Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Simple Times Produced Simplistic Minds

It seems every December WWII stories proliferate. Or maybe I am so aware of the stories because of my interest in that history. As I reminisced with one of my high school classmates, we talked about our Japanese schoolmates and how we did not even think of them as being Japanese - that is, we did not think of them as being our former enemies. We pondered why and I posed the question to a number of our classmates. Every single one could not recall thinking of them in any negative way. Quite to the contrary, they were school leaders and officers, sports heros, popular. Their versions are undoubtedly different. But they also were too young to remember exactly what had happened. The internment of the Island's Japanese and subsequent return is very public and popular history now but our classmates remain reticent. So how I and my schoolmates did not seem to have any notion of their stories, to me, is a phenomenon. As evidenced in the Island newspaper of those years, there was vociferous opposition to the return of the Japanese. There were more than a few letters to the owner/editor of the paper not only chastising his championship of the Japanese but also openly disparaging their return. Clearly there was prejudice that could have influenced us in a negative manner.

But we were too young to be a part of the discussion. Too young to remember any part of it. My aunt who is ten years older than I, and was in junior high school, says she was too busy with school and with worrying about her gold front tooth to be interested. (Marilyn was so embarrassed by that tooth, she rarely smiled.) She remembers having Japanese classmates but remembers nothing about any challenge to their return. In fact, when I questioned her, she had to rack her memory to come up with any memories at all.

Our education was unrealistically simple in lots of ways. The decades of the 1940's and 50's could even be described as still quite Victorian. Children were to be seen and not heard - not to be spoken to or made aware of anything smacking of discord, violence, scandal, sexual, etc. In other words our environment was rather sterile; our education, stunted.

In high school - ten to twelve years after the end of the war - the man who taught World History bore a vivid scar that covered half his face. He was among those brave soldiers who stormed Normandy Beach in one of WWII's bloodiest battles. The world history curriculum made NO mention of the world's most heinous tragedy - the killing of six million Jews by the Nazis's. Shortly after I graduated from high school, the book "Exodus" came out. I spent an entire weekend mesmermized and horrified as I read - also angry that such critical information had not been taught.

In stark contrast, however, we were very aware of the Indians who came (mostly) from Canada to pick strawberries every summer. According to reports, they would attack any lone white person. (The same unfounded fear was attached to Filipino men; although Filipinos were more easily assimilated into Island life.) The Indians were accused of being drunks and completely untrustworthy. At a time when there was only one sheriff for the entire Island - population between 3 and 4 thousand, there was one man deputized to keep watch over the poor Indians numbering at most 3 or 4 hundred and confined to living in the farms' strawberry shacks. Talk about being ostracized!

Sometime in the early to mid fifties, my Aunt Carole and Uncle Hank adopted a baby boy. One evening we gathered excitedly in our grandparents' kitchen waiting for our first visit with the new baby. Carole carried the swaddled baby in her arms, Hank stood proudly behind her. Gramma reached for the tiny bundle; carefully lifted the soft blanket - and nearly DROPPED the baby as she gasped. Inside that bundle was a dark-skinned infant with a huge shock of black, straight hair.

"Oh - I forgot to tell you," Carole blurted, "he's Spanish." Good ole' Hank chuckled.

Many years later, Mark (the baby)searched for his birth mother when he reached adulthood during which time Carole and Hank both died. You guessed it - Mark is a Pacific Northwest Indian. We don't know where or how Mark is now. He joined his Indian family and stories of him reach us every once in a while - alcohol and drugs mostly. Makes my heart sick - he was a very dear member of our little gang of cousins.

OK - so we wrongfully interned the Japanese during WWII. We have done worse things to Indians. (All of this information now can be found on the Internet simply by searching Indian histories and circumstances.) Beginning in the late 1800's, our government had policies and programs specifically meant to train Indian children to be white - to forget their Indian ways. The programs for many decades included boarding schools where Indian kids were sent and essentially brain-washed. In the 1940's and 1950's the programs were changed to forcefully take Indian infants and children and put them up for adoption through churches and agencies. This is "cultural genocide." I have personally corresponded with an Indian woman who was snatched from her mother's arms and adopted along with other Indian kids, by an Island family. Mark's story is not unusual. There are hundreds, nay thousands, across the country who suffered these horrific acts and the traumas they caused.

My point in this is to gain some understanding of my own upbringing and what makes me tick. As I have said previously, the Island with its isolation, is rather like a petri dish of how our society has moved, changed, evolved, since the beginning of WWII. So much has changed for the good; so much has not.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Those Were The Days, My Friend

Mr. Hellner - he was our journalism teacher and oversaw the publication of our high school newspaper those many years ago. News that he has died at the age of 84 was shocking in so many ways. First of all, in my mind, he remained the tall, strong presence he was to me more than fifty years ago. The news is ricocheting among my classmates - Mr. Hellner was popular. Not only was he a good teacher, he was charismatic. His sense of humor was always at the ready. He was a class act.

Of course my head is bursting with memories. I can feel the warm spring breeze drifting through the open windows of the school. The original high school building, three stories including the basement, brick facade, wide staircases inside and out buttressing the east and west walls, was old and rickety even then. But it too, had presence, character, and a particular communal aura. The banging of locker doors, bells ringing, laughter, and yelling - the unique symphony that envelopes high schools bounced off those walls.

In those years, playing of pranks was fun - Mr. Hellner did not hesitate to lock the newspaper staff in the journalism room and march off to lunch. Which meant we could retaliate - and that we did! He was one of the "new" teachers - so it was up to us girls to introduce him to the wondrousness of us. Only teenagers can be so unflinchingly arrogant! A couple girls (mind you, we were honor roll students so supposedly above normal nonsense) taped down the button of his telephone and made it ring, then hid in the adjacent room to listen in as he repeatedly tried to answer his phone. So clever! There was no stopping us. At some point, he got tired of us wunderkins and meted out punishment - the abhored "making up time lost" by having to stay after school. His mistake was, he left us alone in the room - and locked the door again. It was not long until the boys were driving back and forth in front of the school, honking and yelling at the rascally girls hanging out the windows laughing and shouting back.

I'm not sure schools then or now, that house thousands of young people could maintain that feeling of home-y-ness. The same is true of all the people involved - faculties, students, bus drivers, school nurses, and even the cafeteria workers - were/are a close community - a family. Even though small and rural typically meant limited academic and athletic opportunities, we were sheltered and safe - at least in our public domain.

The confines of the Island helped make the high school the hub of Island social activity for many years. It was only after the Agate Pass Bridge was built and ownership of automobiles became widespread, that the school became less and less important to Islanders. "The bridge" allowed us to drive to the metropolis of Bremerton! On the way, we drove through Poulsbo and Silverdale - 'course we teens called Poulsbo, "North (Kitsap)" and Silverdale, "Central (Kitsap)" the allusion being they only mattered as sports competitors. All of the schools (Islanders, Norths, Centrals) were so-called "B" class - that is, each of the high schools had 300 or less students. Now the schools are "A"'s or maybe even double or triple "A".

Our hangouts were restaurants - or cafe's/drive-ins. On the Island, it was the "Cat'n'Fiddle" in the(then)new shopping center just down from the high school. But in Poulsbo, it was "Greg's Drive-in"! We drove there - so grown up! "Greg's" was owned by a member of a pioneer Island family who died in a plane crash in Alaska a few years after he opened "Greg's". It was like we lost an uncle. And to me, his death was even more unbelievable because I babysat his two kids. Their house was down the road in Hawley from my grandparents' house. Daringly, they had that house barged to the beach from Seattle. That, too, was a remarkable event viewed by lots of people. Another family built a house on the beach nearby - descendants of the ship-building family, the Hall brothers. I sat for those children, too.

Babysitting allowed me a little sense of freedom at the same time it exposed me to teeney bits of life. Vomiting children, crying children, mean children, sassy children, being hit by children - when my mother and her partner opened "Esther's Fabric Shop" I was happy to be a sales clerk even though I never took home a paycheck. Fabric was my barter and I got to sew in the back room. One of the most popular fashions included full skirts with tons of petticoats paired with a coordinated blouse. I couldn't afford the winter stuff, Pendleton skirts and matching sweater sets, but in spring, my skirts and blouses stood up to the best of them. Oh, and cinch belts (wide elastic things) made my skinny seventeen inch waist look even more little. My only claim to fame!

I forget where I was going with this monologue - it started with Mr. Hellner so I'll continue with some more of those teachers who were a part of and important in our lives. Legendary "Coach" Paski was featured in an earlier story so let me tell about his wife, Mrs. Lois Paski. She was as much integral to the girls' education as Coach was to the boys'. Her empire was the kitchen and sewing room. We learned to sew an apron and baked biscuits at the same time she exemplified what it was to be a "Lady", poised, collected, and intelligent. A lot of us probably didn't realize that then but assuredly her lessons stuck with us forever. Half times at the football and basketball games were governed by versatile Mr. Samek - he who had a hand in everything musical - individual lessons, the marching band, the orchestra, jazz ensemble, chorus - his daughter Lynnette was the majorette. There was Mrs. Daisy Sams Wilson. That woman was the target of far too many pranks. I don't recall why - maybe because she was so guileless and spoke with a soft southern accent. She was our drama coach and our French teacher. It was in her class, right before lunch, that one time a couple of girls brought Oreo cookies they had laced with cayenne pepper. Because it was right before lunch, the boys were always starved. Any lunch sack was fair game. Yes - they did - and gagged and yelled as they tore out the door. We could hear them glugging gallons of water in the boys' bathroom down the hall. The girls were laughing uproariously. Poor Mrs. Wilson could not figure out was going on. Her high-pitched scream brought the Principal from his office right above the French class. The girls weren't disciplined. The boys vowed revenge.

These are just a few of the teachers. Most stayed for many years and often taught brothers and sisters. They really were family members. Others in the community also influenced most if not all, of us. Or at least, were known figures. Like the school nurses, Snookie and Mrs. Burdess. The two of them certainly knew who would faint or cry at the sight of a hypodermic needle, who had the earliest menstrual period, which kids were in the most fights, and on and on.

There was Mr. Sarin who delivered everyone's mail on the rural box routes. Mrs. Westerlund the post mistress who every one knew, knew everyone's business. The first full-time, Island based attorney, Mr. Alpaugh was keeper of lots of secrets.

The biggest repository of secrets, however, had to be the coffers of the Island newspaper, the Review. For many years, its gossip column (anonymously (sic) authored, hinted at romances, chided those who forgot a birthday, sympathized with broken arms and legs, etc. Burying of pets, visits to and from the Island by relatives, birthday parties, and the like were weekly fillers in the paper which found its way to every home. It was, after all, the "only newspaper in the world that cared about Bainbridge Island." High schoolers were kept abreast of all things school not only by the school newspaper, "Spartan Hilites", but also by a weekly Review column about high school activities written by the school's chosen journalists.

So you see, the nature of the cocoon in which we lived. A little stifling? Perhaps. Ignorance is bliss, as is said.

I just came across a letter to the editor in the May 1958 Spartan Hilites (high school newspaper - what is it called now?) The Annual Staff (the yearbook staff, "Spartan Life")showed its affection for Mr. Hellner.

"This is an open letter to Mr. Hellner. 'We're Sorry...' we leaned out the window of the journalism room and sent signals with the window shades, put 'for sale' signs and 'leave no milk' and 'A day spent is a over with' signs in the room. We're sorry - we decorated the room with crepe paper, drawings, a tiger, rugs, and pinatas; coffee and spaghetti on the floor. We're sorry we dropped the typewriter on the pavement, and drawers and folding chairs on the floor. We're sorry for using the journalism room for a beauty parlor, dance floor, gymnasium, dressing room, and cafeteria. We're sorry you thought we stole your keys; we're sorry we didn't. We're sorry we got every multiple of the annual in late; we're sorry every photographer within 50 miles has heart palpitations at the mention of "Spartan Life." We're sorry for all of the practical jokes we played on you - the telephone incident, the teacher's annual, the letter from Hearst - We're sorry we always kept ahead of you with the practical jokes. We're sorry we never observed "proper protocol." We're sorry for giving you ulcers, high-blood pressure, the shakes, nervous frustrations, heart disease, and permanent brain injury. We're sorry we won't be here next year to pull any more practical jokes on you.

The Annual Staff." the Editor of the paper, "Spartan Hilites," added "Me, t!". It might also be interesting to note the last name of the Editor was Woodward - a name now permanently etched in the Island's history.

There are no more spirited, self-centered, clueless, giggle-infested, boundary-less groups of people than a gaggle of high school girls.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Other Oddities

The first time I recall going with my grandmother to Seattle on a shopping trip I saw some amazing sights. They are still fresh images for me. Going anywhere with Gramma was more fun than going any place with my mother. Gramma was fun; Mom was not. On the ferry, I was allowed to go on the outside deck - way up front where the wind blew. Gramma just sat on the bench and watched me as she clutched her hat to her head. No hairdo-upsetting wind would be tolerated by my mother. In her defense however, I know her wildly curly hair was hard to tame under the best of circumstances. The seagulls floated on the air currents screeching their songs; the splashing of the saltwater as the bow of the boat plunged its way threw icy cold mist on my face. Above, in the wheel house, the Captain stood, his dark uniform with the gold shoulder epaulets made him look like a silent god watching over the glistening scene.

As soon as the ferry tooted its arrival at Coleman Dock, we bunched up with the other foot passengers and waited to get off. I've told this particular scene many times and no one seems to believe me. But it is true. As we walked off, I could see down to the beach - it was COVERED with a mass of squirming, brown rats. I am not kidding. The water that lapped at the edge of that living carpet, was littered with garbage. Gramma hurried me along. This was long before an overhead walkway was added to the dock which let passengers dash across Alaskan Way without having to dodge trains. My mother often laughed as she related when she went to work in Seattle (after the War ended)it was fun to run across the train tracks and often, through freight cars that were standing. You know, the kind with matching doors on both sides so it was not only possible but done with regularity, commuters would step up the little ladders, run across the car's floor, and descend on the other side of the tracks. Of course there were warnings against such activities by newspapers on both sides of the Sound. They were as effective as the admonition to drown tent caterpillars.

If you are familiar with trekking the steep hills of Seattle, you know the sidewalks have concrete treads built into the sidewalks. Those treads gave footholds to people walking up or down and in wet and/or icy weather, made such walkways passable. Our destination was the Pike Place Market so we only had to make our way up to First Avenue and then walk north to the Market. It was not the trendy, tourist destination location then as it is now. No fish mongers waiting to dazzle us by tossing huge fish over our heads. It was a seedy place and not one where a woman and a small girl would wend their way down dark, winding staircases in search of a good cup of coffee or a rare book. Instead, we marched up some stairs along with a lot of people to a huge room overlooking Elliot Bay. It was a second hand store - not "vintage fashion." Gramma was looking for bargain clothes. I remember it smelled old, mouldy - but with Gramma, it was fun rummaging through piles of thrown out garments. She was a practical woman, not a fashion setter or follower. My mother sewed all her clothes and my sister's and mine. She WAS fashionable and the only way we could afford style was for her to do the creating. And she did. In fact, that is the way she made money all the time we were growing up. Our dining room was her sewing room.

Anyway - here is Nina's story about going shopping in Seattle.

"After the war, we took the ferry to Seattle and visited the Army/Navy stores (they were stuffed with war's detritus). We got all sorts of things from them. I remember gray blankets on my bed with the USN logo. Also cutlery and nifty little shovels that folded back on themselves so they could be carried in a pack. We found some strange raincoats made of something new called plastic. We bought camping gear - tents, canteens, sleeping bags. Above the row of Creosote company houses there were woods and an enormous granite rock (we kids just called this place "the big rock") which we climbed up and slid down. Here we used the shovels to dig a "fox hole" (notice the Army parlance). Or rather my cousins and my brother dug the hole. It looked like a grave. Then they covered it up with fir boughs. They told me I could not come in. I was the enemy because as my cousin said, "you can't pee standing up like a boy." I did manage to get into that hole once and couldn't figure what the big deal was. We were replaying WWII with play guns, grenades.

The so-called plastic raincoats we wore to a Bainbridge Island baseball game behind the high school. It rained and the darned things sort of melted and flaked into a gooey mess. They had not quite gotten the formula right."

Across the bay, the gaggle of kids I ran with also dug a fort. The boys did and for the same reason as Nina, my sister, Old Man Taylor's granddaughter, Susan, and I were not allowed in. This fort was in the dirt backyard of one of the boys. They covered it with planks. We could see in and also couldn't understand the big secret - all they did was sit there. We stole their shoes - no shoes allowed in their precious underground fort. But we were scared they would beat us up so we tossed the shoes in a pile and ran away.

Back to the Seattle shopping trip.

On the way back to the ferry dock, we stopped at a drugstore with a soda fountain. There were a couple of tiny, round tables and wire chairs. Gramma bought us each a scoop of vanilla ice cream served in a little silver dish. The outside of the dish was frosty and cold. Never had ice cream tasted so good. Then we stopped into Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the waterfront. Supposedly there was a mermaid in a bottle - pickled mermaid - yuck. I don't remember if there was a mermaid but there were lots of shrunken heads, arrow heads, and beads. I wanted to stay a long time but no - we had to catch a ferry. Grampa and my mother would not have tolerated any unannounced schedule changes. No cell phones nor even message machines then. Actually, having a telephone at all was still a novelty. There were strict rules regarding its use. No long calls. No interrupting anyone on the party line except for extreme emergencies, NO long distance calls (and calling almost anywhere else on the Island was long distance and cost a nickel toll). My grandparents' house in Hawley was so close we walked home.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Car Trips, Emergencies, and Other Excitement

As my friends/classmates share their stories, I find that exact chronology is impossible. So I suppose it is best just to go with it. Memories stir memories!

This is a stab in the dark - my mind-movies are flashing on our re-arrival back on the Island after a mad dash from East to West in late 1946. That cross-country road trip was not one of America's new (so-called) "love affairs with the automobile." It was a harrowing, flight for life. The infant in my mother's arms was perilously pale and lethargic. My sister was nearly four, and I, almost six. Of course we did not understand what was happening. It was a game to us. We got to color and play word games; it was an adventure to sleep in the car as it sped along. We ate peanut butter sandwiches. Gas station stops included water for all of us and "going to the bathroom." My sister would not sit on ANY public toilet - especially terrifying to her were those that emitted a blue glow around the lid - she preferred to pee at the side of the road. I have not found what the blue toilet thing was all about but it was probably some sort of hygiene hoax on an unsuspecting and trusting public. Of course that is what we all were - "all" being the new "traveling" hordes of Americans experiencing the exciting novelty of automobile ownership. As I noted previously, WWII marked the beginning of the liberation of the middle masses of America. So here we were, my unorthodox family, driving from Pennsylvania to Washington state - before the war, that trip would have been a curiosity, an adventure. To my family it was a hope for life-saving. And in the parlance of the day, "family" in our case was immoral - two adults not yet divorced from their spouses, the woman with two children from her first husband and one tiny, desperately ill infant fathered by the man who was hunched over the steering wheel; he who had not-so-recently been set free dishonorably from the U.S.Navy. No record remains why but he proved his unworthiness over the rest of my youth.

Anyway, there were no overnight stays at a motel along the way - no money for that and in those days, motels were reputed to be unsavory anyway. And no quick in and out restaurants easily in sight of the highway. Any stop for groceries or aspirin meant locating a market in whatever town where the road led. Even supermarkets were still a novelty - that is, a retail establishment where all kinds of goods were available; like foodstuffs, diapers, toothpaste, even gasoline. So each type of purchase had to be made at different stores. The two-lane highway hair-pinned through steep mountain passes, were pocked with holes and bumps; not even entirely concrete but blacktop, too, and in winter (as our trip was), treacherous with snow, ice, and pools of rainwater. No straight-through, many lane freeways yet. Needless to repeat that it was a difficult trip.

The morning after our arrival back on the Island, I stood on Grandpa and Grandma's porch watching my mother running up the hill pushing my baby brother in a buggy. At the Winslow clinic, Drs. Bourns and Wilt treated all Islanders for many years. They were venerated lifesavers and could no wrong. I don't remember Mommy returning. I just recall the feeling that something very scary was happening. And my sister and I were coughing, coughing. The suffocating dread of whooping cough fell over the house.

"They took him to Children's Orthopedic in Seattle."

My Gramma told someone on the phone. Of course, it was a party line so the news spread swiftly. The telephone operator knew everyone on the Island, listened in on all the party lines (it was a known fact), and took no time spreading news - she believed it was her job.

Clearly, medical emergencies on the Island had to be even more emergency than emergency. Today, helicopters, speedy ambulances across the Agate Pass Bridge, and a sophisticated medical community right on the Island makes yesterday look antiquated to say the least. Nina tells a story, too. Once rescued from condom contamination, her family faced another, far more dangerous situation. In her words:

"Shortly after (we were saved from those nasty condoms) my father took ill in the night. He had been working terrible hours in the bomb factory (and then, at the Creosote plant), getting very little sleep, existing on coffee and cigarettes. His stomach was giving him terrible pain. My mother called the doctor (must have been Dr. Shepard - the other doctors were off to war). He came to our little row (Creosote company) house, examined my Dad and discovered he had a burst ulcer and was in great danger. That's where Captain Brisboe came in. The doctor asked him to take my dad on a stretcher into Seattle on his tugboat. It was the middle of the night; no ferries were running. Captain Brisboe arranged with the hospital in Seattle to meet his tug. So - my Dad made it across and was taken immediately into surgery. He was in the hospital for nearly three months. My mother had to hire private nurses to care for him because all the hospitals were filled with War vets. The savings my parents had from the Illinois job dwindled quickly away to pay medical bills. My father came home weak and depressed. It was into the fall for my father's recuperation. My mother spent most days at the hospital and when he came home, took daily care of my Dad. My brother and I came under the care of my aunt (also living in one of the Creosote company's row cottages). She fed us breakfast and then dismissed us to "go outside and play." We did. Bainbridge woods, beaches, everywhere, became our hideouts and playpens. We had a ball! I honestly do not think we understood my father was very close to dying."

Today excellent and immediate medical attention is taken for granted. And it was not but a bit over hundred years ago that medicine truly came into its own as a respected, reliable, indeed venerated, profession. We are fortunate in countless ways! And it is interesting to look back to those years. Nina's story is the first time I read about the necessity of hiring private nurses.

Also I need to note that Nina's father's medical crisis took place just before the war ended. It was late 1945 when our cross-country dash took place. Do Dr. Bourns was back from war and it was he who saved my brother - at least according to family lore. Six months after he was rushed to Children's Orthopedic, Paul (who later insisted - for several years - that his name was Ole Larson) came back home, a laughing,round-faced baby in excellent health. Everyone cried and laughed at the same time.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Forts, Condoms, and Innertubes

The ubiquitous scotch broom invaded the Island and even garnered its own parade, the Scotch Broom Parade, in the middle of summer. For my girlfriend and me, it hid our very own fort. Sort of like Brer Rabbit in his thorny patch. We crawled through our secret path beneath and around the scotch broom bushes to the middle where we had cleared a room. We called it our fort - all the boys had forts where we were not allowed so we made our own. What is now part of the sprawling ferry dock parking lot, at the top of the hill at Cave Road, was then, what looked like acres of the dark green shrub with its stalks of yellow flowers. At the northeast corner, stood a white house. That is where my girlfriend lived; Judy Lee.

The little enclave of Hawley was formed by a road which curved down from the Lee's place to Old Charlie Taylor's Boathouse, with paths and drives to the beach and back up a hill forming a U-shape. Within the U were several houses including Captain Peabody's. The rest of the community, including my grandparent's house, huddled around the outside of the U. Judy and I walked down to the Boathouse where there was a path to the beach. From there we could log-hop and scoot along cliff edges to the underneath piers of the ferry dock. Not much sun ever shone there so the rocks of the beach were slimy with algae as were the maintenance steps up to the terminal. Trees jutted out of the dirt cliffs above the beach. It was the back door entry (and the long way around) to our fort.

One warm summer day we sat on a madrona tree branch out over the beach eating our lunch. It was my first taste of a BLT sandwich - new treat! We giggled so hard Judy fell onto the rocks. She broke her arm. For the rest of the summer she wore a cast and our beach climbing was over. Plus - the boys found our fort. The Lee's moved before school started. I never saw Judy again. I've wondered about her ever since.

Nina, too, has some beach-y stories:

"As I wrote before, Rockaway Beach became a favourite play area for my brother and me that first summer. Just above the beach was the home of the tugboat captain for the Creosote plant, His wife, Jenny, kept a small telescope on a tripod in the house to watch the bay. Many large naval ships passed Bainbridge on their way to the shipyards in Bremerton. During July, or early August, my brother and I were at the beach paddling about, wading, and exploring the rocks and sand in the early morning. The tide began to come in and we discovered something truly amazing. The tide seemed to be filled with hundreds of white balloons. (They were really condoms dumped off one of the many vessels.) But being only five and six years old (and not knowing what they were, of course) we picked them up, filled them with water and proceeded to pelt each other with them. Unbeknownst to us, Jenny was at her telescope and spotted what was going on. My mother suddenly showed up on the beach and told us we had to go home immediately. We argued back telling her what a great find we had and how much fun the balloons were. She finally shouted at us to get in the car or else a spanking was imminent. We left very reluctantly. No one explained anything to us. But - when my Dad came home from work and my Mother whispered to him, he could not stop laughing. They never explained the joke."

When I read this, I too remembered there were always those little rubbery white things on the beach and in the waters. I had been strictly told never to touch them; that they were poisonous; but never any indication what they really were. My thought then was that they were off the suction cups of octopuses. I wonder if others remember this, too? And why? Were they really dumped off the ships? On the Navy ships there weren't any women. It's a mystery.

One time during WWII a Russian ship came into the Yard for some repairs (Russia was supposedly our ally then). There were quite a few women aboard. According to my mother who saw them close up as she worked in the Yard, the Russians hardly spoke to anyone. The women looked like men; that no one would have known they were women if they had not been identified as such. Could it be that this incident is what inspired the movie, "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming?" Curious thought.

But the best way to enjoy the waters of Puget Sound was riding on an innertube. That must be pretty difficult now that tires are mostly innertube-less. My favorite innertube was one that had a big bulge in it. The bulge was a perfect back rest as I paddled around. At the curve in the beach where Hawley met Wing Point, the water was shallow for quite a distance. Riding on top, I could see the crabs scuttling and little fishies flitting - the water was clear and cold, the days were warm and sunny. If my uncle and his band of rowdy boys had not been around most of the time, always ready and eager to play war in the water, it would have been idyllic. Getting tipped over and chased was not fun.

Then there was the swamp at the edge of the beach where cattails waved and frogs waited to be caught. Actually, it was the most fun to scoop up tadpoles in a jar and watch them over time, transform into frogs. Another fun activity was running down the beach throwing pieces of driftwood in the air - except for the one time, I furiously flung a good-sized stick way up high and ran like sixty only to have the said stick bonk me in the noggin. Knocked me clear out - such fun!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The "Bomb," Polio, or Brain-washing

There was no hope for survival - either we were going to be blown to bits, paralyzed and maimed,or brain-washed into Communist zombies.

We wore "dog tags" for identification if a bomb hit, heard over and over how Communists hid in every nook and cranny of the U.S. planning the destruction of Capitalism and the slavery of every citizen, and - Then! - came POLIO. It was a disease that would strike without warning to kill and/or paralyze children. Its symptoms were so vague that every child experienced them:

Restless at night
Upset stomach
Sore muscles
Stiff neck

And - "Infantile paralysis" (polio) comes on in 48 hours with nausea, vomiting, and rapid pulse.

The beaches at Port Madison Bay and the west shore beaches (facing Bremerton) were closed to swimming. Outraged voices ranted against the supposed large amounts of sewage being dumped in Bremerton. (No documentation - only rumors reported fastidiously in the local newspaper.) Every mother trembled in fear. Every child suffered suffocating, equally vague, prevention advice:

Don't get chilled
Don't mix with new groups
Don't get over tired
Don't have mouth or throat operations

Public gatherings were banned. Swimming in Puget Sound was as dangerous as never before. Documented cases of polio in Bremerton were sure signs the illness could be spread across the narrow waters seperating the Island from the mainland. The moat that protected us now took on an ominous presence. Headlines across the nation spread the fear like wildfire; black and white photos of stricken young people - their heads protruding body-less from big, white metal tube-like contraptions to ease pressure on their lungs - seared their images in our brains.

Polio had for centuries periodically reared its monster head until Dr. Jonas Salk came up with a vaccination miracle first tested in 1952. Soon we were all lining up for a series of three "shots" but not before several Islanders fell prey - one boy from a well-regarded family died from Bulbar Polio - a type that attacked the brain's stem cells. Even the daughter of the newspaper owners had a case of the disease but fortunately fully recovered. So the panic was more than justified. Now, the world's health organizations are working hard at eradicating polio entirely just as smallpox - another epidemic/pandemic killer - has been eliminated (but is threatened renewal by some lunatics).

On the Island in summer 1943, as cases of polio were announced, Port Madison Bay and the west shore beaches (facing Bremerton) were closed to swimming. Public gatherings were banned - like the Saturday night dance at Foster's, the little theatre at Lynwood, and the churches and schools - day camps, swimming classes. Fortunately it was summer and the public schools were not in session.

When the ban was lifted, the dance hall owners said in a newspaper headline, "Jitterbug Beats Polio Bug," urging people back to dancing.

Nina talks about the "bomb" and polio:

"The next big thing that happened was the atom bomb was dropped on Japan. I remember this day very well because my brother and I had gone down to the beach at Rockaway and sort of waded and played in the water. When we walked back home, my mother got upset because we were so wet. She thought some awful nuclear waste stuff might have drifted in on the Japanese current that hits the coast. Crazy but true. Her other worry was polio. She was certain swimming too much in the cold Puget Sound water might bring it on."

So you see how misinformation played a large part in our lives. At the same time, we were allowed to roam the beaches and woods of the Island, unsupervised. Nina and her brother were five and six years old yet not restricted from the beach in their daily explorations. It was the same in my family and most others. There were close to ten kids in the rag-tag group that I was with nearly every day. We considered the Hawley beach, its swamp, lagoons, and the Sound waters our own playground. My grandmother was in charge as our parents worked. She could not swim and was terrified of the water yet she still let us to go to the beach by ourselves any time we wanted.

Actually the whole Island was our playground. I mentioned its size earlier - approximately twelve miles by three miles. As we grew, our boundaries expanded as we walked to Winslow, Wing Point (by road, or through the woods, or the beach), later clear over to Lynwood for the Saturday matinees. Even adults walked a lot. Not every family had even one car. Hitch-hikers were common. In the local newspaper, there were frequent admonitions for drivers to pick up hitch-hikers. It was the neighborly thing to do.

Homey sort of advice and information always appeared in the paper - its mission was to provide Islanders with Island news. Locations of new stop signs was noted and good thing, too, because the signs were often obscured by wild flaura. Stop signs were painted non-reflective yellow with black letters. At night signs were particularly difficult to see - no street lights anywhere.

Pitch black has to be imagined for most, now. The absence of artificial lighting meant darkness was Really dark. To me the darkness was a blanket of warmth, invisibility - I was a little girl who snuck out of my bedroom window not to explore but to feel the welcome warmth of anonymity and freedom. In the dark I could escape the shackles of oppressing adults - who the hell were they anyway? - they did not understand I needed to be away from them - they were dark, ominous - made me afraid. My grandmother and grandfather were my allies. Grandpa was not aware - but Grandma was! Thank goodness. Her tiny frame enveloped me in security.

Every week Grandma washed the laundry - once the family moved to Hawley, Grandpa awarded her with an automatic washing machine - an absolute reversal of the washing chore for her. Liberation at last - one step at a time. No dryer yet, however. Clothes lines were strung from pole to pole along the north property line. Grampa had also planted an orderly row of some kind of evergreen tree along the line. On a summer morning when I helped Gramma hang wet clothes to dry, the fragrance of the trees mingled with the smell of fresh laundry. It was so quiet then. There was the sound of flapping, wet clothing in the breeze, birds chirping, leaves rustling, Gramma's deep chuckle, ferry and fog horns, bell buoys clanging, the shipyard's noon and quitting-time whistles.

When we were a bit older, we went for swimming lessons at the Navy pool at Fort Ward. School buses picked us up. On the way to lessons, we ate peanut butter sandwiches and pineapple-filled sugar cookies. My sister and I wore bathing suits our mother made us. That may be why I never learned to swim very well - when wet, the suits tended to sag. Both of us clutched at our suits to keep them up. The pool was not very inviting anyway - you couldn't see the bottom. It was condemned at one point and Day Camp at the Sand Spit was our substitute fun. School buses picked us up for that, too. Those buses were community life lines as they offered transportation for voters, PTA carnivals, school plays, and for high schoolers, their way to attend "away" football and basketball games.

Two new words crept into our consciousness - Brain-washing and McCarthyism.
The Korean War was thrust upon us just as we were beginning to feel comfortable in peace. The threat of Communism sneaking into our very homes wasn't enough to scare us into minding our P's and Q's. We were threatened total submission by Russians, Chinese, or Koreans who had methods to control our every thought. Plus Senator Joseph McCarthy convinced the entire nation Communists were hiding everywhere plotting the downfall of the United States of America. How was McCarthy able to stir up our government, schools, churches, parents to such a frenzied state of unaccountable fear? Theories abound but for other discussions. Instead of "Cops and Robbers" or "Cowboys and Indians" we played War. After all our dailey dose of news and education centered on WWII, Communist spies, then the Korean War, the Cold War - we dug trenches and built forts, climbed trees to spy on our neighbors, practiced Hitler's "goose step," pretended to talk on walkie-talkies and throw grenades. On the Island we crouched behind the piles of driftwood on the beach on the lookout for submarine periscopes.

But everything seemed far away - our brush with the world was disconnected.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nina's story

I am excited to report another person's story. Nina (Paynter) Head, one of my classmates, wrote me from her home in New Zealand! Her family too moved from the Midwest during WWII to the Island for war work. She has given me permission to share her memories - they are delightful.

In Nina's words (my comments are in parentheses)

"My family came to Bainbridge (Island) in 1945 before the war ended. My father was working in a bomb factory as foreman in upstate Illinois. He received a letter from his younger brother, Arthur. The letter told how Arthur had traveled to Seattle in search of work. Someone said there was work on Bainbridge Island in the Creosote plant. He took the ferryboat and walked into the main office of the plant. The manager, a Mr. Book, said he didn't have any work for him. Arthur had lost an arm in an industrial accident. Then Mr. Book suddenly said, "I don't need anybody in the plant, what I need is someone to balance these damned books." Mr. Book was extremely busy with orders and things had piled up and gotten on top of him in the (accounting) area. Arthur, it so happened, was a mathmetician - self taught - and immediately seized on this; told Book he could balance the books. So, he promptly did and got himself a permanent job. Orders were flowing into the plant from all over the world. The war wasn't over but reconstruction was beginning in the freed areas. Arthur wrote my Dad to come West.

(Creosote from coal tar is used to coat wood products as a preservative and is widely used around the world. It is thick, oily, black gunk. Bainbridge"s Creosote plant operated for many, many years. Its location at the edge of Eagledale Harbor's south side was perfect for delivery and distribution purposes. And at that time, the ferry stopped at several docks around the harbor including the one at the plant - it was called the Eagledale Dock. The sticky, smelly stuff migrated all around the harbor. Our play beach was directly across from the plant. Lots of the driftwood was creosote spotted and smeared. The tarry smell permeated the air. But it was part of life. I mentioned before that one time a hunk of creosote got stuck in my hair and had to be cut out. Plus when we stepped into it bare-footed - it did not come off easily and sand and little rocks stuck to it like crazy. Now of course the plant's site is an EPA-mandated hazardous waste mess, the beach is polluted, off-limits, and not a pretty site. I liked it better when we didn't know so much.)

(Back to Nina's story)

We got on a train in Illinois. It turned out to be a troop train filled with Marines going to Seattle to be shipped off to fight against the Japanese. That train was their last taste of freedom. The cars were filled with soldiers and liquor (a noisy, raucous party!). At one point the conductor came into our car and held up a mammoth-sized hyperdermic needle and threatened to put some of the soldiers under if they did not quit their disorderly behaviour. (After years of war, everyone's nerves had to have been on razor's sharp edge.)

We had one seat for all of us, my parents, my brother, my foster sister, and me. We took turns sleeping on the floor. We arrived in Seattle so frazzled and tired from our horrible journey that we couldn't think. So when we went to the ferry dock, my father got really mixed up by the sign that said, "Winslow." He expected a "Bainbridge Island" sign. He got very nervous, swearing and cursing his brother for giving him crazy directions. He finally was told the Winslow ferry went to Bainbridge and that we should get off at Eagledale. And so began our residence on Bainbridge."

(More from Nina later)

Nina's story is the first one I've read that so personally recalls the physical and mental stress of moving during the WWII years. Now we are blaze (as in "ho hum") about our transiency. That was not the case then. Our worlds were much smaller and predictable. Even though the last thirty years have given us enormous technological changes, the thirty years before that entirely changed not only the way we lived but also our expectations of where and how we would spend our lives. Middle America came into its own.

From the land-bound, flat Mid-west to the mountainous, watery Puget Sound area was geography shock. It was also culture shock - my family moved from tiny Buhl, Minnesota - population less than one thousand and far from any large city. Bainbridge Island was a whole new world. Seattle and Bremerton, both true cities bursting with surging populations were each reachable by a short ferry ride. My mother who was a city girl by heart, had lived for a short time in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was born. To her, the Island - and the war - was part of her escape route. She longed for San Francisco. Me and the War shot that dream to hell. She never forgave me, the War, or the Island.

I wish she was alive now so she could tell the stories of when she was a "Rosie, the Riveter." The Internet made "Rosie" famous as she never was before. It took six weeks as an apprentice for my mother to become a crack electrician. She and her new buddy, Gertrude (Trudie), had a lot of fun making jewelry from metal scraps. Her curved sword of silver with its handle of brass and copper was my favorite. (I may have told this story before.) It is about five inches long, heavy, and quite beautiful. She always wore it on her coat. One time as she walked in Seattle, a Shriner (officially , the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles, a charitable organization for ill children) offered her $500 for it - because its scimitar design replicates the Shriner's symbol. What the consequences could have been for their using government supplies and time for personal items, I don't know. I know what they made they smuggled out in their lunch pails - and that they were not the only ones.

Women wore hats all the time as well as gloves, hosiery (held up with a garter belt or girdle - no panty hose yet), and dress shoes every time they stepped out the door. Rosie's red kerchief tied turban-like was the inspiration for more draped hats. In the display window at Frederick & Nelson's Department Store in Seattle, fashionable turbans for $5.00 made my mother scoff - "I could make that for thirty five cents." (Have you noticed there is no longer a cents symbol on the keyboard?) Even the welder's face plate was inspiration for fashion. The war caused shortages and invention therefrom. Women knitted and crocheted hats, gloves, and handbags. Instead of new blouses and dresses, sleeves could be cut off and replaced. My mother, creative seamstress that she was, transformed her late brother's suits into skirted suits for her. She also plucked all the feathers from a pheasant someone had shot and covered a hat - one feather at a time. The final touch was three of the tail feathers swooped around the brim. It was a masterpiece.

I'm rambling - back to Nina's story.

"As I said before, we arrived off our troop train experience absolutely done in. Fortunately we arrived in June and the weather was gorgeous. We wanted to do all that the Island had to offer. My brother was six and I was five. We soon discovered the beach at Rockaway and at Eagledale. We could walk there easily from our house. One odd thing that happened was that we kept losing our shoes to the tides. We would park them on the beach and then the tide would come in and take them away. Took us mid-western-ites time to adjust to that.

My Dad got the loan of a row boat and went out salmon fishing. He didn't know anything about fishing for salmon. He was about to give up in exasperation but handed the pole to my mother. Almost immediately a big Chinook took the bait. She screamed as the fish began to pull the small rowboat. She was absolutely terrified - til then she had only caught freshwater fish in tributaries of the Mississippi River. This was really amazing. Finally, together they hauled in the enormous fish. I still have a photo of it.

Another strange thing about the Northwest was the mountains (as compared to) the flat land of the Midwest. So when we drove the big hill at Port Blakely, they were often very anxious."

So you see how the whole world was turning upside down for so many.

More from Nina later.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Our worst fears, ignored dangers, and risky pranks

We eventually survived all the perils of youth and natural disasters and moved on to adulthood. But the most terrifying scourges of our young lives were Communism and "The Bomb" (A or H - didn't matter - either one could blow us all to kingdom come).

Surprise air raid drills struck often during school hours. At the sound of air raid horns, we either dove beneath our desks or huddled in the school hallways with our arms clenched over our heads. To make sure we would be identifiable when (not if) the bombs fell, every kid was supposed to wear ID or "dog" tags - just like the ones soldiers and sailors wore. Except that instead of hanging on a chain around our necks (which would get very hot in a bomb situation), the little metal rectangle embossed with name and address was slipped on a plastic ribbon - I guess the plastic in those days didn't melt. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and school-issued bulletins provided lists of emergency supplies every household should store. The best place to hide from radiation and the enemy hordes which were sure to follow, would be a "bomb shelter" - preferably one underground. Across the country people stockpiled canned goods and flashlights. Some actually built cement-walled shelters. It was sort of a lark really. The government busily tested dozens if not hundreds of atomic blasts - in the Pacific southseas, Nevada, - lucky them! - and who knows where else. Watching the magnificent displays of deadly power gave Americans a sense of national pride. How many cancers did those foolhardy tests cause? And this was done at the same time we were learning how to protect ourselves from enemy bomb radiation - I guess our own bomb radiation was safe for human consumption! At the Bainbridge Island Grange Hall there was a sell-out crowd invited to watch a color slide show of the atomic explosions at Yucca Flats, Nevada. What a show of American might - made us all feel so safe from the enemies lurking at our borders.

This time too, early 1950's, the so-called "Korean situation" crowded the headlines setting off a rush to stockpile sugar and coffee and buy cars and refrigerators. The rationing of WWII was still fresh in everyones' minds. All eligible young men were required to sign up for "the draft". It might be interesting to note that the Korean war was never officially declared as war. It remains on the government books as an "emergency." We elected a 5-star general as President, Ike Eisenhower, in the midst of this new crisis. in January 1953, his inauguration was the first one to be broadcast over national television. All Island schoolchildren sat in the school auditoriums watching a grainy, black and white picture on a set perched on the stage. Lots of us still did not have television sets at home.

But physical danger was nothing compard to the threat of being brain-washed, sucked-in irretrievably into one of the countless insidious, secret Communist plots to destroy America. Why even one of Bainbridge High School star students was enrolled to enter Reed College in Oregon after graduation - that institution was reputed to be a hot-bed of rampant Communism - fear roiled in the hallowed hallways.

The popular Washington State Congressman Pelly visited the Island and spoke to a school-wide assembly about the Red danger lurking in our very government - at every level. He warned, " . . . subversive elements within the government structure . . " - Congressional report says," . . . grim reality of how far communists had infiltrated into the governmental structure . . " The very fabric of the American way of life was being torn apart - according to the bullying, zealot Senator McCarthy.

It seemed all adults smoked. It was glamorous, sexy, adult! All the so-called "cool" kids high-tailed it to a spot behind the high school tennis court to smoke away the lunch hour. Supposedly, some of the teachers did too. I don't know about that but the real danger of first and second hand smoke didn't enter our consciousness. Tobacco companies advertised "free smokes" for servicemen. The hugely popular weekly radio music show "Your Hit Parade" was sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes. The program featured the top ten (at first, fifteen) songs of the week as tabulated by sales of sheet music, phonograph records, and played on jukeboxes. Since this was before computers, just how all this data was cumulated in such a short time is a mystery. At the Cat'n'Fiddle (cafe at the new shopping center just down from the high school)teen hangout, nickels and dimes contributed by all kept the music bouncing because by then (the 1950's), rock and roll, Elvis, Buddy Holley, and lots of others had taken over the air waves. At the high school, the tiny gymnasium smack in the middle of the old building, was the scene of lunch time dancing (which was actually not approved) and "sock hops" after basketball and football games.

Sometimes it was animals for fun. At one of the after-game dances a skunk was used for attention - I think it was pretty much dead. And another one slipped into a locker. Poor Mr. Bean tried to combine meal preparation with a biology dissection lesson. The chickens he brought for be-heading, de-feathering, and subsequent tearing from limb to limb, managed to get sway. (Do you blame them?) They were "accidently" set loose! Not only the biology class in session went tearing down the halls after the squawking fowl but Mrs. Paski's home ec class across the hall got into the act. Mr. Bean left out dissection after that - not even frogs.

Pranks and risky adventures were high on the list of dangers. It was tradition for some of the Senior boys to climb the water tower behind the high school and splash the current Senior class motto for all the world to see. (I'll get to the adventure(s) of my own class later.) The class of 1955 took liberty with the popular movie "Stalag 17" (about Americans in a German prisoner of war camp) and painted "Stalag 55" in huge blue letters across the bricks on the school's side facing the road. Of course everyone knew who the culprits were but no one would "out" them. So, punishment was threatened. But the solidarity of the entire student body stood firm as a "walk out" or "strike" was called. We lined up across the opposite side of the road. It was of course short-lived but we felt liberated and so rebellious. We were the Frosh class then. So grown up - to take part in such frivolity! Better than bibs and bonnets!