Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An old saw is worth a thousand blades

By Chester Campbell

As writers we often insert expressions into our manuscripts without thinking about where they came from. They may have been buried back in our subconscious from many years ago. One I’ve used in at least one book is “guaran-damn-tee.” It struck me as really funny when I heard it back in 1944 and it just came rolling out on the page 60 years later.

I volunteered for the Army in the summer of 1943, shortly after graduation from high school. I wasn’t called to active duty, however, until I turned 18. When I reported to Camp Shelby, Mississippi in early January, I found my new home consisted of a large olive drab tent occupied by several other neophyte soldiers, mostly draftees. It was cold and rainy, and the area had been worn down to a muddy goop by thousands of souls wandering about in wonder of what lay ahead.

I soon met a few of the other boys named in my orders. Most of our fellow G.I.s figured they were headed for the infantry. They gave us a big horse laughs when we said we were headed for Miami Beach. But we had it right there in our orders:

“By direction of the President and pursuant to authority contained in War Department radiogram, SPXPR-I, 30 December 1943, each of the following named enlisted reservists (ACER), having been found qualified for Pre-Aviation Cadet (Air Crew) training, is ordered to active duty affective 6 January 1944, in grade of private, and will proceed on that date from the address shown after his name to the station indicated, reporting upon arrival to the Commanding Officer, Reception Center, for processing and assignment to the Army Air Forces Basic Training Center #4, Miami Beach, Fla., reporting on 13 January 1944, to the Commanding Officer for Pre-Aviation Cadet (Air Crew) training.”

We were only at Camp Shelby to draw uniforms, have the medics treat our arms like dart boards, and get indoctrinated into the Army way. That occurred each morning at roll call, when we stood on the muddy ground in a cold drizzle and listened to a burly First Sergeant give us hell. He wore the Smoky Bear hat popular in pre-war years. One morning as he ranted about something, he bellowed this warning. “If you do that, I’ll guaran-damn-tee you it won’t happen again.”

That’s what’s known as an indelible memory.

One I have used more as a personal aphorism than as a phrase in books is “he who hesitates is lost.” It was a familiar saying of my high school science teacher, Miss Roberta Kirkpatrick. I use it as an excuse to move ahead whenever somebody wants to wait on something. The idea in the saying, though not the exact phrase, is credited to the English writer Joseph Addison. It’s first appearance in the U.S. is given to Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table.

Do you have any favorite old sayings from the past?


Anonymous said...

Hi, Chester:
I have several favorite sayings, most of which can't be printed here.(-:

One that can is "I can't dance with these wet drawers on." A now long-dead husband used to say that and it always cracked me up.

Loved your memory of first days in the army! I remember so well the end of the war and the stories the "boys" told when the young married couples got together on Saturday nights.

Great days, great memories.

Pat Browning

Chester Campbell said...

I guess I should take the time to write some of those old Army memories down for my kids. I've never realy told about those days because it was such trivial stuff. Like living in a high-rise hotel on Miami Beach during basic and we couldn't use the elevators. We'd hit the sack early after sweating all day. Just when we got good and asleep, they'd ring the fire alarm and we'd come pouring out in the street with little or nothing on. The civilians would still be wandering around the streets gawking at us.

Anonymous said...


Another funny memory. Yes, you definitely should get them down for the next generation -- ESPECIALLY the trivial stuff.

They've seen the movies and documentaries. They know what a horror that war was. What they don't know is that life was still daily, and made up of a thousand silly little things.

Your post put me right back in small town Oklahoma after the war. A couple of the guys had been in Italy together, and the stories they told!

We cooked spaghetti and French bread on those Saturday night get-togethers and felt so sophisticated. I don't think I even ate spaghetti until after WW2.(-:


Jean Henry Mead said...

You should definitely write about your old Army memories, Chester, not just for your kids but for posterity. I remember the blackouts in Los Angeles as a small child and wearing shoes with holes in the soles because shoe leather was rationed. And my mother painting her legs with some kind of liquid because stockings were unavailable. Nylon was needed for parachutes. We kids collected tin foil and rolled it in balls for the war effort. Your article brought back a lot of old memories about the war that I haven't thought about in years.