Writing to Remember
Woodstock author Joy Aavang shares first-hand accounts of life in London as a young woman during World War II in new book.
It was 1947. The war was over. Woodstock author and England native Joy (Hallam) Aavang was a 17-year-old visiting the United States for the first time. She made some friends and they invited her to a football game at the high school.
There she met a handsome man named Irv Aavang. He explained American football to her. A few days later at an ice cream parlor, he invited her to a movie and eventually asked her to go steady.
“I didn’t know what that meant,” she said, smiling. “He said it meant I wasn’t going to date anyone else.”
She accepted. A week later, he asked her to marry him. They had three children together.
“It was an old-fashioned kind of a romance,” she said. “You see it in the old-time movies and you don’t believe it really happens.”
A pencil sketch of Irv drawn in China during World War II hangs on the wall of her office as if he’s overseeing her as she writes.
“Handsome, isn’t he?” she said. “You would’ve said yes after one week, too.”
He inspired her to write her first book. Even after his death in 1994, and her subsequent abandonment of writing, he somehow got her to write anyway.
Joy has written three collections of stories about McHenry County veterans and those who have survived war. The first book, “Fly the Flag for Me,” was compiled from monthly stories she wrote for the Woodstock Independent newspaper. It wasn’t published until after Irv’s death.
“I felt like I lost everything after he died,” she said. “It’s like I crawled into a hole. I just put everything away and didn’t touch it.”
Telling Vets’ Tales
She never planned on writing about veterans, but Irv knew she could do it even before she did.
“One day, he came home with a book about Iwo Jima,” she said. Irv told her one of his friends said she had to read the book.
“There was a page that was all highlighted, so I read it,” she said. “It didn’t have any names or anything – it told the story of a young marine who had been on the front when they were going up Iwo, and as our boys would go up the Japanese were killing them right and left. One marine yelled and warned the marines behind them. I read it but didn’t know why. Then my husband said, ‘You know that marine.’ It was Al Mansfield. He had already retired, but at that time he was working at the high school and the kids loved him.”
It was the late 1980s, Joy said.
“It’s always bothered me that the kids don’t get as much history as they used to get,” she said. “I said to my husband that it’s just too darn bad that the kids at the high school don’t know that he’s a hero of World War II. If they knew, with how much they already adored him, they’d get more interested in history and maybe they’d be a little more patriotic. Somebody should write about that.”
Irv didn’t hesitate for a moment. He looked at her and said, “You can do that. I’ll talk to them at the VFW.”
She started writing one story a month for the Woodstock Independent and continued that for about five years. She had so many stories and Irv said she had enough to put a book together.
Irv got sick and Joy cared for him in their Woodstock home for two years. She didn’t pick up a pen or type in months. She shut down after Irv died.
A Critical Call
Marengo resident Butch Borchardt, an Army veteran who knew Irv from the VFW, gave Joy a ring after Irv’s death.
“Hey, Joy, I want you to do my story,” he told her. “I just got this feeling that I needed to call you.”
She sadly refused. “I don’t do that anymore,” she replied to him.
He sounded disappointed.
“My only regret is that Irv doesn’t know that I called you and asked you,” Borchardt told her. “I promised Irv that I would ask you to write my story, but I just kept on procrastinating and putting it off.”
When she learned he had talked to Irv on numerous occasions, she remembered her husband encouraging her to write the stories.
“I heard him saying, ‘You can do it,’ Joy said.
She visited with Borchardt to get his story.
“I started writing and I wondered, ‘What have I been doing wasting all of this time?’” she said. “It just felt good.”
Borchardt told her that it was like someone was telling him to call her.
“I’d been stuck in the house for all of these months; when I came home my daughter-in-law was waiting for me,” Joy said. “I hadn’t gone out for months. When I told her I was interviewing a veteran, her face lit up like a Christmas tree. She was so happy. But I didn’t know if I could write again.”
She said her daughter-in-law said she knew why Borchardt called her.
“That was dad,” Joy’s daughter-in-law told her. “He said, ‘Get over there and get her off of her duff and make her start writing again.’”
Joy recalls that Irv really wanted her to take on the project.
She said as she started compiling the stories, she had to come up with a title and remembered something Al Mansfield told her.
“He said, ‘Do me a favor, can you? When you write that story of mine, put in there, ask them to fly the flag for me. Not just for me but for those that didn’t come back,’” she recalled.
That was her title. He was pleased to allow her to use his “fly the flag for me” quote as a title. There were three volumes in the “Fly the Flag for Me” series where she told the stories of not only surviving veterans from various wars, but the recollections of civilian survivors, too.
“Don’t Let Them Forget”
Years ago, Joy’s friend Janina Ebel, also from Woodstock, gave Joy a special gift. It was a seemingly simple fork, but one that would carry with it significant symbolism.
Joy said she remembers looking at Janina, wondering why she would give her such a gift, but then she turned it around and saw a Nazi symbol printed on it. It was the only possession Ebel had saved from being a prisoner for four years in a Polish labor camp during World War II.
“You show this to schoolchildren so they can prevent this from ever happening again,” Joy said Janina told her. “Don’t let them forget.”
And Joy does her best to remind everyone about the horrors of war and visits schools and organizations to tell those stories.
She tells Ebel’s story and passes out the fork for the children to hold. She wants them to see a tangible piece of the war.
She carries a cooler with rations of butter and sugar to show intermediate schoolchildren just how much or how little they would have been allowed during the war.
When she visits schools, she holds a transparency with dots representing the bombs and shells that fell in Dover, England, in 1941. She places the transparency over a map of the town in which she’s speaking to illustrate current proximities.
Recently, Joy has started telling more of her own story, which she just published in her fifth book, “A Lost Adolescence: Surviving the Blitz.”
Those stories are harder to tell, she explained.
“Your brain is like a computer,” she explains. “You put stuff in files and stick it way in the back and I pulled some of those files out when I was writing this. I’d pull out teary files and it would take weeks for me to get back to some of them, but my son Steve said, ‘You have got to do this.’”
She smiles and talks about working as a young girl at Lloyd’s of London, an insurance company, which during the war had its offices at Pinewood Studios, a movie studio outside of London.
“It’s where I learned how to fly,” Joy said with a smile and a tinge of sadness. “It’s where I got this,” she said, pointing to the hearing aid in her ear.
A B-2 rocket exploded near the office. It’s apparent it’s still hard to talk about., but the book includes many stories are about her happy childhood despite the war.
Joy doesn’t plan on writing another book, but she still collects her family stories and stories about her experiences as an usher at the Woodstock Opera House.
See her read from the new book and sign copies at Read Between the Lynes on the Woodstock Square at 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 18.