WW2 Remembered

I was born in the middle years of the Great Depression. It was years later that I discovered what that meant. I was the first of four boys born to a blue collar family.

My father worked for the railroad in El Paso, Texas. He had an eighth grade education and was completing an apprenticeship as a machinist. He was skilled at forming metal with a lathe and milling machine. I can remember the smell of his work. It was the smell of oil in his clothes and the balls of ‘waste’ he used to clean his hands. Waste was the scraps from the cotton mills made up of tangled threads and scraps of cloth left from the looms and sewing machines in the factories. I remember staring at those mysterious balls of thread and wondering about the colors and how it was these threads were discarded before they could be shirts or dresses. What a waste. It was one of my early concepts.
I remember eating outside. There were picnics in open spaces and in the mountains, made possible by the fact that Dad only worked three days a week. Jobs were so scarce that workers would share a six-day-a-week job. It must have been like paradise to work three days and then have four days off. This was far different than I would experience later on with my own family. Later, Dad told me what he did. He cut up railroad cars and shipped them to Japan where the Japanese made weapons to make war on us. We would need that iron later to launch our defenses for World War II.

My folks were very frugal. They took out a mortgage and bought a house when I was about three. They bought a Model A Ford Coupe with a rumble seat; which I had fond memories of. I was allowed to play in and on the car and took great delight in driving it in my mind. A rumble seat, for the benefit of anyone younger than I, was a compartment where the rear trunk is on a modern car that hinged from the bottom and revealed an outside bench seat for those passengers that did not fit in the front seat. There was a running board; which was a place to stand on the outside of the car, and footsteps up the back fender for climbing into the rumble seat. A Coupe could seat three adults that were not afraid to touch one another or two adults and one squirming kid. The rumble seat was only useful in dry weather; which was most of the time in El Paso. There were one or two spare tires. One spare tire was kept in an open well of the front fender and the other hung on the back of the rumble seat. The reason I was safe playing in the car was that it had to be cranked to start it and that took a very strong man like my father.

Life changed on December 7, 1941. I was six and in kindergarten; and a radio was brought into the room so we could hear President Roosevelt. Radio was a big part of life at that time. Everything stopped and we paid attention when the radio was on. This time the teachers were very serious and we tried hard to understand about Pearl Harbor and the Japanese. I had heard H. V. Kaltinborn talk on the radio about the Germans in Poland but I didn’t understand how it affected us. My world was very small then and I didn’t understand about nationalities or any place but El Paso. From that point onward my education was controlled by the events of the world.

I was signed up for violin lessons and had taken several lessons from a stern man with a bald head. My dad and grandfather had lots of hair so I would notice that. After a few lessons I was introduced to a big room full of kids playing all manner of instruments. The leader said, “Give me a G.” I didn’t have a clue. That day was the last time I saw the bald man. I asked my mother what happened to him and she just said, “He was a German.” There were no more violin lessons. Some things are not explainable to a young boy. I was beginning a new education.

Fraternal orders were big then. Mother had signed us up for the Woodmen of the World. It was like an insurance company. You paid your dues and had a small insurance policy in your name. You also went to a meeting hall and wore a cap like a soldier’s cap and marched to the music. A woman had a clapper made from four castanets on a stick and kept time even when there was no music. I still remember the marches, All American Promenade, Over the Waves and some Souza marches that were played on a 78 rpm record player. We marched in patterns of columns and ranks and split and recombined the columns. In the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? there was a scene where the Ku Klux Klan marched before a flaming cross at night. It was like that, only done by women and children in a big hall.

I had other influences at that time. My mother was a Mormon, descended from pioneers who crossed the western plains to Utah and on to Arizona. My father was not a member but I attended Church and Sunday school on Sunday, and Primary on Tuesday after school. I learned to give short talks to my peers and had a circle of friends there that did not necessarily correspond to the friends in my neighborhood or at school. Mormons were a very small subset of the El Paso community and so I had very compartmentalized sets of friends.

My Uncle Fred had just married and was the age to go into the military. When you were called then it could have been to any branch of the service. It would seem unlikely that anyone from El Paso would be called into the Navy. Ninety-nine percent of young men in El Paso have never seen any body of water larger than the pool at the Y, much less an ocean. Nevertheless, Uncle Fred became a Seabee or, as the name suggested, a member of a Construction Battalion, C-B. His specialty was refrigeration and that would become his occupation for the rest of his life. His location would be secret. There were lots of secrets about the war. “Sh! Loose Lips Sink Ships” was the motto. The family wanted to know where he was going so they assumed the Pacific region and made up girls names for every island they could think of. So when he asked about someone not in the family we would have a clue where he was. When he wrote about something between two strange girls we suspected it was Midway Island; which was one of the islands that did not get a name. Now we could listen to the news with some understanding of his risk.

Things were getting scarce and even postal letters were involved. The government invented V-mail. Now you know how email became instantly accepted as a moniker for the new technology. The V stood for victory and became attached to everything to remind us of our priorities. V-mail was a method for taking hundreds of pounds of precious cargo space and compacting it on a roll of microfilm for the trip and printing it out at the destination for distribution. Everyone wrote a one page message on a large sheet of paper which was sorted and filmed for each destination and then printed half size before delivery at the other end. If both parties wrote every day then both parties might receive mail in batches of 14 every two weeks. I think everyone including the censors read everything several times and pretty soon the same jokes would show up all over the place in V-mail. The address and the message were on the same side of the paper like a postcard, so anyone that handled it could see it. The little teeny envelope was not used until it was at its destination. You could buy preprinted greeting cards on V-mail blanks so all the person had to do was address it. Some people drew pictures and cartoons. That’s when we learned about Kilroy, the little guy peeking over the fence. ‘Kilroy was Here’ began popping up all over the place. Before that, the only universal graffiti I could remember was a stenciled sign spray painted on every building, alley, and wall where cars would be that said, ‘Watch the Fords go by’. The words go and by were very close to each other and I assumed ‘goby’ was a word I had not learned yet. Of course the word Ford was in the trademark font on the radiator caps of all Fords at the time. Ford got a lot of cheap advertising in those years. The only other thing that came close was the Burma Shave signs along the road set out as a rhyming series of clever signs to break up the monotony of a long drive. Here is an example: Henry The Eighth - Sure Had Troubles - Short On Wives - Long On Stubble! - Burma Shave.

I think some people may have made up their own versions. Some of the signs did not end with Burma Shave. That was the clue. Even when it was missing, you would just say ‘Burma Shave’ to yourself. Before billboards there were barns. An unpainted barn could last a little longer with a tobacco or snuff ad painted on the side.

Thoughts of war were everywhere. Movies were a very important common experience for Americans. Movies were cheap and were the source of our wartime propaganda. We always started with the national anthem and newsreels along with the movie and cartoon and serialized superhero short. It didn’t take long to incorporate Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo into the animated cartoons. They were clowns to be humiliated by the likes of Popeye and Daffy Duck. Cartoon dogfights took place to illustrate how the USA could whip those Japs; and the kids would cheer. WW2 was a very popular war.

We saved everything for defense; balls of string, balls of tinfoil (there was no aluminum foil), and even grease from cooking. Anything could be used to make weapons. When word got out that spider webs were being used to make crosshairs for bombsights, we almost collected cobwebs but could not find anywhere to take them.

I saved my pennies to buy airplane spotter manuals. Next to a Boy Scout manual, there couldn’t be a more valuable reference book. I really needed to know the good guys from the bad. Who knows when a Japanese Zero would fly over El Paso? They flew over Honolulu, didn’t they? It was then that Mitsubishi came into my vocabulary. For many years, most Japanese manufacturers chose an alias for their company name like Panasonic for Matsuchita.

Rationing was very prevalent, starting with gasoline and going on to sugar, meat, coffee, and butter. It became more important than money. People were robbed for their ration books and they felt devastated beyond any monetary loss. After all, you can get more money. The books were about 2 by 5 inches and about ten pages at a time. Each page had perforated panels like stamps with symbols of tanks, guns, and airplanes on each stamp. The stamps would expire so you had to use them in the time period that they were valid. The stores would have a sign indicating which stamps were valid. If you didn’t actually buy the food in the time period it was too bad. Short-term cash problems could cause a great inconvenience and you could not easily plan ahead because sometimes the stamps were used in a random manner. It was illegal to sell stamps. Butchers could sell a single piece of baloney and so he had to also make change for the ration stamp. This was in the form of red and blue tokens; which did not expire. Using too many tokens raised eyebrows and you might be considered unpatriotic to be guilty of hoarding your privileges. Then margarine became popular. To make sure no one was counterfeiting butter, the only margarine you could buy was pure white and also contained a color envelope so you could dye it yellow after you got home. Being caught transporting colored margarine was a very serious crime. Some families, like mine, learned to eat white margarine because it was more convenient. You had to soften it, color it and re-refrigerate it before eating, otherwise.

Gas rationing was very tricky. There was a ration symbol like the letter ‘A’ placed on the windshield. Your ration stamps had to match the information on the windshield. Taxis had one symbol and private cars had another and farmers had their own. Sharing a ride was a patriotic thing, as well as an economic thing. Being caught with a siphon hose just about made you a foreign spy. My dad just used his for moving gas to the blowtorch which was used for soldering stuff around the house.

Sugar was in short supply and so home canning became a problem. We were fortunate that we lived on the Mexican border. I can remember going across the bridge to Juarez to buy sugar. We had to park on the US side and walk to the store, then return carrying a five-pound bag for each person in the group. When the customs inspector came around to check our haul, there had to be a warm body to represent each bag of sugar we had. I think there was a period of time involved or maybe the custom agent took a ration stamp. Anyway, sugar was a scarce item, so they invented saccharine and lots of people used it, but didn’t really like it. If you said someone was saccharine, it wasn’t a compliment; it meant phony, not sweet. Coffee was not a big problem for our family, but something we took advantage of it in the Mexican market. It could be traded or we could use it for our friends who drank it. It is a curious thing that we could go to a poor country to get luxury items in wartime. Could it be that scarcity of goods is more related to team building than inability to provide? There goes my fuzzy reality again.

You hear stories about ladies stockings and how women learned to mend them using tiny hooks to loop around the runs. My mother bought one. I have seen women taking their stockings to Kress’s department store to be mended while they waited. The women wanted to wait for fear they would never see their stockings again, so they were willing to stand in lines. Standing in lines seemed to be the only solution for a lot of things.

Later, when the war ended, I became aware of who had to stand in lines and why. People stand in lines for entertainment and sports and seem to have a good time of it; but to have to stand in line for the necessities is inhumane. I always felt sorry for the East Europeans and Soviets for their grim queues and for their interpersonal conflict in line. It is a symbol of the good life to never have to stand in line for necessities.

Chewing gum, especially bubble gum was the subject of rumors, false information, and denial for my age group. I could smell Fleer’s Double Bubble gum from about 30 feet away and my first question was, “Where did you get it?” I think that sometimes they lied, because by the time I could get there, there was no evidence of gum. Sometimes a single piece of gum was offered for the exorbitant price of twenty-five cents. Ordinarily, it would sell for a penny. Little gray market stores would be in someone’s home and there may or may not be a sign in the window. You would think it was an illicit drug by the way it was handled.

One of the things that happened at a tender age that affected me all my life concerned Christmas. I had expressed a desire to have a 16 mm movie film projector and was told that it was not likely that such an expensive item would be available. Some time later it was noted that my father needed new underwear. The night before Christmas Eve we all went downtown and drove around the block while my mother went in to a department store. She came out with a package that went into the trunk and the comment was made about getting underwear for Dad. On Christmas morning I got my projector but there was no underwear for Dad. I learned something about Christmas that year about Santa and sacrifice, but mostly about guilt. I still get angry about the commercialization of such a serious commemorative. As I learned Latin and Roman History and learned about the hijacking of the Christian faith and traditions, it just added to my dissatisfaction of our current practices. How do we expect children to accept the seriousness of the atonement of Jesus Christ when we fill their heads with Santa, flying reindeer, Easter bunnies, and other lies?

I enjoyed school for the most part, even though I had troubles paying attention and sometimes got distracted enough to blow off a whole work session. My first day in first grade was a disaster for me. I was supposed to divide a circle into halves and quarters and color parts of them and time was up and I had nothing to show. How humiliating! My first day and I blew it. It was the end of the world for me.

I went to David Crockett Elementary School, named after a famous Texan, who I found out later was from Tennessee; and he was just unfortunate enough to be killed in Texas by a whole lot of Mexicans. Later on in life, I discovered that I was surrounded by Mexicans. In Texas, most of the schools were named after men who died in the Alamo. Most El Paso schoolchildren could rattle off the names of a dozen martyrs who had given their life for the Republic. All they had to do was close their eyes and name all the schools in town.

I had crushes on pretty little girls from the very beginning. I had to learn about the pecking order of who is worthy (meaning me) and who is unworthy (me again). I really felt sorry for the girls that looked like they would grow up to look like Eleanor Roosevelt. There was one such girl in my class. Her father was the fire chief and I thought he was really great because he treated me very well when we toured the fire station.

I remember the end of World War 2. The Germans were defeated in May of 1945 but the Japanese kept on fighting and then we dropped the bomb; twice. We had been close to the site where the first atom bomb had been tested. It was only about 65 miles away near Alamogordo, New Mexico. They called it V-E Day (Victory in Europe) when the Germans were defeated. It was called V-J Day (Victory in Japan) when the Japanese surrendered. School was out and it was a hot summer day in El Paso. The buzz went around the neighborhood and someone said something about celebration. I was nine years old and was badly in need of something to celebrate. So I took myself down to the drugstore about four blocks from my house and ordered something I always wanted, a cherry sundae made with crushed maraschino cherries, whipped cream, and a cherry on top. It was an old fashioned soda fountain in a corner drug store. The fountain was shaped like a long island instead of against the wall. It had several jerk stations with a pair of spritzer faucets at each one. You could look across the fountain and see the people on the other side. I don’t think there was anyone else at the fountain that day except the soda jerk, so I explained to him that I was celebrating because it was V-J Day. It was a very delicious sundae. I ate it slowly and marveled at how sweet and flavorful minced maraschino cherries could be; and I vowed to order it again instead of the syrup sundae. When I went to pay for it at the front counter with my 15 cents, I discovered why it was so good. It cost more than 15 cents. After explaining to the cashier about my plight he reckoned he could help me celebrate and covered my check. I offered to get the rest of the money later and he told me to forget it. He was celebrating too. That was my first experience with redemption. Someone else paid and got me off the hook. I walked on the opposite side of the street on the way home because there was a bar there, the only one I knew of, and certainly there must be someone celebrating there. I walked by and it smelled like beer and urine so I assumed someone was in there. I didn’t turn my head to look in; just kept walking, so I am not sure whether I celebrated alone in El Paso or maybe there were other people in another neighborhood whooping it up.

Later I saw, on a Life magazine cover, a sailor kissing a girl in the middle of the street in New York City. I begin to form the idea that I lived in a really boring place.

We had become very paranoid with the ideas that Germans might get loose on the streets of El Paso. There were a lot of POWs being kept at Fort Bliss and they sometimes were used to do clean up jobs around the residential neighborhoods. We always were on the lookout for escapees. And then they showed up at school, not POWs, but the kids of the 116 rocket scientists that came over with Werner Von Braun! We were traumatized. These were not little kids like us. They were big kids that were being mainstreamed in at a lower grade until they could pick up the language. They would jump up and click their heels when called on in class, and spoke with great authority. They dressed very sharply and made us look like slobs. I could tell they were very bright. They were children of the men that developed the V2 rocket and buzz bombs. I had read about these things in my spotter manuals. These guys scared me! The girls had grown up bodies with breasts and I, being very short, was at eye level with those breasts. Any of the guys could have punched us out in short order. I avoided them as much as I could. They pretty much liked to stick together anyway. I didn’t blame them for that.

Then, one day at about 11 AM, there was a boom that shook the earth. Were they testing another atom bomb in Alamogordo? No, it sounded like it came from the south. Maybe it was a natural gas storage tank. I checked from the top of my grape arbor in the back yard. No, the tank seemed to be intact. There was only one source of information, the radio in the house. The noise came from the edge of Juarez, the town across the border from El Paso. There was some activity from Alamogordo. Someone had seen a vapor trail go up just prior to the boom. The German scientists had bombed Mexico with a V2 rocket they had shipped from Germany! It was claimed to be an accident. It had no warhead, sure. People around El Paso were not so sure they wanted to have their old arch enemy playing with weapons of mass destruction so close to town. I don’t remember seeing the German kids after that. The year after I graduated high school, the Germans moved to Huntsville, Alabama to build the rockets that allowed men to go into space and walk on the moon. In 1955, Werner Von Braun became an American citizen.

I don’t know what finally precipitated it; but my folks decided it was time to move at the end of sixth grade (1947) at Crockett Elementary School. Maybe it was because all four of us boys were sleeping in the same tiny converted sleeping porch. I went back to that house fifty years later and couldn’t believe how it had shrunk. The original kitchen stove and sink were still there and I had to side step through it to keep from bumping things. What I had remembered as a draining board next to the sink was a fold down pantry door in a cabinet. Maybe my mother was putting on weight and could no longer navigate that kitchen.