Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Women and World War II

With the advent of World War II, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts established a Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps (MWDC) in May of 1941, under a Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety. The MWDC worked closely with the Massachusetts State Guard, the U.S. Army, state agencies and local communities. Its function was to assist in training women volunteers in five areas: medical, transportation, communications, canteen, and air raid precautions.

Pin that had belonged to Mrs Louis Boeske.
Women's Defense Corps Pin. “ARP” for
Air Raid Precautions; “PARATUS ET FIDELIS”
 translates as Ready and Faithful
From a start as a Women’s Civilian Defense School in Boston, the organization had quickly grown to having more than one hundred auxiliary defense schools by the end of 1941. Maynard was one. The Maynard Historical Society notes that in November 1941, Maynard women of the MWDC Motor Corps received diplomas from their instructor, Mrs. Frank Sheridan. The following March the women conducted a drill involving a convoy of twelve cars. The women drove to a rendezvous site in Clinton, where their final test was a tire change. Mrs. Louis Boeske was complimented for her speed at this skill. She replied that she had spent many years in and around cars with her husband.

Later during the war, the various states’ organizations were superseded by federal government action. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was made active duty status on July 1, 1943. The idea behind WAC was that women serving in non-combat roles would free up men for combat assignments, essential because the Army was running out of men to draft. WACs initially served as switchboard operators, clerk/typists, mechanics and in food preparation. In time, other classifications were added, such as transportation, postal clerk and armory staff. WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) were the Navy equivalent, SPARS for the Coast Guard, WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) flying planes, and Marine Corps Women's Reserve. The previously existing Army Nurse Corps dating to 1901, expanded to 60,000 women during World War II. All totaled, more than three hundred thousand women served in the armed forces during World War II. Per the plaques in Memorial Park, this included more than two dozen women from Maynard.

All was not champagne and roses for the women who volunteered for military duty. There was serious backlash. Men in service who had a safe, stateside or behind the lines job did not want to be sent to combat. Mothers, wives and girlfriends did not want their men being sent to combat. Priests and ministers sermonized against women joining the military. There was a slander campaign – much of it initiated by men in uniform – that women who were enrolling were prostitutes, or that they were sexually promiscuous, becoming pregnant, spreading venereal diseases…  Part of the motivation was a fear that if their wives, fianc├ęs or girlfriends joined the army they would be far from home and in the company of other men.

In Massachusetts, soldiers in the Fort Devens area were credited by investigators with originating the rumor that "fantastic" numbers of pregnant women had been sent back to Lovell General Hospital from North Africa. Agents descended on that hospital's records "without prearrangement" and reported, "No record of an overseas pregnancy was found." Another Fort Devens’ rumor was that the venereal disease rate was skyrocketing. Also not true. A third rumor was that women in uniform were officially advised to utilize prophylactics, or even issued same. Agents interviewed hundreds of women and were unable to find even one who had ever been so instructed.

Locally, whether women were in the Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps or not, enrolled in WAC or not, all were deeply affected by the war. Rationing included gasoline for cars (three gallons per week), also fuel oil for houses, sugar and coffee (one pound per adult every five weeks). Meat, butter and canned goods were in short supply. All new car manufacture ceased February 1942, to not be resumed until the war was over. A national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was imposed to save fuel. All forms of rationing ended in the United States in August 1945. In stark comparison, rationing of many good and foods continued in the United Kingdom until the summer of 1954. George Orwell’s famous novel “1984” was completed in 1948; the title stemming from an inversion of the last two numbers of the year. Food rationing was present in Orwell’s real life and in his novel.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Swans on the Assabet River

Mute swan at rest, Assabet River, Stow, MA
Mute swans reside on the Assabet River, either as solitary birds or nesting pairs. These swans can occasionally be spotted from the Ice House Landing dock, but will always be seen when kayaking or canoeing upriver into Stow.

Swans are long-lived, and return to the same nesting place. Of the 5–8 eggs laid each spring perhaps 1–3 cygnets will reach maturity. Unlike Canada geese, parent mute swans do not allow the yearlings to return to the same area the next spring, so in any summer the local populations are either solitary birds or parenting pairs with the new cygnets. Hatchlings start off gray in color, not turning white until their second year. They can paddle about within days after hatching, but need 60 days to mature enough to fly.

In flight, swans make Canada geese look small and slow. Low-flying geese meander about at 20–30 miles per hour. Higher-flying geese, the ones actually migrating, are at flock speed of 35–45 mph. In contrast, once swans have powered up they are doing 50 mph. At more than twice the weight of a ten-pound goose and with a wingspan of almost eight feet, this is one impressive bird. The wings of mute swans in flight make a distinctive whooshing sound that on still mornings can be heard more than half a mile away.

In the U.S., mute swans do not migrate southward. Come winter, they shift to the ocean shore, where they may congregate in groups. Come spring, the existing pairs head back to their nesting waters, while the three year-olds will be pairing up for the first time before seeking nesting waters of their own. Lifespan in the wild can by 10–15 years. Swans will often stay in mated pairs for many years, but if one dies, the other will take a new mate. And they are not actually “mute,” as they can hiss, snort, yip and so on; it’s just by comparison their not being as loud as North America’s native trumpeter swans.

The business end of a mute swan (internet download)
Boaters of any type should not approach mute swans during nesting and cygnet-raising seasons. These birds are SERIOUSLY territorial. On land or on the water, males act to prevent any animal or human from getting near the nest. That yard-long neck may look like a cute sock-puppet, but it is wielded more like a poking, pinching hand, combined with hard blows from the forward edge of the wings. Swans have been known to attack dogs and children. Swans have been known to attack swimmers, canoes and kayaks. Swans can sink jet skis, flip ATVs and down ultralight aircraft. OK, maybe not those last three, but really, leave nesting swans alone. There is one reported instance of a man (not wearing a life jacket) knocked out of his kayak and drowned by a nest-protecting swan.

Mute swans are not native to North America, and in fact are viewed as an invasive and destructive species because of their voracious appetite for aquatic vegetation and harassment of other water bird species. The first introductions were in New York state prior to 1900. Escaped swans initially established feral populations along the Hudson River, Long Island Sound and Chesapeake Bay, but have since spread to the Mid-west and North-west regions, numbering in the tens of thousands and increasing by more than 10 percent a year. A single mute swan can consume four to eight pounds of plants a day. Continuous feeding by a flock of mute swans can destroy an entire wetland ecosystem.

Various state programs attempt to control local populations. Some states along the Atlantic coast have hired professional hunters. Another control method is to coat the eggs with corn oil, which will prevent hatching (removing the eggs triggers the female to lay replacement eggs).  

“But they are really pretty.” Yes, they are. Mute swans were imported from England starting in the late 1800s as living ornaments for private and public garden ponds. The Swan Boats in Boston Public Garden are modeled on mute swans, right down to the orange beak and half-raised wings. Swimming, mute swans hold their heads curved down a bit rather than looking straight forward. Mated pairs oft face each other in the water, so in silhouette their necks and heads make a heart shape. The website takes the position that mute swans are in fact native to North America, and thus deserve the same protections as native birds.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sophia Thoreau

Sophia - born two hundred years ago (June 24, 1819) - was the person most responsible for making Henry David Thoreau posthumously famous. Henry was one of four children born to John and Cynthia (Dunbar) Thoreau, in birth order Helen, John Jr., HDT and Sophia. None of them married. All of them taught at one time in their lives. All died relatively young, even for that era: Helen at age 37, tuberculosis, John Jr. at age 26, tetanus, HDT at age 44. Sophia survived her famous brother by 14 years before dying at age 57, from tuberculosis.    

Daguerreotype of Sophia Thoreau, ~1855 
Sophia was two years younger than Henry David. While Helen was described as the quiet Thoreau, Sophia was known to be talkative and opinionated, with a dramatic wit. Their mother and their aunts were all active abolitionists and members of the Concord Ladies’ Antislavery Society. Sophia and her sister also belonged to the Middlesex County Antislavery Society. At an 1844 convention they signed a petition in favor of dissolving the country rather than being party to a country with states where slave ownership was legal. Prominent abolitionists visiting Concord - Parker Pillsbury, Loring Moody, and John Brown among them - made their way to the Thoreau home. The family provided lodging and aid to fugitive slaves. Henry’s antislavery activism rested on the long-time commitment of the women of his family.

After John Jr. died in 1842 and Helen in 1849, Sophia and Henry grew closer. They were both living in their parents’ house (Henry having done his stint at Walden Pond 1845-47). They would collect plant specimens together, make berry-picking excursions in season, and Sophia would occasionally accompany Henry on boat trips up the Concord, Sudbury and Assabet rivers. Both helped out in the family’s pencil and graphite businesses.

Henry David Thoreau died May 6, 1862, having attained only limited recognition in his own time. It was during Henry’s decline from tuberculosis and after his death that Sophia made the largest contributions to his literary legacy. She served as nurse and companion after an 1860 bout with bronchitis exacerbated his disease. She assisted in writing his letters and preparing his manuscripts for publication. In a lengthy 2016 article by Kathy Fedorko, titled “Henry’s brilliant sister”, a case is made that Sophia alone edited her brother’s essay collections for publication after his death as “Excursions”, “The Maine Woods”, “Cape Cod” and “A Yankee in Canada”. (Previously, more credit had been given to Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing, with little or no acknowledgement of Sophia’s contributions.)

After the death of her mother in 1872, Sophia spent the last three years of her life in Maine, with relatives, during the declining illness that finally took her life in 1876. Before dying she had entrusted her brother’s journals first to Bronson Alcott, who failed to follow her instructions about their care. She consequently deposited them in the Concord Free Public Library in 1874, along with many books and memorabilia that had been Henry’s. Sophia’s will dictated that the journals go to Harrison Gray Otis Blake, who saw to the publication of more content from the journals in the 1880s.

Portion of Thoreau’s poem “Fair Haven”, copied
onto leaves (1868). Click on photos to enlarge. 
Sophia was an artist and musician. Her drawing of the cabin by the pond was chosen by Henry for the cover page of the first edition of “Walden; or, Life in the Woods”. Sophia left behind one odd piece of memorabilia - five shagbark hickory tree leaves on one twig bear sixteen lines of poetry from her famous brother. Created October 13, 1868 (six years after his death). The poem – “Fair Haven” refers to a widening of the Sudbury River, on the border between Concord and Lincoln, and also to the hill on the east side of the river. The last four lines of the poem are “And when I take my last long rest,/And quiet sleep my grave in,/What kindlier covering for my breast,/Than thy warm turf Fair Haven.” The leaves are in the Concord Library archives.


In passing, Thoreau’s given name was David Henry Thoreau, after his recently deceased paternal uncle, David Thoreau. But since everyone always called him Henry, he decided after finishing college that he would prefer to go by Henry David.