Friday, August 16, 2013

The Poet Betty Smith: Truly?

We take this short break from the Lillies narrative to bring you an intriguing update on an earlier post. (Well, not so short, as it turns out.)

Back in June, I blogged about life in wartime London from the perspective of my non-combatant parents who were office workers there from 1943 to 1946. In particular, I wrote about the German doodlebug (V1 and V2 flying bomb) attacks on London in 1944. As children, we heard stories about the terror they inspired.

I included in that post the text of a poem, a bit of doggerel I recently found among papers left by my mother Betty Smith, a sergeant in the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division. Betty was working at RCAF headquarters in London as a stenographer in 1944.

The untitled doodlebug ditty was included in a sheaf of six typed poems on yellowing paper, held together with a rusty straight pin. Most are humorous and relate to military or wartime matters. I assumed Betty had written them all. Now I’m not so sure.

Yesterday, Marek Dojs, left this comment at the original post: “I stumbled on your blog while doing a search for a few lines of a poem. Was this Doodlebug poem written by one of your family members? Just wondering because I just purchased a copy of it on ebay:

When I followed the link in Marek’s comment, I found an ad for a typescript of the poem that I thought my mother had written. The ad was placed by Brandt Rowles of Lovedale, Ohio, a collector of “paper ephemera” who is selling off part of the collection he assembled over 40 years.

Image of typescript sold on eBay

In the ad, Brandt writes, “I recently ran across paper souvenirs saved by a USA WAC [Women’s Army Corps] Lieutenant/Captain Virginia Shewalter; she was stationed in England and France during and just after the war. She travelled extensively on the continent and saved souvenirs from those travels.”

Intrigued, I sent Brandt a message, asking for more information. He replied that he had bought a lot of paper souvenirs saved by Captain Shewalter. “I assumed that she wrote this – it definitely was part of her WW2 souvenirs – but maybe not.”

So we have a mystery. Who wrote the doodlebug poem?

I’ve attempted some CSI-style forensic analysis, comparing the two typescripts. The one in Betty’s possession appears to be a carbon – the letters are a little fuzzy and faint. This is typical of carbon copies, made by rolling multiple sheets of paper into a typewriter with carbon-coated sheets between them. (I explain for the benefit of anyone under the age of 40.) The script in Captain Shewalter’s possession, on the other hand, appears to be an original or top copy. The letters are, relatively speaking, crisp and black.

Are they possibly from the same typewriter? I’m no expert, but I’d say no. The typeface and point size might be the same, but any two typewriters of the same make and model would have had the same typeface. There are differences in letter spacing. Look, in the first lines, at the word “night,” for example. In Betty’s typescript, the ‘g’ is jammed up closer to the ‘h’ than to the ‘i’. In Virginia Shewalter’s copy, the letters are evenly spaced.

Could this be a discrepancy caused by the carbon copying process? Maybe. Could different typists on the same typewriter or the same typist typing at different speeds produce slightly different spacing of letters. Possibly. But Betty’s is certainly not a carbon of Virginia’s, and I doubt they were made at the same time. While both are on 8x5-inch note paper, the Shewalter copy is typed in landscape orientation, ours in portrait mode.

There are also slight differences in the wording, spacing and punctuation. Most notable is the addition of a title on the Shewalter copy. And the line “Stay up, doodle bug in the sky” becomes “Stay up doodle in the sky” in Betty’s version. Since the latter scans better, it’s tempting to think it might be a later revision.  

Three possibilities: Betty wrote the poem, Virginia wrote it, an unknown third-party was the author. In either of the first two cases, the question arises, how was the poem transmitted from Betty to Virginia or vice versa. Did they know each other?

I haven’t been able to discover much about Virginia Shewalter, but I did find a record of her enlistment. She joined on 22 August 1942 at Fort Hayes, near Columbus, Ohio, nine months after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. She was born the same year as Betty, 1916, in Ohio. She went to college for four years and had worked as a teacher in civilian life. Like Betty, she was single, without dependants.

I also found a death record for a Virginia Shewalter – the name is not common – which suggests she died young, in 1978.

None of which settles any of the questions the poem raises.

Brandt Rowles suggested a Google search to find out more, which I did – on lines in the poem, as Marek Dojs had done, and on the search terms doodlebug and poem together. I didn’t find any other references to our poem, but I did find another doodlebug poem written by a British soldier, Fred Deakin. Here it is:

To The Doodle Bug

Doodle doodle doodle bug,
How I hate your ugly mug,
Flying high in the sky,
Telling some-one they must die!

Fatser! Faster! Faster still,
As we all run up the hill,
Standing at the shelter door,
Hear your noisy engine roar

When we hear your engine stop,
In the shelter we must pop,
But with our jet propelled flame
We shall send you back again.

When we see the damage done
Then we think it’s time to run
Lots of us evacuate
When to others we relate.

Not as good as our poem, I’d say.

The latest, just this morning, was another comment from Marek Dojs, who lives in the U.S. This was in response to my comment on his original. 

He writes, “That is fascinating. I haven't been able to find the text of the poem anywhere else online except your website – so perhaps your mother was the author… I'm working on a film about my grandfather – who was a prisoner at the Dora concentration camp. He was forced to build components for both the V1 and V2 rockets. Here is some information about him:”

Follow the link. It’s a great story. Marek’s granddad was a teenage Polish resistance fighter, captured and sent to work at a secret underground slave labour camp. He and his comrades tried to sabotage the rockets during manufacture, including by pissing in the fuel! Not so funny for the many saboteurs at the factory who were executed by the Nazis.

Workers at Dora Concentration Camp building V2 rockets, by Walter Frentz, Hitler's photographer

1 comment:

  1. I must say that I'm impressed with your CSI style investigation! I agree with you that compared to the other poem you found the one your mother had is much better.

    I'm interested in possibly using the poem in my film project. Of course I want to be able to give credit to the author (if we find out who it is!)

    Thanks for your comments about my Grandfather's story. It is a massive project that I'm working on, but slowing things are coming together. You mention that I live in Britain - close. I'm originally from there, but have lived the majority of my life in the States.

    Thanks for the interesting story about the poem that I've become wrapped up in as well. If you would like to email me my address is: mrdojs(at)yahoo(.)com