Love in Wartime: the epistolary romance of a Los Alamos scientist and a Radcliffe junior destined for poetic renown.

Author:Kumin, Maxine
Position:Essay
 
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For half a century referred to in the family as the long-lost love letters, they were only recently discovered in the most predictable location--the farmhouse attic, snugged under several abandoned picture frames that formed a false bottom in an old metal camp trunk. Remarkably, thanks to their insulated incarceration, they survived in fragile but still-legible condition--575 letters exchanged between Cabot Hall, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was a junior at Radcliffe College, and P.O. Box 180, Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Victor, a Harvard graduate, was a sergeant in the U.S. Army. The Santa Fe address was a fiction, one that the top brass worked hard to preserve; Victor was actually stationed "on The Hill," as it was locally known, at the Los Alamos Laboratory, where he was one of the soldier-scientists working to develop the atomic bomb.

We met on Patriots' Day, April 19, 1945, on a blind date. During the five remaining days of Victor's furlough, there was no war. We did not speak of FDR, one week dead. We did not know that V-E Day lay two and a half weeks ahead. We walked for miles along the Charles River. We went to the zoo. We went to the ballet. Evenings we repaired to a booth in the dark fastness of the Hotel Lafayette bar, nursing drinks until my curfew loomed: 10 o'clock on weekdays, midnight on weekends. Was this called falling in love in less than one week? Or was this Marvell's "vegetable love" that would "grow vaster than empires, and more slow?" We had months and months to find out.

In his first letter, Victor described his heroic route back to New Mexico--one train from Boston to St. Louis, another to Kansas City, a third to Pueblo, Colorado, followed by a bus to Santa Fe: "The Road Back" was not nearly as unpleasant as I had expected but for a four hour stretch of standing on my head (it was the only way I could fit into the car).... The bus trip from Pueblo to Santa Fe ... was nothing less than overpowering. As we rode easily down from Las Vegas to Santa Fe the metamorphosis from day to night took place painlessly as the brilliant sunset faded. And then the mountains, particularly "Starvation Peak," standing erect in all their war-like glory. There was so much beauty that only a poet or a painter could capture it--the pueblo huts, the farms, and most of all the native Mexican Indians, people living life on their doorsteps and in their huts lit by kerosene lamps.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

He is careful not to mention the last leg of the journey, a 36-mile climb up to Los Alamos, set more than 7,000 feet above sea level on a high desert plateau. Once it had been a boys' boarding school, a site laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer had chosen for its seclusion. Now it housed the labs, machine shops, barracks, and dining facilities that had transformed the mesa into a bustling town.

On May 8, the war in Europe ended. I wrote the following to Victor: At 12:30 today a sea of white-capped officers and WAVES and army boys stood at attention in the Yard facing the steps of Mem[orial] chapel and the student body and good citizens of Cambridge stood on the steps of Widener. [Dean Willard] Sperry [of Harvard Divinity School] was at his simple best and altho it always strikes me that there is something incongruous in hearing the words of an unknown Deity echo hollowly thru a scientific apparatus known as a loudspeaker, it was a fine thing to hear these hundreds and hundreds of people sing their national anthem, while the choir on the chapel steps with their crimson and black robes flapping in the breeze made themselves heard over all the rest. Long sentences always seem to get the better of me, don't they? Especially today, I think, because I was really so impressed There was a color guard of OM Glory and the Harvard crest and sailors with guns--and high over University Hall three magnificent huge flags are flying--the stars and stripes, the union jack, and ... the hammer and sickle. Yup, the red flag high in Harvard Yard. There was a bright spring sun and the lawns bad been freshly cut, the Yard a huge mass of people full of a warm relief if not elation, the chapel bells and the organ music ... we were rather carried away with it all. People seemed to be less jubilant than thoughtful, tho, knowing we are only halfway thru the job.

His rather doleful reply presents a sharp contrast: Thanks for the wee bit of godliness. V-E day was celebrated here in the same spirit, but a different manner. Free beer and sandwiches; a little guzzling, a movie, to bed. And so I honored the end of the European war.

Our early letters cautiously skirted mention of the intimacy that had begun to develop between us. We set about exploring half a dozen schemes to see each other again as soon as possible. A trip to Little Rock, where my oldest brother was stationed after serving in the North African and Italian campaigns, seemed feasible. I would keep his wife company and help with the new baby (I knew nothing about babies). I concocted a trip to Amarillo, Texas, where my newly divorced uncle was a captain in the army and his daughter, Bobby, my girlhood chum, was a dental technician. The price exacted for the train ticket to Amarillo, bought by my reluctant parents, was for me to spend two weeks in Little Rock on baby duty afterward.

On June 11: I asked Bobby to wire me about reservations in Amarillo; if the fates are kind, I'll arrive there on Wednesday the 27th and leave therefor Little Rock the following Monday. If I don't sound too excited about it, the fault is all Oscar's [my typewriter] because he's all tuckered out from typing a 30-page paper on imagery in Henry James and so you mustn't expect too many !!!s from him. The enthusiasm is all ours, Vic, but I must admit that mine is very tempered with a weight of responsibility ... which amounts in my befuddled brain to being "mature and sensible."... I'll be on pins and needles until I hear from you definitely. I guess I just can't believe that our plans are working out, and that may account for my sobriety. It seems too good to be true that we'll see each other again in just about two more weeks.

Victor is almost as somber: This will probably be the last letter you'll recede before I leave, if all goes well. Since I cannot fly without priority and priority is limited to officers, it means a twelve-hour bus trip which should get me to Amarillo 7:00 A.M. Thursday, June 28. The inevitable return must begin at noon Sunday.... And so, pursuing my normal routine of reveille, inspection, retreat I try to speed the burning of the days left before I see you. The bad feature of this, of course, is that the process of combustion will accelerate beginning June 27th and almost before it has begun, my...

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