Bill Mauldin was haunted by World War II.
Not in the usual way, by traumatic memories of horror and battle. At 122 pounds, Mauldin was assigned to an Army motor pool. But he was a lousy driver, and by 1943 he was drawing for the Mediterranean edition for Stars & Stripes.
Sgt. Mauldin created a pair of classic cartoon characters, Willie & Joe, whose wise-cracking, unshaven slouch toward victory was contrary to well-scrubbed military propaganda. Soldiers loved them. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945, at age 23, and his book of wartime drawings sold 3 million copies. It even worked to his advantage when he was wounded — slightly, a mortar fragment. He walked to an aide station to be treated, leading to a memorable cartoon: Joe approaches a medic, sitting at a table piled with Purple Hearts. “Just gimme th’ aspirin,” he mumbles. “I already got a Purple Heart.”
But after the war, his good fortune gnawed at Mauldin. He had trouble dealing with the fact that he benefited from such tragedy.
”I never quite could shake off the guilt feeling that I had made something good out of the war,” said Mauldin. “It wasn’t a nice feeling.”
No, it isn’t. And there has to be a lot of it going around, with this week being the first anniversary of the COVID epidemic seizing America, the mid-March 2020 pivot from ordinary, busy, crowded, life to isolation, hand sanitizer, masks and worries about toilet paper.
While the past year has been one of deepening national crisis and loss — millions sick, 525,000 Americans dead, countless jobs lost and businesses wrecked — for my family, personally, it’s been, well, nice. The boys came back from law school and studied at home. They baked bread. My job hummed along, even better, since I never have to go into the office. My wife and I go for long walks. If I had to describe my pandemic experience in one word, the word I’d choose is “blessed.”
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