Return with Us Now

Dayton Ohio:  1948

Promptly at 7:00 p. m. we are allowed to turn on the radio.  The familiar but always exciting sound of the William Tell Overture comes blasting out.  We turn  the sound up even  louder. My brother and I begin to gallop around the dining room table, slapping our thighs and clicking our tongues. Kippy, our big red Irish Setter bounds along behind, in front, then beside us.  The music fades.  The announcer comes on: “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver!!! The Lone Ranger rides again!!!”

Welcome to my blog.  You are invited to read about what it was like to be a War Baby growing up in America in the 40’s and 50’s and coming of age in the 60’s. Questions, comments and contributions of your own memories are welcome.  We’ll be remembering everything from the atomic bomb to Zombie movies: Elvis, white buckskin shoes, soap operas, whatever comes up.

Published in: on March 4, 2009 at 3:49 am  Comments (1)  
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Love Story Part I

My parents’  love story began in December of 1939 or early January of 1940. They were both in the Navy. My father was a dashing young fighter pilot who favored white silk scarves and White Owl Cigars. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Cleveland, with his “Black Irish” black hair and brown eyes, he looked more like an Italian than the German-Jewish-Irish lad he was. His flat nasal accent would identify him to my mother’s family as a “damnyankee.”

My mother, a Navy nurse, was a tall (5’6″) redhead from Alabama. She had blue-green eyes and could raise one eyebrow. [My father often said this ability was one reason he married her. It was also one of the many skills she didn’t pass on to us.] Daddy was in the Navy following his first love: flying.  Mother was in the Navy because she had been dropped by her first love, Roy. Her last vision of him, skating away across an iced-over pond, inspired her to join the Navy, since her life was “over.”  Earning  a steady income was no small matter during those final years of The Depression. The Navy also gave nurses a higher social status than civilian nurses had at the time.

They met on a blind date. My mother was living in the nurses’ residence on the base in Norfolk, Virginia.  Daddy’s friends were trying to find him a date.  While they were calling around, he was shooting craps.  I don’t know how and why they reached my mother. or why she accepted the date. She was engaged, or at least engaged to be engaged at the time. When he arrived, he waited, as was required in those days, in the Residence parlor.  Mother sent her friend Eleanor down to inspect him and report back. She said he  was good looking but very short. (All their lives together my mother would be very conscious that she was almost as tall as he was.  If she wore shoes with more than  one-inch heels, she would appear taller. It didn’t seem to bother him, but she never wore really high heels and spent a lot of time in sandals or  bare footed).

Her first recollection of him was that he had “twinkly brown eyes.” He remembered her coming down the stairs with her dress in a box under her arm.  It was a lovely filmy crepe in pale aqua covered with applique and pearls. Floaty and glamorous.   I’m sure she was beautiful in it. I wish I had seen her or a picture of her in it at least once. [Many years later, I was given the dress for playing “dress-ups.”  Later it was made over into a fairy costume.  The fact that she gave it and her black velvet hooded evening coat to me to play “dress-up” was one of many demonstrations of her determined, calculated refusal to be sentimental about things or about the past.]

I never saw or heard my parents arguing when I was growing up.  My mother was afraid if they had a fight and my father went up in a plane and crashed, she’d blame herself.  Also, she had lost her father and two brothers, all at very young ages.   I think she believed that men were fragile creatures who had to be carefully preserved.  She was right, of course, as far as my father was concerned. Despite all her precautions, including literally doing all the heavy lifting after he had a heart attack in his early 50’s, he predeceased her by over 10 years.  She never forgave him, or the G-d, in whom she did not believe, for this betrayal.

Of course they disagreed with each other and had disputes.  If either one became angry one of them would go for a walk and walk it off.  The only thing that really set my mother off was her jealousy.  Once, at a party she socked a woman who had wound her arms around Daddy’s neck.  (I think more than a little alcohol was involved among all parties on that occasion.)  Once, when Mother became angry about at trip my father wanted to take without her, or some attention he’d paid to someone else, my mother got so angry she threw the can of bacon grease she kept above the stove across the kitchen.  It took her hours to clean  up the mess, more than enough time  to cool off and feel foolish.  It was a lesson to me. In later years, when I was tempted to throw  something, I made sure I didn’t throw anything that would make too big a mess. (Playing cards are good for minor flare ups; for more serious mads, raw eggs provide a satisfying sound and don’t take too long to clean off the wall.)

My brother Billy and I grew up as beloved extras in their love story.   This was a good thing. The older I became and the more I saw of marriages and divorces, the more grateful I was that my parents were more important to each other than we were to them. We knew we were loved, even admired, sometimes; but we also knew that our parents loved and needed each other more than they  loved us.  Over the years, even during the long months when my father was at sea, my mother never turned to us as substitutes for his love and affection. I do not remember a day going by without Mother telling us how wonderful Daddy was and how much she loved him and how we should love him too.

A deep, erotic sensuality was a  leitmotif to our family life.  I remember how thrilled my brother and I were when we were allowed, on the day my father returned from the Korean war, to go to the Saturday kids’ matinee at Noon and stay for the Esther Williams feature film showing at 2:00 p.m.  Some mornings I was perplexed to see that my mother couldn’t seem to get her nightgown on right side out. [ Many years later, when, newly married, I saw myself  in the mirror one morning wearing my own nightgown inside out, I had an “aha moment.”  Once, as a teenager, I embarrassed my father by asking him how he got the small bruise on his chest. I later realized was a “love bite” mark.  On a few occasions when I was in my teens and their bedroom was next to mine, I  heard them together. It was embarrassing, arousing and reassuring all at the same time.

More Next Time

Sports And Games

Recently my son Patrick commented on his own blog (See link under “Son of War Baby”) that his “hippie” parents thwarted any ambitions he had to play organized sports in general, and baseball in particular.  As I commented on his site, our recollections differ to some extent, but I  confess that my own experiences with sports and games as a child and adolescent were almost all negative.

I have very early dream-like memories of roller skating with my brother Billy wearing  the old fashioned skates that required a skate key (usually worn on a string or chain around a child’s neck).  I remember making sure not to skate too fast. And even skating crouched down, knees bent,  bottom resting on my heels, afraid of falling.  This is an indication of the natural caution (except in affairs of the heart) that  contributed to my poor showing at any sport that involved the remotest risk of physical injury.

I was a small, skinny little girl.  Because of my date of birth, I entered kindergarten when I was not yet five.  I don’t remember recess problems in kindergarten.  First grade was the beginning of years of inadequacy and sometimes downright misery I associate with competitive sports.

In 1948 before synthetics were widely available,  snow suits were much more serious, not to mention heavier than today’s brightly colored nylon stuffed with fiberfill .  I vividly recall  struggling with brown wool pants topped by a heavy quilted jacket with a stubborn zipper.  The outfit weighed pounds, making it difficult for me to run.

We were living in Rhode Island the winter I turned six.  I attended a four room school house with a bell tower (the rope for the bell was in our classroom).  The only exercise facilities were a large field next to the school and a small basement, used only when it was pouring rain.  My own memories of recess in winter snows are blissfully dim.  However, my mother often told me that she would get tears in her eyes when she drove by the school and saw all the other children running far ahead as I trudged along, trying to catch up, a sad and solitary figure in dark brown against the white snow.  I also do remember that I feared and hated recess so much that I stretched out a meager lunch ( five peanut butter and cracker sandwiches) to last throughout the entire lunch hour.  This did not please my first grade teacher, Mrs. Companion.  I also recall being very relieved that we moved away before the  ceremonial end of my first grade year, because part of the festivities were relay races and other competitive sports, a guarantee of public humiliation. Being last, one way or another, was pretty much a description of my sports experience.  I was last chosen on every team when we moved from freestyle recess to organized sports.

I wasn’t too good at hopscotch or jax either. Do any little girls still play jax any more? I remember the smell of the little red ball and how pretty the gray jax looked, almost star like with their five or six short stems with rounded ends.  The object was to toss the jax and then bounce the ball and catch it with one hand while picking  up the jax  I think you picked up one of the jax (onesies) then two (twosies) and so on until you picked up all of them at once.  If you were playing with someone else, and you faltered, it was her turn.  I think you had to start from onesies each time you missed.

Jump rope was another simple game that I could not seem to master.  Bad enough when I was trying to jump by myself, using the special red and white rope with red handles.  When I was between two girls turning the long rope the schools always seemed to have available and chanting the required rhymes (I especially remember “Mable, Mable, set the table and don’t forget the RED HOT PEPPERS !), I was even more awkward.  I would trip, or just end up running out and standing aside, dazed.  Double Dutch jump rope where two ropes crossed one another overhead was worse.

Now that I know the significance of never having had depth perception, I can understand why my father’s attempts to teach me to catch or bat a ball, and  my months long attempts at archery (I only managed  hit a target twice!!!) failed.

It’s less understandable that I was also a failure “knock ball.” I think knockball was devised to avoid the problems many kids have with catching smaller baseballs or softballs and the possible  injuries involved in many ball games.  The person who was “up” stood on home base and” knocked” the ball as you would serve a volley ball.  I’m pretty sure the balls we used were actually volley balls.  Then you ran arouond the bases as in baseball.  I couldn’t seem to get anywhere with the game.  It was so bad that a sweet friend suggested I pray for a miracle: a home run.  My faith was pretty simple then an I followed her advice.  And, I actually did hit one home run.  Wanting to be sure it wasn’t a fluke, I asked for a second.  That one came too.  After that, I still was chosen last, but I didn’t feel quite so helpless. I didn’t want to annoy my Heavenly Father, so I never asked for a third.

Other games, like “Red Rover,” and later speedball and soccer, that involved only a willingness to keep running across or up and down a field were much less humiliating, although I never did well.  Basketball brought out my competitive spirit, but only as an agressive guard in “girls’ basketball” where we had only five players and could only run half the court.

And don’t get me started on tennis, where I was responsible for the loss of a number of balls, despite my kind parents’ paying briefly and futiley for tennis lessons.  (I had pictured myself in a white shirt and tennis skirt, tanned in the warm California sun, moving gracefully about the court.  Instead, I stumbled around and spent more time trying to retrieve balls from outside the court than volleying.)

All of this made me more miserable than can be imagined. In the 40’s and 50’s your social status was pretty much determined by your ability to play sports. Is it any wonder that I never became an enthusiastic Little League or soccer mom.

Published in: on April 20, 2009 at 9:01 pm  Comments (1)  

Shoes: Buster Brown to Blue Suede

I don’t remember my first bedroom slippers, but they must have been  classic “bunny slippers,” because  until we were almost adults my brother and I called whatever house slippers we wore “rabbit shoes.”

I do remember how we loved to shop for  shoes.  After we put the shoes on our feet we would be led over to a tall wooden box on a small  platform.   We inserted our feet into a slot at the bottom. Magically we could look down into the box and see our feet inside the shoes surrounded by greenish light. We wiggled our toes to show we had plenty of room.  This was billed as a scientific way to assure a good fit.  The device  was a simple X-ray machine.  In that early  beginning of Atomic Age we were led to believe that “Mr. Atom” was a friendly fellow, with many uses, none of them dangerous, except, of course The Bomb. No one ever thought that constant exposure to the shoe store’s machine could be harmful.  And it wasn’t to us.  We were only exposed to the radiation for a few seconds a few times a year The poor, shoe clerks were a different matter, but no one figured that out until years later.

For years my brother Billy and I insisted on wearing Buster Brown shoes. Buster Brown sponsored a Saturday morning radio  program to which we were devoted.  We loved “Froggy the Gremlin” and “Kitty Katty Wampy Wampy.” We insisted that our mother buy us Buster Brown Shoes.  You could tell if they were “genuine Buster Brown shoes because right there in the inside of the shoe where your heel went was a picture of Buster Brown and his dog “Tyge.”

My mother complained once that the shoes seemed to fall apart. The shoe clerk replied, “Everything fell apart after the war.”

I don’t recall when I stopped wanting Buster Browns and started asking for patent leather shoes (commonly called Mary Janes.) My mother thought their shiny look made them look cheap, but she finally gave in.  I wore them to Sunday School with white sox.

When i was about 10 or 11 I had a humiliating experience centering around a pair of beautiful new shoes.  As I recall they were navy blue with a built up, not quite “high” heel and clip on bows.  They were brought for me to wear to a birthday party.  I’ve never forgotten that day.  I’ve written the sad story more than once.  If you want to read my “reverse Cinderella story, click on “Cinderella?” in the side bar.

Random shoe memories:

Bucks and Oxfords

I never actually wore, or even saw a pair of blue suede shoes.  But  white suede shoes, called “white bucks” were big in the 50’s.  I had a pair with tiny buckles in the back (Buckles in the back of things were big then.) I also had brown and white saddle shoes.  Both were hard to keep clean.  We used chalky white liquid that came in a bottle with a little sponge or was applied with a square of rough padding.  Our brown loafers and “Oxfords” we polished with the same Kiwi polish that Daddy used for his uniform shoes.  We had special shoes polishing brushes and rags.  I loved polishing shoes, especially the smell of the Kiwi polish.

High Heels

My first high heels (precursors to much discomfort to come) were white sandals with low Cuban heels.  Later on I wore higher heels with pointed toes.  My mother said I looked like Minnie Mouse!!! Dancing in heels was no fun.  Often as the evenings wore on we young women would take off our shoes, particularly if we were dancing to fast music.  High heels dyed to match the “formals” we wore to proms and formal dances were very popular as were white satin shoes for weddings. Often bridesmaids wore satin heels dyed to match their pastel dresses.  A contrast to this  conservative “preppy” approach, were the high heels made of clear plastic with sparkles inside the heels and sometimes across the top of the shoe.  I think of them as cheesy now, but they seemed quite elegant at the time and saved money since, unlike the dyed-to-match, they could be worn with any of the formal dresses in your closet.  (Most of us had at least two or three different “formals.” Being seen in the same dress over and over was not acceptable.)

Springtime and Band Aids

In Southern California where we lived in the 50’s the season changes are subtle: Temperatures don’t vary that much from December to April.  However, there were definite changes in clothes and shoes, especially shoes, that announced that Spring had arrived.  As if signaled through telepathy, all the girls were suddenly out of heavy oxfords and bucks and into “flats.”  These low heeled shoes were worn without stockings or sox.  (Stockings were expensive and required complicated under garments  in those days before pantyhose were common. Wearing sox with your flats would immediately brand you as a dork.)  As a result, the stiff new flats rubbed against tender ankles. For several weeks most of us limped around wearing band aids on our ankles until our blisters hardened into callouses.  As summer approached, some of the more daring and fashion conscious girls wanted to show off their tanned feet and polished toenails by wearing “go aheads.” (So named because you couldn’t walk backwards in them.  People call them “flip flops” now.)  This was permitted.  Boys, however were prohibited from doing the same on the grounds that they couldn’t be depended upon to wash their feet.

Barefoot and Pregnant

Years went by, the fifties ended and I graduated from high school. In the summer of 1964 I was attending Seattle University, married and pregnant with my first child.  As much as possible I was also barefoot. I’m not sure why  my aversion to shoes began.  It might have been wobbling on “spike” heels, or the years of blisters and band aids.  Whatever the cause, by 1964 it was longstanding.  So when I was not attending classes down the hill from our apartment, I was  usually at home barefoot and pregnant.  My mother arrived just before my daughter’s birth.  By then I was so large with child that I could no longer wash my feet.  The skin on their bottoms was tough and very dark. Mother  insisted on washing them before each doctor’s visit.  She  bought me a pair bedroom slippers which I dutifully wore to the hospital during my 3-day  (Those were the days!!!) stay.  I immediately discarded them when I came home with the baby.  Fortunately,bare feet suited the spirit of the early 60’s and I remained happily unshod  when I was at home, only dragging my furry blue bedroom slippers out for  my next two births  in 1965 and 1967.  They were retired forever after my youngest was born.

Handmade Sandals

The only footwear I recall with nostalgia is a pair of handmade sandals I bought in Seattle at the height of the U-District’s 60’s heyday.  They were made by  a sweet long haired “fringie” (Seattle often called the local “hippies” “fringies” because they hung around the “fringes” of the University of Washington.  I remember I stood on a large piece of heavy brown paper while he drew around my feet with a pencil.  In a couple of weeks I had a lovely pair of leather sandals that I wore for years.  I’m sure they’d still be wearable now, over 40 years later, but like many things, somehow over the years they were lost along the way.

Feet Grow Old Too

Now that I’m over 65, I find I prefer keeping my feet covered for warmth, and aesthetics.  So, I wear stretchy ballet type slippers.  And, alas, partly due to heredity and partly to  the high heels, I have bunions.  So I wear Birkenstocks. (They remind me of my long lost sandals.)  And, I even have a pair of orthopedic Mary Janes;   plain black,  as befits my age and the condition of my bunioned feet, which require leather softer than patent leather.

Published in: on April 2, 2009 at 1:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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We are standing in a circle, six boys and seven girls, all in the cruel and dreamy zone between 10 and 12, poised between childhood and adolescence.  We are at a birthday party in North Florida on a sticky Saturday afternoon in June of 1953.  Pre-Elvis, the boys’ hair is cut in varying degrees of shortness, tending toward the crew or buzz cut. They wear white short sleeve shirts and tan or  dark blue pants. Their faces are scrubbed and shiny.  Innocent, yet foxlike with secrets. ( I know their wide- eyed innocence is  only skin deep. I’ve heard the jokes they make on the yellow school bus and on the playground at recess where  every orifice and bodily function is a source of snorting, sniggering fascination.)

We girls are dressed both for a hot summer afternoon and for the party. Our outfits range from my lace trimmed pale  blue cotton voile to Alicia’s  white cotton shirt and bright red shorts.  Alicia, standing next to me, has abundant dark hair and bright blue eyes.  Small, but definitely visible buds of breasts softly mound against her thin shirt. I can smell the salty sweat coming from the half moons under her arms.  I’m short, with sticklike arms and legs.  My hair is light brown and fine, turned under in a lank pageboy . My hazel eyes are hidden behind  thick eyeglasses with heavy frames. One ear piece presses down,  irritating the top of my right ear. When I  speak or smile, I reveal a shiny  wire network of  braces. (I have refused to smile  or “say cheese” when the hostess’s mother, dressed in a pink striped shirtwaist, her matching shiny pink lips smiling brightly, lined us up and aimed her Brownie  at us.)

Each girl is wearing one shoe.  Each boy is holding a girl’s shoe in his hands–his prize–retrieved when the signal was given for each boy to choose “his Cinderella”  by picking her shoe from the pile in the middle of the floor.  Grinning, the proudest boy, the boy I have a secret crush on, holds a dirty, unpolished, down-at-the-heels saddle shoe. I don’t need to look down to see that Alicia is wearing its mate.

In the exact center of the circle is the one shoe that was not chosen. It’s a beautiful shoe.  Brand new.  Soft blue leather.  Slim, with a detachable  blue leather bow clipped on. I don’t need to look around the circle to see which girl is the unchosen Cinderella.

The shoe is mine.

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Published in: on April 1, 2009 at 4:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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