HOME WON'T BE HEAVEN SOLDIER
But it can be the next best thing, says this writer, who tells, on the basis of actual experiences, how some of the difficulties of home-coming can be smoothed over
J. D. KETCHUM
Mr. Ketchum is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, now on loan to the Wartime Information Board.
THEY ought to tell us,” said the First Division sergeant, looking straight at his Army counsellor. “They ought to tell us how to expect things in Canada when we get home. And they ought to tell people that we’ve changed too. You can’t be away for five years and come back to things just as you left them.” He was dead serious, for he’d just had 30 days’ experience of it himself—of coming home, full of happy excitement, to find things rather different from the way he’d pictured them, to find small but unexpected barriers between him and his family and friends.
Well, this article is an attempt to tell them, soldiers and civilians alike, of some of the minor difficulties that may crop up when men come home, and also of how readily most of them can be overcome. I don’t mean big problems like deciding on a job or mending a broken home—they don’t belong here—but the little everyday adjustments that have to be made on both sides if home-coming is to be the happy experience it ought to be. We’ve heard enough by now from returning men and their families to know what many of these problems are likely to be, and a little understanding of them in advance can help both the serviceman and all the rest of us.
One of the most unexpected and upsetting things about coming home is that there’s nearly always something of a letdown after the first excitement is over. Many boys have felt much like this one:
“ . ... You ask, what am I doing? Just bumming around, Mac, bumming around. Going to church with Mum, getting shown off to her friends, answering dumb questions about what it’s like ‘at the front,’ tagging along with Dad on the same old Saturday walk, driving the old crate around if
there’s any gas. Pretty smalltime stuff—guess I don’t enjoy things the way I used to or something. Oh, yes, there was a church supper and I had to make a speech. That’s the highlight so far. Maybe things will be better in the summer ...”
Why should there be any letdown when a man comes home? Well, why shouldn’t there? It’s natural enough. The main reason is that when you think of home, over there in France or Italy—still more if you’re a prisoner of war in Germany—you idealize it, you dream it up into a picture so brightly colored that heaven would look dull in comparison. The place is perfect, the people are perfect, everything’s perfect. Home isn’t like that, of course—never was like that but you forget all the little things you didn’t enjoy when you were there and remember only the good
times. How can you help it when your thinking is done in the mud and icy water of Holland or in a barbedwire enclosure in Germany? Here’s part of a letter from a Canadian prisoner of war:
“ . . . We spend a lot of time talking about home, each one telling the good times he’s had and the ones he’s going to have when he gets back, fishing, skiing, canoe trips, and, of course, the wonderful’ eats. Especially now, with spring coming, I’m always thinking I’m back at the lake with you all, swimming off the dock, lying in the sun, going on picnics to Birch Point or Echo Lake. It sure makes my mouth water. If I only get back this fall in time to get a couple of ducks ...”
In combat areas there’s less time for this sort of
daydreaming, but it starts with a bang tbe moment a man is picked for repatriation, and during the weeks of waiting for transportation it’s almost an obsession. As a First Division sapper put it, “I was so glad, it was like a dream. I didn’t know what I could do afterward, but 1 didn’t care.” Home begins to look like paradise itself, and when he gets there and bumps up against humdrum reality there’s bound to be some letdown.
Sometimes this upsets a chap; he wonders what’s the matter with him that he doesn’t feel happier. Some men find themselves getting snappy and irritable, and then their impulse is to crawl into a mental foxhole for a while. Quite a number of families have had this sort of experience:
“. . . At the moment he doesn’t seem to want to do anything or see anyone, just sits around the house, smoking and listening to the radio, or lies on his bed reading magazines. He doesn't talk, either; we’ve hardly got a word out of him since the first few days. I wish I knew what’s the matter with him, but if you ask him he flares up like anything ...”
Serious? Not a bit of it. He’s been switched suddenly from one world to a totally different one and hasn't quite got his bearings yet. He’ll snap out of it soon, particularly when he gets something definite to do, and in the meantime, patience, affection and understanding are all that’s needed. This is how an RCAF pilot described it after several months at home:
“. . . It’s quite strange at first, I didn’t know what to do with myself, felt all at sea. It’s like when you first join up, only in reverse. I was restless and I guess I worried the folks more than somewhat, but they were swell about it and we didn’t have any real rows. I still think everyone’s in a kind of a rut here, but since I got started back at school I’ve got something ahead of me, and things don’t get on my nerves the way they did. . . ”
One thing that takes a lot of the joy out of coming home is finding changes he hadn’t heard about. Even apparently trivial ones can be disturbing, because they don’t fit in with the picture he’s carried so long in his mind. Here’s an example—rather an exceptional one, but it illustrates the point:
“. . . Do you know what’s upset Harry most since he’s been back? It’s SeJden’s being closed. Of course he used to drop in there almost every night when he was at high school and have a coke with the gang, but I never thought it meant so much to him. Almost the first night he was back he said, ‘Well, guess I’ll hop down to Selden’s and see what’s doing,’ and when I told him it was gone I was almost scared, he was so upset. He’s still mad about it, and he won’t go near that new place where the kids hang out now . . .”
Well, of course Harry will get over that— but how easy it would have been to mention it in a letter to him. They just never thought about it, but it’s exactly the kind of news that lots of the boys are interest ed in. A Canadian prisoner wrote this from Germany last October: “I was thinking of home today and of how much the town must have changed since I saw it, and I wondered that neither you nor anybody else has wrtten tome about any changes. Now I wish you would, please, and also if you could send me some snaps to show the changes.”
Those “Cheerful” Letters
PART OF the blame for the shocks men get from unexpected changas belongs to the well-meaning people who told servicemen’s relatives to write only “cheerful” letters. Sure, cheerful letters are what he wants, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t tell him you’ve had to move into a smaller flat, or that Junior wasn’t promoted this year, or that the doctor wants you to have an operation. Keeping these things back is only laying up trouble. What he wants to know is that you are still cheerful, in spite of any difficulties, not to have the difficulties ■fidden from him. This wife’s mistake is far oo common:
“. . . I don’t know what to make of Jim, I’m sure. I’ve tried to be a good wife to him and keep things going here at home, but
now he's back you’d think I’d done everything wrong. Of course it was a shock to him finding us in a place like this—I never let on in my letters, you know, just told him we’d moved. I knew it would worry him. Well, that’s all right now and we’re moving to a better place next month. But the way he carried on when he saw little Gloria wearing glasses—you’d think it was my fault she has to have them. She’s worn them six months now and we’re all used to it, but to hear Jim talk she would never have needed them if he’d been here to look after things . . .”
Then there was the man who’d told all his buddies that he’d saved almost $1,000 in Victory Bonds, and then came home to find that his wife had had to spend most of it on illness and other emergencies and hadn’t dared to tell him. When it came out, and it soon did, it caused an explosion that almost broke up that family. The same story turns up in many forms— about health, war jobs, relatives, purchases—but it nearly always goes back to the fact that the man’s been kept in the dark about things.
A married man’s life is not a circle drawn around a single point. It’s a more complex figure with two centres—himself and his wife—and the relationship between them is the key to most of the problems that may come up. If there’s always a frank and open flow of thought between them, with neither trying to hide things or brooding about them alone, most difficulties melt away quickly. The story of an officer’s wife is revealing:
. . . Mrs. S. was so determined that everything had to be perfect when her husband came home that she found herself unconsciously acting a part with him—wearing a forced smile all the time, never being ruffled by anything, never admitting the slightest difficulty. It was quite an unnatural role, but she was terrified that some little thing might upset him and spoil his home-coming. As it turned out, it was not only a strain on her but also a worry to him, making him feel that he no longer knew his wife. In the end she broke down and cried about something, and was astonished and vastly relieved to have him say that he much preferred her to be her ordinary self, and had never expected things to run perfectly from the start. Since then they talk over any little difficulties together and evefything has gone happily . . .
“Be natural” Is a first-rate prescription, especially in view of some of the nonsense that has been written about returned men, much of it leaving the impression
that they must be handled as gingerly as high explosives. There’s nothing peculiar about the average veteran; he’s a perfectly normal person—but he’s reacting to an abnormal situation. How abnormal was simply expressed by a corporal in the First Division:
“. . . I have a darn good wife and haven’t suffered from any infidelity business, but I must say I almost lost her because of such a long absence. We have to learn to know each other all over again . . .”
Three years, four years, five years. A book could be written about thedelicatereadjustmentsthatmayhave to be made when a man and his wife start to reestablish their life together. But I’m not trying to deal with such problems here, except to repeat this: that if husband and wife feel solid enough with each other to talk frankly about any difficulties they feel, these difficulties won’t last long.
In thousands of battle-dress pockets there’s a wellworn snap of a 10-year-old or a four-year-old or a baby that the father has never seen. And letters from home are full of the doings of these young Canadians—baby is crawling now, Diane is learning to read, Buster is playing midget hockey. At long range there is nothing that warms the heart like the thought of one’s own children, but let’s be honest—at short range, though they are often adorable, they can also be pests, nuisances and worries, especially when you’re cooped up with them in a small space. Here’s a case that is typical of quite a number:
“. . . Before Frank came home I was worried sick for fear he wouldn’t care about me in the same way, but I never thought of him not taking to the kids. He was always writing about them, you know. But now that he’s back it’s just the other way round. We were a bit strange like with each other at first, but we soon got over that. It’s the children that he can’t seem to get on with. They’re noisy and naughty sometimes, of course, and when they get a bit out of hand it upsets him dreadfully. Really, I’m glad sometimes when he’s out of the house so he won’t notice them. He says they haven’t been brought up right, and, of course, he blames that on me, and when they do anything out of turn he’s down on them like a ton of bricks. I don’t know what he expected, I’m sure; they’re not angels, but I will say they’re a lot less trouble than some I could name. But Frank, he seems disappointed in them somehow, and it’s making things hard, because, of course, they notice it. . .”
Well, there aren’t any children in the Army and the picture he’s built up of his own is apt to be too rosy a one. But it’s nothing to worry about; he’ll soon get interested in them and these first awkward weeks will be forgotten. Sometimes it’s the children who are in for a letdown, as in this case of an officer home for a course:
“. . . I was a terrible disappointment to young Peter when I first came back, and it’s taken us a couple of months to get on a decent basis. He’d practically said his prayers to my picture for two years, of course, and everything had always been, ‘Wait till Daddy gets home,’ until he was expecting a kind of a god. The first few days he wore his toy uniform all the time and hung around me every minute, and naturally I got a kick out of it and played up to him. Then, of course, I got sick of doing route marches around the house and letting him drill me 20 times a day, and when he kept pestering I was pretty short with him once or twice. Poor little kid went crying to his mother and asked her if T didn’t like him any more. Now we’re getting on fine again, and I think he’s a grand kid, but it took time ...”
As a private of the Second Division put it, “It’s hard to get back to smooth home relations with children to whom you’re almost a stranger.” But time and good sense always achieve it in the end.
The bugbear of responsibility—and it is a bugbear—can cause more difficulty in readjusting to civil life than almost anything else. In the services most men’s responsibility is strictly limited to what they’re ordered to do; they seldom have to make the decisions themselves, and as long as they’re doing their job
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they don’t have to worry about others. After a longish dose of that it’s often hard to take on the burden of planning and deciding things too suddenly. Many a man has echoed this soldier’s complaint:
“ . . . Here I get home, hoping to relax a bit, and the very first day Mary starts asking me to decide all sorts of things. ‘Now that you’re back,’ she says, ‘we’d better decide whether to give notice here and try to find something nicer,’ or, T wish you’d make your mind up about David going to camp this summer, we’ve got to tell them soon.’ I don’t know why it is, but I just can’t put my mind to that sort of thing, and when she starts her ‘Now that you’re back’ stuff' I generally walk out and go down to the beverage room . . .”
Well, it won’t be hard to tell when he’s got his breath, as it were, and is ready to tackle things again. In the meantime a wise wife will go on settling as much as she can herself and just let the rest slide. It won’t be fatal.
On the other hand some men feel a little hurt for an exactly opposite reason—they find that the wife has become pretty competent at looking after everything, don’t quite like to ask her to hand over, and yet don’t
enjoy the sense that they’re not as necessary as they used to be. Tact and understanding are needed again here, but if their own relationship is sound the problem will soon be settled in a way that’s satisfactory to both.
A particularly trying responsibility to face, after doing what he’s told for so long, is that of deciding what his future career is to be. And everyone, soldier or civilian, hates to be nagged about a question before he’s made up his own mind. This letter gives the picture clearly enough:
“ ... You ask what John’s going to do now. My dear, I only wish I knew. He doesn’t seem to know himself yet, and he’s so touchy about it that I never dare mention it. I soon found that out, but the trouble is that other people keep saying, ‘What are you going to do now you’re out of the Army?’ and it makes him so mad. He was quite rude to Uncle George about it the other day ...”
This is another case where it’s best to let things ride. Nothing needs to be said, really; the matter’s in the back of his mind all the time, and the Government has set up a very complete scheme to help him. But some men find it hard to make such far-reaching decisions just at first, and the rest of us can help most by not trying to hurry them.
No matter how much a man hates war—and most fighting men hate it with all their souls—there is generally one thing that he loves about life in the
services, and that’s the comradeship he finds there. In the tremendous experiences that men in the same platoon -—or bomber crew, or ship—live through together, each one learns that he can count on the others to the very limit. That is something that peacetime associations seldom provide, and it’s treasured long after the cruelties of war have been forgotten. The ties formed on service remain strong, and W'hen a man comes home he is often unconsciously lonely — actually homesick for his unit.
Flying Officer X, discharged on medical grounds, had been glum and depressed for several weeks, showing little interest in his work or home. HLs wife was worried and asked what was wrong, but he maintained everything was all right. Then one of his old comrades turned up unexpectedly. Mr. X kept him to dinner and supper, tried to make him stay the night, and talked and laughed a blue streak all the time. His wife says that he has been much more cheerful ever since.
This particular problem is much more trying now, when the war is still on and his pals are still fighting, than it will be later when all the men come home. There won’t be the same loneliness then, but there may be other sources of friction. Listen to this:
“ . . . I can’t get Tim to take any interest in the friends I’ve made here, he disappears if anyone comes to the house, and he actually walked out on a little party I’d arranged for him, said he wasn’t wasting an evening on a lot of ‘flannelmouths.’ That’s an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. I had to pretend he’d been called away on business. He was really over in Centreville with a couple of chaps he knows there, discharged men, too, an;j pretty crude specimens in my opinion. He had them at the house once, but I told him flat I wasn’t entertaining that type of fellow. So now he spends half his time in Centreville, comes home half-tight at nights and won’t have anything to do with decent people who could help him along. I only hope he gets over it soon ...”
Well, someone should tell this wife that she’s asking for trouble, that it’s no use trying to separate a man from his buddies. If their backgrounds and interests are entirely different from his, he’ll see less of them as time goes on— but he’ll do it on his own, not because they don’t come up to her standards. And remember — there’s a bond between him and them that’s based on a lot more than smooth manners or educated speech. If civilian life can’t provide comradeship as real as this, so much the worse for it, and we’d better start trying to improve it.
Those Strange Civilians
One reason returned men tend to stick together is because they often find it hard to stomach us civilians. Canada can be quite a shock to a man back from overseas—we are so free from the dangers and deprivations that he’s seen in Europe, we seem so untouched by the war that has meant so much to him. This is what an RCAF boy said in his first couple of weeks here:
“ . . . The people in this country just don’t know there’s a war on, that’s all. Look at all those shiny cars in the streets, look at the fancy clothes people wear, the food in the shops and everything. As far as I can make out, all anybody’s thinking
about is how he can make more dough—and are they ever making it, too! A few bombs would do this town a whole lot of good, and I’m not kidding, either ...”
An emotional reaction, perhaps, but a very understandable one, and who’s to say there’s not a lot of truth in it? We haven't been hurt the way others have been, and we ought to be deeply thankful for it. But to him, thinking of his comrades on operations and his friends in Britain, our normal life looks like nothing but cold indifference. He’ll come to realize that much of it’s only qn the surface— that thousands of Canadians are worrying every moment about their men overseas. But in the meantime we should accept his criticisms thoughtfully, even if they sometimes seem undeserved. A discharged officer’s wife raised another aspect of the .problem:
“ . . . Charlie’s settled down pretty well at his work but he still gripes a lot at ‘civilians,’ as he calls them — though he’s really one himself now. He says they’re so cold, so wrapped up in their own affairs, so uninterested in the war. They’ll ask him where he’s been and he’ll tell them, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, you must have had quite an experience all right,’ and then change the subject. That’s what he says, anyway. I think myself that he frightens them off, they just don’t know what to say to him, with him losing an eye and everything ...”
She’s quite right; civilians are often just afraid to strike up a real conversation with a fighting man back home. Here’s what a middle-aged man in the Civil Service says about it:
“ . . . No one can say I’m not interested in the war, I read everything I can lay my hands on and I’m always thinking about it. But I must admit I find it hard to talk to the few returned men I’ve run into. We’ve been living in such totally different worlds, and I know so little about the details of Army life that the questions I ask always sound terribly stupid. I didn’t even know till the other day that men from overseas don’t have GS on their sleeves—the Army ought to tell us about that, and about what the various ribbons and insignia mean. And then the boys use so much Army lingo—you know, everything seems to be initials or abbreviations or nicknames—that half the time I don’t know what they’re talking about. So I’m afraid I tend to shut up when I’m with them. I hate doing it, because it looks as if I weren’t interested, but there it is . . .”
A Welcome From All
These little difficulties with civilians help to remind us that man has to live in a wider world than his home, that a loving welcome from the family isn’t all he needs. Neither are government rehabilitation plans enough, no matter how generous. Both need to be supplemented by a warm, friendly determination on the part of businessmen, organizations and the whole community to make the returning men really feel at home. This airman’s gripe was a small one, but it should have been headed off in advance:
“ . . . We got a grand reception at the station, and it’s marvellous being back with Helen and the kids. But it didn’t seem as if anyone else paid any attention to me after the first day or so; guess I’ve got a hero complex or something. They’re probably waiting for me to make the . first move, but the one time I did it—
about getting my old job back—it left kind of a taste in my mouth. I got the job all right and more pay, too, but I do think they could handle these things better. I went down to the plant and into the front office, and some girl there looks at me as if I was something the cat brought in, writes down my name and says, ‘Wait here, Mr. Andrews, and I’ll see if there’s anyone here who remembers about you.’ I don’t know what you think, but 1 thought that was a terrible greeting. It was all right afterward, mind you; old Field took me into his own office and was very nice, but that darned girl—well, I almost walked out of there for good when she delivered her load of ice . . .”
Little things like that would never happen if every industry, every organization, would think and plan now: “What can we do to make each detail of coming back home just as enjoyable as it can possibly be?” There are citizens’ committees in many centres already, working out ways to help the returning men, but there should be one in every community and it should be meeting constantly. There’s no end to the ideas that come when people really put their imaginations to work. The next “quotation” is not a quotation at all; so far I’ve seen no reports quite like it. But with all the gratitude that Canadians are feeling for the men overseas, I expect to see plenty soon. Here’s what might be said:
“ . . . I’ve certainly had a wonderful reception here, far more than I deserve, if it comes to that. It didn’t stop with the welcome at the station, either. Hardly a day goes by without someone coming to the house to say they’re glad I’m back and can they help me in any way. People I’d never seen before, from organizations and so on. Why, the mayor came himself with an invitation to sit in with the postwar planning committee—not that I know anything about postwar plans, but it makes you feel like somebody. Then a fellow from the Junior Chamber of Commerce comes and asks me to be an honorary member for six months, and another club sends its secretary to tell me to use the clubrooms all I like, no fee or anything. The Scouts staged a parade to the house on Friday and asked me to a wiener roast, the movie manager brought along two passes to the show, good for a month, and the rink manager did the same. And lots of people come just to say they appreciate what I’ve done and wish me luck. It’s all organized, of course—it has to be—but it sure makes you feel good ...”
Home may not be heaven to the returning man—but he doesn’t pretend to be an angel, either. Some of the little problems I’ve mentioned may come up, but if they do, don’t worry about them, don’t make a life-anddeath matter out of them. Talk them out if you get the chance, and let time and affection do the rest. Changes there will be, of course; there must be something wrong with a person who doesn’t change in four or five years of war. But the vast majority of changes will be for the better; soldier and civilian alike will have learned, grown and developed in these exciting years. If we embark confidently and cheerfully on the adventure of getting to know one another again life may be much richer and more interesting than it would have been without the long separation. Home will be whatever we determine to make it—and that can mean the best that this world has to offer.