Chaplain Kidder’s Song

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The Reverend Maurice Kidder used to wake at five to write sermons in his dark study where the beagle slept; that early hour seemed to give him the clarity to compose his lectures, which he delivered in an unaffected but commanding baritone voice each Sunday at his All Saints’ Church in western Massachusetts. By the time I knew him my grandfather had been giving sermons for more than thirty years. He was a tall, powerfully genial man with blue eyes, a colonial-looking head of wavy white hair, and a long, squared jaw. I knew a few things about him: that he drove faster than my parents did, in a white Rambler with blue vinyl seats; that he liked Heath bars and believed in God; that he ate leftover ham fat with a spoon in the kitchen at holidays; that he sang very beautifully in church or while washing his hands. He had played football in high school, where they called him Tiny to be funny, and his boyhood New Hampshire town had a name out of the Iliad , Laconia.

I did not know very much about his war.

A few years after my grandfather’s death from a brain tumor in 1975, my grandmother Isabel Kidder began to leave me clues about his time in the Army. Even before he died, I’d worn his 29th Infantry Division’s yin-yang patch sewn on my denim jacket (alongside Boy Scout Jamboree patches). Now she brought out other knicknacks from the war, including a picture of him as an Army chaplain smiling with long-ago buddies in Europe. Then the truly heavy-freighted objects came down from the attic: the Eisenhower jacket during one high school Christmas and, finally, the black footlocker.

Like most GIs who had come home, he had stuck his mementos into the attic and got on with it. He said little about the war.
 

The footlocker emptied the war out safely onto the livingroom rug, broke it down into small resonant show-and-tell objects that anyone could hope to understand. Here were his discharge papers, metal soap dish, Bible, letters, old USO programs and issues of Yank , a retrieved Nazi helmet ornament, logs of his Army sermons, a four-day guide to Paris (“The Place de l’Opéra is without contest one of the beautifullest and most animated places in the world”), and the booklet “Going Back to Civilian Life” (telling former soldiers when they could still wear their uniforms). Like most GIs who came home, he had stuck his mementos into the attic and got on with it. The family used a pair of German toenail clippers he’d poached from a dead panzer soldier along with a Luger that went to his older brother, Stan. But he rarely mentioned the war afterward that my mother remembered, except obliquely: using the German term for police or sneaking open new jars of peanut butter to write “Kilroy was here” and close the lid.

The jacket always made me feel a little inadequate, even after it was taken up some in the sleeves. I wore it in high school wandering the comparatively safe brownstone blocks of West Side Manhattan. My coat had seen action. That, of course, would be true of some Ike jackets bought at Army-Navy stores, but it was humbling just the same to learn my coat’s—my grandfather’s—missing history.

Kidder was in the service even before Pearl Harbor, having joined the Army Reserve for a little extra money his freshman year of college. In August 1940, when he was twenty-eight, he resigned his position after two years as a Methodist preacher for two small parishes in California’s rural San Joaquin Valley and went back East, hoping for a family posting in the Reserves. The Depression was still deep, and the Kidders traveled back to New Hampshire as they had come, Isabel taking the two small children—my mother, Phyllis, and Uncle Joel—cross-country by train, with her husband hitchhiking his way behind. As he had while thumbing his way West, Kidder noted each obliging driver, distance, and make of car in a little diary. He made it from California to Cleveland trading off driving with a young salesman in a gray ’38 Plymouth. Then two Fords (a ’3O and ’38), a businessman who disagreed with him about Hitler, a truck driver, a “broad-minded” fellow in a Mercury sedan, a ’39 Buick, a DeSoto coupe driven by a lame ex-stunt flier, and a dairy semi took him to Laconia, where his family was waiting. In March 1941 he applied to be a Reserve chaplain in Maryland and worked a series of manual jobs in the meantime. Then came news of Pearl Harbor.

According to the crowded eighteen-page Army memoir he left behind, Kidder next moved his family to Maryland, then was called away with the 175th Regiment of the 29th (the “Dandy Fifth”) to North Carolina for training. After that it was to Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to guard bridges and rail yards against Axis bombardment; then to Newport News, Virginia, to protect a tobacco warehouse full of docked, crated Buicks, stranded by the crisis. Following a second turn of Carolina maneuvers, Kidder shipped out for England as senior chaplain (a captain’s rank) with the 29th (he would go ashore in France with a field artillery unit). They were part of the great rehearsal for the Normandy invasion staged at Slapton Sands, where, he noted, practice shelling went on above the heads of Hebridean sheep. Most of his fellow soldiers were certain they were training to storm Holland.