In May 1942, Joe abruptly resigned his position. In a letter to his mother, he wrote that he could have stayed at his job “indefinitely,” making good money.
“Possibly that is the only way you ever get anywhere in this world… Whether it is or not I am not ready yet, to settle down to the grind,” he wrote.
Joe decided to return home to Indiana. He was clearly disappointed in himself, at how little he had accomplished. He also seemed to think everyone would judge him for returning to Greensburg. He had gone away in December a confident young man, and he returned just six months later. Joe usually wrote eloquently, but in this letter, he rambled, trying to get a grasp on his feelings:
“If I come home this time it does not mean that I will be there forever, or does it, what I mean is if I felt I wanted to, couldn’t I at some later date try something again. Probably it is a disappointment to you to have me come back, to think I was off to something and then have me quit. I hate to come back myself in the respect that it seems like a failure or something.”
Joe thought Chicago would provide him with the opportunities he needed to become a successful man in a business suit, but he found himself lonely and dissatisfied with the day-to-day drudgery of city life. He could see himself growing wealthy, but it felt empty to him. Something was missing.
“… People here don’t seem to live, to me, they seem more like a part of one big machine,” he wrote.
Despite the excitement all around him, Joe grew sullen during his time in the city. He saw what his life would be there, and he didn’t like it. Returning home was an attempt to hold on a bit longer to his youth. He wrote that, if he stayed at his job in Chicago, he would always feel he “had missed part of the fun or pleasures” he should have had when he was young.
Underlying in his emotional letter is his complete denial of the war, of how serious his life had so suddenly become. At that time, many Chicagoans would have been producing materials for the effort overseas. How strange that Joe would return home, ostensibly to enjoy being young, when so many boys his age had already been deployed. He went to Chicago to chase success and have a good time – why then did he have to set aside money for defense bonds? Why couldn’t he just go to the theater and flirt with the cute girl he met at the dry cleaners?
Joe would have been required to register for the draft in May 1942, right around the time he resigned. Perhaps the act of registering was the final straw for him, the last thing he did before he decided to go home. His homesickness was no doubt exacerbated by the fear that he would be called up to serve in the military. He may have felt that it was best to spend what time he had left enjoying himself with this friends and family, instead of laboring away, alone, up in Chicago. What use is all this money, he must have wondered, if I’m going to go off to war any day?
Back in Indiana, Joe readjusted to the life he left behind. About a year later, after being classified 1-A – available for military service – he made the trip to Fort Benjamin in Indianapolis for his physical exam. Shortly thereafter, he received notice that he had been rejected for service. I have still been unable to definitively answer the question of why he was rejected, but national and state archivists have indicated that he was probably disqualified for a medical condition such as flat feet or a heart murmur.
After his military rejection, there is no indication in his records that Joe considered moving back to Chicago. Instead, he left his dreams of the big city behind him. His files contain letters from a few girls he dated as well as several letters from friends who were serving overseas. In October 1944, a V-Mail arrived from Leonard Welage, a 1942 Greensburg graduate who was in New Guinea “undergoing quite a few bombings.” In 1945, Joe received a V-Mail from a classmate, who wrote from Germany:
“…Am living in a German home right now. Had my second bath since I have been over here yesterday. In a bath tub too. Boy, it was like heaven. Layed in it and only my nose was out of water…. Have slept in everything from fox holes, to hay lofts to nice homes since I have been here. What a hell of a life!! We have running water in this home, but no electricity, using candles and home made lights…. The people who lived in this house were real Nazi’s. Pictures of Der Fuhrer and all. That kind of shit. Boy, Joe, I have no sympathy for these people at all. But they’ll learn I guess.”
With news of the Nazis coming in the mail, Joe’s easygoing adolescence was long gone. By 1946, a letter from his friend Josephine indicates that he had “settled down to one gal.” On December 10, 1947, he married Sara Kathryn Buell, and in November 1951, my mother was born.
Joe spent the rest of his life in Indiana. He passed away in 2007. He only spent six months in Chicago, but the fact that he held on to so many mementos from that time period leads me to believe that it was quite meaningful to him. I’m grateful that, by leaving behind these keepsakes, he allowed me a tiny glimpse into his life long before I knew him. They paint a vivid picture of growing abruptly into adulthood during a war that redefined our world.