Saturday, December 5, 2009

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!

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