I have before me the copy of the Webster Dictionary which
my father carried through World War II and brought back home
with him when a hand grenade nearly took off his right arm
somewhere along the Rhine River.
It’s a small black volume, bound in soft cardboard,
covered with black oil cloth, probably intended to keep out
the damp. It’s dog-eared and bent up. Some of the pages
have ripped loose from the sparsely-sewn binding.
It clearly was published in times of great national secrecy.
The title page disclaims any association with “the original
publishers of Webster’s Dictionary,” and the Preface
is ambiguously signed “THE PUBLISHER.” No other
attribution appears in the book. What use a wily German spy
might have made of this information, if revealed, has been
lost in the folds of history.
My father’s signature appears on the flyleaf in bright
blue “Edwin P. Lehmann.” It was undoubtedly written
with a fountain pen. It is a clear, confident signature as
befits a man still at the beginning of his life and about
to go to war.
He was a raw recruit who received only the briefest training
before being sent off to follow in the footsteps of those
who landed in Normandy. He probably could have used a little
more training. He only lasted six weeks, but he did his duty
and was a brave man, as far as I have been told.
It occurs to me to wonder why he thought to lug a dictionary
across the barren, mud-swollen landscape of France. He just
finished high school before joining up. Perhaps he was ambitious
for more learning and hopeful that this slender volume would
be his entree into the post-war world of management.
I see him sleeping in foxholes, dodging exploding shells,
and sniper bullets. I also see him imagining these “Nearly
50,000 Words” as a slender wedge of hope.
“Self Pronouncing” No hyphen.
“Latest and Most Complete” At least on the title
page the anonymous publisher was willing to puff a little.
“Vest Pocket” Sounds pretty posh for wartime.
“Containing also Rules for Spelling, Punctuation, Use
of Capitals, Tables of Weights and measures, Etc.” A
virtual college education in a nutshell.
The Preface promises that this book will be a guide “to
the foreign words which have lately been brought into common
use,” a veiled reference to the war perhaps?
The Preface concludes, “It is a safe and consistent
guide to proper speech and current writing.” I suppose
these features of civilized life might be particularly important
in war times, “things all men should strive to attain.”
This strange refugee from Europe just goes to prove that
even in the midst of barbarity men are fed, and fed deeply,
by even the thinnest veneer of culture.
Copyright © 2004 Gary Lehmann