Friday, May 27, 2011

Thinking of those who died in WWII

Memorial Day is coming, and graves will be decorated. But the longer we are from World War II, the fewer Americans remember it. My childhood memories are already dim although at the time our lives revolved around that war. Our days were darkened by knowledge that the war was going on. My mother could not sleep well at nights thinking about her older sister Mary’s sons fighting overseas. Daddy’s sister’s sons were also “over there,” and I am sure they worried just as much about them. Older cousins Dorothy and Kathleen had husbands fighting also, and Kathie lost her husband, and her mother had to tell her while she was still in the hospital after giving birth to their baby son.

The war started for me when I came home from visiting my special adult friend Mabel Perry, who had been my infrequent babysitter and whose mother did laundry and stretched lace curtains for many in the community. Somehow I would be invited and allowed to walk to Mabel’s house, a few blocks away, and I would always be entertained royally. Mable would tell wonderful spooky “true” tales that caused me to be scared, but Mother did not know that. Drinking out of her late father’s mustache cup was a special privilege. Her father had been a lawyer but had been dead many years and the family’s living was made in the wash house just a step away from the kitchen door. Later Mabel gave me the cup.

So it had been a typical happy Sunday afternoon for me when I walked into our house and was told about Pearl Harbor. I must have realized from my parents’ voices and the looks on their faces that this was a terrible thing. I only remember going from the living room into my sister and my bedroom and kneeling down and praying. I knew to be scared. I have no memory of what I thought or expressed to God, but praying in the middle of the day was not a normal thing for me to do. Something enormous had happened.

My parents had already planned a trip to El Paso to visit Daddy’s sister Myrtle and husband William Ball as our one-time Christmas celebration. It was decided to go ahead and carry out those plans, which was a good thing since gas and tire shortages would not allow traveling during the war years. We were not going to have a tree this year nor exchange the usual presents. However, since I was the youngest, I was given my last doll that year—my first “big” doll, which I am sure I had longed for. Our family of five took off as soon as school was out—my older sister Rosemary, brother Jim, me, and “the folks” as we often called Mother and Daddy. Christmas Day dinner was in a diner in Texarkana, and that seemed quite exotic at the time and was probably the only thing open. Eating in a restaurant was rare for us, and the folks always made things fun. The visit at El Paso was good but definitely over-shadowed by Aunt Myrtle and Uncle William’s knowledge that their sons were going to war. I remember the concern.

When we got back to Southern Illinois on the Sunday afternoon before school started the next day, my parents stopped on the Jonesboro Square to pick up their mail from the post office box inside the lobby. There a letter was waiting for my mother to start teaching the next day at the one-room Meisenheimer School, grades one through eight, where the young teacher had been drafted. As a married woman with children, my mother was not considered suitable to teach under ordinary circumstances. But overnight it became her patriotic duty to do so, and she did.

Mother not only taught, but she was responsible for picking up students in her 1937 Ford car, starting the fire in the school stove, and keeping the building clean. (I think she hired one of the older boys for part of this janitor work.)

I hated coming home from the school across the street to an empty house even though Daddy was in his office at my school and I was welcome to go up and see him if I needed to. I was supposed to go home and practice my piano. I did not like to practice anyway, and I would imagine burglers in the basement beneath me, so practice was probably often cut short.

Mother was soon home and had supper on the table by five since Daddy very often had to be back at the school before six. Daddy was the 8th grade teacher and principal; but with the war, he also became basketball coach since the coach was drafted. (At away games, he piled the players into that 37 Ford and was the “bus driver” also.) When our school had a day off and Mother’s did not, I was able to go with her to visit all day, and I loved that. Looking back, I am sure Mother’s teaching career made possible by the changing attitude that the war brought about was a very good thing for our family; but for a third grader, it was a difficult change.

However, in all honesty, I enjoyed most of the exciting things going on with the war— the community scrap drives that Daddy headed up with piles of metal in the school parking lot almost as high as the school building, the war stamps sold at school with our fourth grade class making a little stand with red, white, and blue decorations in the corner of our room, the big rallies where the pig King Neptune was auctioned off again and again to sell war bonds. (Yes, this really happened, and he was buried beside Route 146 with a tombstone and supposedly exhumed when I-57 disturbed his grave. You can see his tombstone now in the north rest stop of I-57 around the corner from Route 146.)

Patriotism permeated the society, and that made just being an American a special virtue to be enjoyed by us youngsters. I made a scrapbook of airplanes although I was not really interested in planes but it seemed patriotic. The main purpose of our two rival neighborhood clubs—the Busy Bees and the Junior Commandos—was to help win the war. We were on the alert and always on the lookout for German spies that we kept hearing about. (Both clubs together had only four regular kid members until we made up, united, and had a picnic with the Junior Commandos’ money contributed by adult friends.)

As the war continued, we outgrew the neighborhood clubs, and I became more aware of the sad side of the war. I knew the limitations of sugar, tire, and gas rationing,, but they were considered part of being patriotic and not sacrificial. I wrote notes to older cousins in service and knew my mother’s worry. I became aware of how many people went to the movies just in hopes of catching a glimpse of their son or brother in the news shorts, which were a part of every movie showing. A short story in The American Girl told of children in Holland having to hide out, and that story deeply affected me and helped me begin to understand that the war was terrible beyond the battlefields in other nations. I felt the grief for the loss of her husband by my cousin Kathleen, way out in California. By the time the war ended in 1945, I was going into the 7th grade and I had learned the horror of atom bombs and knew the world was changed with a threat that would never again allow tranquility even during times of peace.

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