Friday, August 20, 2010

Quiet All Around

The children born in the years following the (so-called) "Great Depression," up to and during World War II, I call the "Quiet Generation" - in between the scrappy, hard-working Depression babies and the upwardly mobile "Boomers." As one of those "Quiet" ones, I recognize some curious similarities with my peers. A preponderous number of us feel we "didn't belong" in our childhood environments. I wonder if that can be related to the upheaval of the war years, the migration of millions of families, the changing family nucleus with fathers gone and mothers working. Those circumstances along with the sheltering and smothering geography of an island I know provided a unique microcosm of existence for me and my peers. The small population made us more like one big family in a way. Our parental-type influences were so much more limited also because media communication still lacked the worldly sophistication and speed of today. Radio and newspapers were the primary sources of news. Not even everyone had a telephone. In fact the number of new telephones each year was an important Island statistic and related directly to income and population growth. For example, as reported in the paper, in 1940 only eleven new telephones were installed but in 1942, there were ninety six - almost nine times more. Keeping in touch with far-away family and friends was by writing and receiving letters - real, hand-written paper pages. To make a telephone call from one end of the twelve mile island to the other cost a toll of five cents. Sending a letter anywhere in 1944, for example, was three cents for domestic mail and eight cents for air mail. Except airmail to anyone in the armed services was six cents. To cast a reality check, shipyard shipfitters were working for $.95 to $1.20 an hour.

One of my favorite and most important chores was to walk the mile or so from my grandparents' house to the post office in Winslow. There, rows of brass-fronted boxes with their dials and arrows, looked grand to me. I still remember the box number, 336, and the combination; three turns to the right to 5, one turn left to 9, and back right to 4. I always stopped at the little market where I bought a couple pennies worth of sugary water filled wax tubes from Mr. Loverich. Gramma said he was taking care of the store "until Mr. Nakata came back."

Those two names are reminders of two Island groups; minorities compared to the domination of Scandinavian names in the pamphlet-sized telephone book. There were so many "iches" that where they lived was referred to as "ichville" - Croations, mostly fishermen, and their families. The small number of long-time Japanese residents had been sent off by government order to inland camps but came back to eventually become market and nursery dynasties as well as Island pets. Each of the individual Island communities were close-knit. At the same time, the entire population was close as a whole and protective of their Island identity. It didn't take much provocation to rouse clannish boundaries.

All the "iches" and Japanese who I went to school with, I remember as being very quiet - it was probably the mood of the times. Mr. Bert Klingbeil, the elementary school principal for many years and a notable Island citizen, admonished once, no predjudice would be tolerated in the schools. Maybe owing once again to the isolation of the Island, I don't recall any connection between war enemies and my schoolmates. Our class and school officers, sports heros, high-achieving academics, and popular kids always included Japanese, Germans, Filipinos, etc. My recollections may be naive but I don't think so.

In my research of Island history, I noted a lot of anger and resentment voiced in various newspaper letters and articles when it was announced the interned Japanese would be returning to their homes. One of the most vocal men opposing the "enemies return," a few years later opened a nudist camp on his property. Islanders were horrified. In school the girls giggled and the boys not-so-secretly made mock plans to sneak in so they could see naked females. A front page photo of the local policeman, Sheriff Chuck Burrows, investigating the camp showed him fully uniformed; "thank goodness" people sighed. It wasn't too long before the camp closed and the family disappeared from the Island. As with all news, these and hundreds of one-time newsworthy circumstances disappeared in the haze of time.

Not only is "keeping to yourself" a Scandinavian trait, in those decades it was the societal norm. Privacy, modesty, and being circumspect were valued and respected. Those standards seem to have changed dramatically since then. Gossip was whispered, not shouted from every corner. Not to say there was less speculation, less judgment, or less babble and tattle. People were simply not so inclined to air (theirs' or others')dirty laundry as publicly as now. Not so bad!

Taboo subjects reigned silently supreme in my family when undoubtedly there should have been far more discussion. Being shy only exacerbated my disinclination to discuss anthing of a personal nature.

Stinkin' Lincoln

Those of us who attended Lincoln Elementary School were branded as "stinky" by the McDonald Elementary School kids who we called "farmers." The loyalty to our schools was palpable and woven into the small town culture. When both the rickety school houses were abandoned and the two sets of children forced to assimilate when all of us were transferred to the "new school" (later named Commodore Bainbridge Elementary), it took a while for the homogenization to take effect. But it did and then all of us stood shoulder to shoulder in our belief that we were the best over any other school in, at least, Seattle and without quetion better than tiny Poulsbo and Central (as in Kitsap or Silverdale).

But I still remembered returning to the Island three years earlier and my own assimilation still progressing. When the war ended my grandfather sold the house in Port Madison and paid $2,000 for a new house just up the hill from the shipyard and ferry terminal, in the little community of Hawley. The house he bought remains in its original state - at least on the outside - and has a historical marker on it as being the original home of a long ago Postmaster. My mother (I've always loved her name, Corrina) had fallen for a Navy man from far away Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We three girls (mother, sister Reenie, and me) drove cross-country with the guy so he could finalize his divorce - I guess, the full story remains a mystery - later Reenie and I learned to hate him. In Pittsburgh us females were housed in a one room apartment. My sister and I slept on canvas cots. Our blankets were now Navy blue. There was a sink in the corner. I don't recall a stove. What I do remember is the bathroom. It was down the hall. It was a scary, smelly place with deep red walls. In the heat of summer, we leaned out of the apartment's second story windows. I can still smell the pigeons and hot bricks. Every morning my sister and I woke up with sooty streaks under our noses. The blast furnaces of the city's infamous steel industry made the whole area black with soot and smut. There was a park close by. A new treat to us was crushed ice poured with sticky sweet syrups. One time we drove through a long, long tunnel with bright yellow lights, to see some relative. He must not have been too glad to see us because in my child's eye, there was a man wearing a hat running down a hill towards us, waving a rifle.

My little brother was born in Pittsburgh. He was premature and very sick. Off we drove again back to the Pacific Northwest. My sister and I had the whole back seat as playground and bedroom. A plywood platform was somehow jammed into the rear window well and that is where I slept. The trip took several days even though we didn't stop. No freeways and no rest stops in those days. My sister would not go to any gas station bathroom so we had to pee by the side of the road. I got car sick over and over. I cannot even begin to imagine the terror of my mother clutching a sick infant, helping me vomit, and coping with Reenie's fear of public toilets.

We arrived back on the Island. Now Reenie and I were coughing loudly. The newest fear was that we had contracted whooping cough. Gramma cared for us while Corrina ran as she pushed the baby buggy up the hill and about a mile to the Winslow clinic. It was nearly six months later when baby Paul returned from Children's Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle. By then he was a laughing, blond, curly headed, bouncing baby dressed in a yellow romper. Everyone was crying. All of us were now living in one of Grandpa and Gramma's bedrooms.

It was summer and I had made it through the last half of second grade. Terrified and miserably shy, I felt completely alone. Plus, I had missed two months of school because of possible rheumatic fever and a resultant tonsillectomy. The day I returned to school, my teacher, Mr. King, had personally carried me outside for recess and set me in the throne of the big maple tree. Instead of that being a prize, all the other kids ran away. Resting in that throne was a daily war game. Being placed there by a teacher ruined the game.

There were other popular playground activities. Instead of concrete, Lincoln was surrounded by various dirt zones. The "upper" playground was saved for baseball, football, and other rough games. A huge weeping willow tree dominated another area, creating leafy rooms for playing "house" and hideouts for "bad guys" and "robbers." The huge maple tree served as King/Queen wars and in the fall, for production of piles and piles of gold and bronze leaves that provided hours of play. When the school was demolished later, there was only one bid for the job and that was for about $600. A sentimental Island carpenter managed to salvage part of the maple tree for a chair which he donated to the school district.

In the spring of 1949, my girlfriend and I were walking home for lunch when we felt the ground lurching. Screaming, we looked back at the schoolhouse to see the fire escape and bricks falling. We ran to her house. Her mother calmed us down and would not let us return to school. Later we listened to all the news about the earthquake that had shaken the entire Island.

Monday, August 9, 2010

On being a baby - over and over and over!

I recently found an old essay tucked in a box of mementos. It reminded me of some Bainbridge Island (high school) history. Best forgotten in some minds I'm sure but interesting nonetheless. The words follow:

The last few days of the school year - eighth grade - Commodore William Bainbridge Elementary School where one wing was designated as the "Junior High School" - seventh and eighth grades. In fifth grade we had ridden the school bus for the last time onto the dirt driveway at Lincoln Elementary School. I think it was just before Thanksgiving that we started at the "new school." Gee - we called it the "new school" - it didn't even have an official name yet. There was some sort of contest to pick the school name. But flash forward about three years, here we were ending eighth grade and hearing all about going to high school. The driveway that led up the hill to the high school was right outside our classroom windows. The hill looked steep - forbidden. Sometimes, high school students walked down the driveway on some errand or other. They looked so much older, and, somehow, so different - even strange - maybe like stars. They drove CARS! Some of them SMOKED! Mr. Inch, the eighth grade math and P.E.teacher, taught gymnastics in after school sessions and once in a while, a couple of his former star athletes, now Juniors and Seniors, would help. I was the "runt" and silently terrified of those big guys - and, oh yes, of course, they were objects of my secret crushes.

My terror was constant. I was a year younger than my classmates because I had "skipped" first grade. I just knew everyone ridiculed me because I was such a "baby." I was skinny and small anyway but I shrunk as much smaller as I could so no one would notice me.

The tables were set to be turned - a bit. My whole class would once more be at the bottom of the totem pole. Not only would we be cowed by those "upper classmen", we would have make it from classroom to classroom in two to three minutes, store our stuff in lockers, make life changing class choice decisions, and answer to teachers who we'd been told had no patience with "baby ninth graders."

On the other hand, we might bump into the Queen of the Cheerleaders, the Senior Class President, or even the star of the football team. Those days, high school sports' heros (the big "3" being football, basketball, and baseball) were the Island's darlings. Over the summer break, the excitement took on an urgency. The girls fretted about their new wardrobes; how many and what color(s) of the Pendleton stitched-down and reversible plaid pleated skirts, coordinated color sweater sets and ankle socks, and white buck oxfords to get. Page boy hairdos were a must - you know the style set on orange-juice-can-rollers - and bangs plastered to our acne-inclined foreheads in Mamie Eisenhower fashion. Boys had to wear gabardine or corduroy slacks and button-front shirts (NO Tee-shirts). The two or three guys who cared about what they wore, chose black slacks and pink and white striped, button-down-collar shirts. The boys who were "jocks" wore their hair sliced straight across the top of their heads in a crew-cut. The "cool" guys slicked theirs back into a "ducktail." Regardless of the so-called style, boys' hair was SHORT. Girls were not allowed to wear pants of any kind to school. And jeans for both genders were not only strictly prohibited, but considered "farmer" clothing.

Me, I couldn't afford the Pendleton stuff so I baby sat all summer, bought a Penney's skirt and sweater outfit and hoped no one would notice the difference. My hair would not hold a curl in spite of sleeping on metal rollers and bobby-pinned bangs every night. The walk to the bus stop in the fog every morning left my hair looking like cold spaghetti dangling over my ears - not even the ubiquitous wool bandana tied babushka-like, tight on my head could save my pageboy. BUT - my biggest trauma was that I'd never sprouted real breasts. I couldn't even pretend to wear a bra. Today what I wore would be called a tank top or maybe even a camisole - then it was an undershirt. It wasn't so bad in junior high school because lots of other girls wore them, too. But I KNEW I was going to be the only one in PE class who had to strip down and show my UNDERSHIRT before taking a shower. I sat mesmerized in my girlfriend's bedroom, staring at the cone-shaped, circle-stitched bra laying on her bed. Would I ever be able to wear one of those?

The summer ended and high school began. There was about seventy of us new high schoolers. We managed to stumble through the first week of school, finding our lockers, and then lost them half the time, located our various classrooms, and were relieved when the first week finally ended. The "upper classmen" thankfully seemed to ignore us. Little did we realize we were being sized up for the traditional initiation rites due for us the following week. Our first Freshmen assembly was in the tiny gym that occupied half the main floor of the old brick building. There were rumors a new, modern, standard-sized gymnasim was soon to be built. But we were not concerned at the moment. At the assembly the rules we were to strictly follow for a week were gleefully announced. Babies - not just as an idle reference to our standing as newcomers - but we were to behave like babies. It was supposed to be funny for the freshmen to have garlic cloves shoved in their mouths and their faces washed with icy cold water. It was mandatory to bow and say "goo-goo" to all the upper class students. Penalties for non-compliance were assessed by the student jury. Some poor kids had to sweep the hall with a toothbrush or bark like a dog all day instead of speaking. By Friday the youngsters were bedraggled and faced the worst day - it was a sporting event like the ones Romans enjoyed in the Coliseum; Christians being ripped apart by hungry lions. First we had to sing baby songs in front of the whole school. Then the fun really began. We pushed peanuts with our noses across the football field and crawled on all fours in races and tug-o-war. And we had to be DRESSED like BABIES.

So came Friday. I wanted to be sick - actually I was sick - with anxiety, sick with anticipation of more ridicule. There was no way my mother would let me be sick. I wore a ruffled blouse, a full, short skirt, and the requisite bib and bonnet. Through the back of my blouse, my undershirt was plainly visible. I didn't get to second period before some wiseacre boy made a smart aleck remark. I was mortified. I turned beet red encouraging a whole platoon of fourteen year old boys to harass me. I almost threw up. I don't remember the rest of the day. I know it was capped with intra-mural field games and I also know that too must have been difficult since I was too shy to display any kind of athletic ability.

Finally, it ended. I thought it was over. But - the next week, on the paper's front page, a photo memorializing a bunch of bibbed and bonneted freshman girls stared out at me - I was one of them. The editorial merrily reported the hazing and teasing. There was no admonition of bullying or any mention of any kind of fear or humiliation. Instead the activities were lauded as normal and healthy activities. Thankfully I can report that was the last year of initiation festivities (a word I use advisedly). Not because of any concern for the mental well-being of the targeted participants. Rather it was the toll on class time that spelled the demise of "Freshmen Initiation." Whatever the reason, I silently applauded the decision. Today's attention to the damage caused by bullying and verbal abuse is long, long overdue.

There were lots of signs that in retrospect glaringly highlight the unenlightened times. Every summer, itinerant berry pickers would throng to the Island and in two to four weeks, assure the harvests made it to the berry stands and the markets. Lots of kids also made pocket money picking strawberries but it was the Indians who bore the load. The pickers, often entire families, were housed (to use a term loosely) in sheds, shacks, near the fields. There was more often than not, no electricity, running water, proper toilets, or baths. Group sanitation facilities were provided as regulated but the poor people were ostracized, shunned, and feared. Indians were rumored to be hiding in every ditch waiting to attack any lone person. A special deputy made rounds where any Indians gathered to "keep the peace" and let them know they were being watched.

When two Indian children died when a shack burned down, there was a loud movement to ban strawberry farming. The claim was that stopping farming would stop shootings, fires, and fights. No move was made to regulate safe and hygenic living conditions for the farm workers. But the sale to Indians of alcohol, including alcohol-based vanilla extract, had already been banned in righteous indignation ignited by the fear of those poor people.

Being a victim in those days was the crime. Prevention more frequently was in the penalizing of those upon whom crimes were committed.