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[From the Archive]

Life During Wartime

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Learning to Go to Sea on Shore, by George Wright. Originally published in the November 1918 issue of Harper’s Magazine

It is a small hotel compared with the fashionable resorts farther down the Atlantic shore, but it is Stanley Budd’s living. For the past year, however, it has looked as if that living might be swept away on the rising tide of war.

When he bought the hotel in 1935, it was a rather gaunt-looking frame-and-stucco structure. Since then, Budd has made the place over, but the changes were a heavy drain on his limited finances. In order to keep expenses within bounds, he had to do the work of three or four ordinary men: he had to be his own manager, steward, bookkeeper, and room clerk, and often his own houseman. In all those years there was nothing spectacular about Budd’s business. It had its good seasons and its bad, but it earned him a fair living, and he was satisfied. Then came 1942.

Rumors began to pile up: that a complete blackout was to be enforced for ten miles inland, from the coast of Maine to the coast of Florida; that all hotels and summer places fronting the ocean were to be closed for the duration; that if Germany attempted an invasion of the United States, it would undoubtedly come somewhere along the Atlantic seaboard; that German submarines were hiding off the Jersey shore and were even refueling, with the help of resident enemy aliens; that the bodies of seamen from torpedoed ships were washing ashore daily; and so on, ad horrendum.

What Budd found upon his arrival that summer did nothing to allay his fears. Far out on the water he could see the ships of a long, gray convoy moving slowly down the coast. For a mile on either side, as well as on his own hotel’s beach, the shore was smeared with oil, blackened by pools of tar, and strewn with the burned bones of sunken ships.

Observing the reactions of his guests, Budd found no reason for optimism. They were restless and uneasy. For the most part they spent their evenings huddled in groups on the blacked-out veranda, staring out at the darkening sea. “Everything has changed!” they kept exclaiming. On that there was no room for argument.

One evening another convoy of ships moved northward up the coast. Shortly after dark there was a distant booming, followed by bright-yellow flashes far off over the horizon. The next morning the sky was hazy and overcast; a heavy black pall hung in a broad band. The night that followed was a wild one, with tearing wind, spilling rain, and thunder and lightning. The next morning, Budd knew that the worst was about to happen. The breakers were dirty and heavy, and the smell of oil was in the sea wind. By evening the beach was again disfigured with deposits of oil and tar, and strewn with charred and finely splintered wreckage.

Summer that year was like one of the old-time movie melodramas, in which the hero no sooner extricates himself from one critical situation than another approaches. Before the end of July, three of Budd’s most dependable kitchen workers had been called up by the armed forces, and he could find no one to replace them. The bellboys chose this particular time to stage a wild party in the basement that kept the remaining guests and the neighbors awake half the night. It was an era marked by new extremes of casualness and informality. Mornings came when the elevator bell buzzed in vain, wastebaskets and ashtrays sat unemptied, and arriving guests stood among their luggage on the pavement in front of the hotel wondering whether everyone inside had died during the night.

It had begun to look as though the worst of the hazards had been met and overcome when new trouble threatened. The government started taking over hotels along the New Jersey shore for the housing of soldiers. In the closing week of the season, the guests gazed sadly at the sea and then at Budd. “Well,” they said, “I guess this will be our last visit till after the war.”

From “He Runs a Hotel,” which appeared in the November 1943 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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October 2020