Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Arlington’s perennial part in our larger national history was on display last week.

I was honored to attend a unique event at the Library of Congress: The first-ever reunion of the “code girls” who did so much to crack enemy communications and help win World War II.

The appellation “Code Girls” is the title of the ground-breaking 2017 book by Arlingtonian Liza Mundy. And — as many know now but didn’t for decades — much of the drama of that life-altering secret operation unfolded at Arlington Hall.

My mother, longtime Arlingtonian Cynthia Landry Clark (1922-2010) — was a code girl. As was common, the subject seldom came up in our household, and then only in the context of how my parents met.

So my two siblings and I were knocked silly this month when we learned I would join dozens of other offspring (and actual code girls now in their 90s) in the backrooms of the world’s largest library to march in a procession. We would hear testimonials and receive a (long-overdue) certificate honoring those women’s vital unheralded feats.

Broadcast live via YouTube, the March 22 ceremony during Women’s History Month was ably coordinated (like an uncertain wartime adventure) by the library’s Veterans History Project.

Guests descended from the heroines carried framed photos of our loved ones.

Author Mundy — gratified at such proof of her book’s impact — praised the code girls as the “hidden figures of the Greatest Generation.” She recounted new stories that reached her after release of the book (now in paperback).
Most were variations on how the former code girls were so fearful of violating secrecy that there were miscommunications among families. Many men, Mundy said smilingly, had assumed the women worked as secretaries.

Human-factor details were shared. The “government girls” recruited to Washington were “unchaperoned for the first time.” All remembered when the D.C. liquor stores closed.

Speaking for children of code girls was Bill Nye the Science Guy, the comedian and educator. Nye choked up at the memory of his late mother — who, I judged from her photo, resembled him. His wit returned in recalling his dad’s experience as a prisoner of war. Nye counseled, “If you get a chance to be a P.O.W., don’t do it.”

By prearrangement, family members presented library staff with envelopes containing donated letters.

The event prompted my sister Martha to dig out our mother’s unpublished memoir. As a college senior and language major in New Orleans, Mom received an Army Signal Corps letter inviting her to study cryptography. So she took a correspondence course, and by September 1943 was immersed in a “vague job” at Arlington Hall and living in a swampy barracks near Arlington Cemetery.

“My job involved learning Japanese so as to translate decoded cables — it was hard, boring, fascinating, and romantic all at once,” she wrote. “I was surrounded by men — my co-workers were Signal Corps inductees…Plenty of blind-date invitations were extended,” said this innocent. “We worked hard — five and a half day weeks, three shifts, but laughed and played a lot. We also drank a lot.”

My giddy feelings at the ceremony gave a taste of the way it must have felt, during World War II, to be thrown in with strangers from all over the country for a shared slice of history. That afternoon, we all then returned heartened to present-day life.

Alarms have sounded over the news that the fiscal 2020 budget for Arlington schools includes zero dollars for the popular Outdoor Lab.

Staff and advocates for that rural gem in Fauquier County are calling for a show of support to save the enclave that since 1967 has connected Arlington student field-trippers with true nature. Superintendent Pat Murphy feels pressure to cut $9 million in overall spending.

The Arlington Outdoor Education Association posted a website clock counting the seconds before the do-or-die budget hearing April 9.