by Andrea Warren-Giving Voice to Children in History
St. Paul's Cathedral during the blitz of World War II.
When I interview people in my work as a writer, I soak up the stories they share about their lives. This is what brings history alive. I’ve always wished for a way to interview historic buildings, because they could tell stories from such a different perspective, having seen it all and heard it all. My dream interview would be St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a place rich with history—and therefore, with stories.
I have learned that those with the most to say can be wary of interviewers. Sometimes employing a little charm can help them warm up. So I would begin by complimenting St. Paul’s on how wonderful it looks for a building that opened in 1708. I would reference its great architect, Christopher Wren, who was also an astronomer and mathematician, as is evidenced in many of its design elements. I’d mention its magnificent dome and its massive booming bells that can be heard for miles.
“You’re the prize jewel in a city rich in architectural beauty,” I’d say. “No wonder so many notables have been baptized, married, and had their funerals here.”
Flattered but still reserved, St. Paul’s might ask me what I like best about it. “I have two favorites,” I would reply earnestly, mentioning first the Crypt, where many of England’s war heroes are buried, along with famous painters and poets. (Writers and composers are at nearby Westminster Abbey). Other notables, like Florence Nightingale and Lawrence of Arabia, are here, too. It’s altogether quite a congenial place.
Starting to thaw a bit, St. Paul’s might wonder aloud about my second favorite, and I would single out the American Memorial Chapel, located behind the High Altar and dedicated to the memory of the 28,000 Americans who died defending England in World War II.
“And speaking of that war,” I would tell St. Paul’s, “I am awed by Londoners’ resolve that you, their national treasure, would not be destroyed during the Blitz when so much of the city burned. Volunteer firefighters, both men and women, were stationed at all times on your roof. When bombs exploded, starting fires, they were right there to put them out, a number of them sacrificing their lives.”
St. Paul’s would nod, remembering.
“The British love you very much,” I would say.
St. Paul’s would pause, clear its throat, and then reply, “Let me tell you some of my stories.”
© Andrea Warren, 2014
During the Civil War, soldiers loved to eat and to sing. One of their favorite songs was about food they hated: “Hardtack, Come Again No More!” It was a parody of composer Stephen Foster’s popular 1854 tune “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
Hardtack was a thick cracker that formed the men's basic ration. Nearly every soldier received nine or ten every day. Hardtack lived up to the “hard” part of its name. Soldiers often had trouble crunching the rock-like crackers and gave them nicknames such as “teeth dullers,” “sheet-iron crackers,” “jawbreakers,” and so on.
According to a popular joke, a soldier bit into a piece of hardtack.
“I found something soft!” he told his comrades.
“What is it?” they asked.
“A nail!” he replied.
To make hardtack easier to eat, soldiers often bashed the crackers with the butt end of their rifles. They scooped up the crumbs and mixed them with bacon grease and salt pork to make a kind of mush called skillygalee.
Hardtack had another nickname: “worm castles.” Worms frequently burrowed into the crackers. To get rid of those little wrigglers, soldiers dunked the crackers in hot coffee. The hardtack fell apart and the worms floated to the surface. Sometimes the men had contests to see whose hardtack had the most worms. Reportedly, the record was 32!
Not everyone threw the little creatures away, though. One soldier explained that “They eat better than they look, and are so much clear gain in the way of fresh meat.”
If hardtack had all these problems, why was it such an important part of the soldiers’ daily diet? First, it was easy and inexpensive to make. Every day 3 or 4 million crackers popped out of bakers’ ovens and were shipped to the armies in the field.
Second, hardtack hardly ever spoiled. In 1898, U.S. Navy sailors in the Spanish-American War chowed down on hardtack baked more than 30 years earlier during the Civil War.
Third, the crackers didn’t weigh very much. Soldiers could carry enough hardtack in their backpacks to eat for several days.
Soldiers joked that they could stitch together crackers to make a bulletproof vest, though it’s doubtful that anyone actually did. Maybe they should have. In 2010, college students performed an experiment by firing pistol shots into chunks of hardtack. They were astonished to find that the crackers stopped the bullets!
© Jim Whiting, 2014
Jim Whiting has written 250 nonfiction books. He's known as Washington State's most prolific children's book author.
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