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.

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