1950s Pulp Fiction Covers

Paul Revere by NC Wyeth 1922

Paul Revere by NC Wyeth 1922

My Dad had high hopes when he was in school. He was inspired to be an illustrator by the works of NC Wyeth, Rockwell Kent, Arthur Rackham and other artists who were at the time considered great illustrators and great artists in their own rights.

When he graduated from Pratt after serving in WWII (see earlier posts pre 1960) he was excited to join the ranks of the great illustrators. He was determined to only take work that was painting or drawing.

After pounding the pavement for months trying to find work in New York City, he realized that he didn’t know anything practical about the illustration business. So to learn how to survive in NYC as an illustrator, he joined the Gail Phillips Illustration Studio in November 1947 (he’d apprenticed at another studio earlier that year but quit after three months when he’d learned all he could there).

At Gail Phillips he rented space and worked for commission on jobs that came through the owning business. It was tough to make any money there, but he put in the hours and learned everything he needed.

He went on to work at two more studios – the last one run by an agent where he could work independently but still use the facilities, including the photo studio where he hired models and did his own reference photographs. He had several models that he worked with over the years – women with the contemporary look that was in demand at the time.

Outdoor Life Magazine cover 1951 by Bernard Safran

This is my handsome Uncle Charlie posing for my Dad for the cover of Outdoor Life.

He eventually gave up the commercial studio space to work from home in order to save money.

He also needed a full time agent devoted to getting him paying work. So my mother managed to get fired from her illustration job at a publishing company, and became his agent, (figuring they’d make more money selling his art).

She went out 5 days a week to all the publishers in NYC with my Dad’s portfolio and smiled and chatted her way into getting him work.

Because she was friendly and didn’t take offense at rude behavior it was an easier job for her than it would be for my father – and since it wasn’t her work she was less inclined to take editor’s changes and criticisms personally; she could bring these comments back to my father and smooth the waters. She got him all sorts of illustration jobs including an entire children’s bible, full page work for magazines like Boy’s Life, and covers and interiors for literary books.

Bernie Safran in reference photo of cowboy

Bernie Safran in reference photo of cowboy. Here he’s using his childhood cap gun that was a beautiful replica of Tom Mix’s ivory handled silver gun.

But what he is perhaps best known for today by collectors are his pulp fiction covers.

For financial reasons, my mother became his model for many of the source photos he needed. He had already been using himself for most of the male figures he painted – occasionally calling on his handsome brother in law for a modelling job now and then.

My mother was also the set dresser and photographer’s assistant during these sessions. Props were bought when necessary like my Dad’s cowboy hat, but usually my parents used scarves of my mother’s and brooms or whatever they had at hand to represent the size and weight of whatever object had to be painted.

Bernie Safran with professional model in reference photo for Pulp Fiction cover

Bernie Safran with professional model in reference photo for Pulp Fiction cover

My Dad also kept a large image file on hand – clippings on all sorts of topics that he could use as reference material. I loved going through all those files when I was a kid – especially the one on horses that he kept for doing Westerns. (The files had to be trashed in the 80s due to mildew damage.)

He painted more than 40 pulp fiction covers during this time. It was relatively easy money – and he was good at it.

Croyden Publishing gave him the most jobs. He was able to capture just the right amount of sleeze but still keep it in the parameters of the current laws. For example, when he had to paint a woman with her shirt being ripped off, there were absolute limits to what could show and how it could be shown.

Indiscretions of A French Model by Bernard Safran, Croyden Publishing Co. oil on canvas board, 1953

My Dad was only paid $100.00 for this cover. You can see him in the foreground – the other guys were probably also himself, painted with different faces.
Indiscretions of A French Model by Bernard Safran, Croyden Publishing Co. oil on canvas board, 1953.

The publishing companies tried their best to work around these prohibitions and made my father revise some of the covers multiple times. They regularly demanded other changes too – in gestures (again circumventing the codes), in colors (fuschia is the most eye catching color on book stands) and in content.

Dealing with these myriad problems and changes gave my father an invaluable base of knowledge and self confidence to go forward – though the endless revisions drove him mad at the time.

He only made between $100 to $250 a cover. He knew the covers were trashy and not his best work, but he needed the money.

There are some covers where you can see he put a lot of effort in, and others that he obviously didn’t give a damn.

Backroad Motel, cover by Bernard Safran

My father is very clearly the guy in the green jacket (clearly to me) and probably the guy in the back too with some imaginative adjustments. The woman very likely was my mother foxed up.

But interestingly enough, his pulp covers of the 1950s are currently his hottest sellers at auction today…

…which I do find kind of sad given that his later works are so magnificent…

However, I say its all good. The more people who know the name Bernard Safran the better.


A Painful State of Mind

For years, I have been searching for a rational explanation for my father’s mental illness – looking for anything that might help me understand the painful state of mind that made him so paranoid of everyone but his closest family (see my blog post Paranoid Dreams).

Since I have no background in psychiatry I can’t pretend to be able to understand his mental state: was his illness biological – a family trait? or a response to his environment? an inability to cope with life’s challenges? or all the above?

So I go back over his life to find clues or perhaps signs of when this sickness began hoping to know him better.

Bernie in a sailor suit age 2, 1926

Bernie in a sailor suit age 2, 1926

One of the earliest things that I know of happening to him, is that he was in a bus accident when he was about two years old. I remember seeing the old newspaper clipping, yellowed and fragile, that showed him still in his seat by the smashed bus window; a toddler, hurt and slumped. The accident was such that he had a flattened part of his skull (on the rear right side) for the rest of his life. The injury was apparently bad enough that the City of New York paid damages to my father’s family – money that later paid for his college degree at Pratt Institute of Art.

My father also nearly died of pneumonia when he was very little. There were no antibiotics back then to save you from deadly infections (penicillin wasn’t discovered til 1928 and not commercially produced til the 1940s) so the family relied on practices they knew from the “old country”.

He told me the story of how a man came and put a mustard plaster on his chest that burned. The man also cupped his back – the practice of placing the rims of hot glass cups on the skin to create a searing suction that presumably pulled the infection out of the body and brought down the high fever. My father remembered the pain of these procedures vividly. He also remembered, when he finally pulled through, the absolute delight of eating a baked potato.

When my father would tell me stories about his childhood sometimes they were full of wild fun, like a Dead End Kids story – as when he and his buddy would sneak into the movies through the alley door, and then eat raw garlic to breathe on people to get them to move seats so they could have the good seats to themselves… or playing street hockey on roller skates and zooming down the middle of streets jumping pot holes…

Bernie Safran boxing on the roof, Brooklyn c 1934

Bernie (on the left) boxing on the roof with his best friend, Brooklyn c 1934

Sometimes the stories were dark and scary – he lived in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Murder Incorporated operated – one time he saw a store that had been shot up with dead men inside, another time he saw a man shot and dead in the gutter…  His best friend was the local bookie’s kid, so they hung around the pool hall, ran errands for the bookie, and watched the tough guys place bets and play pool.

Bernie and Harry Safran c 1929

Bernie and his father Harry Safran c 1929

But perhaps the most negative influence on him when he was a kid was his relationship to his parents.

He wrote in his personal papers about how much he “resented, despised and hated his father until he was in college and began to develop a better relationship with him”. All through his childhood his father said such things to little Bernie as “when you grow up you will support me” and “you don’t know what you have cost me” , “You are a coward” ” You will never amount to anything” and “You have it too good”.

My father  also wrote about his resentment of my grandfather being stingy and controlling of money –  but he became that same person as I grew up –  spanking me in front of my friends when I was about 7 because I spent ten cents at the movies that he hadn’t given me permission to spend (I never forgave him for that) or fighting with my mother because she spent $5 he hadn’t approved of for a lipstick…(me never forgiving him for that either).

My father also resented my grandfather’s “violent temper” and says in his papers that he never wanted to behave like that, especially because it was embarrassing to him when his father lost control in a rage – but he was the same way. He could be terrifying in his rage – his face turned a deep red and one eyebrow would go up and his eyes would blaze – a sure sign that things were really bad.

As for his mother, she belittled him and used to tell him that he was very stubborn and had no patience. She would try to make little Bernie feel guilty by saying things like: “I have failed. You don’t love me” (she was the ultimate Jewish Mamma, and Grand-Mamma too I might add). Though she often neglected my father’s care and left him to run wild, she indulged him with praise for his artistic endeavors which perhaps gave him the insecure need to be the center of attention.

Grad photo High School of Music and Art, 1939

Bernie’s Grad photo from the High School of Music and Art, 1939 age 15

She saw herself as a revolutionary and a suffering writer and felt burdened by her responsibilities and disappointed in her working class life. She believed that people were actively trying to squash her dreams and her success with her writing. According to my mother, by the time my mother had married my father, my grandmother resented and despised my grandfather (a long story) and didn’t let him speak at the dinner table – saying he was a peasant and beneath her.

She was promiscuous and carelessly (or defiantly) brought her lovers into the apartment while my grandfather was at work. More than once the kids met men who were “sick” and needed to lie down in her bed…one time when my father Bernie was about 14 he walked in and found his mother ‘in flagrante delicto’ and threw the man out…

Whether any of this had any influence on my father’s mental state – we’ll never know.

What we do know is that my father suffered from depression in the 1950s. My mother told me that after they were married and she was working as his agent in the illustration business, she’d come home to find my father sitting in the dark, brooding. She thought he was depressed because his work was unsatisfying and not bringing in much money despite the long late hours he put into it. Perhaps that was the cause of the depression… or perhaps – since it was just after WWII, he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his military service in Southeast Asia?

At any rate, he never sought help for his mental health, nor did my mother encourage him to get it. She never spoke of any of these problems to anyone – not even to her mother or sisters or best friends. She was his confidante and all his emotional support for their entire married life – she spent hours with him listening to and discussing his paranoid theories. She never tried to dissuade him from his beliefs or challenge him.

She told me once that to be a great artist you have to be very sensitive – more sensitive than other people, to be able to see and express things with raw emotion. She felt that life was just too hard for these people.She told me that she saw my father as a great artist and she felt it was her role to help him get through life so he could paint.

He had a few good years from 1957 to about 1962 when he was working at Time Magazine – he was happy, satisfied with his work, and enjoying money and fame. But even this came to an end in 1962 when he started to doubt the senior editorial staff at the magazine and to believe they were out to get him. By 1965 he was convinced there was a conspiracy to destroy him and from then til the end of his life in 1995 he believed he was continuously harassed and blacklisted by the corporation.

Bernard Safran, early 1960s

Bernard Safran, early 1960s

to be continued…

The Black Oil Medium

My father Bernard Safran grew tired of working as an illustrator in the 1950s – he gave the business ten years of his life after graduating from art school, but ultimately found the work unsatisfying and unprofitable.

Pulp covers by Bernard Safran

Two pulp fiction covers by my father Bernard Safran. Its likely he hired a model for the cover on the left. For the cover on the right – King of the Range – he posed for both men.

He had grown up on the great illustrators and thought that the business would be noble, but by the time he was in the business – it quickly lost its magic for him.

He cranked out work as fast as he had to to pay the bills, but it wasn’t work that he necessarily felt good about. He did it all including illustrations for an entire children’s bible, pictures for magazines like Outdoor Life and Boy’s Life, a billboard for beer (and I’d like to point out Jackson Pollock painted billboards), and many pulp fiction covers and books. Though he didn’t like the work – he said that at least it had made him disciplined.

Harry Safran by Bernard Safran, 1956 oil on illustration board

To practice capturing the character of a sitter quickly he let it be known in Brooklyn that he’d do a 15 minute oil sketch portrait from life for $25. This one is of my Grandfather.
Harry Safran by Bernard Safran, 1956 oil on illustration board

In 1956 he had enough savings to take 6 months off to rethink what he wanted to do as an artist. He felt he needed to refine his skills and refine “his eye” so he went to study the works of the Old Masters in the museums of New York City.  In addition to his studies he did a lot of plein air painting of landscapes and quick portraits to free up his brush stroke and learn to understand and capture the essence of his subject quickly.

He read everything he could find about the Old Masters and their lives and techniques including Vasari and other historical writers, and discovered a book by Jacques Maroger the former head of restoration at the Louvre in Paris who had written a book on just that subject. Maroger claimed that he had rediscovered the materials and methods of the Old Masters from years of working with their paintings in the labs of the Louvre. His book outlines his specific recipes for the oil mediums that he believed painters used to mix with color pigments to create paints. There are also recipes for the varnishes used to seal the paintings (and to provide shiny surfaces) and instructions for preparing boards and canvases with gesso.

Copy by Bernard Safran,1960, oil on illustration board 20" x 20.5 "Atalanta and Meleager by Rubens

Copy by Bernard Safran,1960, oil on illustration board 20″ x 20.5 “
Atalanta and Meleager by Rubens

My father cooked up all the recipes in the book and experimented with them to find which he liked best. He learned to use the preparations step by step and found that the black oil medium provided him with a versatile and satisfying product with which he could reproduce the brilliant color and sheer glazes of the Old Masters. This was a revelation to him. The medium gave him the freedom to build layers of pure pigment through which the light danced – creating paintings with clear color and depth.

He took this new method and began copying the Old Masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It felt like he was seeing the masterpieces anew – he was not trying to make exact copies, but trying to deconstruct the methodology and character of the work so he could learn from the greatest painters.

Betty age 2.75 by Bernard Safran, 1962 oil on masonite

If you look closely at this painting you can see how my father worked the paint: using opaque whites and sheer darks to create the illusion of form in 2D. You can also see how the gessoed board was streaked in grey – techniques my father learned from Rubens.
Betty age 2.75 by Bernard Safran, 1962, oil on masonite, 18″ x 24″

He copied Rembrandt, Rubens, Velasquez, Titian and many others. Rubens’ paintings were the most magnificent to him – not so much the over the top subject matter with masses of pink flesh (though Rubens’ use of composition with these voluptuous figures was brilliant) but because of the way Rubens laid in the paint, and the lasting brilliant freshness of his works even after hundreds of years.

My father continued studying the art of the great painters for the rest of his life, especially when he felt he needed to refresh himself or to expand his knowledge.

Seated Nude (rear view) By Bernard Safran, 1983 revised 1994 oil on masonite

This detail shows how my father continued to apply the fundamentals he’d learned from the Old Masters throughout his career. With this example you can see similarities with the above portrait of Betty Age 2.75 pertaining to the use of opaque whites and sheer darks to create form.
This painting, however, shows his more mature style; you can feel the mass and warmth of the figure through the more densely and confidently applied paint.
Seated Nude (rear view), detail, by Bernard Safran, 1983 revised 1994 oil on masonite
(click on image to see 1 x1 view)

Like any great master – whether their profession is figure skating or piano or painting or martial arts – to make something appear effortless is the work of someone who knows intuitively, after years of studying the grounding principles of their chosen field, how to express themselves with confidence and ease of execution.

You can see development and changes in my father’s work through his lifetime, but the basic fundamentals of his approach with paint stayed much the same.

A note of caution – the Paintings Conservator I work with has told me that the Maroger method is not fool proof and many in the conservation field do not believe it is an authentic or successful process – within my father’s collection the paintings that were painted with very sheer glazes are stable; whereas the paintings that are very thick are very unstable.

For those of you interested in more detailed information about my father’s methods and his personal philosophy towards art, I will be writing more in upcoming posts.

Paranoid Dreams

This is a subject that I have resisted writing about for a long time but it will inform many further posts so I have to address it sooner or later…

Bernard Safran November 1965

Bernard Safran, November 1965.

It wasn’t clear to me for most of my life that my father suffered from a devastating mental illness til a few years ago when I took out my father’s personal journals after his death, and found meticulous entries recording the time and location of a neighbor in Bronxville, NY who went out twice a day to walk his dog. Since this neighbor lived down our street he would have to go past our house in one direction or down to a major road in the other – so naturally he went by our house frequently.

My father interpreted this as the neighbor spying on him, and every time the dog would defecate on our property my father took it as a personal threat and act of intimidation. The pages are manic in their details and start a few months before we finally left New York forever. Included are entries about his suspicions about the real estate agents and the people looking at the house for purchase. It is a wonder that the house ever sold.

1962 The Safrans (and family friend) about to leave the US

This is us in 1962 on the dock by our ship saying goodbye to my mother’s best friend in New York. My Dad is holding me – I’m in my pretty pink coat. Europe here we come!

His paranoia first became evident early in my life when I was just 2 years old. In the first few months of 1962 he received a paltry number of cover assignments and when some months passed without any work my parents decided to go away on a long trip to Europe. (He had signed on exclusively with Time in 1957 so this was his only source of income).

Our trip to Europe in the fall of 1962 was thus inspired because my father believed that the senior editors at Time Magazine were playing games with him due to his immense popularity – he believed they were teaching him a lesson to put him in his place.

One of the reasons we went to the Italian city of Florence was that my father wanted to study the art masterpieces there. Despite his best efforts he couldn’t get permission to copy paintings at the galleries even though many other artists were there doing just that. He believed Time had intervened – that somehow they were following him and influencing the Italian authorities. He grew so frantic about this that we were packed up and went instead to Munich, Germany so he could go see the Rubens paintings there.

My sister became very sick in Germany and we had to suddenly fly home. When we got back to Bronxville, it turned out that Time had been trying to get in touch to offer my father the 1963 Man of the Year cover of Pope John XXIII – a major and illustrious assignment. He felt tremendous relief when he got this – but when he later found that his painting had been severely damaged (deep long grooves slashed into the paint at the Time offices) he felt desperate again. Why had they done this?

By 1965, when my father left Time Magazine, he had formed a conspiracy in his mind about the men at Time. His story was that he had insulted Henry Luce Jr at a late night gathering and Luce fired him on the spot…. then blacklisted him, and set up a siege of intimidation and spying that lasted til the end of my father’s life.

Betty Safran c 1967

A not so happy Betty circa 1967.

From 1965 on my father’s behavior became extreme and a black cloud descended on our house. Everything the neighbors did was evidence that they were spying on us. Every job that fell through was evidence that he was blacklisted. Every wrong call, every crackle and click on the phone was evidence that our line was tapped. Every time I came home from a friend’s house I was interrogated – I was literally held at arms length and asked probing questions about what my friend’s parents said or did. By Grade 4, when my best friend moved away to Florida, I had no friends outside school. I spent most of my free time with my Nanny next door.

The paranoia followed us to Canada too. It must have driven him mad that we had a country party line and our neighbors could literally listen in to our phone conversations (we could too if we were interested in who’s cow had calved, and how their potatoes were coming and other country news). Time Magazine remained the puppet master in his mind – this time working through the art department and administration of Mount Allison University. I avoided going to the art school but was still regularly questioned since I knew other professors at Mount Allison who knew other people, and so on, and so on, and so on…Eventually I left the Maritime provinces to get as far away as I could – but it still continued.

Since I grew up with all of this it was especially hard for me to look objectively from the outside – much of what I accepted while I was growing up really seemed to be happening at the time. There is still a part of me that wants to believe he wasn’t paranoid and that we were spied on and he was blacklisted and his career destroyed for vengeance…

There were many sad outcomes from this sickness – the worst being that my father destroyed his career  – he trusted no one and in the end refused to show his work or even sell it. Though he had modest success and recognition in Eastern Canada – it was never at the level he should have achieved – he just burned too many bridges and closed too many doors.

Adele Makes a Book: Part II

Adele Safran's book of poems, front page c 1967

Adele Safran’s book of poems, front page c 1967

The first book that my mother made by hand was a book of poems.

My Mom’s work room was in the basement of our house. The stairs down to the basement divided the space in equal parts. On the left was a card table that my mother used to do all her work; on the right by the furnace was where my father had a darkroom set up. The rest of the basement was for drying laundry and storing the usual tools and things.

My mother was very patient with me. I used to go down and hang around her while she did whatever she was doing. And when she was doing calligraphy I must have really tried her patience… one distraction and an entire page could be ruined – and I am sure I was enough of a distraction to destroy many pages…

Mom I'm bored, Betty Safran with little braids and bows

Mom I’m bored…. I’m told that I bounced and danced everywhere, a bad combination when someone is trying to do calligraphy on a shaky card table. It must have been exquisitely hard for my Mom not to yell at me.

… moving the table as she worked, leaning in to see what she was doing (my nose under her nose), playing around with her linoleum tools and calligraphy pens.

She never yelled at me, but would patiently ask me to leave if I was too much. More often she’d give me something to do along side her or in my room so that I would be engaged and quiet(er). She even let me use the super sharp cutting tools to make my own linoleum cuts on small scraps.

Mom used our Betsy McCall Designer light table to do her calligraphy (it was meant for designing paper doll clothes). She’d tape a darkly lined paper onto the area that lit up, and then place her good paper over top so that she could see the lines through it and make her words and sentences straight.

She made three copies of the book all by hand: one for my grandmother, one for my sister and one for me. That meant she had to copy out three exact pages for each poem. (3 times the difficulty of doing it when I was around – no doubt she worked most of the time when I was at school.)


She illustrated every poem with a unique lino cut. I had my favorite pictures when I was a kid, and obviously my favorite poems.


I was less inclined to like the poems about death and sadness – but the book wasn’t meant to be a child’s book – it was meant to be cherished throughout my life.


And I do cherish it.

Adele makes a book: Part I

My mother Adele had a spirited and fearless appetite for learning. She approached everything in life with zest and when she set her mind to it she could do just about anything…she was an inspiration to me.

Adele Safran painting in the garden

Here’s my Mom painting in the garden at her small easel, wearing her big straw beach hat and standing in her flip flops. She was first and foremost a painter.

When I was little and she was busy rearing us kids, she pursued a variety of creative interests. It was during this time that she decided to learn calligraphy, print making (with linoleum cuts), and book binding.

She started by teaching herself all about calligraphy.

Adele Safran's books on Medieval manuscripts and calligraphy pen nibs

A couple of my mother’s books about Medieval manuscripts, and some of the pen nibs she used for making her own manuscripts.

She studied Medieval illuminated manuscripts, and different handwritten alphabets until she found a style that she could make her own.

In the beginning I remember she used feathers to make her pens – I think they must have been goose feathers – they were big and sturdy and white. She cut the tip of the feather at the exact angle for it to fill with ink and to make it form the right width of line as she wrote out text. Eventually she started using a pen that had interchangeable nibs. The pen was easier to use than feathers, but it was still a very difficult thing to do properly.

It took a lot of practicing to get the right style so that she could form the letters without thinking too much. The letters needed to look even and balanced and have a visual rhythm to them.

Some of Adele's books, materials and tools for bookbinding

Some of Adele’s books, materials and tools for bookbinding

It wasn’t enough for her to just learn calligraphy – she also learned how to bind the pages she made into books.

She decided to make a book of her favorite poems – and to make three copies of it by hand; one for my grandmother, one for my sister, and one for me (more on this book in an upcoming post).

To illustrate the book she made a different linoleum cut for each poem.

Linoleum mounted on a block of wood, two cutting tools, and a sharpening stone

Two of Adele’s linoleum cuts for her book of poetry and two cutting tools, one plain mounted piece of linoleum and a sharpening stone.
Like many print making processes – its the area that you don’t carve away that will pick up the ink and make the final design you see on paper. The prints will be the opposite of how they appear here (light will be dark; dark will be light).

She printed each picture by hand, using a large smooth spoon to rub the ink from the lino block onto paper. (She later bought an etchings press and a font of type to use for making other books).

One of our neighbors in Bronxville was Mr. Valenti Angelo. Mr. Angelo was a famous artist, book illustrator and author and he helped my mother learn how to make and bind books; it was very generous of him.

My mother took me to Mr. Angelo’s house on several occasions. Mrs. Angelo would make tea or lemonade and we’d sit and visit for a few minutes in the garden or the living room before going upstairs to his studio where he kept his printing presses and his beautiful paintings.

Valenti Angelo by Bernard Safran 1968

This is a portrait of Mr. Angelo that my father did in 1968. My parents used to say that Mr. Angelo had a fine head – meaning that he had great character and personality, and that he was a handsome man.

He would let me look at books that he’d written and illustrated while he talked to my mother. I remember liking his children’s book Nino so much that he gave me a copy.

Nino by Valenti Angelo

Art in Service

In my previous post I wrote about how my parents met at art school in 1942 and that soon after my Dad was drafted into the military in 1943. My father served in the US Army Engineer Corps (the Engineer Aviation Battalion 1891st) till the end of WWII *.

Postcard from Bernie Safran 1943Throughout those years my parents wrote to each other and sent photos back and forth.

Here is a postcard dating from April 1943 that my dad Bernie sent to my mother Adele from the Base Unit at Geiger Field in Washington State. He was being moved with the troops across the country to Los Angeles from where he would ship to India, then on to Burma, and finally to China. (The message on the card was about their stop in Chicago and how great the USO was there.)

You can see he doodled all over the card.

I’ve only found one surviving letter from the time my Dad was overseas – I know that my parents destroyed the other letters because they wanted to keep their secrets to themselves.

This letter has drawings all over it just like the postcard.Bernard Safran letter from Basic Training 1943  It’s an early letter and not a very personal one (which is probably why it survives from a scrapbook I used to look at all the time when I was a kid). It recounts my father’s experiences in basic training to my mother.

Since my Dad was an artist he continued to work at his drawing throughout his service in the War. He drew on whatever paper he could find, and he drew whenever he had the time.

There are several beautiful small drawings of his friends and colleagues among my father’s papers.

 Bernard Safran, Library, pencil drawing, 7" x 5", March 1944

Bernard Safran, Library, pencil drawing, 7″ x 5″, March 1944

And there are quite a few fully completed, surreal drawings from then too. They seem to be created from his stream of consciousness…

Bernard Safran, Chess Game, pencil drawing on airmail paper, 9" x6", WWII

Bernard Safran, Chess Game, pencil on paper, 9″ x 6″, WWII.
(the paper has yellowed and become spotted from moisture over time)

Bernard Safran, color pencil drawing on paper, 7.75" x 5", WWII

Bernard Safran, color pencil drawing on paper, 7.75″ x 5″, untitled (it was pasted into a scrapbook in the 1940s)

Some depict clear themes, while others conjure fantasies or nightmares. Many of them are disturbing – which is not surprising given he was in the middle of a terrible war.

These drawings have never been shown, as far as I know, to anyone beyond immediate family.

Bernard Safran, Pen and Ink drawing on sheer paper 6.5" x4.5", untitled

Bernard Safran, pen and ink drawing on sheer paper 6.5″ x4.5″, untitled

My father often reminisced about his war years, but he would never tell me about the darker side of being a soldier. In my righteous teenage years, I interpreted this to mean that he enjoyed the whole war experience – and this offended me. My mother explained to me then, that just the opposite was true – it had been an awful time for him, but he was proud to have served and felt it was something he had to do.

Then she further explained that he served during his late teens and early 20s – a time that most people feel nostalgic for, simply because they are young and life is still an adventure. Certainly being in China, Burma and India was an adventure – this I could understand, and this helped me understand my father better.

Another time my mother told me that though my father had army buddies who kept in touch through Christmas Cards and letters over the years, he mostly avoided the company of the men he had to camp with.

Bernie with Dog WWII

Bernie Safran with a dog, WWII. My father, like many soldiers, looked for happiness in small things during the war.

Conditions at all the bases were primitive, to say the least. They camped in tents in the jungle and were overrun with venomous snakes like pythons and cobras, and other wild creatures. The heat and humidity were oppressive and foot rot and mildew were ever present. The food was horrendous, and there were endless Allied plane crashes on the airstrips too. All of this and the constant threat of enemy fire made life a living hell.

My father was always a loner, and preferred the company of a few like-minded individuals to the comradeship of a larger group. So he spent a lot of time in his tent, at the base library, or at the service club when he could.

C-47-flying-the-Hump WWII by R G Smith

An amazing painting by R G Smith called Over the Hump, Douglas C-47. To see more spectacular aviation paintings visit http://www.rgsmithart.com

One of the things he remembered fondly from the War was the experience of flying The Hump from India to China over the Himalayas. He spoke about the solitude and sheer beauty of the mountains and the endless jungles that they crossed.

The Hump, map by Zaur Eylanbekov from: Air Force Magazine Oct 2009

The Low Hump route over the southern end of the range was less perilous, but Japanese fighters forced most missions over the main Hump—including the 15,000-foot-high Sansung range between the Salween and Mekong rivers.(Staff map by Zaur Eylanbekov) from: Air Force Magazine Oct 2009, by John T Correll

It was only recently that I read about The Hump. I found out that it was extremely dangerous and some historians estimate that nearly 700 planes went down during this mission, never to be found. I’m not sure how many times my Dad went on the run but he told me that he went whenever the opportunity arose.

When I had the honor to go with my father inside a Canadian war plane (on a hangar in a museum – not in flight) similar to the C-47s my father flew in – I could easily imagine the experience of being a young person overwhelmed with life in war time and the freedom of standing some thousands of feet above the earth hanging onto the frame of the open door with nothing between you and the clouds.

Battalion leather patch WWII

*Campaigns: India-Burma, China Defensive, China Offensive