Marcels letters, p.5

Marcel's Letters, page 5


Marcel's Letters

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  At the end of the day, I hailed a cab to take me back to my hotel. I asked the driver if he would take me through Times Square. I wanted to see the lights and frenzy. The request would have only created a slight detour, and I told him I was willing to pay for any inconvenience it might cause.

  “No, hon,” the driver said with a brusque, condescending laugh that made me feel like I had asked for a detour through Maine.

  That night, as I drifted to sleep listening again to the thunk-thunk of vehicles driving over the manhole cover on the street below, I would never have been able to guess it would be the font based on Marcel’s writing that would bring me back to New York City.

  Or that Aaron and I would stay at a hotel one block off of Times Square.

  Hours after Aaron picked me up at the airport, I began slowly and methodically transferring individual outlines from Illustrator into my new font file. I carefully aligned each glyph to the baseline, then positioned the left and right side bearings as James had taught us. The first time I typed a letter on the keyboard and watched the same letter appear in the Preview Panel, I nearly jumped out of my chair with joy.

  Once most letters had been transferred into FontLab, I yelled for Aaron.

  “Look! Look!” I said, pointing at my monitor.

  I pecked out Aaron’s name, looking to confirm each letter appeared when it was supposed to.

  “Gimme a word!” I commanded after clearing the Preview Panel. I held my fingers above the keyboard like a pianist waiting to strike an opening chord. “Gimme a word,” I repeated.

  “Yippee.” Aaron’s voice dripped with sarcasm.

  I typed Y-i-p-p-e-e. I hadn’t created the uppercase Y yet, so it appeared as “ippee.”

  I swiveled to Aaron. He seemed to be trying to figure out how to gently break the news the font was not working. I stole a glance back at the monitor, then looked at Aaron.

  “I haven’t done the Y yet,” I explained as I jumped up, wiggled my shoulders, and swiveled my hips. Aaron rolled his eyes. He hated my Happy Dance.

  Within weeks, every bit of buoyant enthusiasm drained away. FontLab had an audit feature that checked each glyph for problems such as incorrect line intersections, almost-but-not-quite-straight lines, overly complex lines, and myriad shape errors. When I toggled the audit feature on, I was sickened to realize the software did not allow all the tiny details I had meticulously labored over. Each and every glyph was hidden under a multi-layer cloud of red error flags. Some errors could be fixed with the click of a mouse, but most required careful revision. If I did not pay attention, gentle curves might bulge or flatten; converging lines might become parallel. As I watched hundreds, then thousands, of details disappear, I berated myself for all the wasted time and for having naïvely believed I would be able to effortlessly transfer the outlines from Illustrator to FontLab and be done.

  Other issues arose, too: incorrect PostScript path directions, reversed and open contours, ghost points. Had I been aware of all the issues and problems, I would have tackled them with a methodical plan, but problems revealed themselves one at a time, which resulted in a frustrating merry-go-round of revisions that devoured evenings and weekends.

  “Think of letters like bricks in a building,” design professor and type designer Craig Eliason explained once at a typography lecture. “Every brick needs to fit perfectly with every other brick. It’s the same thing with letters; they have to be designed so no matter what word you type, no matter what letters are in that word, every letter fits with every other letter.”

  I had always remembered that comparison because it was such a beautifully simple way to explain the complexity of type design.

  As I began testing the font, it did not take long to see that the lead-in and lead-out strokes—the tiny sweeping lines in a script font that connect one glyph with the next—needed additional refinement. More months elapsed standardizing the angle, size, and position of each sweeping line. I did not understand this then, but those lead-in and lead-out strokes were the trickiest thing about designing a connected script font. In fact, those tiny strokes were the difference between success and failure. And in true form, it would be years before I learned a trick to make it easy.

  The first official test prints included an alphabetical list of animals: “Aardvark,” “Armadillo,” “Baboon,” “Butterfly,” “Chimpanzee,” “Chickadee” … After animals, I moved on to lists of food, then names of famous people, then cities and states. Other times I tested random words: “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Gerrymandering,” “Jabberwocky,” “Scrumpdillyicious.” After generating each new test print, I covered each page with red-pen notes on curves that required smoothing, strokes that needed narrowing or fattening, or lead-in or lead-out strokes that needed additional adjustment.

  By that time, Marcel’s handwritten letters had been pressed flat inside the front cover of the sketchbook for years. All of those tiny revisions to shape, proportion, and angle meant the font still retained the essential character of Marcel’s handwriting, but it had evolved into something that existed on its own. The custom mix included a thousand parts Marcel’s writing, and a thousand other tweaks and revisions.

  As maddening as it could be to make round after round of revisions, there was also something wickedly addictive about the work. Sometimes I would completely lose track of time and work until the wee morning hours. Designing type, I ultimately found, was more satisfying than calligraphy ever had been. Designing type turned out to be the ideal solution for the girl who lamented her Ken Brown chisel-tip markers did not have precise edges, because I could revise and refine each line and curve until it looked exactly the way I wanted it to look.

  Time spent designing type also provided a bewitching liberation from client work. During business hours, a client’s lawyer might dictate the type size of a disclaimer. Clients might debate whether a statistic should include one or two numbers after a decimal point. Engineers might revise a product schematic over and over. With the font, I made every decision: not a lawyer, not an engineer. My opinion was the only one that mattered.

  Individual glyphs remained true to the character of Marcel’s writing—albeit with less textural detail and a thousand other revisions—but when I scrutinized long passages of text, something was off. I printed page after page before identifying what was wrong with the font: all the letters were incrementally too close to each other.

  Unlike serif or sans serif fonts where individual glyphs do not touch, changing the width of a connected script font meant every single glyph had to be adjusted twice. First I had to adjust the lead-in stroke on the left. Then I had to adjust the lead-out stroke on the right. The amount of work required to fix the problem felt insurmountable, and I contemplated giving up on the project altogether.

  The test prints taped to my office wall were taken down.

  I did not work on the font for months.

  But the loops and swirls of Marcel’s writing were never out of mind.

  Every couple of months Kathy and I met for lunch. Sometimes it would be an official business lunch where we discussed a project she hired me to design. Other times we met to chat about design industry issues, books, or world events. She adored Aaron and always inquired about his latest culinary creations. Inevitably, we would talk about whatever grand adventure Kathy was planning next: kayaking around the Dalmatian Islands or bicycling across southern France.

  “Can I show you something?” I had presented enough design concepts to Kathy over the decade I had known her to be able to read her reaction. I drew in a long breath before handing over a page with letters a through z and line after line of animal names. I proffered an apology: “It’s a work in progress.”

  It had taken months to fix the issue of the font looking too condensed, but in the end, I was glad I had not given up.

  “This is gorgeous!” Kathy said as her eyes widened. She drew circles in the air above glyphs she particularly liked. “How do you know how to do this?”

  “I do
n’t.” When she looked at me, I shrugged and added, “I’m figuring it out as I go.”

  Fewer than twenty people knew about the font. Aaron, and now Kathy, were the only ones who had seen it. I had stopped telling non-type people about the project because I usually received one of these questions: “You’re designing a what?” “Doesn’t Word already come with the fonts I need?” “People buy fonts?” “What do you mean you’ve been working on the font for five/seven/nine years?” And my favorite: a blank look, followed by someone’s head slowly tilting to the side, their eyebrows crunching together, followed by one word: “Why?”

  Type people—my people—understood what I was doing. Most were fellow graphic designers who took pride in matching the right typeface to the project at hand. They might use a scrolled font with extreme thicks and thins on an article on peonies, a hand-drawn font on packaging for artisan chocolates, a modern sans serif on a state-of-the-art medical device brochure. Type people understood the allure of a beautiful typeface. They never asked why.

  I showed Kathy alternate versions of glyphs. The M, A, and H existed both as fancy swash versions and as space-saving alternates. J’s and 7’s existed with and without crossbars. A decorative St. abbreviation existed for Saint. A zz ligature existed for when anyone might type the word “pizza,” “blizzard,” or “dizzy.” A European-style 1 existed where the lead-in stroke swept upward from the baseline.

  As the months went by, Kathy turned into the font’s biggest cheerleader. She always inquired how it was progressing. Each time I confidently told her it was almost complete.

  The reality was I did not have any concept of how much work remained.

  I had been trying to perfect the upper left-hand corner of the J for days. The shape of the J was similar to the J in John Hancock’s famous signature, though instead of having an inward bow on the stroke that hung below the horizontal arm, my J—Marcel’s J—bowed outward. The bow did not look correct, though I had been unable to figure out why.

  I had tried dozens of tweaks and revisions: adding weight to the left, straightening the curve on the right, deepening the bend at the top, straightening the left side, rounding the end. But the shape still was not right. The minuscule refinements would be imperceptible if someone used the font at a small size. But at a large size, flaws would be unbearable, so I had to solve the J.

  I tried a few more adjustments: shortening the bar along the top, increasing the angle, thinning out the arm. I glanced at the clock; hours had elapsed. Aaron had gone to bed long ago. It was time to put it away and try again tomorrow.

  When I stepped into the bedroom, I bent down to rub the crest of Hoover’s head.

  “Sweet boy,” I whispered. Hoover opened his eyes, but he did not move. His frosted jowls remained puddled on the floor. For a decade, Hoover had slept on the bed with us. Aaron slept on the left, Hoover slept on the right, and I nestled into the channel of warmth between their two bodies. But Hoover had not slept with us for months. The jump, we guessed, hurt his aging back or legs.

  The following evening, I printed out the J, put tracing paper over it, and drew shapes freehand as we had in Professor DeHoff’s class. Even though I had been working in FontLab for two and a half years, I still struggled to get the results I wanted. I hoped sketching freehand would help me figure out what was wrong.

  The hand-drawn shapes were better, but they still were not right. I was frustrated and tired. I let out a long sigh.

  It occurred to me to look at Marcel’s original handwritten letters. Maybe the originals will show me where one—or one hundred—of the thousand revisions led me astray.

  It took a moment to find the sketchbook among the business books, design annuals, color reference guides, and supplies that filled the closet shelves. I flipped open the sketchbook’s front cover, and there they were—the four letters and the postcard—pressed flat alongside the Valentine’s Day poem, the legal filing, the bank receipt, the wedding invitation with the nesting dove.

  I removed Marcel’s letters, and as I returned to my desk, I skimmed the handwriting for a J. When I found one, the answer was clear: the outward bow needed to be higher up. I set the letters on the desk, slumped into my chair, and swiveled to my computer, filled with hope that in another hour or so the J would finally be solved.

  Marcel’s letters lay on the desk, silent and infinitely patient. The next morning, I would pick them up, and as the bright morning sunlight flooded through my office window, I would be reminded of the paper’s beauty, the brackish ink, the blue and red stripes, the Hitler stamps, the odd little swastika.

  In less than a day, I would decide to have the first letter translated.

  Chapter Five

  White Bear Lake, Minnesota

  October 2011

  “What do you know about World War II history?” The evening news droned on in the background as Aaron and I ate dinner. “French World War II history,” I clarified.

  Aaron’s blank expression changed to a smirk and he rattled off one of his favorite jokes: “You can buy French rifles cheap; only been dropped once.”

  “Not nice,” I said with an eye roll.

  After a few moments of silence, his bearing turned somber. “I know some of the bloodiest battles were in France.”

  Aaron outlined what he recalled about the political and economic conditions that gave rise to the Third Reich, then he listed some of World War II’s major military campaigns. I had not had a history class since high school, and for the most part, his recollections overlapped with what I had been able to shake loose from my memory. Beyond the D-Day landings in Normandy, and France’s division into occupied and unoccupied zones, neither of us could recall much about French World War II history.

  During the previous weeks—after realizing my Marcel might not have perished at Ravensbrück—I resumed a search for answers. But as I stumbled over locations, names, and terms, the need for a history refresher became painfully apparent. My goal was not to become an expert in French World War II history. I only wanted to learn enough to know where to look for information on Marcel.

  After washing dinner dishes, I curled into the couch, cocooning myself in an afghan my grandmother crocheted for me when I was a teen. The bold zigzag pattern and bright rainbow-colored yarn clashed with our forest green couch and the muted colors in our home. Still, it was my favorite. I pulled my laptop close and began to read.

  In early 1938, Germany annexed Austria. The following year they annexed Czechoslovakia, then invaded Poland. In May 1940, Germany launched a full-scale invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium, then of France. French and British forces fought back, but were overwhelmed by the Germans’ tactical superiority. Many soldiers retreated; others tenaciously dug in. In mid-June, just days before France’s surrender, vicious battles raged in the countryside southwest of Paris. Two French Senegalese regiments were decimated in the fields and forests surrounding Berchères-la-Maingot.

  After the armistice was signed, France was divided. The eastern region of Alsace-Lorraine was annexed by Germany, and the far northern departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais fell under Brussels-based German military rule. A new French government—the Vichy regime—governed France’s southern “unoccupied” zone. The northern and western “occupied” zones were also governed by the Vichy regime, though in those regions officials and citizens were subject to strict military rules, and Germany exercised all rights of an occupying power.

  French resources were plundered. Horses and machines were loaded onto trains and sent to Germany. Thousands of pigs and cows, tons of wheat, twelve million bottles of Champagne, and the entire 1940 Bordeaux grape harvest were sent east, too. Meanwhile, French civilians faced dire rationing of food and fuel. The amount of food civilians could procure with government-provided vouchers was “barely enough to support life,” and people were forced to the black market to acquire staples such as milk, butter, and cooking oil. Other items—cheese, chicken, soap—were simply unavailable.

mid-1942—six months before Marcel wrote the letter to his daughters—twenty thousand Jews had been transported from France to Germany. My heart lurched. Had Marcel been deported because he was Jewish? As the war raged on, Jews in France were “hunted down” by Vichy’s paramilitary force. By the end of the war, more than seventy thousand Jews would be deported. Only a couple of thousand would survive.

  As I continued to read about resistance, deportation, deprivation, and the complexity of survival under German and Vichy rule, my head began to pound. The French fought against the Germans—then against each other. The situation seemed impossibly tangled, and I understood why neither of us had been able to recall our history lessons. One of the few things I thought I knew—that France had been cleaved into occupied and unoccupied zones—was only partially true. By late 1942, Germany occupied the entire country.

  Hours later, I slid my laptop onto the coffee table, stood, and stretched. I walked into our kitchen, and as I filled a glass with cool tap water, I peered out the window to our dark, peaceful street.

  Had Marcel been one of the 1.8 million French soldiers taken prisoner of war? Was that why he had been in Berlin? Most of those soldiers were transferred to camps in Germany. And many were forced to work to support Germany’s war industry despite that being a violation of the 1929 Geneva Conventions.

  Had Marcel, his wife, and his daughters been among the millions of Parisians who fled once they realized German troops were about to sweep into the city? Many Parisians evacuated to country homes or family farms, or stayed with distant relatives. Was that why they had been in Berchères-la-Maingot?

  Had Marcel mailed his letters from a concentration camp? Was that even possible? If he was Jewish, wouldn’t a postcard with an address on it lead authorities directly to his family?


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