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.

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