Mailboxes and Old Barns: We know better now

Children’s and adults’ birthday celebrations in the 1950s were always full-blown family events and almost identical in their content for any age.  There might be five or twenty-five guests. There were not always presents, although there were always cards.  A child’s card would usually include some nickels, or dimes taped to the inside. On the Sunday closest to a child’s birthday, they would have the pennies (or the older kids would have a couple of nickels and the necessary number of pennies) to put in the birthday bank at Sunday School opening exercises while the group sang Happy Birthday to them.

Entire families would drop in on the appointed weekday evening or Sunday afternoon for a spread that would include sandwiches, salads, cake, lemonade, ice cream and coffee.  This would be done on The Birth Dateof the person being celebrated.  If it could not be done on The Birth Date, it wasn’t done.  In Logic World (where Prairie People lived) that was not sensible.  However, even if we didn’t have a birthday party (i.e., no guests to acknowledge the wonder of our arrival and ongoing presence in the world) we still had (on The Birth Date) the meal of our choice for dinner (if Sunday) or supper (if any other day of the week).

My requested birthday meal was always fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, beans with crumbs on and beet pickles.  All of those items were homegrown and one of them was personally cared for, fed, killed, plucked, cleaned and home-butchered as well.  Homemade bread, home-churned butter, homemade jam and cow-contributed milk were a part of every meal, so they were a given in the birthday menu as well.  And there was always a birthday cake with the right number of candles.

Older couples, widows and widowers would have the coffee pot on and be ready for company around the date of their birthday, since The Birth-Date-Only Celebration rule didn’t apply to them.  And also, in their case, the guests would bring the sandwiches, the cake, the ice cream and the lemonade.

Although there was always kind and familial recognition of both our Birth Days and our person, however old we might have been, there was never excessive celebration.  Come to think of it, the football penalty sometimes called today after a touchdown would have had no application in that time, either in our families or in our region of the country.

Excessive celebration simply wasn’t done:celebration in and of itself was slightly suspect.

Excessive speaking up wasn’t done: speaking up in and of itself was slightly suspect.

In retrospect, it seems to me that there was something in our DNA that dictated that there really isn’t anything on this earth worth getting worked up over at either end of the spectrum.  You just do what you have to do and keep moving.

So Korea  was a holding action,   a war we weren’t allowed to win,  more than a decade before  the Vietnam War ever got all those reputations (after it became a U.S. war).

It is often referred to as “The Forgotten War” which has never made sense to me at all because I was keenly aware of it, both when it occurred and over the years since.  I was nine years old in 1952 and my oldest brother had embarked on his Naval career which placed him in Korea as a Combat Photographer attached to infantry units.

There are many fine books that have been published in recent years on the subject.  Some of them are narratives from the viewpoint of those who were on the ground at Chosin Reservoir in the freezing mud, and some are from the vantage point of analysts who have access to raw materials from that time as well as the added perspective of “50 years on” to re-discuss what is described by one author as the outpost war.  That’s the subtitle for Lee Ballenger’s 2000 work: U. S. Marines in Korea, Vol. 1:1952; The Outpost War.

Think of the jungle trails of Vietnam (photo at left)~~ here’s the Korean version:  the trail runs along a rocky ridge and cold rain is falling as the Marines run hundreds of yards along the crest, sort of hunkering down as they arrive at the “outpost” manned by a small group which takes its shift: out there on the pointy end of the international spear which is carefully sheathed lest it cause unwanted damage, and here they pass the night watching for movement that always must be expected on the face of the opposing hill, where the North Koreans hold the territory, as well as that line of shrub-bushes that can be seen with binoculars.  So they huddle there in the cold and the rain, waiting for the relief that will show just before dawn, so they can change places.  The worn out group moves back to the safer bunkers and rest, dry off, eat something and then do it all again.

It’s like war on a Motel 6 scale.  There’s just enough provision both at the “safer place” and up on the ridge to make it “suitably endurable” but never enough for  sustained efficiency,  endurable for an indefinite period of weeks because the folks directing this war have decided, for political reasons,  not to win it.

There’s enough materiel flowing through the supply pipeline to make it endurable for as long as they want you to endure it, but there’s no plan for a fullscale, Katie-Bar-the-Door, knockdown/dragout, “let’s get it on” war that will have a winner and a loser.

Think of the trenches of France (2 photos at left)~~here’s the Korean iteration:  locked into front line positions month after month, uselessly pummeling one another night after night after night, from behind lines as close as 200 yards apart. Day after miserable day, the soldiers and Marines are sometimes dying from the heat, sometimes dying from the cold; and, always watching for the opportunity to take 10 yards of real estate away from the enemy’s maneuvering options or listening intently to the night air, wondering if this is the hour when the North Koreans and Chinese will come silently up the hillside, undetectable in the heavy rain — or will they wait for a dry and moonless night?

Let’s just say Gen. George Patton wouldn’t have done well with The Philosophy of Combat In The Korean Conflict.  The final sixteen months of this pointless and bloody exercise were described by the chief U.N. negotiator, Adm. C. Turner Joy, as a futile tragedy.  He pointed out that “the final agreement of 27 July 1953 was substantially the same as that submitted on 28 April 1952.”  All during those awful months the Marines on those outposts kept trudging to their positions night after night, trying to stay sharp, trying to maintain skills that were impossible to maintain (unless they were regularly attacked).

The quotes that follow are all from Ballenger’s book.

A limitation on military offense was one of the defining aspects of the Korean War.  For the first time in modern history, total victory over an enemy was rejected.  It was replaced by a policy of containment–of warfare that extended only as far as politically defined limits and no farther.

Did you know that about Korea?  I knew it in terms of history, I think, but I had not understood that this policy was intentional. It was not a result of poor planning or unanticipated problems. It was the result of a decision.

Under political constraints, UN military forces could not attempt to win the war on the battlefield.  Aircraft could not bomb airfields or other military targets in China.  They were not allowed to chase opposing pilots across the border in hot pursuit.  Naval vessels off the Chinese coast could not shell targets on the mainland or blockade China’s harbors.  On land, there would be no amphibious landing behind the Chinese lines.  Land forces were not permitted to advance or capture any significant new territory on the Korean peninsula or elsewhere.

Introduction into Korea of additional divisions for reinforcement was also rejected.  Most important for the times, the atom and hydrogen bombs (possessed by)  the United States and deployed to Okinawa and to an aircraft carrier in the Pacific were not used.  This was most remarkable in view of the fact that, based on post-World War II political and military thought, the atom bomb was America’s primary weapon of offense.

To appreciate just how remarkable these limitations were, one must consider that both China and the Soviet Union also took steps to limit their responses to the Korean threat. Much of the possible escalation to war that could have happened did not occur.  The Soviet Far East Fleet station in Vladivostok, for example, made no pretense of confronting the U. S. Seventh Fleet in the Sea of Japan.  No Soviet submarine presence was detected, nor were there any belligerent Soviet maneuvers or routine naval exercises to worry UN naval forces.

The major belligerents on the world stage pulled their punches….for years. Think about that.  Why?  No clear, public answer was ever provided.

….The UN decision not to employ Nationalist Chinese forces in Korea was met with a Communist quid pro quo: Formosa was never threatened with invasion.  China also ignored Japan, (which was) the site of UN Headquarters and a major staging and supply area for the war.  In Korea, Chinese Army manpower, tactics and strategy were consistently maintained at levels that continued the belligerency without significant escalation.

Crazy-making is what it was.  Ballenger summarizes,

Nearly a year and half of war transpired with nothing whatever to show for it except death and suffering.  That was the Outpost War.

As I’ve thought about the variables of life back-in-the-day, I’ve realized that good things were not celebrated excessively for the same reason that bad things were not feared or talked about obsessively.

The reason was something along these lines: no one accepted the idea of trying to force life to be other than what it was.  They thought that objecting to things that were unpleasant or wrong inherently revealed a character flaw and that character flaw was–trying to force life to be other than it was. That generation had decided that neither celebration nor fearful talk would change the reality. Life would have to be dealt with as it actually was.

There was a miscalculation by those good people because when things really were wrong they were usually unwilling to make a serious fuss or raise their voices.




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5 Responses to Mailboxes and Old Barns: We know better now

  1. SR says:

    Sharon, I usually read MBOB and smile a certain content smile, remembering a quiet and content time of my life. Today’s edition is different. I have read your thoughts three times and I’m still thinking.

    We were of a mind to “mind our own business” unless and importantly we could make a difference which was defined as being in our immediate world, our neighbors, our schools, our community. Now my world, my neighbors, my schools and my community is affected by forces outside of my neighborhood. Time to do something, but what do I do and how?

    Times are different now and I am trying to figure out the new rules without letting go of my faith and upbringing in any way. I know how to make a difference in my local world; I have paid my dues, worked hard, established friendships and trust, and learned how to get things done.

    Other than as a voter, I have never tried to influence state or national issues. I have never learned how to “play” in those arenas, but I am willing to learn and I know I must learn.


    • Sharon says:

      Yes. All the things I’m struggling with as well. I’m not even sure I can articulate my own questions well. There’s a battering at the gates that seems to demand an answer…but not at the price of our own soul or simply doing someone else’s bidding.

      The phrase “standing up in place” always comes to mind, but even if I stay in “the same place” that “same place” is no longer quiet or always safe, except as I stand in Psalm 46:10 quietness before the Sovereign God.

      Share more thoughts–and anyone throughout the day–I’m going to be gone for much of it, I think.

      This was one MBOB that leaves me with reality more tightly focused and aware of the need to be grounded in what God says is so.. It is what I mean to struggle with myself, and I couldn’t know, of course, what thoughts might be stirred in others. Thank you for sharing yours.


  2. Arkindole says:

    You’ve captured a mindset of the times that I’ve never quite thought about.

    My father enlisted in the National Guard in the early 40’s because there were no jobs. He fought on the front lines in New Guinea and was wounded superficially. He was discharged in ’45, immediately got a job, and worked fairly long hours in the post war boom. I remember that during the times he was home, and when he wasn’t working around the house, we oftentimes sat and watched “The Big Picture” that contained mostly war footage. I asked him questions, but it was like pulling teeth–he never freely discussed the footage. The only thing he would say every so often is “I wish I went to Europe.” If the show was about Korea, however, it was a different story. Always the same outburst about pulling MacArthur for political reasons and not letting him proceed to China. “Korea was a police action, not a war!” he would yell at the tv.

    My father was not political at all and never ever commented about the elected. This was not acceptable in the house. He was fiercely patriotic. Even during the Cuban missile crisis he never spoke a word against world leaders–he simply proceeded to build a fallout shelter and prepare. His analogy was to build a cellar like he grew up with in Texas. He did what he needed to do and moved on, as you say.

    Initially, with Vietnam, he criticized war protestors at home and their slogans of an “unjust war.” It was old school patriotism–you went to war where your country sent you. I think as he watched the nightly body count it gradually began to dawn on him that the leadership was again fighting a “police action” where our people were dying in great numbers with no clear objective to win.

    My lottery number was drawn. I came home one night, very early in the morning, and to my surprise my father was sitting at the breakfast table smoking–he had been there a while from the looks of the ashtray. My initial thoughts were that he had caught me at something, because he always did. But, this was odd because of the early morning situation. I’ll never forget what he said to me. “I want you to know that I’ll support you regardless of what you do.” That was it…nothing more. This referred to a non spoken choice between serving my country or leaving for Canada. Eventually, the choice never had to be made.

    In that conversation I think my father did reveal a change in mindset to “…fight the bad.” And, this realization must have reflected the thoughts of his cohorts. But, it did take his generation a very long time to arrive at that conclusion, and it may have been too late. I don’t think my father ever truly accepted the fact that the elected could lie and deceive a citizen and nation for the purpose of hidden agendas. I oftentimes wonder whether the loss of that great generation has actually created the massive paradigm shift in America. If that is true, can trust ever return to Americans, as it once existed?


  3. akathesob says:

    Most excellent article…


  4. deanbrh says:

    Thank you for this chance to fit significant pieces of the jigsaw of my life into place. Your perspective is much appreciated.


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