Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Homefront Battles War and Its Offal

Right as the war began, Islanders wasted no time as they arranged their local defense plans. One group was organized and trained as enemy plane spotters. (Note that in early 1943, three aircraft spotting and warning towers were completed but the one at Battle Point was threatened to be closed a couple of months later because there were not enough spotters - the early enthusiasm had apparently worn off a bit.) Island boaters figured they could haul off every man, woman, and child if the need arose as they formed a brigade of evacuation vessels. They didn't trust mean old Captain Peabody.

The Island was divided into air raid districts. Each district had a Warden and platoon of eager civilian soldiers. Church ladies aid groups baked cookies, rolled bandages, and knit socks to send off to "the boys overseas." And the cigarette companies did their part as they offered coupons for "free smokes" to be sent to those boys. Ouch!

Mrs. Roosevelt was on the bandwagon as champion for black workers and soldiers and for caring for the children of the newly employed "Rosie the Riveters. It was also through her efforts that the U.S. built housing for war workers. Not all Americans shared her concern for others' well-being. The proposed housing project to be built near the shipyard aroused Islanders' anger. The plan was attacked as a probable slum, the cause of plummeting real estate values. There was insistence that anything built would have to be torn or burned down as soon as the war was over. It was rumored that untreated sewage would be dumped into the bay. But it was built and my mother, my sister, and I were one of the lucky few to be assigned one of the little units. The kitchenettes had two burner stoves, an icebox, room for a two-chair table; if two people were sitting, there was no room for one standing up. There was an on-site nursery and pre-school; free child care for the shipyard's working mothers. Progressive!


My sister was born on a stormy night in February 1943. My mother had once again shocked her silent family because no one knew she was pregnant. She gained little weight and wore clothing that masked her pregnancy. Aunt Evelyn served as midwife helping deliver the tiny, premature baby. It was not many months later we three moved to our apartment.

The complex was commonly known as "The Project." What I remember is skipping down a path bordered by a tall fence, to the nursery. It was in a big room with small windows all around the top of the walls. At nap time, each of us snuggled up in our very own Army-issue blanket. Then at recess, we used our blankets to stretch a roof in the fenced corners of the playground. Playing house and climbng the monkey bars were my favorite activities. I remember sitting in the sand beneath my olive drab roof and hanging by my knees from the cold, steel bars. Every week the iceman brought a giant ice cube clutched in the bite of tongs and clunked it into the icebox. The icebox was made of wood; inside it was metal enameled white, the racks were square and always wet. Such are the memories of a child - closer to earth, children being the short species.

Rationing of food stuffs, gasoline, cars, rubber, fabrics, etc. is one of history's facts. Living without all that stuff was the impetus for lots of home-grown solutions. I love the story about rubber for girdles allowed to still be made because some senator's wife insisted girdles were inviolable products - fashion dictated the wearing of girdles! Also, girdles held up stockings. Stockings themselves were a torture because silk from Japan was (naturally) unavailable. Rayon was new. It and cotton were used to make hosiery and underwear. The stockings sagged and stretched, were ugly, and were universally hated by women. Going without stockings was simply not acceptable. Some women used pancake make-up to camouflage their legs; going so far as to draw seamlines down the back with an eyebrow pencil. Back seaming was the way stockings were made then. Nylon seamless "panty hose" were fifteen to twenty years in the future.

Two related family stories come to mind. Pictures of my sister as a toddler show her clutching her panties. To hold them up - war-issue drawers with synthetic rubber elastic tended to drift down to one's ankles.

My mother was attractive and vivacious so she had lots of admirers among the many Navy sailors that wandered around the Shipyard and were stationed at the Island's bases. One guy presented my mother with a pilfered parachute. That precious gift was many, many yards of silk-like fabric made of the newly-developed nylon. Blouses, slips, bras, panties - you name it, my mother was able to sew that parachute into lots of things. I don't know what happened to the Sailor.

So-called "Victory Gardens" were common. Not as common but as highly touted by the government as a way for the homefront to further help the "war effort," was to raise chickens and pigs. Grandpa had both.

Easter 1944, I was dressed in a white dress, coat, and hat - all of course made by my mother - probably out of the parachute. All of us kids were waiting outside for the grown-ups. My rascally uncle (did I mention he was only two years older than me?) led us to see the new piggies. There is good reason why pig pens are called "pig pens." We climbed over the sty. Mucky muck, muddy mud - ruined Easter finery; filthy and smelly. Uncle was never forgiven. The story was never related with laughter.

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