Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Lots of unanswered questions

U.S. Navy base in Iceland during WWII
I just finished reading a moderately interesting book called They Sent Me to Iceland. The title caught my eye when I was browsing the nonfiction at the library the other day -- Iceland is where the Air Force sent the S.O. back in the 1960s. Other guys enlisted in the military and got sent to exotic (or at least warm) locations like Vietnam -- a location he was admittedly happy not to visit, although he probably wouldn't have objected to Thailand or Guam. No such luck, though. Once he finished basic training, he shuffled from one cold or damp location to another: Dow AFB (aka Bangor) in Maine, Otis AFB on Cape Cod, KI Sawyer AFB here in the U.P.. . . and temporary duty at Keflavik in Iceland. His descriptions of Iceland, which admittedly he viewed from the perspective of a single guy who was (maybe) just out of his teens, make the country sound remarkably unattractive. The locals weren't too thrilled with the American presence and so had distinctly limited language skills. No matter what an airman said to one of the local people working on base, the response was always the same -- "Ja, ja" -- while the Icelandic person continued doing whatever it was he was before.

Anyway, I was curious to see how the descriptions in They Sent Me to Iceland matched up with the S.O.'s stories. The book is by a Red Cross recreation worker (Jane Goodell) sent to Iceland not long after the United States entered World War II. She arrives as part of a contingent of about a dozen American Red Cross workers assigned to a military base located spitting distance (less than 3 miles) from Reykjavik. Their assignment is apparently to provide entertainment for the troops as well as engage in other supportive activities. The entertainment consists of a wide range of activities, from passing out board games and books to coordinating talent shows and holiday parties. The women also serve as the contacts with the organization as a whole, that is, if a service member has a personal problem that he'd like the Red Cross to help with (e.g., worried about his wife and kids ending up homeless because he's not there to pay the rent), they're the people who get the details and pass the requests along.

So how did the Iceland of 1942 match up with the Iceland of the late 1960s that the S.O. described? Well, in some ways things didn't change much. The Icelandics Ms. Goodell encountered didn't use "ja, ja" much. Nope, their pet phrase was one Ms. Goodell heard as "skillikki." The actual phrase is "Eg skil ekki," which means (of course) "I don't understand." They were smiling, they were polite, and they'd all mysteriously forgotten the compulsory English courses they had taken in school.

Ms. Goodell does mention some of the same things the S.O.noticed, like the ongoing headache of lava dust. Iceland has a lot of barren ground, exposed rock that is primarily solidified lava from the volcanoes. And the wind blows a lot. All rock erodes if the wind blows long enough and hard enough; the constant construction as the military presence (both American and British) in Iceland kept growing did not help. She also describes life in a quonset hut and the effect on morale that the long, long winter nights had on people. She details a number of the programs they tried to put together for the troops: talent shows, quiz nights, sing-alongs. And she lays it on thick about how people need to think twice about putting any bad news into letters to the "boys" in uniform. The book was published in 1943 so was obviously meant to convey to the public what life was like for the troops overseas.

However, interesting though the book might be, it is rife with unanswered questions. Just who was Jane Goodell? How did she end up working for the Red Cross? She hints at her personal life a bit -- she's apparently from the northeastern United States because she mentions winters back home were colder than winters in Iceland -- but she never really does explain who she is, who the other Red Cross workers are, what exactly the job description for a "recreation worker" is, or much else. It's a classic example of someone writing a book at a specific time and place where whatever it was she was doing was so well-known and understood by the public that she was able to just jump right into getting told she was going to Iceland. Thanks to the wonders of Google, I was able to find a few news articles about Ms. Goodell, mostly public relations blurbs promoting the book, and did learn that she had ambitions of forming an all-girl orchestra, played the ukulele, and once met Amelia Earhart. It appears the primary qualifications for "recreation worker" were to be young, female, cute, and extroverted. Ms. Goodell's musical skills were no doubt a plus (she described herself in a 1943 interview as "able to play almost any instrument"), but her descriptions of what all the Red Cross women did in Iceland make it clear that a cheerful personality and a willingness to wash thousands of coffee cups may have counted for more than any specific talent.

Books like this one make me wish I was still teaching -- or at least had more contacts still in academe. The little bit I was able to unearth about Jane Goodell tells me her experiences (and those of women like her) could be a good topic for a thesis in history or women's studies. It would also make a good basis for a historical novel (or two or three) or a nonfiction history targeting the general public. I'd love to toss the topic out to someone with more ambition than I possess. As it is, I'll just have to quietly wonder what happened to Jane after the war ended. Or even before the war ended -- an article in the Brooklyn Eagle described a speech she gave in 1945. She had been a Red Cross Clubmobile girl in the European theater. How did her experiences there compare with Iceland? She had songwriting ambitions -- did anything ever come of that? Did she marry? Have kids? Maybe I'll do more online searching, frustrating though it is to have to keep telling the search engine I really do mean Goodell with an "e" and not Goodall with an "a." Who knows. . .  if nothing else, trying to find out a little more about Jane Goodell will be a nice distraction from other obsessions.

5 comments:

  1. I was in Iceland with an airborne early warning squadron in the very early sixties, and i felt the same way about Icelanders as your SO. Mojacks were very unfriendly. The story I heard was that the British had had a base at Keflivik during the Second World War and when they pulled out they wanted Iceland to pay them for the vehicles, structures and equipment they were leaving - the Icelandics refused so the British bombed the base on the way out. Thus the attitude;

    At least that was the story when I was there.

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  2. still ..all in all? ..not a job I'd want to run off and join up for.

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  3. Iceland only achieved full independence in 1944 after about 500 years of Danish rule. Denmark had pretty much bled them dry over that time and they were not appreciative. Hence their attitude. While Iceland has a harsh climate it is an extremely beautiful (in a stark way) in the summer. Check it out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2QgGoAuwoU

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  4. You read the most interesting things!

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  5. Sounds like a great book. I love wondering about people.

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