Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Selected Chaff

I just finished Selected Chaff: The Wartime Columns of Al McIntosh, having first heard of the beloved newspaper publisher in excerpts recited by Tom Hanks in Ken Burns' The War. For folks who, like me, still grow misty-eyed when contemplating the vast and seemingly impossible undertaking of World War II, Selected Chaff is a special find: a rich vein of wit, wisdom, and insight into one town's experience of that war.

McIntosh extolled the daily comings and goings, along with the thrills and tragedies, of Rock County, Minnesota, mixing nearly-poetic descriptions of the changing seasons with humorous anecdotes of small-town life, and heart-wrenching accounts of local folks going overseas to fight and sometimes die for our nation.

Burns, flush from his monumental accomplishment of documenting the "necessary war," has compared these columns to the discovery of a heretofore unknown Mark Twain. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but the book provides a poignant glimpse into a nation that has changed so very much in the past three generations. For that alone, I recommend that you find a copy. Heck, just reading McIntosh's report of that wonderful new movie playing at the local theater, Casablanca, is worth a few bucks.

Here are some excerpts:
December 11, 1941

Events are moving at such a dizzy pace that editorials and news stories are outmoded almost before the type is ready to be laid on the page forms for the press. Outwardly, Rock county is as serene and peacefully beautiful as always. But, already, the shadow of war is over the county. (p. 16)

May 28, 1942

And so at last -- the first of those dreaded envelopes from the war department bearing the grim news that two Rock county men who unflinchingly faced their inevitable fate at Corregidor must be considered "missing in action." (p. 45)

October 21, 1943

Floyd Lawson, even more critical than usual, complains that there isn't anything in Chaff (who doesn't) except items about freak vegetables. Floyd blithely waves aside our offer to let him write the column for a change. Just to keep him in his usual even tempered (mostly bad) mood we should report this week that Herman Jarchow brought a carrot which had 11 separate carrots, and that Mrs. Mike Wiggins picked a pan full of peas Wednesday from her garden, the second crop of the season. (p. 111)

February 17, 1944

There will be a special radio program on Friday, March 3, from the Sioux Falls army air base. Mrs. Lloyd S. Hansen will make the trip from her home at New Richland, Minn., to receive the Air Medal and 2 Oak Leaf clusters earned by her husband, Lt. Lloyd Hansen. As you know, Lloyd, the son of Mr. and Mrs. H. O. Hansen of Kanaranzi, is now a prisoner of war in Germany, having been shot down in a Fortress raid over the continent. (p. 131)

May 25, 1944

Outwardly things haven't changed here. The lilacs are out in full bloom, making the air heavy with their rich fragrance. Tulips are one big splash of color round the homes and the lawns. The countryside was never greener . . . at night there are a million or more stars winking in the summer sky . . . with a couple of million bull frogs parked along the edges of the bank full ditches croaking a mighty chorus. (ellipses in original, p. 149)

June 8, 1944

When we sleepily stumbled down the hall to answer the clamorously ringing telephone we made a mental note that it was shortly before 3 a.m. We picked up the receiver, thinking it was Sheriff Roberts calling to say that there had been an accident. Instead it was Mrs. Lloyd Long, playing the feminine counterpart role of Paul Revere, saying, "get up, Al, and listen to the radio, the invasion has started." (p. 153)

March 29, 1945

Everywhere you drove in Luverne Tuesday night you could see people starting to work out in the yards. (Seed catalogs are favorite reading right now.) Everybody, papa, mama and the youngsters are out raking lawns. And wherever you go there is the pungent smell of bonfires made from the leaves and dead grass. And, of course, the youngsters are busy poking at the bonfires with sticks. You see a few kites but very, very, few. There is a shortage of string, among other things, so I don't know how the youngsters can do much kite flying. (pp. 222-223)

August 15, 1945

The torrential flood of great news had left everyone emotionally exhausted, like a damp dishtowel. Even with the radio bulletins and the screaming of the siren here to signal that Victory was a reality it was still hard to believe. (p. 258)

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