This is a short from John Steinbeck written in London, July 26, 1943–
When the time for recognition of service to the nation in wartime comes to be considered, Bob Hope should be high on the list. This man drives himself and is driven. It is impossible to see how he can do so much, can cover so much ground, can work so hard, and can be so effective. He works month after month at a pace that would kill most people.
Moving about the country in camps, airfields, billets, supply depots, and hospitals, you hear one thing consistently. Bob Hope is coming, or Bob Hope has been here. The Secretary of War is on an inspection tour, but it is Bob Hope who is expected and remembered.
In some way he has caught the soldiers’ imagination. He gets laughter wherever he goes from men who need laughter. He has created a character for himself–that of the man who tries too hard and fails, and who boasts and is caught at it. His wit is caustic, but it is never aimed at people, but at conditions and at ideas, and where he goes men roar with laughter and repeat his cracks for days afterward.
Hope does four, sometimes five, shows a days. in some camps the men must come in shifts because they cannot all hear him at the same time. Then he jumps into a car, rushes to the next post, and because he broadcasts and everyone listens to his broadcasts, he cannot use the same show more than a few times. He must, in the midst of his rushing and playing, build new shows constantly. If he did this for a while and then stopped and took a rest it would be remarkable, but he never rests. And he has been doing this ever since the war started. His energy is boundless.
Hope takes his shows all over. It isn’t only to the big camps. In little groups on special duty you hear the same thing. Bob Hope is coming on Thursday. They know weeks in advance that he is coming. It would be rather a terrible thing if he did not show up. Perhaps that is some of his drive. He has made some kind of contract with himself and with the men that nobody, least of all Hope, could break. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this thing and the responsibility involved.
The battalion of men who are moving half-tracks from one place to another, doing a job that gets no headlines, no public notice, and yet which must be done if there is to be a victory, are forgotten, and they feel forgotten. But Bob Hope is in the country. Will he come to them, or won’t he? And then one day they get a notice that he is coming. Then they feel remembered. This man in some way has become that kind of bridge. It goes beyond how funny he can be or how well Frances Langford sings. It has been interesting to see how he has become a symbol.
This writer, not knowing Hope, can only conjecture what goes on inside the man. He has seen horrible things and has survived them with good humor and made them more bearable, but that doesn’t happen without putting a wound on a man. he is cut off from the rest, and even from admitting weariness. Having become a symbol, he must lead a symbol life.
Probably the most difficult, the most tearing thing of all is to be funny in a hospital. The long, low buildings are dispersed in case they should be attacked. Working in the gardens or reading in the lounge rooms are the ambulatory cases in maroon bathrobes. But in the wards, in the long aisles of pain the men lie, with eyes turned inward on themselves, and on their people. Some are convalescing with all the pain and itch of convalescence. Some work their fingers slowly, and some cling to the little trapezes which help them to move in bed.
The immaculate nurses move silently in the aisles at the foot of the beds. The time hangs very long. Letters, even if they came every day, would seem weeks apart. Everything that can be done is done, but medicine cannot get at the lonesomeness and the weakness of men who have been strong. And nursing cannot shorten one single endless day in a hospital bed. And Bob Hope and his company must come into this quiet, inward, lonesome place, and gently pull the minds outward and catch the interest, and finally bring laughter up out of the black water. There is a job. it hurts many of the men to laugh, hurts knitting bones, strains at sutured incisions, and yet the laughter is a great medicine.
This story is told in one of those nameless hospitals which must be kept safe from bombs. Hope and company had worked and gradually they got the leaden eyes to sparkling, had planted and nurtured and coaxed laughter to life. A gunner, who had a stomach wound, was gasping softly with laughter. A railroad casualty slapped the cast on his left hand with his right hand by way of applause. And once the laughter was alive, the men laughed before the punch line and it had to be repeated so they could laugh again.
Finally it came time for Frances Langford to sing. The men asked for “As Time Goes By.” She stood up beside the little GI piano and started to sing. Her voice is a little hoarse and strained. She has been working too hard and too long. She got through eight bars and was into the bridge, when a boy with a head wound began to cry. She stopped, and then went on, but her voice wouldn’t work anymore, and she finished the song whispering and then she walked out, so no one could see her, and broke down. The ward was quiet and no one applauded. And then Hope walked into the aisle between the beds and he said seriously, Fellows, the folks at home are having a terrible time about eggs. They can’t get any powdered eggs at all. They’ve got to use the old-fashioned kind that you break open.”
There’s a man for you–there is really a man.