Sunday, February 14, 2010

Surprises! Secrets!

No one told Grandpa my mother and I had joined in the journey West. There wasn't time - the only way would have been by mail. Not only would a telephone call have been expensive, there was not a phone in the new house. Grandma just shrugged her shoulders; there was nothing she could do - hope for the best. But now instead of my two young aunts having rooms of their own, they would have to share. Just as my mother and I would be roommates. Little did anyone know at that moment, another little girl would join us. My mother was pregnant. It was so soon I'm sure not even she knew. My father must have been surprised when he came home from work the day we left. In (my family's) typical "run-away" fashion, my mother had simply left a note on a table telling him his little family was all gone. His story is a mystery. I never saw him again.

So there we were, my baby sister, my cousins, and even my uncle - children born in the cusp decade of 1935 to 1945. After political struggles, our families thrived under the "GI Bill" - health care, education, our own homes. At the same time we suffered the effects of our parents' and grandparents' struggle to cope with "the brave new world." We were raised by families worn out by the "Great Depression" but then renewed and energized by the cost of death and destruction. Our parents and then, us, prospered supplying the necessities of fierce war. Our fathers went to the battle fronts, our mothers went to work. The fathers who came back, were profoundly changed. The mothers who came back home and those who continued to work, too were changed. The women who had donned trousers and took over the home front, chafed at the loss of their freedom and identity. They were tortured with public and private admonitions to return to "a woman's proper place in the home" and burned with guilt if they didn't want to. Those who had chosen to stay at home felt they had been justified in their decision. No one celebrated the end of war who had not been forever, changed.

World War II left gutted countries, cemeteries filled with dead young men, women longing for the arms of their menfolk. It also served as the springboard that secured the "Great American Dream" at last, for America's vast "middle class." The (nicknamed) "GI Bill" was passed despite bitter arguments against it. Veterans were awarded the reality of an education, a house, a car, a chicken in every pot. Even health care finally was provided. A healthy body, eyes, and teeth, too, were possible. Before the war, a young man who could not see too well, suffered from a birth-defect limp, or had bad teeth, was considered a "reject" at least by our government. The need for manpower lowered the so-called standards and gave those otherwise labelled as unfit, a chance at a new, more equal life. Life standards we take for granted today would have seemed unreachable, not even considered, for so many of American citizens, before that conflagration. That was not that long ago!

My family's train ride to change, was uneventful except for a stop somewhere in Montana where I disappeared. It was panic and a noisy search. To the shock of everyone, I stood on top of the railroad bar as the cowboys there counter-searched for my mother. I guess I went looking for my Daddy. Mother put a harness on me.

The new family house on Bainbridge Island included the trappings of a small farm. Grandpa's Swedish farming heritage was never to leave him. There were several buildings besides the house. A barn, a couple of shacks, a wood shed, pigsty with pigs, a hayfield, a cow, and some chickens - I don't know if Grandma wanted a farm but she got one - the whole family did. Even a small farm is a lot of work.

Aunt Evelyn picked us up at the train station. It was teeming with crowds of uniformed young men. Not only were the factories and shipyards of the Seattle area drawing thousands of war workers from all parts of the country, the military bases were expanding exponentially. It was an exhilarating experience for my family, unused as they were to big city life.

It must have been frightening for my grandmother to board a ferry boat to reach her new home. She was deathly afraid of water and Puget Sound looked like the Pacific Ocean to her. The ferries then were owned and operated by the (in)famous Captain Alexander Peabody. He ruled the waterways with his Black Ball Ferry Line. The now familiar green and black smokestacks of the state-owned vessels were red and black under their private ownership. The company flag was red with a black circle in its middle - hauntingly akin to the flag of Japan.

Grandpa's Model T with its embarassing decal of a bubble dancer on the driver's door, chugged up from the Winslow ferry dock. Our new home was a winding drive along gravel and dirt roads mostly along beach fronts to the north end of the Island. I'm sure that drive was a curiosity to the family from the flat prairies of Minnesota. A stranger doffed his hat in greeting and set about helping unload the car. Aunt Evelyn introduced him as Mr. Murdock. He was silent, skinny, dressed in shabby, dark work clothes. There was a Mrs. Murdock, too. She was silent, tiny, and uncomfortably timid and shy. They lived in one of the shacks in exchange for helping with the farm chores. Their addition to the family circle was not known until we met them face to face. No family stories remain about how and/or why they strayed so far from their home country, Australia.

In the late summer, it was time for the hay to be harvested. Gas rationing was in full force. Using a tractor was out of the question. My mother, Aunt Evelyn, and Mr. Murdock cut the hay with old fashioned hand scythes. The hay was stored in the barn's loft in anticipation of winter. A photograph of the two women in the hayfield clearly displays my mother's anger at being reduced to a field hand. Her legendary anger made a scowling grimace of her pretty face. Aunt Evelyn looks resigned. She was a tall, strong woman who took pride in keeping pace and coping with whatever life handed her. Looking at her, no one would ever have guessed she was the Jezebel who had stolen the heart of her father's sister's husband. Passion is potent in a heart ripe for love.

Many Islanders kept farm animals and raised vegetables and fruits. It still was a rural, more agricultural place than what it is now; renowned as chic, sophisticated, worldly. Then it was considered a backwater if it was even considered at all. (When, as a high school graduate, I moved from "the Rock" to the metropolis of Seattle, I always said I was from Seattle - no one would have known where Bainbridge Island was.)

The war provided more work than workers as the "boys" went off to fight. Women soon were welding airplanes and ships and driving trucks. And so began "women's lib", in bits and pieces it's true, but began nonetheless. My mother was one of those legendary "Rosie the Riveters" as she eschewed dresses and worked as an electrician in the Island's shipyard. She met her new best friend, Gertrude, and the two of them gaily played and had the time of their lives as they partied through the war. After their shipyard shifts, they would shed their coveralls and kerchiefs, don fresh lipstick and go dancing - on the ferries. It was of course against the rules, but rules didn't apply to our country's beloved service boys - yes - they were lovingly called "boys" because they were everyone's sons, brothers, sweethearts, the boy('s) next door. The ferry boats were sort of like floating USO's as crews ignored the beers passing from hand to hand and the flirtations. After all, the world could end tomorrow or even tonight - there was no logical reason to not enjoy life as much as one could.

So life began anew in a changed fashion for everyone. This is not to denegrate the ferocious changes, deaths, imprisonments, and horrible fighting of the battlefront - this is to highlight the homefront - the opposite side of the war that forever changed life for the whole world.

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