Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rumors and facts

Before World War II, Bainbridge Island was rural, isolated, a sanctuary for ordinary people. It would never be quite the same once it was overrun by "newcomers." In 1942, the year-round population of according to one count, 3,200, almost doubled. Some of the new citizens took the foot ferry from the west side of the Island to Bremerton where they worked at the booming Naval Shipyard. Others clocked in at the Winslow Shipyard and the Creosote Plant each located at different places on the shores of Eagle Harbor; the tiny inlet that afforded deep water to the docks surrounding it. Island ferry commuters were joined by the newbies on the picturesque crossing to Seattle and its factories, shipyards, and related "war effort" manufacturers and suppliers. The Pacific NW experienced a population boom. The East coast and the industrial center states were experiencing an influx of people, too, but in the sparsely populated states of the West, the growth was far more visible. Such growth on an island by definition a strictly limited space, was especially notable.

The Island was and still is,a 35 to 45 minute ferry ride to/from downtown Seattle. In 1951, the culmination of a long, bitter battle, the Agate Pass bridge at the Island's northern end was finally completed. The Olympic Peninsula was finally accessible to the general public. The little fishing town of Poulsbo had a largely Norwegian population - the unofficial language was Norwegian - as many spoke that as spoke English. The people of Poulsbo and its surrounds weren't impressed by their introduction to the "outside world."

So in 1942 my family, accustomed to the flat plains and un-salted waters of the Great Lakes, must have experienced culture shock. The climate and landscape were so different. No one dared complain because Grandpa ruled the roost and it had been his decision to make the dramatic move. It was whispered that Grandpa planned to return to Minnesota once the war ended.

The reputation of the Pacific NW as being more-often-than-not, rainy is true. Raindrops drizzle and splatter causing constant feelings of wet and mildew. The sun is unpredictable. Silvery grey is the usual color of the sky. When the sun does shine, a depth-defying blue canopy envelopes the entire geography. To the east and south of the Island, sparkling cities, Seattle and Tacoma, rise from the edge of Puget Sound. Behind them, the Cascade Mountain range rises majesticly. To the west and north, are more forests and mountains. The Olympic Mountain Range, the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula, and all the other immense stands of giant trees that drew the early nineteenth and twentieth century robber lumber barons still encompass Puget Sound. Despite the early butchery of clear-cutting, the Pacific NW remains anchored in forestry. If you are in a floating vessel of any kind plying the hypnotic waters of Puget Sound, in all directions, rise year-round snow-frosted mountains and dark green forests. To the southeast, Mount Rainier rises in Pope-like majesty. Although clouds, fog, and rain often obscures the mountain, its presence is ever-present, a monolith.

Nature's symphony includes sounds and smells. There are the bells and whistles of foghorns, seals bark, killer whales breach and blow, waves lap and lash. Winds are either cradle-songs or the bellow the voices of storms. Ferries toot and chug their constant rhythm of reassurance. Beaches, coves, and inlets offer their intoxicating perfume of salt water, wet sand, fishy odors of the life cycles of crabs, clams, fish and vegetation; seaweed, driftwood, the mucky odors and tunes of the swamps nearby. Stands of evergreens, vine maple, madronas; their feet nestled in blankets of mosses, ferns, skunk cabbage, and treasured trilliums hum amongest un-named flora and fauna. It is intricate and exquisite. It is a composition by the master of all of us. There are hills, meadows, harbors, bays, thick woods, gravel pits, ravines, a miniscule lake, all add to the scene. The Island is lacey with lanes, roads, and paths. There is a tiny town and several village centers. The people who live there are the audience to this symphonic portrait. This still is as it was.

In the decades of the forties and fifties, the story of change remains. Like everywhere it is one of growth. The past must be tucked in our memory and not forgotten.

In the early months of WWII and before, rumors and hints of danger were evident because in February 1941 the Island's weekly newspaper reported the installation of "barrage balloons - baby blimps attached to earth by slender steel cables" - across the narrow pass which separated the Island from the narrow stretch of the mainland which lead to Bremerton, Washington. There, a major Naval shipyard hovered at the edge of Puget Sound and was known to be an important military location. The steel cables of the balloons were meant to cause damage to low-flying enemy aircraft. Smoke screens were tested routinely across major waterways. Strong fishing nets were strung underwater to deter hostile submarines.

American suspicion of foreigners had caused Japanese immigration to be halted by federal mandate many years before, in 1924. In 1940 and 1941 the Japanese living in Washington, Oregon, and California had either immigrated long years before WWII or had been born in the United States. As my family arrived on Bainbridge early in 1942, the Island's Japanese population of 242 men, women, and children, had just been hauled off to internment camps. Islanders were of course bewildered by their removal. Some celebrated the enemies' disappearance; just as many said it was not justified. No matter now, it must be remembered that then it was the first time Americans were fearful of being attacked in their own homes. Irrational emotions can be reviled later, but it must be judged in the context of the time. More than a half century later, it is odd to think of the war preparations that were considered necessary than.

I must relate some of the rumors that circulated in those times. My aunt tells me some of the only things she remembers about the war (she was less than ten years old) were scary rumors about the Japanese hiding in the trees and the ultra-deep ditches of the Island. That they (the Japs - a historical reference to a derogatory term for our then enemies) used their radios to not only communicate with their countrymen but to set off dynamite explosions. There were rumors of legions of Japanese soldiers and sailors waiting in landing vessels just beyond our Pacific shores. Hysteria was everywhere and in the minds of most, manipulating even the most clear-headed Americans.

It is important to set the context of the time. It was long before the ubiquitous TV instant news reporting, video broadcasts, etc. Overnight delivery was far in the future. Computers were a thing of science fiction. Radio and newspapers were the sources of communication. There were movie newsreels but their stories were hardly current and on the Island, the little theatre at the village of Lynnwood only operated on the weekends and nothing was new. The cost of first-run "flickers" was beyond the budget of the tiny entertainment center. Mail could be sent by air but only at a higher price than slower transportation - trucks, trains, boats - and in rural America, including Bainbridge Island, people either picked up their mail at a post office or it was delivered by postal service employees often driving their own automobiles.

The circumstances of every day life were far different, more primitive some would say, than how we live today.

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