Teaches short story writing and poetry at Writers & Books in Rochester, NY , the Rochester Institute of Technology, and has been the Writer in Residence at Roberts Wesleyan College. His poetry and short stories are widely published -- about 60 pieces a year. He is the director of the Athenaeum Poetry group. When not
writing or teaching, he works on
becoming an amateur cabinetmaker.


Webster Dictionary

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