‘Keeping the Lights on for Ike’

  • Rebecca Daniels book cover Contributed photo

For the Recorder
Published: 6/19/2019 3:59:53 PM

“That generation didn’t tell their story often enough, and now we who are their descendants want to know it,” said Rebecca Daniels in a recent interview. The generation to which she referred was the young adults of World War II, often referred to as “the greatest generation.”

Daniels, who lives in Turners Falls, has done her part in telling that story in her new book, “Keeping the Lights on for Ike” (Sunbury Press, 284 pages, $19.95). 

Her tale focuses on her parents, Alec and Mary Daniels, from their meeting in college in the 1930s to their marriage and through Alec’s deployment as an engineer in England, Algeria, and Italy during the war.

The book draws on letters (mostly from Alec to Mary back home, although a few of Mary’s early letters survive), photographs, mementos, and military documents to give a sense of what was like for both parties in this very close marriage as war separated them for three long years.

I asked Daniels how she came to embark on the project. 

“I always knew that my mom saved everything from World War II,” she informed me. “My dad died when I was pretty young. ... He never talked about the war. After his death, my mom started talking more about his experiences and what she knew of them.”

Daniels recalled that her mother would unearth wartime letters from her father and also photographs, mostly in slide form.

“Both of my parents were avid amateur photographers,” she noted.

The letters almost didn’t survive Mary Daniels. Her daughter explained that Mary and a group of friends whose husbands had gone to war considered destroying their wartime correspondence.

“Maybe the memories were too hard or maybe they thought no one would be interested,” mused Daniels.

When her mother died, however, the next generation inherited the letters, the photographs, and the scrapbooks in which Mary Daniels had documented her life and marriage.

Daniels transcribed the letters—a painstaking process, she remembered, particularly in light of her father’s terrible scrawl. “If you think doctors have bad handwriting, you should see an engineer’s!” she exclaimed. Happily, her father typed most of his wartime letters. 

The author also had to sort the letters by date, a daunting task because many were not dated or incorrectly dated. (She notes in the book that soldiers in the field often lost track of dates.)

Having spent her career as a professor of theater at St. Lawrence University in northern New York State, Daniels originally thought she would turn her parents’ story into a play but eventually decided against that approach.

“It was much too gentle a story. This is the story of a support soldier, not a soldier in the combat zone. ... I didn’t want to impose a dramatic structure on it,” she explained.

She considered, “like the academic that (she) was,” an analysis of the issues raised in the book. She was steered into a more personal memoir by cohorts in a writing group she attended.

“They said, ‘There’s a beautiful, moving story in here. Tell it,’” she recalled.

The book in its final form follows Alec through his military duties as much as it can, given the restrictions imposed on soldiers about revealing the details of their war work.

“He was the company censor in his company,” Daniels said of her father. “He had to be particularly careful how he said things and what he talked about.”

The lack of military detail — the focus on everyday life and on the relationship between Alec and Mary — ends up being one of the book’s greatest assets. Many works of history detail the story of great battles. Fewer dwell on individual wartime experiences.

The book is also important because it tells the story of a soldier who worked in support. According to Daniels, support troops outnumbered their combat counterparts, four to six. Their story is under-told, and “Keeping the Lights on for Ike” helps rectify that issue.

The book is also strengthened by the affection expressed in Alec’s relatively inarticulate yet moving letters to his wife on the home front. Daniels admitted to being taken aback by the romantic nature of that correspondence.

“The biggest surprise I found out was how sexually romantic my parents were,” she said. “A lot of the letters were very passionate. He had to be discreet. You could just read between the lines that they were very actively sexual. [I was] a child of parents who never showed that side of their relationship.”

In her retirement from academic life, Rebecca Daniels keeps busy playing with her grandchildren, volunteering at three organizations, and working in theater. 

She is also making time to work on two new books, one a straightforward memoir and the other the chronicle of her journey to find her birth parents. (She was adopted by Mary and Alec Daniels.)

Meanwhile, she is enjoying feedback from readers of “Keeping the Lights on for Ike,” who include those interested in World War II, children of the greatest generation, and “people who are interested in anything to do with military life.”

Rebecca Daniels will speak about her book at the Northfield Senior Center luncheon on Thursday, July 11, at 11:30. For reservations and information, contact Heather Tower at 413-498-2901 extension 114.

 

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.




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