Saturday, December 5, 2009

Portrait of an island

The climate and terrain of the Pacific Northwest was quite different from northern Minnesota. In my family there were no stories of any difficulty with the change in geography. Probably it was simply that the move had been made because Grandpa made the decision and in a typical patriarchal Scandinavian family, no one would have dared complain.

Until WWII changed life forever, Bainbridge Island was a rural, isolated, hideaway for people who valued their privacy and disconnection with larger comunities. The small shipyard, once a world-class sailing ship producer, even before December 7, 1941, had Navy contracts. Mainly they had been for repairs but as soon as the war needs surfaced, the yard won contracts to build Navy mine sweepers. If not for that, the Island may have remained invisible for many more decades. But as soon as WWII impacted employment across the country, the Island's population exploded with newcomers, probably all of them arived to work at the Island's shipyard. The war in fact was the driving force that caused the state of Washington to become a new pioneering destination. Locations such as the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, war factories and shipyards in Seattle, military installations around the Sound and on the eastern boundaries of the state, all needed civilian workers. On the Island, people commuted to and from by ferry boat.

The primary ferry route between the Island and Seattle then and now, takes about thirty five to forty five minutes. Until 1951 when a bridge was completed connecting the Island to the Olympic Peninsula, the only way to get off or on was by ferry - not the political, state-run system of today; instead it was the privately-owned Black Ball Ferry Line headed by the infamous, Captain Peabody. Infamous because in the Island's newspaper, the Captain was the target of Islander's frustration at being his captives - he was, after all, the keeper of the keys, the troll at the toll booth.

The Island measures nearly three miles wide by twelve miles long. It is lacey with roads, lanes, and paths. The weather is wet with rain, occasional heavy snow, and unpredictable sunshine. The skies are more often than not, silvery grey. When the sun shines, a depth-defying blue canopy envelopes the landscape. Mild temperatures and abundant water create perfect growing conditions for lush forests and spectacular gardens. The Island is a deep green jewel set in the sapphire-blue salt water of Puget Sound. Bounding the Sound to the east the sparkling city of Seattle hovers at the shore. To the west, south, and north, the Sound winds around more islands and touches forested land on all sides. The entrance to the Sound from the Pacific Ocean marks the boundary of northwestern Canada including Canada's magnificent Vancouver Island. The snow-frosted Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges guard to the east and west. It is among the world's lovliest locations.

Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest

Puget Sound's deep and secluded waters were perfect for world-class shipyards and in 1941, their proximity to the "Pacific theatre" (i.e. Japan, the Hawaiian islands, and the Phillipines) raised the status of the primitive Pacific Northwest to "Important." If WWII had not happened, I wonder how long it would have been before the surge of population would have occurred? No matter - it did and all is history.

At the urging of his new son-in-law, Grandpa had travelled without his family, to the island. No stories exist of his anxieties or questionings - who would dare to have chronicled any weaknesses or failings?

The Island's once small ship repair yard was bustling with Navy contracts for mine sweepers. That the Yard had been built by the Hall brothers and had once commanded a world-class shipyard building and repairing sailing ships, was early 20th century history. In 1941, "the Yard" was poised to change the Island's portrait, forever. To house tall sailing ships, there was a huge shed. It was one of the Island's icons before it was torn down to make way for progress. It had weathered black, Douglas Fir siding, and green asphalt roofing, and was big enough to shelter mine sweepers during their construction; no camouflage (like hid the airplane factories on the mainland) was needed. When they were poised for launching, the shed stood at the deep water's edge. It was perfect. Not as big as many but the workers there thought it was better than any other shipyard. Loyalty was fierce, palpable. It is difficult if not impossible, to put words to the patriotism, energy, and devotion that charged the Nation in those days. Perhaps never again will that kind-of-fire engulf our country.

Why so many "square heads?"

It must be the landscape - lush evergreen forests, year-around snow-capped mountains, sapphire-blue waters with the many fiord-like bays and inlets, and then the joys of fishing and lumbering that enticed so many Scandinavians to the Pacific Northwest. It certainly was the crowning instant that convinced my Grandfather to make the move from Minnesota. There of course was the cold, snowy winters but it was flat. In Grandpa's time, at first the iron fields were a financial boon. But the "Great Depression" took its toll on all those hard-working immigrants. The advent of World War II opened the doors once again to the "gold-paved streets of the Brave New World."

I may have mentioned before, the family scandal that preceded Grandpa's decision to "Go West, young man, go West." Grandpa's newest son-in-law, formerly his brother-in-law, urged him to hurry to the shipyard where (son-in-law) was Foreman. More work than Grandpa could imagine, awaited him. It did not take long for Grandpa to climb into the rafters of his garage to secret his bean-graftings and to instruct Grandma how to sell the Buhl house and pocket the cash for the remaining family's relocation.

There was no consideration of any psychological effects. What Grandpa said to do was what was law. No questions, no complaints, no discussion.

It was only coincidental that my family was part of a Scandinavian wave to the Pacific Northwest.

That's the way it was

The ones who did not stray from home during those war years experienced profound changes just as dramatic as happened to the ones who followed the call to work in the factories and shipyards of war. We know the boys and girls who marched off to battle were never the same. Neither was anyone else - those who travelled far from home or those who stayed in their homes. World War II has to be recognized as the single event of the twentieth century that cataclysmiscly changed the entire population of Earth. My family's story is typical. Where the war led us geographically, was a microcosm of what was happening all over America - both through the years of the conflagration and for the decade after. I believe this and it is why I have chosen to tell our story. Because to me, it is important to put a human voice to history. Mine is just another voice to add to the complexity of history's voices, facts, events, and statistics. The place we transitioned to, a little island in Puget Sound, by its very geography, offers almost a test tube of the effects on humanity during those pivotal years.

My grandfather left Buhl, Minnesota, months before his wife and children, and my mother and me began our voyage. As I said before, his son-in-law, Paul, was the instigator of Grandpa's move. Paul was a foreman in a little shipyard on an island about forty five minutes by ferry from Seattle. He was eager to gain Grandpa's approval because Paul had divorced Grandpa's sister, Edla, to marry Grandpa's first- born child, Evelyn. A family skeleton carefully secreted. I don't know what Grandpa actually felt about Paul and Ev - he never said a word and no one ever dared ask.

Grandpa was practical to a fault. His mission was to earn money and make up what the Depression had deprived. That was all there was to it as far as anyone in the family would ever have dreamed of thinking. Grandma too - she just sighed and stealithly slipped a cigarette from the pack of Camels that were always rectangularly outlined in her apron pocket, and did what was expected of her.

So Grandpa joined the throngs moving West. His destination was Bainbridge Island in the far northwest corner of the state of Washington. At that time Washington as were all the northwestern states, were sparsely populated. Because of the war, Washington's population more than doubled from 1940 to 1945. Shipyards big and small, dotted the waterfronts of Puget Sound. Seattle, the state's biggest city, boasted the headquarters of several major shipyards, airplane manufacturers, and all the related companies from tool and die makers to junk yards. The armed services all had important posts in Washington and Oregon; the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. The servicemen and women were a part of the population boom.

Grandpa set off in his Model T Ford and along the way, helped other motorists change blown tires, unplug radiators, gave numerous cars a shove to start - you know, get the vehicle moving and pop the clutch - , jump-start motors with a cable from one engine to another. Good thing Grandpa was a mechanic. In Montana, he exchanged some engine work for a good meal. Restaurants were far between. Hard to imagine now. But those years were BEFORE the owning of an automobile (even more than one)was a given; a car was a luxury for most Americans. So were telephones, electricity, refrigerators and stoves, even indoor plumbing for the rural population. Home freezers, automatic washers and dryers, and dozens of other appliances we take for granted, were still in the future for America's massive middle class.

My grandfather was typical of the patriarchs of probably the majority of American families and certainly of those with Scandinavian backgrounds. He was frugal to the point of being miserly. Banks were not-to-be-trusted, bankers were probably scam artists. Insurance was the epitome of thievery. Grandpa hoarded cash. Nothing was purchased unless the full price had been put aside in cash. So, when Grandma informed him the Buhl house had been sold, he instructed her to stash the cash on her person to bring it to him. As soon as the house was sold, Grandpa felt comfortable enough to commit to purchase a house in Port Madison. He did not choose Port Madison because it was, as it is today, a coveted place to live. He chose it because there he found a house that met his needs and was within his means to buy. The entire island at that time was an outpost, a rural place that no one in his right mind would want to live year-around. The house he bought was strictly utilitarian - it would be decades before a house would be a showplace for establishing a person's place in the world - as a testimony to one's success (read-wealth), creativity (read-magazine ready decorated), and intelligence (read-innovative technology). The house was better than the one in Buhl because Grandma got a wringer washer in the bargain (clothes still had to be dried on the clothesline outside or inside when the weather was not cooperative which was most of the time!). The kitchen was big enough for a table to seat the entire family for a meal. It did not have a formal dining room. It did have a proper parlor. It was two-story with four bedrooms on the top floor, the main floor had a parlor, the kitchen, the only bathroom, and a pantry just inside the back door. There was too, a sort-of basement - that is, a dirt-floored pantry and cold-storage space that was accessible only by carefully stepping down steep, narrow, wood stairs almost like a ladder.

That house may have been one of the houses built for the saw mill workers of Meigs Saw Mill which was a major industry in the early 1900's. Maybe today it would be historically interesting. But it burned down sometime after 1945. All that remains as it was than is the stand of cedar trees at the front of the property. There is a wire fence at the back that looks decidedly like the one in a photograph of my grandmother, sister, and me in late 1943. Except that now it is obscured by bushes and trees.

My family ended their journey half way across America to settle in a place quite similar to the one left behind. Except that WWII was poised to change the normality of everything!

Sorry to be redundant

The time between my postings is so long that I ask your patience if I repeat myself. Thanks.

The nation's soon-called "war machine" was already going at a feverish pace when Grandpa punched his first time card at "the Yard." President Roosevelt surely sensed mass-America would respond to his call to arms. The patriotic fervor that gripped the United States in late 1941 drew everyone into one big bundle of energy, focus, and determination. No enemy could attack us and get away with it.

So - to return to my story.

The Americans who journeyed from their homes to locations so different from where they had grown up certainly suffered a kind of "culture shock." For my family they left the prairies, mines, and fresh water lakes of Minnesota for an island surrounded by the salt waters of Puget Sound and craggy, snow-covered mountain ranges. I don't recall any stories about any effect their new geography might have had on family members. Such is the testament to the energy and excitement that propelled the nation then, and in our case, the Scandinavian culture of stoicism. I can only imagine my grandmother's fright as she boarded the ferry in Seattle for the cross-Sound trip to Bainbridge Island - she was terrified of water. It is even more surprising to me that in subsequent years she let us kids go off on our own to play on the beach and float on inner tubes day after after summer day in the waters of Eagle Harbor. There was no thought of pollution from ferries or any water-borne vessels. The Creosote plant that, more than forty years later was declared a super-pollution source, smoked away on the opposite shore from where we played. We avoided the sticky, tarry black stuff that dotted the driftwood but as children will be children, sometimes we played with it and sometimes there were accidents. Like the time a glob got stuck in my hair and had to be cut out. The pungent smell was ever-present and was as much a part of the landscape as the smell of the saltwater ecosystem. (By the way, I should mention Gramma was in charge of all the family's children; her own and her grandchildren because our parents were busy working.)

Grandpa purchased one of the old Meigs sawmill houses in Port Madison before the rest of the family arrived. It was a small, two-story place with four bedrooms on the second floor; two on each side of the central hallway. On the main floor there was the parlor, dining room, kitchen, pantry, and the only bathroom. There was no central heating system. In the parlor, which was not used often, a small wood-fired heater sat to one side. The kitchen was the hub of all action. The cookstove, also wood-fired, served many purposes. Of course it was where all the food was boiled, fried, baked, and roasted. It was the heat source for canning vegetables and fruits, simmering jams and jellies, for drying clothes when it was too wet and/or cold outside (in the Pacific NorthWest that is most of the time) and to warm the house. That is, in the winter. In the summer, it kept the house too warm. Just outside the back door, a wooden staircase led to a basement pantry. It was dirt-floored, damp, dark, and musty. Gramma nearly fell quite a few times as she hauled foodstuffs up and down the steep stairs.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Spring 1942; the silver Empire Builder, engine surging impatiently, stood ready to jump the starting line; Minneapolis/St. Paul. Just like the huge locomotive, the entire country was pulsating with energy, ready for action. War! War! Work for everyone. In fact more work than there were workers. For a country where the devastating depression years were still very fresh, full employment for anyone was heady, a headlong, new romance.

A woman, dressed in a light-colored, patterned dress, chunky shoes, and the requisite hat plopped on her short, curly hair, boarded the train. Two girls and a small boy, followed, ducklings in a row. They settled in their seats, looked around hesitantly, excited. Clearly, it was a family not used to traveling and certainly not on a train.

"All aboard!" the conductor swung up from the platform behind a slight, pretty woman. He red curls bounced beneath the pinwheel of her hat as she marched swiftly down the aisle. She held a toddler; a little girl.

"Corrina - ! the family said - in unison.

"I'm coming too."

They knew better than to question Corrina when her sharp chin jutted out, her penciled brows knit together. Family members never questioned each other. Conversations were rarely more than superficial, spoken words were only those necessary. What made a person tick, lived and died with that person. Personal thoughts were private; not to be shared. Problems, difficulties, pain, sorrow, even violent behavior were moments in time - not to be spoken of. It's the Scandinavian way; the ice of silence.

The eleven year old girl felt sad inside. What had happeed to her brother-in-law, Joe? She liked him. He was funny. When he was around, she could breathe. Now here was Corrina again. She hated the way her older sister was always angry; hated that she had to tiptoe around her and not upset the woman who was always upset anyway.

"Just because she's beautiful. Just because she's Dad's favorite. Who cares?" Her thoughts tumbled. She was glad they were moving away. She would not miss the tiny town and all the people who knew they were poor. That her father drank and sometimes mistreated her mother. Everything was going to be different. New friends, new school, new house, new everything.

The toddler climbed beside her. The thrum of the train's wheels sung to them - "new life - new life" as they both pressed their noses to the window, giggling.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A typical story

My grandfather, had long been out of work - the Great Depression affected so many for so many years. It was the need for guns, airplanes, ships and all the accoutrements of war that raised a clarion call to millions of Americans. Still suffering the deprivations of the Great Depression, the men and women of (for a great part) rural America left their homes and rushed to cities and factories and shipyards in an unprecendented patriotic fervor released by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Historical statistics report one out of five Americans left their homes, never to return, in that momentous time.

For me to re-create the emotional excitement of those days I will use a number of - writing styles - sometimes it will be as if I was a reporter, as if I am speaking in those days, and as an historian - a lot of artistic license! After all, then was then, now is now! How can we relate to a time before email, super-duper supermarkets, and delivered gourmet meals? So I ask you to close your eyes and drift back to those days. It is important to do so to feel just what our families were going through. In history books, there is a series of events and dates. My wish is to paint a word-picture of that actual environment - on a gut level - that we can relate to our current circumstances. My viewpoint is from those left "at home" rather than from the battlefront or battleground.

Interestingly I am at this moment, watching a documentary about WWII. It is in color - that is, "colorized" black and white film from those years. Often I have thought about how the lack of color in old photographs "colors" history as dismal no matter where or under what circumstances. In black and white the past looks dull, old, and difficult to relate to. The sun shone and set then as now, trees had green leaves, and colorful flowers bloomed, bricks were red and clothes were blue, yellow, and pink. Color helps me to relate with a more current perspective. Just as knowing the thoughts and words of ordinary people helps to recreate the feelings, moods, and emotions of a particular time.

In my family, it was my grandfather who left home to seek the rewards of war-work. Early in 1942 on the urging of his son-in-law he packed up his Model-T Ford, left Gramma to hold the fort (three of seven children still at home, a house to sell, belongings to pack or sell, goodbyes to be said) until early summer.

My family is largely Scandinavian. As complements their cold background, Scandinavian people do not easily talk about personal things. Plus, it is a highly chauvinistic society. So Gramma did not complain. She simply did what Grandpa expected her to do - followed his instructions. Nor did the children ask questions; they too did as they were told.

My family's odyssey began in the village of Buhl in northern Minnesota, and ended on a tiny island in Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest. The only way to reach the island was by ferry boat from the waterfront of Elliott Bay in Seattle, the largest city in the state of Washington. Still, that island, Bainbridge Island, was closer to a city than any in my family had known. That is, except for my mother and me. We lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, which was pretty big compared to Buhl. My mother harbored dreams of fame and fortune in the fashion world. But she had gotten pregnant with me and married my father who took us to live in the big city. But Mom had no intentions of being stuck there - not that she ever discussed her dissatisfaction with my father. As was true to her background, her thoughts and desires were secret to only her. Maybe she told me - I don't remember!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

and so it began

So many stories! World War II - battles, bravery and courage, prisoners of war, horrors and torture, touching love stories - The stories in my memory bank are the ones I heard later as those around me, reminisced because I was one of millions of babies born during the years of that global war. For many reasons, that period of history intrigues me in a personal way. It was a time of enormous changes. The world would never be the same as ordinary people experienced extraordinary changes.

To set the stage, it is necessary to put the movies of our mind in that time. That is, what the mind-set was, then, remembering that the sixty plus years after WWII had not yet happened! America's giant middle class was still was "middle class," or what in today's terms, might be viewed as, "under-privileged."

So ---- close our eyes ----- A telephone in every house (cell phones, household computers, email, and the internet were figments of the imaginations of science fiction writers), indoor plumbing, stoves fired by electricity or gas, refrigerators not to mention self-defrosting refrigerators, automatic washers and dryers, television!, super markets, medical and dental insurance, innoculation against measles, mumps, smallpox, and polio - oh - and polio had not yet been recognized as a disease! - movies in color, were future things or not imaginable for the vast majority of Americans - Hell - in rural America, lots of people still got around by horse and buggy and pooped in outhouses! All of this and so much more. Ready-to-wear clothing and teenager were not everyday words. Hard to imagine, huh!? College? - only for the rich and the few. Who wants to go back? - I certainly do not but to understand the world then, it is essential to understand how much our everyday lives have changed.

The "Great American Dream" was a slogan not an expectation. The GI bill was years away and the veterans of World War I had had to march on Washington to force payment of their Congress-approved "bonus" (read "pittance"). "Hobos" still meant men who were "down on their luck" and knocked at the back door offering to do odd jobs for something to eat and not "Homeless" as if they were a separate race to be feared and derided at the same time, supported by you and me - taxpayers.

I leave you this time with these thoughts and the next time we meet, we will step into the volatile, horrific, and exciting time of World War II.