Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The War Years

This is more reverie stirred up by my visit last week to my childhood haunts. Again, so far as memory serves, this is true.

World War II is a backdrop to all my earliest memories. I'm told my brother and I were at Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco with my parents, Bud and Ruthanne Blair, and my aunt and uncle, Helen and Bill Millward, on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941, while the Japanese were dropping bombs on Hawaii.  I see no traces of war worries in our Christmas photo. I see my beautiful mother who hung tinfoil icicles on the tree one strand at a time so that they would hang gracefully. My talented father had graduated from UC Berkeley a year and a half previously with a degree in architecture and was working as a draftsman for Owens-Illinois Glass Company. My brother, Mickey was fifteen months old.

Christmas 1941, just 18 days after Pearl Harbor.

 Our 1944 Victory Garden

Among his many talents, my father was a wonderful gardener. He mixed sand into the adobe soil, fertilized with compost he carefully tended, and watered religiously when he got home from work. Several of our neighbors benefited from his green thumb.  
Summer of 1944. My Grandmother, Minnie Blair, holds Ricky while I stick out my tongue and Mickey prepares to spit.

Grandma visited to see her new grandson, Ricky, and to say good-bye to her youngest son as he went off to war. I cannot begin to grasp the agony of her conflicted feelings as she sits with new life in her lap and contemplates the dangers and possibility of the death of her own dear son, but I think it is written on her face. That year marks the beginning of the time she seemed like an old woman to me. 

My father, me, and my father's brother, Bill Blair, Summer 1944

Uncle Bill came to visit just before leaving for his assignment in the South Pacific as an Army Air Corps B-24 co-pilot. He returned safely after flying 49 missions in the "Red-Headed Woman." As of this writing, he is still living in Pasadena, California and now enjoys WWII memories with many of his fellow WWII vets who meet together regularly. 

In the picture above, my father patriotically smoked a Lucky Strike from a package adorned with a red circle instead of the older-style pack with a green circle, because, according to the slogan, "Lucky green has gone to war." In front of the fence grew asters, zinnias, and cosmos, while behind the fence were dahlias, more products of my father's prodigious gardening skills. 

My father never went to war for reasons that remain vague to me. I remember hearing something about "flat feet" and "too many kids," His contribution was serving as the neighborhood Air Raid Warden, which as nearly as I can recall, meant when the sirens sounded and there was a blackout, he patrolled the neighborhood, wearing a special vest and a helmet, pulling a canister of water mounted on wheels while checking to make sure everyone had drawn their blackout curtains. It was never clear to me what he was supposed to do with the water, but I knew it was important.

My parents made another contribution by hanging out in bars (Oscar's down on Park Boulevard), drinking with war wounded, and bringing maimed service men home for a meal. They all seemed to be missing a limb. I remember one with a black glove over a useless rigid prosthetic hand, another had a claw he could hold a cigarette with. One who was missing a leg walked with crutches while his pinned-up empty pant leg swung back and forth. Some of the intact service men were mess cooks stationed at Camp Shoemaker. They were a convenient source of scarce and rationed food. Butter, sugar, and eggs were available in our home while the corner grocery shelves were empty.

Ice skating is all mixed up in my memories of the war years. I know my parents were both good skaters and enjoyed ice dancing. My mother was particularly fond of a sailor named Matt who was a wonderful skater. In later years, my father, perhaps after having had too much to drink, told me more about Matt. Apparently, he and my mother intended to run away together, taking my brother Mickey and leaving me behind. The rent money was missing around that time, I don't know if it was part of the runaway scheme, or if any one our guests had stolen it. My mother also revealed a dark secret years later while under the influence. She told me she had an abortion after the birth of Mickey and before Ricky. That would have placed it around 1942-1943, the same time she was planning to run away. I don't know how to connect the dots in these scant pieces of information, but I do know they cast a long shadow over their marriage.

Knowledge of these secrets reinforced feelings that had been developing all my life. I saw my mother as flawed, weak, and flighty: my father as a long-suffering noble hero. And I felt unloved by my mother, thought she saw me as competition and perhaps, I was. My father understood me at a level she could not. I held these feelings for most of my adult life and have only recently come to challenge and change them. In my later years my mother emerges in my mind as something of a martyred heroine.

1 comment:

  1. So interesting! And I love the pictures. Also makes me think of my mother and my feelings about her.