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Using humor for resilience: Memories of a special World War II vet

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When I was growing up in Bremerton, Washington, my next-door neighbors were an older couple, Donnie and Virginia. All the neighborhood kids adored Donnie. He loved to laugh and constantly played games with us, from horseshoes and basketball in the summer to jumping in big piles of Hazelnut leaves in the fall. Everything was fun for Donnie.

I knew that Donnie had been in the army in World War II. It seemed like a lot of fun, the way Donnie talked about it. “Oh, Bobbi-Bell,” he’d say, (all the girls in the neighborhood had “Bell” attached to their names by Donnie; my sisters were Jacquie-Bell and Susie-Bell) “We just had a ball!” Then he would tell a funny story about the war and the men in his platoon.

Only one time did I see Donnie’s impish face become somber when telling war stories. Our ragtag group of neighborhood kids was at his house, looking at some of the pictures of his platoon. “Donnie, what’s this?” one of the boys asked, holding up a picture. We gathered around the aging black and white photo. It showed a large pile up against a building. It was hard to tell what the pile consisted of at first and then we started to recognize the components. It was a mound of bodies, burned nearly beyond recognition, but even so we could see the striped clothing of the prisoners and the gauntness of their frames. Smoke still rose from the pile.

Donnie gently took the picture and put it in his pocket. “Let’s not look at that,” he said. His smile was gone as was the light in his eyes. We weren’t sure what to do; Donnie was never serious about anything. He broke the silence as he grabbed another picture and the sparkle in his eyes returned. “Now here’s one of ol’ Harry Aitken. Did I ever tell you about him . . .?”

As I grew older, I began to understand that Donnie’s humor was his way of bouncing back from a horrible time in his life. His unit was often tasked with traveling ahead of the main army and he had seen many, many atrocious sights. But he chose to concentrate on the funny things that happened and this served him well throughout the war and the rest of his life.

Donnie died a few years ago. I still miss him. Last year, I discovered some of his writing about the war in an online newsletter. Here are some snippets of Donnie’s unique perspective on World War II:

It has not been revealed until now just how close the German army came to complete annihilation at the hands of two platoon cooks. A shell hit the wall of Alphie Langlois’ kitchen of the first platoon and Walter “Cue Ball” Miller of the 3rd platoon. It ruined the coffee and stew they were brewing up for the evening meal. The cooks grabbed their cleavers and headed for the Kraut lines to make mincemeat. About 20 GIs grabbed them, and they stormed back into their kitchens mumbling dire threats to any Krauts that might fall into their hands.”

“The toughest job developed when we went to the latrine. In the middle of the chore the whistling and screaming of a 220 on its way was not inducement for leisurely meditation.”

Harry Aitken confiscated a piano accordion and began to teach himself, using the trial and error method. This procedure was called the “Aitken touch.” After diligent practice daily for several weeks, to the horror and woe of the 3rd platoon GIs, he could bang out familiar tunes – if he told us the title before he played. All platoons hooked up their telephones so we could all hear, even though it did hurt our ears, but it was surprising what a little “music” could do for one’s soul and it did soothe our nerves. Every day at 5:30 (when possible) “Harry’s All Request Hour” went on the air.”

“We moved out into the field and began a slow, determined push toward the Roer River, meeting bitter resistance. But the humor was still there. One night while trying to rest in a pillbox during heavy artillery shelling, Lt. Bruce Reid leaned over to me and asked: ‘Swede, do you think this will ever replace night baseball?'”

Takeaway points: Although not a cure-all, sometimes humor is the best resiliency skill in your toolbox.

In loving tribute to Donald E. “Swede” Larson, 1st. Lieut., Co. H., 405th Regiment, 102nd Infantry Division. European Theater, 1942-1946.



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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.