sand at West Palm Beach, a bit north of Boca Raton. Babe and I and our Florida girlfriends, let’s call them Beatrice and Gloria. Babe goes off to the distant food stand to get nourishment for all of us, and as he starts back down in our direction in his bathing trunks and eyeglasses, arms loaded with hotdogs and popsicles, Gloria gives a light laugh followed by: “Here comes Mr. Harmless of 1942.”

Well and good — but before the war is over that same sensitive, curly-haired Private (now S/Sgt) A. Alexander Fanelli will have met and courted and married a good-looking all-American blonde WAC from Michigan named Betty Van Dyke, and in good time will have fathered two children with her, Christopher and Katherine, and have stayed married to Betty, his one and only wife, for the whole rest of his time on earth.

The Air Corps, after Florida, split us up, sending one (Babe) to a U.S. airbase in (I think) Aruba, Dutch West Indies, and the other (myself) to an airbase up the Demerera River from Georgetown in what was then called British Guiana. But we kept in touch, principally by mail, Babe’s letters always being more colorful and imaginative than my own. V-mail it was called, and of course it took forever.

I also throughout the war received a running stream of delightfully warm letters from his pretty cousin Rita Fanelli, who, having sweetly deflected some gauche attentions I had during a brief leave (much to Babe’s distress) tried to exert upon her, made up for it as best she could with such morale-boosting tidbits from the home front as “ . . . and that was the day I dropped the typewriter.”

There was one moment midwar — or what, on anti-submarine patrol by obsolete B-18’s in the Caribbean, passed for war — when Babe and I communicated more instantly than by V-mail. It was in the middle of a pitch-black night, and I was in my radio/radar operator’s seat in the lumbering aircraft, somewhere out over the ocean. Hundreds of miles away, in Aruba, or wherever, Babe Fanelli, I knew, would be at his radio key on the ground.

I hit my key once, dit, just like that, violating radio silence, and a half-second later there sounded in my earphones a single dah, just like that — Chekhov’s snapped violin string long before I’d ever read a word of Chekhov.

Taking my breath and our two court-martialable lives directly in my hands — not to mention the hands of some trigger-happy U-boat commander, down there in the dark — I tapped out a quick “FI?” (ditditdahdit, ditdit, dittydittydumdumdittyditty), for “Fanelli?,” and got back an even quicker (ditdahdit), or “R,” for roger, yes, correct, it is I, Babe, hiya Jer, and all that — in one split second of vacuum-tube ping from half a thousand miles away.

I’m still thrilled, thinking of it, hearing it, and feeling Babe somewhere way off, yet very near, in the night. And I still at this moment, and others, also often hear his voice, sweet and mellow, singing “Aura Lee,” a romantic song he favored even before the war, and even before Elvis got to it and changed it into “Love Me Tender.”

The war went on, and I went out to the Pacific, and Hiroshima was followed by Nagasaki — I regret to say I saw that one, from a B-24 at 10,000 feet on a bombing mission 135 miles away — and then the war ended. Babe and Betty came home, I came home. Al Dickerson, faculty adviser to The Dartmouth and a prince among men, had talked me into coming back to school for one semester to re-start the newspaper and get my degree.

Babe didn’t need any talking into. He and Betty had had, or were just about to have, their first child, the Christopher who would be taken from them by some weird fatal ailment 10 cruel cold years later, but nobody knew that then, or that Babe was to spend a share of the rest of his life in service to the college as an assistant to two or three of its presidents, or that I would spend my own life trying in some un-doable way to put words down one after another and make it somehow add up to sense.

All anybody knew was that Babe had bought a Model A Ford, in which sturdy vehicle he and I chugged up the Connecticut Valley one fine morning to return to Hanover, to Robinson Hall, and to The Dartmouth, he once again as associate editor and inspiration of our better graces, me once again as editor in chief. The coffee in the Hanover Inn Coffee Shop was still as scalding as ever, but now I softened it with a dash of milk.

Tallmer, Dartmouth College ’42, writer, editor, critic, a founder of The Village Voice and creator of the Off-Broadway Obie Awards, was editor in chief of The Dartmouth in the fall and winter of 1941 and the spring of 1946.

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