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.