by Richard Telford
Author’s Note: Though the product of many hours of research, writing, and revision, this chapter is nevertheless a draft; it will be subject to revision as the larger book in which it will appear takes shape. The chapter published below, “Throwing Bricks at the Temple,” follows a previous one published last month, “The Lonely Suffering of the Fallible Heart,” which can be viewed here. For greatest clarity, these chapters should be read in order. I welcome critical response, either in the comment section here or through direct e-mail. I am grateful to the Archives and Special Collections staff for providing me the opportunity to share this work, and to the Woodstock Academy Board of Trustees for awarding me a sabbatical for the 2016-2017 school year so that this work could be undertaken. Contextual information about the project and manuscript can be found here.
Chapter 10: Throwing Bricks at the Temple
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.
Ecclesiastes 9: 11
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.
Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” 1897
Box 219 of the Teale Papers in Archives and Special Collections at the University of Connecticut houses only one object, a Nazi flag measuring roughly 88 inches by 46 inches. Its folds through 71 years of storage have become deeply ingrained, and the viewer is hesitant to pull and flatten it too much. The remaining half of its red field, torn along a diagonal axis, is still bold. It is a monument to a long-dead empire—a Reich, in its own anachronistic parlance—and it is a monument to the fifteen young men who signed their names in the four quadrants formed by the perpendicular bars of the angled cross that forms the center of the black swastika sewn to the circular white central field. Laying the flag down horizontally, as its signers clearly did 72 years ago, the viewer’s eyes are drawn first to bold green script: “Tiger Patrol 346th Infantry.” The four components of this inscription, staggered across the white field, step down the dark lines of the debased Hindu symbol, the second and the third occupying the horizontal pockets formed by the swastika’s angled tails. The capital letters T, P, and I are drawn in rough, oversized calligraphy, and the infantry numbers are drawn with like flourish. Pride, hope, just action for a just cause—all are expressed by the added insignia of this captured flag.
Just as the swastika divides the patrol and regiment designations, so too does it roughly divide the names of the signers. In the north quadrant of the white central field we see the signatures of Antonio J. Alvear, John A. Thompson, Eugene B. Pings, Frank Minnis; along the north-facing tail of the swastika are the signatures of George W. Muschinske, Roy Salame, and Edwin A. Stroh. In the west quadrant are the signatures of Lester L. Snider and Merle H. Patison; adjacent to them and to the right of the scripted “346th” are those of Mahlon Angstead, Billy Richardson, and Ernest Sachau. In the south quadrant, there is only one signature, that of John Steele. Finally, in the east quadrant, moving south to north, are the signatures of Irving J. Greenfield, Harold F. Gould, Jr., Bill Cummins, and, finally, David A. Teale. One can readily imagine Edwin and Nellie Teale intently searching for David’s signature—for any evidence of their only child, declared Missing in Action “somewhere in Germany” five weeks earlier—when the flag arrived to their Baldwin, Long Island home on May 9, 1945. Noting the flag’s arrival in his Guild diary for 1945, Edwin expressed the hope that he and Nellie might “get in touch with those near here” to learn more of the events leading up to David’s disappearance.
Five weeks earlier, on April 3, the day after receiving the first War Department telegram, Edwin wrote, “For so many days, since [leaving Popular Science Monthly in] 1941, I have been awakening to happy dreams in the work I love—Now we wake to the reality of a nightmare we have dreaded—we are hoping and believing that Davy is ‘safe’ as a prisoner.” Both Edwin and Nellie clung tenuously to such hope and belief as bulwarks against waves of grief that now defined “one of the great crises of our lives.” Three days later, on April 6, Edwin wrote, “Little by little, like an island eroding and disappearing in the flood, our standing-space has decreased—our hopes are now basing themselves on other hopes. Grief comes in waves.” Still, the Teales armored themselves with “thoughts of hope: that patrols are likely to be captured; that the wars may end soon and all prisoners will be released.” David’s work in the Tiger Patrol, conducted mostly near and behind enemy lines, justified this hope, but it likewise placed him in greater danger, and Edwin wrote on April 6 that such hopes were “only small, shining stars in the universal darkness.” Expressing the despair that was the constant counterpoint of such hopes, he wrote, “The sun is gone from the sky.”
Nearly thirty years later, in 1974, coming to terms with his newly received prostate cancer diagnosis, Edwin would reflect back on the agonizing uncertainty of the 132 days during which David was declared missing and his fate unknown to them: “Remembering the year David was missing in action and contemplating my current condition, it occurs to me that, in some ways, it is easier to face the inevitable than the uncertain.” In the early days of April 1945, however, uncertainty was exceedingly more palatable than relinquishing hope to the certainty of David’s death.
The Teales straddled a thin, ever-shifting line between despair and hope, and the fragmental evidence of David’s fate that came to them throughout that dark spring was alternately palliative and jarring. David’s final letter, written March 14, arrived on April 5, thirty-three days before the delivery of the Nazi flag. “How precious and how hard to read,” Edwin wrote of the March 14 letter in the Guild diary, adding, “The date on the outside was March 19th and the postboy thought that meant he was all right”—a thin ray of hope. Edwin found “relief from the pain in my heart reading Thoreau’s journals all afternoon,” a practice he would continue in the coming weeks. In Thoreau’s writings and those of W.H. Hudson, he found sanctuary. On April 5, Edwin noted, “’Newsday’ as well as ‘Review-Star’” had “long announcement[s]” on David’s MIA status. “What a joyous day it would be,” he added, “to see the write-ups changed for the better! I alternate between confidence of hope and the depth of black despair.” Still, he was determined to “hope to the end!”
On the following day, April 6, Edwin finished reading the first volume of Thoreau’s journals. Continue reading