Books: Tales from the home front

  • Article by: CASEY COMMON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2007 - 11:55 PM

NONFICTION A collection of columns from the newspaperman featured in Ken Burns' documentary "The War" gives a vivid view of World War II from southern Minnesota.

Dear Al:

 

It's been almost 40 years since you retired from your weekly newspaper in Luverne, the Rock County Star-Herald, way down there in the southwest corner of Minnesota. And it's been almost 30 years since you passed away. But you wouldn't believe the fuss in the old town these days -- and you're right in the middle of it.

It all started with that moviemaking fella Ken Burns and his crew coming to town making his World War II documentary, "The War." They dug up that old column you used to write, "More or Less Personal Chaff," where you wrote about the war effort there in Luverne and how those Rock County boys were doing overseas. Burns said it "might be the single greatest archival discovery that we ever made," if you can believe that. They had movie star Tom Hanks (think Jimmy Stewart) reading your words, and the premiere showing was right there in Luverne, at the Palace Theatre -- the very same Palace where you saw "Casablanca" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Quite the deal.

And now you've even got your own book coming out, "Selected Chaff: The Wartime Columns of Al McIntosh." It's a compilation of bits and pieces from your column during those years, mostly those that had to do with the war.

•••

When the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, you'd owned your paper for only about a year and a half, and the local National Guard unit was serving up on Kodiak Island in Alaska. You kept your Rock County readers informed about how their boys -- and judging from your columns, they were all boys -- were doing, often thanks to their parents, who would show you the letters they wrote.

But you also did something else: You made sure those serving overseas stayed in touch with Rock County. No matter how convoluted military mail regulations were, you made sure copies of the Star-Herald found their way to Rock County's soldiers all over the world.

My favorites were your Christmas letters to the troops overseas. Nothing fancy, just the everyday goings-on in Luverne -- a recent cold snap, somebody's baby getting over a bout with pneumonia -- but I bet they meant the world to the boys reading them thousands of miles from home.

But I've gotta be honest with you, Al -- I was disappointed in you for that column in March 1942 after those two traveling farm workers showed up in town only to be denied service at a local store. You said the fact that these "Japs" were allowed to travel showed that the United States was a bit too "easygoing and tolerant." For all you know, they might have been like those thousands of other loyal Americans who were rounded up and held in internment camps during the war. I wish you'd stuck up for them like you later stuck up for that Hawaiian fellow in the U.S. uniform who got hassled in town.

•••

Al, you might be sorry to see the state of newspapering at some weeklies these days. Flabby writing, uninspired coverage -- and too often the columns are wince-inducing ruminations on the changing of the seasons.

But, Al, you could write. Your writing crackles with the chatty style of that bygone era. And it also had heart -- when writing about new soldiers shipping out, someone's son reported missing in action, or a fallen soldier's final journey home, you let yourself get a little emotional without being maudlin.

And those names -- you packed a lot of them into every inch of copy. Not names of bureaucrats or County Board members, but regular folks -- Wildungs and Lawsons and Hansens and Henjums. No question about it: You had your finger on the pulse of that county.

The book could have used a little more context -- there's a short introduction at the beginning and your obituary at the end, but that's about it. So "Selected Chaff" is more of a companion piece to "The War" than a work that stands on its own. But overall, Al, they did right by you.

•••

You know, Al, when you came to Luverne in 1940, you could have followed in the footsteps of your predecessor, Russ Wiggins, who went on to become managing editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch and eventually editor-in-chief of the Washington Post. And you did get some offers from big-city papers.

But you stayed in Luverne. The Rock County Star-Herald was your life's work until you sold the paper in 1968. From what I can see in these columns, you loved your job and probably considered yourself darn lucky to be doing it. And you know what, Al? Your Rock County readers were lucky to have you.

  • SELECTED CHAFF

    Publisher: Zenith Press, 272 pages, $14.95

    Review: Crackerjack writing in these reprinted columns from 1941 to 1945 brings to life the home front of World War II in Rock County.

    Of related interest: Ken Burns' documentary "The War" airs at 7 p.m. on KTCA (Ch. 2) Sept. 23-26 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2. A companion volume by Burns and Geoffrey Ward (Knopf, 451 pages with 394 illustrations and 21 maps, $50) is available in bookstores.

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