We’re In the Army Now
“We live in fame or go down in flame.
Nothing’ll stop the Army Air Corps.”
- The Army Air Corps Fight Song
Lt. Col. Robert M. Crawford, 1939
I stood by my car for a few moments, straining to see in the early morning darkness as
Leon and Jolly disappeared from sight into the Armory. With each step they took away from me, I pictured their new life, how difficult and dangerous it would be. When I could no longer see them, I looked around for the first time and noticed I wasn’t alone. Many others were there as well, dropping off husbands, brothers, and sons. Despite all the activity, there was an eerie silence.
Trying in vain for one last glimpse of
Leon, I took a deep breath and got back into my car. As I started up the engine, I thought about the last few months that had led us to this point in our lives. The war raged about us, yet never seemed to influence us directly. We knew from the newspaper reports that Allied Forces were fighting all over the world, from the Pacific Ocean, to England, Europe, and North Africa. Earlier in the year, back in January of 1943, US bombers had attacked Germany for the first time. By March, the British were attacking Berlin, the very heart of Germany. Now, this distant war was suddenly on my doorstep. Twenty years old and married only a year, I had just lost my husband to the army.
What was I going to do?
Leon’s future was clear. He was in the Army Air Corps and on his way to fulfilling his dream of being a pilot. He would serve his country in an important, meaningful manner. But what was my dream? I already knew I would follow Leon wherever his training should take him, that I wanted to be by his side for as long as possible. But should I follow Leon immediately or delay for three months until I finished college? My parents wanted me to wait. Was it what I wanted? It would be the safe path to take, the responsible one. Yet my heart told me it wasn’t right for me.
I thought about the choices my sister and sister-in-law had made. As soon as Karyl was married, she had left school to follow Herb all over the country, not returning until he went overseas. But Karyl was only a sophomore, not a senior like me. Had she finished school before joining Herb, she would have had to wait three years to be with him, not three months. That was clearly out of the question.
Karyl followed Herb and Helen followed Henry. My heart wanted to follow
Leon. I didn’t want to take the sensible and safe path and stay on in the home in which I’d grown up, even for three months. I wanted to be with Leon immediately and stay with him every minute possible. In the back of my mind was the fear that he might not come home from the war. These were the thoughts racing through my mind as I drove slowly home to my parents’ house.
When I got there, everyone was still asleep and I quietly climbed the stairs up to our bedroom on the third floor where I walked about in a daze. Each piece of furniture brought back a flood of memories. I looked at the dark mahogany double bed with a matching dresser and night stands where Leon and I had spent so many hours curled up, talking, exploring our first year as a married couple, sharing our challenges of the day and our dreams for the future. I ran my fingers over the hard, smooth surface of the desk, picturing
Leon sitting there, finishing his homework, and I prayed I would one day see him there again, home from the war, still able to study.
Soon my gaze fell to the window looking out over our beautifully manicured lawn. I stood and leaned against the glass, as I had done many times in the past, looking out over the scene so familiar to me. I knew every tree and bush, how many steps it took to walk from our house to my old grammar school at the end of the block. I even knew the names of all the dogs and cats in the neighborhood. Everything looked peaceful and quiet as I thought about the many pleasant years I’d spent in this home, surrounded by the love of my parents and my sister, and in this last year, by my darling Leon. But now my world was topsy-turvy, and I was going to have to make sense of it – alone.
I stayed in the room for hours, just letting the memories flow, oblivious to the time passing. I tried to study, but my thoughts kept returning to the major decision before me. How was I going to manage everything? Some unexpected help arrived later that morning.
Leon’s older sister, Helen, had written a long, thoughtful letter to me. It is now sixty years later and I can still remember her exact words. “If I have timed this correctly, my letter will arrive the day Leon leaves for the service.”
Helen remembered how she felt the day Henry departed, leaving her to close up their apartment and make the move on her own – toddler in tow – to
North Carolina, and she wanted to make it easier for me. The letter was filled with practical advice for a new army wife. Even more important, her words encouraged me to make my own decisions, to embrace my sudden independence as an opportunity and not to be afraid of it. She expressed her confidence in my ability to handle a new way of life, one that involved traveling to other parts of the country and being away from family and friends, away from my support system. Her letter helped me to listen to my heart, to follow Leon and be with him, to face my parents and the objections I knew they would raise, and to make my decisions and stick by them.
With my heart pounding, I told my parents of my intentions. Much to my surprise, they accepted immediately all that I had to say and actually encouraged me to be with
Leon. Now I just needed him to call with word of where I should meet him. Despite my anxiety, the time sped by as I tied up loose ends and prepared for the future.
At school, I spoke with my teachers and told them of the situation. With the exception of my drama and vocal technique courses, both of which required my presence in the classroom, I obtained all the course material for the remainder of my senior year. My teachers, all too familiar with their young students’ lives being altered by the war, were willing to accommodate me. They said I could finish up the curriculum on my own, take the final exams, and receive full credit so I could graduate with my class. This was my introduction to the sensitivity that people all over the country showed to the men and women of the armed services and their families through the war years. I would be moving away from the protective caring of my parents and grandparents, but would be surrounded by a new support system, one which I came to value tremendously.
I packed one suitcase of clothes and another one of books, and then waited to hear from
Leon. As it turned out, I ended up following him around the country for almost two years until he went overseas. It was quite an education for me. I lived in eight states and traveled alone by train through thirty-three of them, observing the many cultural changes brought on by the war everywhere I went. No one thought twice when young widows remarried. Pre-marital sex, although still frowned upon, became more prevalent as virginity lost its importance. No longer did children grow up and live their whole lives in the community of their parents. The multi-generational family structure disappeared as travel became more common and young couples, comfortable with moving about as they did in the war years, chose to live elsewhere. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
After three long days,
Leon telephoned to tell me he was stationed in Atlantic City for basic training. He told me he had rented a darling room for me half a block from the boardwalk. This would be my first of many rooming houses. Leon had checked the train schedule and picked a train for me to take so I would arrive on a Saturday afternoon. He said that the timing was important because he wouldn’t be able to meet me at the station on a weekday. Married cadets could be with their wives Saturday and Sunday only. The rest of the week I would be on my own.
Little did I know then how often that would be the case, how many train rides I would take alone, how many times I would have to find a place to live, how I would discover ways to occupy my time from weekend to weekend while waiting to see Leon. But now I was going to see him soon and would have to wait no longer. Our one-year anniversary was coming up and we would be able to spend it together. He was clearly feeling that same impatience as he closed our brief conversation with words of love, and spoke of how he couldn’t wait until I arrived and he could wrap his arms about me.
When it was time to go, and Mother and Dad drove me to the Back Bay Station, right around the corner from where I had dropped
Leon and Jolly a few days earlier. What a different ride for me! This time I was excited instead of worried, determined instead of scared, feeling that at last I would be in charge of my own destiny. What were Mom and Dad feeling? Whatever may have been going on inside, on the outside they were full of cheer and love and hope. Bless them!
With my two suitcases, I boarded a train for New York City and four hours later, I was on another train to Atlantic City, where Leon, dressed in a cadet uniform and standing soldierly erect on the platform, met me with a white orchid in his hand. As I rushed into his arms, he told me the flower was for our anniversary. How dashing and happy he looked! By the spring of 1943, everyone was used to the sight of young men in uniform, but none of them could compare with the look of my handsome husband that day on the platform.
As we rode in a taxi from the depot to the rooming house, I was surprised to see that the names of the streets were the same as the ones on our Monopoly game at home – the first bit of trivia I would pick up over the next few years. When we got to my new temporary home,
Leon beamed as he showed me the large, beautiful room he’d found, with windows on three sides. It was on a small side street, only half a block from the beach. From the front window, I could gaze at the street scene one floor below. The view off to the right was breathtaking. I could see the boardwalk, the beach, and beyond that the Atlantic Ocean.
I’d always loved the ocean, ever since my childhood days at my grandparents’ house on the boardwalk at
in Ocean Beach . I found it reassuring that my first home away from my parents was to be at a beach. I treasured that spring at the seashore. The New London, Connecticut Atlantic City beach was much like my childhood memories of . Not a soul could be seen on the deserted sand. Even with the windows closed, I could hear the surf pounding and the wind whistling up our side street. I could see the high waves breaking as they hit the shore, their gray color reflecting the gray of the March sky. Ocean Beach
|ARMY WIFE AND HUSBAND|
A few hours later, we unpacked my suitcases and went out to explore our new surroundings. We found a small restaurant on the boardwalk. There were few people about, some soldiers, a handful of women. In the restaurant itself, the waiters and host were deferential to
Leon in his uniform. In the weeks that followed, all the towns-people I met were extremely kind to the army wife, just as my teachers at Emerson had been. I found this true all over the country, everywhere I went. I was never afraid and always felt welcome. People looked out for the military and their families.
After dinner, Leon and I walked for hours on the boardwalk, watching the moon rise out of the water. I thought of
, where Karyl and I used to sit with our mother on the boardwalk after dark, and in the morning Grandpa Philip would take Karyl and me by the hands and walk with us. Now, instead of Grandpa Philip, it was Leon who held my hand tightly in his, and I wanted to cling to him forever. Ocean Beach
As we strolled along that evening in
Atlantic City, immersed in the romance of the moment, we saw men pushing carriages unlike any I’d seen before. They were like the horse-drawn ones in Central Park, only smaller. Instead of being pulled by horses, however, they were pushed by men. The carriages looked like a combination of a baby stroller and a rickshaw. The men called out to us offering a ride. During the deserted spring months, their only customers were soldiers out with their sweethearts, just like us. The war was good for business. At the time, I thought the men pushing the carriages were elderly, though now, looking back, I realize they were only in their late 40s and early 50s. Had they been younger, many would have volunteered to become soldiers.
We thought it would be romantic to ride in a carriage beneath the moonlit sky, so Leon and I settled in for a ride. After a few minutes, though, we started to feel uncomfortable. Somehow, it didn’t seem right to have another person pushing us about when we were young and healthy. We cut our ride short, generously tipped our driver, and resumed our stroll.
|LEON DISLODGES BRIDE'S HAT. OR IS IT HIS CAP? I WISH AURA WERE|
SITTING HERE BESIDE ME, HELPING WITH CAPTIONS. [bbm 11-10-12]
Late Sunday night,
Leon walked back to camp, leaving me by myself. I felt as I did the first time I was alone when I started my freshman year of college. I looked around my room and experienced that same sense of exhilaration, the excitement with my independence, along with the awareness that I could take care of myself and be successful. When I left home for college, although I was on my own, I was surrounded by sixteen other girls in my dormitory and we had a dorm monitor looking out for us. This time, I was truly independent, and it felt good. My parents had trained me well. Now was my opportunity to prove it, and I smiled as I felt myself rise to the challenge. I fell asleep imagining my new life, our new life together, and was at peace.
Monday morning I was awakened by the sound of men singing. It took me a moment to figure out that the sound was coming through my open window. I jumped out of bed and ran to look out over the street and was astonished by what I saw. Hundreds of cadets were marching four abreast, singing one song after another – The Army Air Corps, I’ve Got Sixpence, Be Kind to Your Web-footed Friends, Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree. They all displayed that same sense of confidence I had seen in
Leon when I first got off the train. It was an awesome sight.
I stared into the sea of faces, eager to find
Leon. Suddenly, my heart skipped a beat as I saw him and waved. He smiled, looked up, and gave a slight wave back. As he did, I saw that it wasn’t Leon. A moment later, I saw a different young cadet that I was positive must be him. I waved again. He also smiled, looked up, and waved back. It soon became apparent that I would never be able to recognize Leon, so I waved again and again. Each time, the cadets smiled and waved back.
After about thirty minutes of this, I happened to glance down and saw that I had run to the window so quickly I had forgotten to put on a bathrobe. I was embarrassed to discover I was standing at the window in a sheer nightgown. No wonder the cadets were all smiling and waving to me! I quickly backed away out of sight. When I told
Leon about it the next weekend, worried about what his new colleagues might think of me, he laughed as he said that none of them would know, since it wasn’t his battalion that had marched by.
Over the next few days, I heard the cadets singing again and again, and I never tired of the sound. Their enthusiasm and patriotism were apparent in every step they took, in every note they sang. I felt that, in my own small way, I too was being patriotic, doing my part by being there and supporting
One day, as I left the rooming house in search of lunch, I heard the men singing. I cheerfully hummed along, my spirits high as I looked out over the sandy beach to my left and the storefronts to my right. I had almost reached my favorite restaurant when the cadets suddenly came around the corner, almost knocking me over. Rushing toward the buildings to get out of their way, I stood and watched them march by until the very last one was gone. Their sudden proximity was breathtaking, their strong presence reassuring.
My reactions were shared by people all over the country. Young and old alike responded to the image of the soldiers marching by, connecting us all. I can understand today why some pundits call World War II the last good war. What we were fighting for was clearly defined. President Roosevelt, with his fireside chats, kept our spirits up and our determination steady. Our boys in uniform were fighting the good fight.
That first week in
Atlantic City went by quickly. I spent my time walking on the boardwalk or sitting quietly in my room reading, knitting, writing letters, and studying. At the end of the week, I decided to go to the beauty parlor to get my hair done. I hadn’t seen Leon since the previous weekend, and was eager to look my best for him when we could be together again. With fond memories of how my mother had treated me every week to a styling session, I found the local beauty salon and treated myself to the same thing. Afterwards, I walked back to the rooming house through the wind and rain, and looking in the mirror, saw that my hair was a windblown mess and I had wasted my money. No longer was I Mother’s little girl to be pampered at her expense. If I was wasteful, it was my own funds down the drain, not hers. I promised myself that I would never be extravagant like that again. I learned to wash and set my own hair as well as could be done in any beauty parlor.
Many of the days were rainy and windy. One morning, it poured so hard that it woke me from a sound sleep. I rose and looked out the window. I saw the cadets, as usual, only this time they weren’t singing. Instead, they stood silently in the downpour, looking wet and miserable. Although they each wore a raincoat, they were getting soaked because none of them had their hoods up. Instead, the hoods hung useless on their backs, quickly filling with water. They stood that way for at least half an hour. Suddenly, I heard a shouted order and, as one, the soldiers put on their hoods. All the water that had accumulated in them ran down their faces and the backs of their necks. Then there was another barked order and they marched on, even more soaked than before. I listened for their singing, but heard none. They were too cold and wet to want to do anything but march.
When I later told
Leon about what I saw, he said the same thing had happened to him. Putting on their hoods was considered a change of uniform, and the cadets weren’t allowed to change uniforms without an order from an officer. Hence, the thirty-minute wait in the rain. Feeling protective not just of Leon but of all the young cadets, I spoke of how stupid this seemed to me. Leon responded defensively, assuring me that the Air Corps had reasons for everything it did. He loved the Corps with a passion and would brook no criticism.
|LEON JOINED AURA ON WEEKENDS.|
Leon didn’t arrive that Saturday morning, I packed my two suitcases as planned, left Atlantic City, and took the train home. It was a happy reunion at the train station in Boston with Mom and Dad there to welcome me. All through the war years, hellos and goodbyes at train stations were major events, signifying the end of one phase of life and the start of another. It wasn’t at all unusual to see a dozen family members and friends there to greet a returning army wife or to say farewell to a young soldier.
Much as I had loved being with
Leon in Atlantic City, it felt great to be home on Fellsmere Road. The day I arrived, Leon’s parents came to see me and fussed over me as they never had before. I was a pampered darling, something entirely new for me, and I must confess that I enjoyed every moment of it. Despite that, however, all I could think about was Leon, wanting to hear from him and find out where he’d be stationed next, and when I could join him.
Even though I’d been gone only two months, things had changed at home, with blackout sheets on the windows and lights kept dim to make it harder for enemy planes to locate and bomb towns. No longer a distant event having little impact on our daily lives, the war was apparent everywhere I looked. People had grown accustomed to the shortages and rationing, and were learning to reuse items that before had been thrown away. Shoes were re-soled many times and people made their own soap, much as they had done during the depression. We recycled everything possible for use by the military. Every tin can was cleaned and sent to the factories to be reused. No one minded all these hardships, because we knew they were necessary, and that the ones truly facing adversity were our soldiers.
My wait for my young soldier’s call was relatively short. In just three days,
Leon phoned to say he was stationed at in Colby College for his College Training Detachment. He’d found a rooming house where I could stay, but I was to go first to the only hotel in town and wait for him there. As soon as he could, he would join me. Waterville, Maine
Leon’s sister Helen, home from North Carolina for a few weeks to visit her family and recover from some health problems, said she’d go with me to Maine to see Leon, and then return home after a brief visit. We had grown close over the years and normally I would have been happy at the thought of sharing the train ride with her. But Leon and I, married just over a year, were unaccustomed to being apart. I knew he would want me all to himself when I got to
Waterville, especially in the first hour, and I was annoyed with Helen for making this decision without asking me first if it was okay. As shy as I was, however, I couldn’t express my concern to Helen and acquiesced to her joining me. We hurried about, getting packed as quickly as we could, and then took an evening train to Maine.
The ride was an adventure. Not only did I enjoy watching the beautiful countryside unfold before me, I also got to know Helen better and learned more about myself in the process. She was outgoing and self-assured; I was painfully shy. By watching her, I learned to open up more and relax with strangers, which stood me in good stead over the next two years as I traveled the country and made a life for myself in new places.
Shortly after the train pulled away from the station, Helen told me I should learn to play cribbage. She had no board or cards, but nothing that trivial ever stopped Helen. She wrote notes in the border of a magazine and started to teach me. As she explained the rules, I noticed three young soldiers across the aisle from us, laughing and having a good time. My reaction was to avoid looking at them and pay closer attention to Helen’s instructions about the game. Helen’s reaction was totally different. She started to flirt with them. In those days, such brazen behavior was considered sinful. The next thing I knew, she moved across the aisle to sit with them. They sounded as if they were having so much fun that I longed to join them, but couldn’t. I was too shy and instead, buried my head in a book.
As I tried to read, my thoughts kept straying to the foursome across the aisle. I wanted to be more like Helen, so outgoing and relaxed. It wasn’t just that she was eleven years older and thus more self-assured. She had always been able to have fun with people she didn’t know well, even as a very young teenager. It never occurred to her they might not like her. As I watched her with the three soldiers, I started to see that it was partially this self-confidence that made her likable and interesting. When the train stopped at a small town for a thirty-minute break, and the others decided to go across the street for sweet rolls and coffee, I let Helen draw me into the group and introductions were made.
I had a great time with Helen and our new friends. It certainly made the hours on the train go by more quickly. When we drew close to
Waterville a few minutes before , Helen and I refreshed our make-up, combed our hair, straightened our hats, and generally tried to look pretty for Leon. Helen, before putting on fresh make-up, first wiped her face with her beautiful linen handkerchief. I, on the other hand, rather than soiling my hanky, put powder right over the train soot. Helen’s approach made much more sense and again, I vowed to be more like her.
We stepped off the train, eager to find
Leon, but could see no sign of him. The station was deserted except for the station master. Fortunately, he was able to direct us to the hotel Leon had told me about on the phone. As we walked out to the street, we were enveloped in total darkness. Thinking of my earlier hesitancy to have Helen join me, I was glad at that moment to have some company. We looked about one last time to confirm that Leon wasn’t there, picked up our bags, and walked the two blocks to the beautiful country hotel.
The lobby was warm and welcoming, and the night clerk said he had just the place for us. He sent us upstairs to a large room with two double beds and an old-fashioned bathroom. Helen immediately immersed herself in a hot tub, luxuriating in the warm, clear water. As I watched her get ready, I saw that a hot bath could be one of life’s special pleasures. It wasn’t just a necessity, as I had grown up believing. That was one more lesson I learned from Helen that weekend.
We were spent by this time and climbed into our beds. Unable to fall asleep right away, we read for a while. Suddenly, Helen threw her magazine across the room, angrily saying, “I am tired of reading about women who feel old when they reach thirty.” I didn’t know how to respond. Helen was thirty-one, I was twenty, and I must admit that I did think being over thirty was pretty old. I had much to learn.
After Helen’s outburst, neither of us felt like reading any more, and we fell asleep easily. Early the next morning, we heard a knock at the door. Knowing it was
Leon, I rushed to open the door and we threw our arms around each other. From the way he held me, I knew what he had in mind, but with Helen there, we had no privacy. He looked so disappointed that I once again felt annoyed with Helen for coming with me, but it felt so good to see Leon, my mood quickly lifted.
The three of us went downstairs for breakfast and then out to explore our surroundings.
Waterville was a small college town with a mill across the river. It was beautiful, quaint, middle-class, very typical of New England, and I loved it. We walked and talked all morning, stopped for lunch, and eventually went back to the hotel. Helen, sensitive to Leon’s earlier disappointment, announced that she was beat and planned to take a nap, and nothing would wake her. The moment her breathing became slow and regular, Leon and I were in each other’s arms. I felt shy and awkward with Helen so close by, but Leon, in his eagerness, was oblivious.
A few hours later, we all got up for dinner. Over the meal, Helen said she would leave that evening, instead of the next day as originally planned. I could tell she felt awkward about our sharing the one room. After dinner, Leon and I walked her to the train station, and then went back to the hotel for our first night alone together since
Atlantic City. I hated to see him leave in the morning. I watched from the window as he walked down the street toward the college, never looking away until I could see him no more.
Lost in my thoughts of
Leon, it took a moment for me to hear the water running in the bathroom behind me. My heart stopped as my mind raced through the possibilities. I knew I had walked Leon to the door and locked it behind him after he left. Had someone been in the bathroom all along? Did someone break in while I was watching Leon? I was terrified. Mustering all my courage, I decided to investigate, rather than run away. An army wife had to be brave.
I turned around and walked quickly and determinedly to the bathroom. Water was pouring down from the ceiling. Obviously, something had flooded from the floor above mine. I didn’t know whether to laugh with relief or cry at the terrible mess. I called the front desk and they managed to stop the flood, but no one came to clean the bathroom. I had to do it myself. As I crawled about on the floor, wiping up water and wringing the towel out in the sink, I smiled, realizing that if I could handle this without getting upset, I could handle anything.
I didn’t have to stay in the hotel for long.
Leon showed up the next morning to take me to the rooming house he’d found for me. It was a three-story building with a taxi stand on the first floor and five or six bedrooms on each of the upper floors. Although I was happy to get away from the faulty plumbing in Waterville’s one hotel, the rooming house did have its drawbacks. The stairways were steep and narrow, and the one bathroom on each floor was always dirty. I could keep my bedroom clean, but not the communal space, so I always hurried every time I had to use it.
I soon discovered that I wouldn’t be alone there, as I had been in
Atlantic City. While Leon was helping me settle into my room on the second floor, we met two other cadet wives who had the rooms next to mine. The three of us became friends and spent a lot of time together, going out for meals and an occasional movie. We talked about how we’d like to get to know the other boarders, but couldn’t because we never saw any of them. The rooming house was quiet during the day, only coming to life at night. My room was directly over the taxi stand where the phone rang, and I could hear it all night long. This struck me as strange in such a small town, but I learned to ignore it and go back to sleep.
On weekends, Leon and I would stroll around the college campus, and I became acquainted with some of his new buddies.
Leon, like his sister Helen, made friends easily. He was very outgoing, lots of fun. Everywhere he went, he drew a circle of comrades. His two closest friends, Al McClellan and Stan Lawrence, became my best friends too. Leon, Mac, and Stan were the three musketeers, and every weekend I became D’Artagnan, the fourth musketeer.
When the four of us got together we explored the city and
, finding all the restaurants in town, walking though the beautiful campus and enjoying the crisp spring weather. The weekend days were filled with our friends, and the nights with each other. Saturday nights in our room became a perpetual honeymoon. We were happy, indeed, and had a fabulous few weeks. Colby College
In between visits with Leon and his friends, I enjoyed my time with the other army wives. While they were both brides of just a few weeks, I was an old hand at married life, having been with
Leon for over a year. In the same way that Helen had given me sound advice about life as an army wife, I found that I could give the two brides helpful advice.
Married life in the service was quite different from married life on the outside, and it kept changing as
Leon progressed through his training. In Atlantic City, married cadets could see their wives only on weekends. Cadets who made it as far as the College Training Detachment could visit their wives on weekdays as well, provided they had a free hour between classes. I viewed this as a treat and looked forward to the times when Leon surprised me with a visit. One of the other wives, however, did not share my attitude.
On several occasions, when we were dressed for the day and on our way out for breakfast, our husbands came marching up the stairs, took us in their arms, and led us back to our rooms. After a relatively brief interlude, the men would dash back to the campus, leaving the three of us in bath- robes, waving goodbye in the hallway. After a few of these visits, one of the brides broke down and cried, saying she felt like a prostitute. In her delicate southern drawl, she said that if her husband could not come home at a normal time in the evening, she was going back home to her mother. After several minutes of soothing her hurt feelings, I was able to calm her down, reminding her we had only three more weeks of this life, and then things would be better.
As it turned out, we did not have three more weeks, let alone three more days. The following Saturday morning,
Leon came by just long enough to say he couldn’t spend the day with me. His captain had requested attendance at a meeting and, when I asked if he really had to go, he said that in the military, a request from a superior officer was really a command. The other two wives were told the same thing, so we spent the day together, trying not to miss our husbands.
At suppertime, we returned to our rooms to find the men waiting for us in an agitated state. At their meeting, the captain said we could no longer stay in our rooming house and since there were no other vacancies in town, we would have to go home. He added that we had to leave immediately, because the house in which we were living was a brothel and the army was about to raid it and shut it down. When I heard this, I couldn’t help but think of my new friend with her southern drawl saying that she felt like a prostitute. How ironic! And I suddenly understood why the phone in the taxi stand was so busy all hours of the night and why it was so quiet during the day. Next, I thought about the one terribly dirty bathroom on our floor, shuddering as I pictured how we’d been sharing it with prostitutes and their clients.
As much as we were disappointed by this turn of events, and as much as I was dismayed at the realization that I’d been living in a house of prostitution, we had to give the owner some credit. When the Army Air Corps chose
for its training program, they asked the townspeople to open their homes for army wives, providing any empty bedrooms as part of their duty to their country in time of war. In this particular house, there were three empty bedrooms, and the owner wanted to be as patriotic as everyone else. Colby College
Upon hearing the news, I telephoned my parents that I was on my way, and then
Leon helped me pack. We walked to the depot and, once more, I was on a train going home. During the trip, I tried to figure out how I would explain to my parents that I’d been living in a brothel. I decided I would simply tell them exactly what had happened. When I did, they were quite toubled, as I knew they would be. Not wanting to risk a similar experience ever again, I decided that in the next town, I would spend the extra money required to stay in a hotel, rather than a rooming house. Since I’d be there for only three weeks, I could afford the added expense. After that, I would just have to be more careful and less naïve.
During my three weeks at home, Mother spoiled me. She cooked all my favorite foods, took me to the movies, and bought me new clothes. We went to the library and borrowed an extra copy of each book I selected, so Mother and I could read them at the same time and discuss them as we’d done when I was a child. We visited the knit shop and picked out patterns and yarns to keep me busy for the next leg of my next journey.
Before I knew it, Leon finished his two months tenure at the College Training Detachment at Colby College, earning his college diploma from Harvard in the process, and was ready to move on to a classification center, where he and the other cadets would be separated into pilots, navigators, and bombardiers.
That changed once the
United States entered the war. Leon wanted to enlist and become a pilot. He taught me the words of the Army Air Corps Fight Song, “We live in fame or go down in flame,” saying that not only did he want to be a pilot because he loved to fly, but also because as a pilot, he would come home whole or not at all. He didn’t want to return from the war physically handicapped, saying he would rather die. For the most part, that’s exactly what happened with pilots. Either they survived, or they crashed and burned.
I tried not to think about it and learned not to discuss the matter with
Leon. He didn’t want to contemplate what could happen, and seemed unafraid of the possibilities. His natural optimism saw only the excitement of flying. And it wasn’t enough for him just to fly. He wanted to fly a fighter plane, the most dangerous aircraft of all. He loved the idea of those tiny, highly maneuverable planes, saying that flying a fighter was like being behind the wheel of a sporty convertible. Flying a bomber, on the other hand, was more like taking the family sedan out for a drive. Leon was also attracted to the fighter pilot’s glamourous image, respected by all. They “lived in fame” as the song said, but I was painfully aware as well that they experienced the highest death rate of anyone in the military. These were my thoughts as I waited for Leon to call to tell me he was leaving and going on to classification. Colby College
When he phoned, he told me that on the following day he would be at the Back Bay Station in
Boston en route to his next assignment, and we could be together for a few hours. He went on to warn me that I couldn’t tell anyone about it, since troop movements were highly confidential. I assumed that it was okay to tell our parents, and they joined me at the train station – along with about fifty other families with sweethearts and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and even grandparents. The depot had a festive air about it with loving families milling about and all those dashing young men in uniform.
As we held each other close,
Leon whispered to me that he was going to , and reminded me this was confidential information. I was to tell no one but our families, and I should wait to do that until later in the day. I promised I would be discreet, and then we shared a delicious two hours, telling each other all about the time we’d been apart. He told me about his training, and I told him of my decision to stay in a hotel for the three weeks we’d be in Nashville, Tennessee Nashville. I was worried that he’d be concerned about the expense, but he was supportive. He understood how bothered I was about having lived for several weeks in a brothel and wanted me to be happy.
Our conversation was interrupted all too soon by an announcement over the public address system: “All Air Corps cadets, please go to Track #3 bound for
.” So much for the confidential nature of troop movements. A roar of laughter went up from all of us who had been sworn to secrecy, and the laughter and good cheer continued as we waved goodbye and our soldier boys boarded the train. Only after the train pulled away did I find myself choked up once again at the thought of my young husband at risk. Nashville, Tennessee
My own train ride a few days later was a fitting introduction to the enjoyable stay in
Nashville. For the first time in my war-time travels, my trip was to last for more than a single day. Excited by the prospect of such a long train ride, I reserved an upper berth in a Pullman car. When I took my seat, I noticed a soldier sitting across the aisle. Following Helen’s lead, I promised myself to be more outgoing and made friends with him right away, although I made a point of telling him that I was traveling to join my Air Corps cadet husband in Nashville, so he wouldn’t mistake friendliness for flirtation. We went to the dining car for our meals together and he helped me into the upper berth when it was time to go to bed.
How I loved falling asleep on the train! I opened the curtain and watched the stars until I could keep my eyes open no longer. My thoughts turned to one of my favorite childhood books, Heidi, and I remembered how Heidi slept in the hayloft at her grandfather’s cottage in the Swiss Alps, and watched the stars as she fell asleep.
The next afternoon we made an unexpected stop in
. Several cars, including ours, were disconnected and moved to a side track. The conductor said we’d be there for at least three hours until we could be reconnected to another train going on to Bowling Green, Kentucky Nashville. All over the country, troop movements had rendered this sort of delay commonplace. Civilian trains, even though they often carried military personnel, were made to wait so that military transport could move as rapidly as possible. No one minded. It was a small inconvenience relative to what our soldiers had to handle. We viewed it as our duty to accept delays without complaint.
The conductor suggested we pass the time by walking a few blocks to the town center, describing it as truly beautiful. I discovered he was right. The town square was surrounded by interesting shops on all four sides and had an inviting park in the middle. I sat on a bench watching the local residents, imagining what it would be like to live there. I enjoyed the sense of adventure as I learned about a part of the country that was new to me. Never before had I heard so many people speak with a Southern accent, or seen the slow, relaxed pace of life so different from that of my native
New England. It’s not that I’d never been away before. I’d driven to Florida with my parents when I was a teenager and I went to college in western New York. But Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country was unlike anything I’d previously experienced.
After a while, the heat and humidity made me crave something cool, and I joined several of the other passengers in an air-conditioned ice cream shop. We walked about the park one more time and then strolled back to our railroad car, only to discover that the delay was longer than expected and we still had two more hours to wait until we were attached to another train and on our way. Although I enjoyed my brief stay in
Bowling Green, I breathed a sigh of relief to be moving once again, drawing closer to Leon and further away from the beastly heat.
It was already dark when we arrived, and I had no idea where I was going to stay for the night.
Leon hadn’t bothered to make housing arrangements for me. He assumed that, because Nashville was a good-sized town, I’d have no trouble finding a place at the last minute. An experienced traveler by this time, I hailed a taxi and asked the driver for the name of a nice hotel in the center of town. I never thought not to trust him. Throughout my two years of traveling all over the country, cab drivers everywhere were courteous and helpful.
As I’d requested, he drove me to a hotel right in the town's center, close to restaurants, shops, and movie theaters. I checked into a room on the twelfth floor, choosing the top floor at the desk clerk’s suggestion. He said I’d be more comfortable there, where I could get a breath of fresh air from open windows and a ceiling fan. It was only the end of May, but already it was much hotter in
Tennessee than it would be in New England in the middle of the summer.
As I’d requested, he drove me to a hotel right in the town's center, close to restaurants, shops, and movie theaters. I checked into a room on the twelfth floor, choosing the top floor at the desk clerk’s suggestion. He said I’d be more comfortable there, where I could get a breath of fresh air from open windows and a ceiling fan. It was only the end of May, but already it was much hotter in
I looked out the window at downtown
Nashville and thought about how much I’d already learned about being an army wife. Based on our experiences in Atlantic City and and I had developed a routine that worked well for us. Upon arriving in a new location, I would find a place to live and call my folks with the address and phone number. Waterville, Leon Leon, already aware of approximately when I was scheduled to arrive, would contact them to get the information. Then he would come to see me as soon as he was free. We were beginning to feel like old hands at this. Each change in Leon’s assignment brought us to a new city, a new life, and I found myself coping well with everything. What a great adventure for a twenty-year-old!
The next morning, the adventure got even more exciting. I was walking back to my hotel after breakfast when I noticed a young woman coming toward me who looked familiar. When she got closer, she looked right at me and our eyes met, after which there was no doubt. We flew into each other’s arms and, for a few moments, couldn’t let go. It was a classmate from
. A thousand miles from home, isolated from friends and family, and I had found someone I knew. Imagine! It didn’t matter that we hadn’t been close friends as students. Here in Emerson College Nashville, we were fellow New Englanders, Emersonians, and that was enough.
When we stopped hugging, we started to talk, each eager to catch up on all that had happened since we’d last been together. Virginia Mansell and I knew each other only casually at school. To begin with, she was an upper classman. Even more significantly, I was Jewish and Jewish girls were largely ignored by the others, just as we'd been in high school. During the war, however, far from home and each alone, all those incidentals ceased to matter. I learned that after graduation a year earlier, Gina had found a position at a
Nashville radio station, moved here all by herself, and was living at the YWCA. I told her my situation, and that I was staying at a hotel a block away. She held me tightly by the hand and insisted we go for a cup of coffee so we could talk. She told me she was desperate for someone from home to advise her about something important.
Curious about the needed advice, I agreed to join her for coffee and Gina launched into her dilemma. She’d met a young man at the radio station who was very much interested in her. She was attracted to him as well, but felt torn because she already had a boyfriend from back home, serving in the armed forces in
Alabama. Not knowing what she should do, she asked if I’d be willing to go to the station with her and meet the young man in question. It would also give her the opportunity to show me her work.
In just a few minutes, we arrived at the studio. We sat in her office and I watched her schedule the afternoon programming, impressed with both her knowledge and efficiency. I was even more impressed when she told me that her boyfriend worked for the International News Service and was, at that very moment, on the air delivering the news. He was a real, live newscaster. A few minutes later he finished the broadcast and walked into Gina’s office, and I met twenty-three year old David Brinkley. He was attractive, charming, thoughtful, highly intelligent, and clearly in love with Gina.
The three of us spent a great deal of time together over the next few weeks. This was a blessing for me because
Leon could only be with me on the weekends. Without Gina and David, I would have been very much alone. The two of them never let me feel like I was in the way. On the contrary, David, in particular, appeared to welcome my presence. He seemed happy to have me around because Gina looked more favorably upon him in my presence. This was partly due to her seeing him through my eyes, and partly due to her feeling a greater freedom to be affectionate when accompanied by a chaperone.
On the weekends,
Leon would join us as well. One Sunday afternoon, David planned a picnic at Andrew Jackson’s home. He, Gina, and I picked Leon up at camp and drove out to The Hermitage. We toured the mansion and then spread our picnic under the trees not far from the house. Since David was the only one of us with a kitchen, he’d made the lunch. Whether it was preparing meals, organizing activities, or treating us to dinner, David always took care of everything. He said that since he wasn’t in the service, he believed it was important to be good to those who were. Leon and I were touched by his kindness, as I’m sure were many others during the war.
All through the years, whenever I’d see David on television, I’d remember fondly those weeks together in
Nashville. As famous as he was, however, I assumed he’d long since forgotten about me. I was pleasantly surprised when we renewed our friendship a few years ago. It came about when Leon’s brother wrote to David about something David had said on his show regarding Social Security. In his letter, Everett introduced himself as my brother-in-law and reminded David of our connection during the war.
David responded personally to
Everett, writing that he remembered me well and wondered if I knew anything of Gina’s whereabouts. He’d lost track of her years earlier, but wanted to write about her in his memoir, to credit her with helping him eliminate his southern drawl and develop the voice for which he eventually became famous.
Although Gina and I hadn’t remained close, I occasionally read about her in our Emerson alumni magazine. When I learned of David’s interest, I wrote to him, telling him everything I could remember about her, including the unfortunate news that she’d recently passed away. I sent him a copy of a photo I had of Leon, Gina and me, taken by David that day we picnicked at The Hermitage, and wrote that if I’d known how famous he was going to become, I would’ve made sure he was in the picture too. When he wrote back to thank me for the news of Gina, he closed with the comment that he’d like to continue our correspondence. I responded right away, telling him how pleased and surprised I was by this. His answer was touching: “You might be the only person left in the world who knew me when I was just twenty-three years old and starting out.”
Twenty-three and just starting out! We were young and excited by life. Every day was so much fun with new friends and new experiences that it was easy to forget the reason we were there. Whenever
Leon came to visit me at the hotel, he always had several of his fellow cadets with him. We’d hang out in my room and have a party. Occasionally I wondered what the maids would think when they cleaned my room Monday mornings and found dozens of glasses and bottles.
Our conversations ranged in all directions. One time,
Leon’s friends asked me to dress more casually in skirts, sweaters, bobby socks, and saddle shoes. That was how I dressed during the week, but when the soldiers showed up on the weekend, I dressed up a bit, and was surprised when they asked me to dress down instead. They wanted me to look more like the girls they knew before the war. Of course I wore the clothes they requested, happy to provide a reminder of their homes.
I knew they were aware of how I dressed because, much to my embarrassment, they’d notice when I changed clothes after
Leon and I had been together. Sometimes, when we were all sitting in my room, Leon would gesture to them to go away. They would all smile as they left, knowing that he wanted some time alone with me. Later, when we’d meet again for dinner, I’d hear them walking behind me saying, “Look, she’s got on a different dress.” “Aura’s changed her shoes.” Then they’d laugh. I could feel myself blush with the knowledge that they knew what we’d been doing.
Then I’d blush even more when I’d think to myself, “If they only knew what happened to me my first few days here.” The sun was so hot in
Nashville that each day when I walked back and forth from the restaurant, the end of my nose would get sunburned. I’d get back to my room covered with sweat and take a bath to stay cool. One afternoon, as I stepped out of the tub and started to walk across the bedroom floor, I happened to look out of my twelfth story window and saw people in the office building across the street looking back at me with binoculars. I dropped to all fours, crawled to where my clothes were, and got dressed lying on the floor. They must have been watching me every day and that’s why they had binoculars handy.
While I certainly found the situation somewhat unnerving, I was pleased to discover that I didn’t find it overwhelming. En route to
Waterville, I’d learned I could chat with strangers on the train, and in Nashville I learned I could deal with the embarrassment of having strangers see me naked. I found that I could even enjoy the good-natured teasing of Leon’s army buddies about our afternoon sexual encounters. It made me feel mature in that Leon and I were the old, married couple, while they were all still single. I began to feel responsible for them and tried to make their lives more pleasant. I started writing to their families, telling them all about our weekends in Nashville, and what I knew of their military training.
Leon’s army colleagues wanted to be pilots, never even considering the possibility that they might be assigned to other duties. They knew the danger involved, but that couldn’t deter them. Rarely speaking of their fears, they chose to avoid thinking about what might happen. Despite this, the conversation took a serious turn one Saturday night, interrupting our otherwise festive mood. One of the cadets said he’d heard that one in seven Army Air Corps pilots would be lost in the war. As I looked about the room, I saw that there were seven of them, including Leon, and I wondered if all of them would make it back alive. I could see the others silently counting as well. It turned out that the statistics were sadly accurate in our case. We did lose one pilot from our group, Robby Lasker, from . Eau Clair, Wisconsin
During those happy days in
Nashville, however, the war in many ways seemed far away. The men were caught up in their training, competing fiercely to become pilots. After three weeks at classification, they all achieved their dream and shipped. Once again, I was alone.
While I waited to hear where I would be traveling next, my back started to hurt, as it had on and off ever since I first had surgery at the base of my spine when I was seventeen Every once in a while, I needed to have the area drained to avoid more surgery. As the days passed and my back got worse, I began to despair. I wanted to be home where I could go to the surgeon who had helped me before, and where my parents could care for me, but I didn’t know how I could get to
Boston. I could barely walk, let alone travel. Complicating matters further, I didn’t want to leave the hotel until I heard from Leon.
At last, he telephoned. My relief at hearing his voice was short lived, however, as he told me his own bad news before I could tell him mine. His mother needed emergency gall bladder surgery and the procedure would be life threatening because she was obese. With the help of the Red Cross,
Leon had arranged a trip home from his new assignment at Maxwell Field in , and asked me to head for Montgomery, Alabama Boston and meet him there. Feeling guilty at being unable to do as he wanted, I told him my back was so bad that I couldn’t travel on my own. Without a moment’s hesitation, he told me he’d rearrange his travel plans so he could stop in Nashville and take care of me.
Leon spoke, I could feel my panic subside. He always understood whenever I was ill, something I appreciated throughout our marriage. My mother was grateful to him as well, for his supportive attitude toward me. She had suffered through illnesses with her menstrual cycle and depression without any support from her husband, his family, or her parents, and knew how much it meant that Leon was sympathetic. When I was first dating Leon, she was the one who pointed out to me how considerate he was regarding anyone in pain, commenting on how unusual that was.
By the time
Leon arrived to pick me up, I needed every bit of his sympathy and consideration, for my back felt ready to burst. We telephoned home, planning to ask my parents to get everything set up with the surgeon, only to discover that they were out of town. I would have to act grown up and deal with my difficulties on my own. Leon would be too busy helping his family with his mother. At least my sister Karyl was home, following Herb’s departure for overseas, and she offered to help. She promised to notify my surgeon, and Leon and I boarded the train for Boston knowing Karyl would get things all worked out.
It was the hardest train trip I’d ever taken. Every time the train jerked about on the tracks, which was often, it hurt so much I cried. To make matters worse, it wasn’t possible to get a train that went directly from
Nashville to Boston. We had to change trains in Cincinnati. This change was necessitated not by the routine railroad logistics to which we were accustomed in the Northeast, but by the Jim Crow laws in place throughout the South. These laws, nicknamed after a black character in the old minstrel shows and on the books in many states from the 1880s into the 1960s, required certain businesses and public institutions to enforce segregation. In the railroad industry, each passenger train running through a Jim Crow state had to have separate cars for Whites and Blacks. It was in Cincinnati that the Jim Crow cars were turned around and sent back south, and the black and white passengers were no longer separated into different cars.
This was our first taste of deadly race problems. We were to experience more over the next two years, and eventually it would change our lives. We discussed how everyone took it for granted that the armed forces were segregated. Everybody with whom
Leon worked and trained was white. And it wasn’t just race that was used to segregate soldiers. When Leon was later appointed to a flight crew, all the officers except his bombardier were Jewish. This was no accident. Whenever possible, the Air Corps tried to assign officers of the same religion to work together.
It was assumed that Blacks weren’t fit to be pilots. This assumption was contested when a group of black soldiers in
Alabama successfully lobbied to be allowed to train as fighter pilots. It was fortunate for Leon that they were, because eventually, when he was stationed in Italy, it was these same pilots who protected him on his bombing runs. Many years later, the Tuskeegee Airmen were given their proper due.
Our discussion of racism in the military ended abruptly when I tried to stand up to get off the train. The train movements had irritated my back so much that I was unable to walk.
Leon said not to worry, that he’d get a rolling stretcher at the Traveler’s Aid office. The woman working there was helpful, returning with Leon to help get me onto the stretcher. When she saw the pain I was in, she advised us to go straight to a hospital rather than continue our trip. Leon told her this was out of the question because we had to get to Boston for his mother’s life-threatening surgery the next day. She was so touched by our dilemma that she began to cry.
Everything turned out just fine.
Leon’s mother and I both had our surgery and began to recover nicely. The only problem was that I had to spend two long months at home recuperating, so Leon returned alone to Alabama. Although I missed him terribly, I made good use of the time, returning to to take my final exams. I still had two courses left – drama and vocal technique – neither of which I’d been able to finish long distance. The college agreed to let me graduate with my class anyway, saying they would just wait to sign my diploma until I completed the courses. When I looked at my diploma on graduation day, however, I saw it had already been signed by President Ross. He sent me a special note, explaining that he had done so because he trusted me to uphold my end of the bargain. He knew me well, for when Emerson College Leon went overseas and I returned to Boston to live with my parents, I attended those last two classes and made up all the required work.
Knowing how good it had made me feel to graduate with my class, I was happy for
Leon when he discovered that he would be able to do so as well, although his graduation had to be in absentia. Harvard gave him credit for the math courses he took as a cadet, thus allowing him to complete all his requirements. This successful conclusion to our college days didn’t play out exactly as we’d expected, but we did receive our diplomas, thereby fulfilling the promise we’d made to our parents when they supported our decision to marry so young.
With graduation behind us and my back feeling much better, I couldn’t wait to join
Leon again. Although I expected to travel to Alabama, Leon told me to head for instead, where he’d been transferred and would begin his actual flight training. After working so hard at his previous assignments on his mental, emotional, and physical preparedness, he would finally begin to fly. I could hear the excitement in his voice and, although nervous about the dangers of flying, I was eager to share it with him. Bennettsville, South Carolina
The trip to Bennettsville was easy for me, now that my back felt better, but my luggage had a more difficult time. When I arrived, I was told that my suitcase had been sent elsewhere and might not arrive for several days. Without letting this bother me, as it surely would have before all my war-time travels began, I left the depot in search of both a home and a store where I could purchase clothes to wear until my valise could find me.
As I walked down
Main Street, I passed the only restaurant in town, a drugstore, a grocery, a department store, and a hotel that was closed for the duration of the war. Noting the location of the department store for later, I walked several blocks more until I saw a house with rooms for rent. In just twenty minutes of arriving in town, I had found my new home. After looking about and deciding it would be quite pleasant, I walked back to the department store to buy a nightgown and a change of clothes. The saleswomen were friendlier than salespeople I’d encountered in the Northeast. When they heard my predicament and that I was a cadet’s wife, they threw in an extra blouse at no charge.
Leon called me, he said that one day a week, I could take the bus out to the airfield, spend an hour in the cadet day room, and have dinner with him. On the weekends, he could come to me, from late in the morning on Saturday until early evening on Sunday. Disappointed that we’d have to wait several days until the weekend before we could spend the night together, we settled for a brief visit the following afternoon. When I arrived at the airfield, Leon and I ran into each others’ arms, embracing like newlyweds to make up for more than two months of separation. The other wives, I discovered later, never forgave me for what they saw as a vulgar display of emotion.
We had dinner at the base with Al MacClellan and Stan Lawrence, whom I had met in
Maine. As I looked at the meal before me, I lost my appetite. There were gnats everywhere. I could even see them crawling around in the whites of the eyes of all the cadets. I couldn’t take a bite without eating gnats as well. When I complained, Leon reprimanded me in front of our friends. I felt hurt and embarrassed. I knew he was right in that there was nothing to be done but accept the gnats. Nobody else seemed to mind them, so why should I? Was I really the spoiled girl he accused me of being?
While I felt guilty for complaining, I was hurt that
Leon spoke harshly to me, that he embarrassed me by treating me like an ill-behaved child. Despite my feelings, however, I couldn’t express my hurt to Leon. Just as I’d always accepted it when my father reprimanded me, not only as a child, but right up to his death when I was in my fifties, I accepted it when Leon did the same. I felt that if I tried to speak, I would cry. So I swallowed my hurt along with the gnats, and promised myself I would be better in the future and make Leon proud of me, rather than ashamed.
The remainder of my two years as an army wife gave me lots of opportunities to prove to
Leon and to myself that I could handle life’s inconveniences without complaining. Following the incident with the gnats, I was relieved to get away from the base, only to discover that there were not just gnats, but roaches everywhere. I remember shaking the ironing board before I used it, so all the roaches would run off and not end up in my clothes. At another rooming house where I had kitchen privileges, I learned to turn on the oven and light all the burners before starting to cook, so that all the roaches would run away. Only then was I confident they would not end up cooked in my meal along with my food.
Despite my disgust with the gnats and the roaches, Bennettsville was fun most of the time. There were five other wives in the area. The first few weeks, I met them at the one restaurant in town for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then we’d go back to one of our rooms and spend the day. Walking by the drugstore one day, we saw current novels displayed in the window. The proprietor was pleased when we went in and bought them all, and I was happy when we read and discussed them, just as I had done with my mother and sister all through the years when I was growing up. I wrote to my mother, telling her about my new friends and how much I enjoyed them, and she sent us more books to read, and yarn so we could all knit together.
After a few weeks, the other wives started avoiding me. At first, I thought my timing was just unfortunate. One morning, I waited at a corner to walk to breakfast with them, and no one showed up. Thinking I had missed them, I went to the restaurant and found them there, already finishing their meal. They rushed to leave as I entered. When I said, “Good morning,” and asked what everyone was doing the rest of the day, I was given all kinds of excuses. Not wanting to believe they were avoiding me, I got up earlier the next morning so I wouldn’t miss them. It worked that day, but then they kept changing the time. At the field, none of them would talk to me. Eventually, I had to accept the obvious – they were avoiding me.
What was wrong? I thought of the radio ads. Did I have body odor? Bad breath? What had I done to offend them? I had no idea what had happened. One rainy day, I was feeling ill and remained in bed. There was a knock at the door and one of the wives, Mary Ladensack, walked in. She sat down and got right to the point. She asked me if I knew why the wives were avoiding me. “Here it comes,” I thought. “She’s going to tell me I smell bad.”
But that wasn’t it at all. I was amazed when I learned the real reason. Mary started by saying she’d been upset for some time about the situation. That morning, she felt so bad about it that she walked to church in the pouring rain to discuss it with her priest. She described to him how I was being boycotted because the women had found out I was Jewish. He told her that as a good Catholic, she should befriend me, even if it meant that the other wives avoided her as well.
I didn’t know what to say. I knew anti-Semitism existed where I grew up in
Newton, but I rarely experienced it first hand. I was shocked and hurt, although grateful to Mary for deciding to stand by me. We remained friends for years as a result, though eventually our correspondence petered out as we moved in different directions.
Mary’s example led the other women to accept me back into the circle of friends. However, on weekends, Leon and I spent all our time with Mac, Stan, and a few other cadets, rather than with the other married couples. Just as in
Nashville, my room became the gathering place for Leon and his buddies, and I tried to take care of them all. When their girlfriends from home were coming to visit, the cadets gave me their money to hold for weeks in advance, so they would not spend it on liquor and would instead have it to spend on their girls. I sometimes had as much as four or five hundred dollars hidden in my room.
The cadets’ parents came to visit, as well as their girlfriends. One time, Mac’s parents came, and afterwards sent me all kinds of finger foods to give the cadets on weekends. Mac shared with me the fact that I was the only girl his parents liked. I laughed and told him that it was because I was unavailable. They weren’t ready for him to get married and so couldn’t completely like anyone he dated.
My father visited as well. It was great to spend some time with him, to show off how independent and capable I’d become. He praised me and spoke of how pleased he was with the life I’d created for myself as an army wife. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that he admitted that, in reality, he’d been upset by the significantly lower standard of living I had, relative to what he’d provided for me when I was a child.
The hardships rarely bothered me, however. I enjoyed my new friends, my time with
Leon, the responsibility for taking care of myself. There were, however, some bad moments in Bennettsville, when the war moved closer. One day out at the field, someone came running to tell me there’d been an accident – the instructor and his student had bailed out of the plane – and it was a cadet whose last name began with K. It was a long half hour before I learned it was Krieger not Kruger, and that no one was hurt.
Not all the accidents had a happy ending. I remember the sadness I felt as we wives put another wife on the train with her husband’s casket after a wing had fallen off his plane. He and his instructor never had the chance to bail. All day, every day, we watched the planes flying overhead, knowing our husbands were up there and that an accident could happen at any time.
Sometimes the fear was mixed with humor. Landing was one of the most difficult and dangerous moments of flight. One time, we watched as a plane bounced seven times before landing. Most of the spectators were laughing, and I must admit it was a funny sight. But I felt sorry for the pilot, who must have been trying so hard and feeling miserable at his inability to land smoothly. I felt even worse for him as he walked toward us after landing, and I saw that it was
After two months of intensive flight training, the cadets once again disappeared, and I waited for the phone call from
Leon telling me where to go next. This time it came from Shaw Field in . I hopped a train, arrived in Sumter, South Carolina Sumter, and found a place to live. I unpacked my things and walked the two blocks to the center of town, looking for someplace to have a meal. Happily, I found that instead of one restaurant, there were now two. This was certainly a step up from Bennettsville.
As I walked past the first restaurant, I noticed a sign in the doorway next door announcing that WFIG, the local radio station, was in temporary quarters above the restaurant since the station had burned down a few weeks earlier. I got excited as I read the next phrase, “Help Wanted.” Forgetting my hunger, I walked upstairs and spoke to the station manager. Because of the war, they were short-handed and needed an announcer. I told him of my training at Emerson and he hired me on the spot. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Here I was, barely out of school, and I’d landed my first job. Not only was it in the industry for which I’d studied so hard at Emerson, it was actually on the air.
It was a small, local affair affiliated with the Blue Network, a collection of three radio stations and two hundred network affiliates that eventually became ABC, the American Broadcasting Company. It was on the air for sixteen hours a day, but had only one announcer, a young man who was unable to serve in the military. He covered the night shift and the station hired me for the day shift. I also came back in the middle of the night to relieve the other announcer for a half-hour, just as he did for me around lunchtime, when I would run downstairs to the restaurant for a bite to eat.
I marveled at how much responsibility I was given from the first day. I sat alone at the switchboard, handled all the station breaks, newscasts, ads, local shows, and was also the disk jockey. Once a week, I went out to Shaw Field, where
Leon was stationed, and worked with the cadets who broadcast a show each week.
I was elated when my mother and sister came for a few days, and I had the opportunity to share my new life with them. It meant a lot to me to show off how competent I was at my job, how well Emerson had prepared me for it. It gave me a warm glow inside to observe them as they watched me on the air.
At the same time, having Mother and Karyl visit me made me see the station through their eyes, and I recognized how far I had come since Leon first got annoyed with me over my reaction to the gnats at Shaw Field. While there were no gnats at the station, there were many other discomforts. In the pre-dawn darkness, I had to go up a narrow, creaky staircase to the control room. When Mother and Karyl made the climb with me, Mother was quick to express her fear that I was vulnerable to attack there, and I smiled to myself, knowing I no longer worried about that sort of thing. Later, when I turned on the lights, Mother and Karyl grimaced in disgust as the roaches scrambled in all directions. I, on the other hand, had grown accustomed to their scurrying about.
After I powered up my equipment and started broadcasting, I saw Karyl pull her feet up under her and figured out that she was nervous and worried that something icky might run over her feet and up her legs. As I smiled to myself at how well I’d adjusted to this environment, a light flashed on my board, indicating that the man at the power station was trying to reach me. I pointed out the flashing light to my mother and sister and mimed that I would wait to respond until I stopped talking on the air and could switch to a song. Then I picked up the phone. When I did, I was told that a rustling sound could be heard behind my voice, and advised to check the wastebasket for mice. I calmly put the basket out in the hall so the noise couldn’t be heard over the radio, all the while hiding the existence of that mouse from Mother and Karyl.
I enjoyed my job tremendously and took great pride in working in my chosen field, being in charge of the station during my shift, earning a regular paycheck, and even being the first in my family to have a social security card. My pleasure was somewhat spoiled, however, by the reactions of those closest to me, all of whom seemed unimpressed. My mother and Karyl couldn’t see beyond the narrow, rickety staircase, the cockroaches and the cramped setting, and thus thought it was a bad job. My father, annoyed when he learned that my salary was only $16 dollars a week, advised me to quit because he thought I wasn’t getting paid enough.
Leon understood that it was a good job and that I liked what I was doing, but he never acknowledged my accomplishments. He took them for granted. Although I was appreciative of this confidence in me, I sorely missed a word of praise.
Despite my disappointment that my family didn’t share in my excitement about my job, I loved it, with the exception of one very difficult task. Three or four times a day, the news came in on the teletype. I’d hold my breath as I skimmed through it, looking for word of an accident or fatality at the airbase. Whenever that happened, which was all too frequently, I remember how my heart would race, wondering if I knew the cadet involved. I could feel my throat tighten as I worried that Leon or one of the other young men I knew personally had been hurt or killed.
Reading the teletype, however, wasn’t as stressful as waiting at the field for the cadets to show up on the nights we wives were allowed to visit. The men would swarm in at exactly and we knew that any who didn’t appear were probably dead. This experience made a lasting impression on me. All through the years, Leon and the children knew I would panic if they were even ten minutes late, and so they would telephone. To this day – sixty years later – my grandchildren know to call me if they aren’t coming directly home from school.
One night, Jayce Lawrence, the cadet who did the radio show with me each week, failed to appear with the rest of the soldiers. Leon, Mac, Stan, and others came to tell me Jayce’s plane had gone down an hour earlier. He was gone. Another time, the cadets were practicing night flying for the first time, when an unexpected fog rolled in and we lost six planes.
Prior to discovering that several of his comrades had been lost that night in the fog,
Leon was excited by his experience. He had just completed his training for flying with instruments instead of by sight. Once the fog made it impossible to see, Leon’s instructor turned the controls over to him saying, “Show me what you can do.” Believing his instructor would take the controls back should he make a mistake, Leon was unconcerned with his predicament. He found the signal beacon and navigated accordingly, eventually breaking through the fog cover to see the landing strip exactly where it was supposed to be. Exhausted by the effort, he was relieved when his instructor said he would handle the landing. As they got out of the plane, Leon asked if he could log the hours toward his instrument certification, and his instructor said, “Sorry, you can’t do that. I’m not certified on instruments myself.” Leon swallowed hard, suddenly aware that he’d been flying with no back-up.
Our two months in
Sumter, with all its hardships and tragedies, went by quickly. It concluded with the long-awaited decision as to the type of plane Leon would fly. He wanted to pilot a fighter. It was the most exciting and glamorous experience he could imagine. To his dismay, however, he was told he was too tall. A couple of inches made the difference; instead of flying a fighter plane, Leon would fly a bomber.
Having mastered flying a twin-engine plane at Shaw Field in
was ready for his next assignment at Freeman Field near Sumter, Leon , where he would learn to fly a twin-engine bomber. The time passed quickly as we made new friends and explored our surroundings. Everyone around us was impressed by the way Leon and I quickly made ourselves at home – finding restaurants, movie theaters, the library. I was on my own during the weekdays, and spent my time knitting, reading, writing letters, and looking forward to seeing Seymour, Indiana Leon again.
There was a sense of excitement in the air.
Leon’s cadet training was drawing to an end. After two months, he would earn his wings and become an officer. I would no longer be a cadet’s wife, but the wife of an officer, of a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. Sometimes I daydreamed of the moment we’d anticipated for so long, picturing the graduation ceremony. In my fantasy, Leon would beam as he received his wings and then lovingly present them to me as a symbol of gratitude for all my hard work.
When the big day arrived,
Leon looked striking in his dress uniform, confident and competent as he accepted his wings, and the graduation ceremony was as magnificent as I’d imagined it would be. But when Leon walked over to join me after it was all over, instead of giving me the wings with the words of love and appreciation that I longed to hear, he told me he had decided to give the wings to his mother, and would buy me another set at the PX.
For a year, I had followed him around the country, putting up with roaches, rats, anti-Semitism. I had given up the end of my senior year of college and earned my degree studying on my own, instead of enjoying class with my friends. I felt as if I deserved those wings right along with
Leon and was hurt that he valued my contribution so little that, without even discussing it with me, he decided to give them to his mother. My lips began to quiver as I tried hard not to cry.
As soon as he saw that my feelings were hurt,
Leon hugged me and put the wings back in his pocket. He tried to soothe me, but the damage was done. As he tried to explain his reasoning, how his mother had supported his decision to be a pilot, signing the papers required because he was under-age, all I could think about was her telephoning me, demanding that I convince him to give up flying. I understand now, many years later, she may have appeared supportive to Leon, but I knew that behind his back she was trying to undermine his decision, wanting me to be the one to shatter his dreams instead of her. To add insult to injury, once he’d enlisted and had to name a beneficiary for his army life insurance policy, she asked that he name her, saying she would take care of me if anything happened to him. I knew that Leon had firmly told her, “no,” explaining that I was his wife and would thus be his beneficiary, and I could hear his words as he tried to calm me down about the wings. Despite his best efforts, however, I was unable to let go of the hurt.
A few days later, he presented me with wings, saying they were the original ones, that he had bought a new set at the PX for his mother. I wasn’t sure I believed him, and convinced myself that the wings no longer mattered to me. I told myself that they had lost their significance, reminding me not of how we had worked so hard together to achieve his dream of being an Army Air Corps pilot, but of how
Leon had hurt me. I put them away instead of wearing them. I look back on that incident now with sadness, realizing how young we both were. I was so unsure of myself that I craved the wings as a symbol of Leon’s gratitude for my support. He, in his lack of experience, had difficulty understanding why his words had hurt me. Most importantly, neither of us was able to express our feelings to each other. I couldn’t even admit to myself how much I cared. We just buried the whole thing.
In any case, the excitement surrounding
Leon’s completion of his advanced training and becoming an officer helped us move quickly beyond the incident with the wings. Leon had been granted a two-week furlough before transferring to his next assignment and we were eager to visit everyone at home. The night before we left for Boston, we celebrated with a merry dinner out with friends, and a lot of champagne. Not only were Leon and his buddies now officers, it was Leon’s and my second anniversary.
After dinner, we said goodnight to our friend and returned to my room. We fell onto the bed, laughing and happy and ready to continue the party. When the time came to reach for a condom,
Leon said, “Let’s not worry about it tonight. Let’s celebrate.” I knew he was thinking only of the increased physical pleasure, but I thought immediately of the possible consequences. Although we hadn’t planned on having a baby this soon, I longed to hold an infant in my arms. And deep down, I was worried that Leon might not come home from the war. If I got pregnant, I would at least have his child.
Throughout our two week vacation, we continued having sex without taking precautions. I was secretly hoping to get pregnant and
Leon, enjoying his newfound freedom, convinced himself that since we’d already risked pregnancy, it made no difference if we continued taking risks through the rest of that month. Saddened when my period came, I assumed that all my medical problems had prevented me from getting pregnant. We didn’t talk about it, but I believe that Leon, perfectly happy to never take precautions again, made the same assumption.
When we had left
Indiana for our vacation, we expected not to return there, but instead to move on to Chanute Field in Champaign, Urbana for training in a B-17. When Leon learned of his assignment, his frustration at not piloting a fighter plane was somewhat offset by the fact that the B-17 was at least considered to be a glamorous bomber. Once again, however, Leon was disappointed. Half-way through his furlough, he was notified that instead of going directly to Chanute Field, he should return to Freeman Field where he would wait for two months while Chanute Field was re-tooled for B-24s. The B-17s were being phased out, and Leon would fly a B-24. He was crestfallen. The B-24 definitely did not have the glamour of the B-17. It was the workhorse of the Air Corps and everyone laughed at its strange shape. It had a round underbelly reminiscent of a woman well into her last months of pregnancy. While Leon may have been unhappy with this change in plans, I was pleased because it meant Leon would be safer.
I had given up my old room in
Seymour, so when we returned, I found new quarters with a young couple and their baby. I was happy to be around a newborn. Secretly, I was hoping to become pregnant. I ached to have a baby of my own. I dreamed of how satisfying it would be to have a child to hold and love while Leon was overseas. I knew this would complicate our lives tremendously, but I loved children with a passion and was eager to start our family.
Leon was now an officer, life was much pleasanter than it had been before. He came home every night and he was safe – no flying. When given the opportunity to specify the type of ground duty he’d like for the two months while he waited to transfer to asked to manage the PX. He felt as if he could do a good job with that since he had had some experience working for Dad in the diner. He enjoyed his work and we both enjoyed having the cadets salute him when we walked by. I had privileges at the Officers’ Club and started playing bridge there a couple of afternoons a week. Occasionally, Leon and I had dinner there. It was a good life. Chanute Field, Leon
Our comfortable, leisurely existence in
Seymour came to an end soon and Leon was sent to Chanute Field. For the first time, we were able to travel together. When we arrived, the service helped Leon find me a place to stay, two blocks from the campus. An older couple had turned their second floor into an apartment with a kitchen, bedroom, living room, and bath. We had now been married over two years and, for the first time, I had an opportunity to keep house. It wasn’t quite what I’d imagined when I was a child, but I enjoyed it immensely, nonetheless. University of Illinois
While I spent my days with school and work, I devoted my evenings to learning to keep house. Not all my meals were a major success, and I made myself eat my mistakes. The best part of each meal was the delicious fruits and vegetables provided to me by my landlords. They had a victory garden, one of millions planted across the country when we first got involved in the war. The government printed up posters encouraging everyone to, “Plant a
” because, “our food is fighting,” and also provided brochures so that novice farmers all over the country could begin a garden. Over twenty million gardens were planted and they produced up to forty percent of the food consumed in some communities. Fortunately for me, when I got home each evening, there was a bowl filled with water, ice cubes, and fresh fruits and vegetables for my dinner. Never before or since have I tasted anything so delicious. Victory Garden
My time in
Champaign was enjoyable indeed. Not only did I take pleasure in school and work and learning to keep house, I also had family with whom I could share my life for the first time since we left Boston. We discovered that Leon’s favorite cousin Frieda lived nearby, along with her husband, Eddie, and their toddler. Eddie was a civilian worker at Chanute Field and Frieda was able to spend lots of time with me. Our friendship blossomed quickly and, on the weekends, the four of us would play bridge until the wee hours of the morning.
It was obvious why
Leon was so fond of Frieda. She was full of life and energy and made me feel very much a part of the family. She was a few years older and told me stories about Leon’s childhood that I’d never heard before. One in particular took me completely by surprise; it was from Frieda I learned Leon had an older half-sister who grew up in Poland.
Leon’s father, Izzy, was wed, he wanted to immigrate to America, but his bride didn’t want to follow him. For three years, he begged Tillie to make the move and eventually, when she wouldn’t change her mind, he left her behind and struck out on his own, filing for divorce once he arrived in his new country. He didn’t know it, but his young wife was pregnant at the time and gave birth to a little girl.
Izzy learned about it years later when she was a teenager and wrote asking him to sponsor her so she could move to
America. With a little prompting from Nannie Annie who said, “Family is family and she’s your daughter,” he agreed to do so. When the ship arrived, Izzy, Nannie, and the two boys went to New York to welcome the newcomer. Leon was still in knee pants at the time and didn’t quite know what to make of his new big sister. Helen, on the other hand, knew exactly how she felt when her older half-sister moved into their home. Accustomed to being the oldest child and the only daughter, Helen was annoyed at what she viewed as an intrusion from an outsider, and the two girls were in constant conflict.
After a few weeks of this bickering, Eleanor – as the new immigrant was named upon reaching
America – was sent to New York to live with an aunt. When I asked Leon why he’d never told me about his half-sister before, he shrugged and said he didn’t really know too much about her. Izzy had initially remained in touch with his oldest daughter, eventually even sponsoring her fiancé’s transition from a temporary student visa to a full-fledged immigrant, but when she and her new husband, Max, brought her mother over from Poland, Izzy cut the three of them out of his life, and Leon saw no more of his older half-sister.
I found this difficult to accept, for family was more important to me than anything else in the world. I treasured not only my parents and my sister, but all my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. I couldn’t imagine having a half-sister and not having her as an important part of my life. Because I valued family so much, I was overjoyed with my burgeoning friendship with Frieda, the one who told me all about Eleanor and
Leon’s family history. She knew the story well for not only had she been a long-term guest in the Kruger household at the time, attending college in the Boston area, it was also her mother who took in Eleanor.
I loved hearing Frieda’s stories, for I hadn’t known
Leon when he was a small boy and I found it delightful to learn about him and his parents. His family had become my family, and they held a special place in my heart. I was thus pleased when my father-in-law accompanied my father on a visit en route to the Kentucky Derby. When they first got to Champagne, Dad was pleased to note my situation had improved since he visited me amidst the gnats and roaches in . The highlight of their visit happened one afternoon when I took them out to the field and we watched about fifty B-24s take off and fly in formation over our heads. It felt good to see the looks of awe and respect on our dads’ faces. Bennettsville, South Carolina
The pleasant routine of our lives was interrupted one day when
Leon called to tell me he was in the infirmary following a minor incident. Despite his protestations that he was fine, I didn’t want to wait for the weekend to see him and verify this for myself, so I took a bus to the hospital, not relaxing completely until I could see for myself that that he truly was okay. He needed stitches for a relatively small but deep cut near his eye, where the hatch on the B-24 had hit him after opening accidentally. The hospital staff shooed me out after just a few minutes, so I went to the bus stop to wait for my bus back to Champaign.
Four soldiers were waiting as well, and I thought about how much more comfortable I was with strangers than I had been prior to my travels with
Leon. I did have second thoughts, however, when a car stopped and the soldier who was driving invited us to ride with him. At first I was hesitant. There would be six soldiers in the car, and I would have to sit on someone’s lap. Would I be safe? They were all so friendly and eager to help that I decided to go ahead and join them. My trust was rewarded and I was driven directly to my front door.
Despite the fact that people were, in general, very good to everyone in uniform and to their families, I did have one experience that scared me. One evening, after visiting
Leon at Chanute Field, I took the bus home. Because it left me off on the far side of the university, I had to walk across the campus before going the last block to my house. I let myself in, went quietly upstairs, took off my dress, and stood in my slip at the sink to wash out my stockings. Suddenly, my door burst open. My landlady rushed in and grabbed me, protectively wrapping her arms about me. At the same moment, I heard a noise on the porch roof just outside my window. I heard yelling, running, and a rifle shot.
Apparently, a sailor had followed me home, watched me through my window, and jumped up on the porch roof, planning to break in and attack me. Although my landlords were already in bed, they heard me come in and saw a man climbing onto the porch roof. Without hesitation, Mrs. Hubbard ran upstairs to me, while Mr. Hubbard grabbed his rifle, ran outside and chased the sailor, firing a warning shot in the air. The sailor ran away without a fight.
The next day, I reported the incident to the university administration, assuming they’d want to know, since my would-be attacker appeared to be part of a contingent of sailors stationed on the campus. Even though nobody got hurt, I believed this was important to do so the university could investigate what had occurred and prevent it from happening to somebody else in the future, perhaps with a far worse outcome. I was furious when I was told in no uncertain terms that the fault was mine, that I must have given off a signal that I wanted to be approached. Thank goodness times have changed since then.
Toward the end of our stay in
Illinois, I no longer had to worry about walking across the campus any more. Leon asked that I move to a small town called Rantoul, only two miles from the base. That way, I could walk back and forth a couple of evenings each week and spend time with him. I was eager to do anything that allowed me to be with Leon, so I immediately made the move. I’ll never forget those two-mile walks on hot, summer evenings wearing high heels, silk stockings, beautiful dresses, and lovely hats. When I’d reach the halfway mark on my way home, all hot and sweaty with aching feet, I’d stop at an A&W root beer stand on the sidewalk in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It felt heavenly to rest and drink a cold soda.
The flavor floated me back to the happy days of my childhood at
where, on my birthdays, we’d sit on the sand watching the water, have a wienie roast, and drink root beer. I can still smell the smoke from the fire and feel the sea breeze blowing through my hair. I thought about how different our lives were since Ocean Beach Leon and I first got to know each other in junior high. Our school days seemed so long ago, yet the friendships that had developed then were still important to us. As a result, it didn’t surprise me when one day Leon came home from camp and announced that he had volunteered to go to the West Coast for final training, saying he wanted to fight in the Pacific arena where his dearest high school friend, Hugh Van Roosen, had gone down with his submarine.
After three days, I arrived in
Los Angeles and walked to the bus depot to buy my ticket to Fresno. I was frustrated to learn I’d have to wait two whole days before catching a bus. Travel was getting more and more difficult as the war progressed. Soldiers received top priority for tickets and civilians could travel only after all soldiers were accommodated. Swallowing my disappointment, I got into a taxi and asked to be taken to the Biltmore Hotel. It was near the bus depot and happened to be the only hotel I knew about. The driver told me it was closed for the duration and suggested that I instead go to a small hotel directly across the street from the Biltmore. It was clean and would be safe for a woman traveling alone.
I checked in and took a trolley downtown, looking forward to exploring
Los Angeles as I had so many other cities and towns. I was sorely disappointed. For the first time during my travels, I found a place I truly disliked. The city sprawled everywhere, and – unlike the small towns to which I’d become accustomed – there was no town square serving as a focus for the community. It reminded me of and I was totally bewildered and just a tiny bit scared. Brooklyn, New York
To make matters worse, I found it difficult to find a place to eat. All the nice restaurants had a sign in the window saying, “Unescorted ladies may not enter.” Instead of feeling welcomed as an army air corps wife, I felt isolated and rejected. When I was almost ready to give up, I discovered a sandwich shop that would serve me, saw a movie, and the next night got a ticket to see Marilyn Miller and Billy Gilbert in Sally at a theater a half block from my hotel. Much as I enjoyed going to the shows, I was happy to get on the bus for the eight hour trip to
Fresno, and even happier to see Leon when I arrived.
Following my long ride across the country, I expected to settle in, as we had done so many times before. Instead, less than a week went by and
Leon was given a final furlough before reporting to for his last eight weeks of training prior to going overseas. Of course we wanted to use the time to visit our family and friends back in Walla Walla, Washington Boston, but we had no money to buy train tickets. We called my father to ask him to wire the funds to us, to which he agreed without hesitation, but he encouraged us to use the money instead to tour the west coast and have ourselves a vacation. Knowing that Leon would be leaving for overseas in the very near future, however, we felt it important to go home to Boston.
This last trip home was more difficult than our others, starting with catching the train from LeMoore. We stood by a railroad track in the middle of nowhere in the unrelenting heat. We were told to flag down a train and then left on our own. No train showed up. We were afraid that we’d somehow missed it, or that it wasn’t coming at all, but there was no one around to ask what we should do. It was almost an hour before we heard the welcome rumble of a train in the distance. Just as we’d been told it would, the train stopped and took us to
San Francisco, where we learned we couldn’t get out until the next day and that even then, no sleepers were available.
We stayed in a fleabag hotel next to the train station south of the city and spent a sleepless night, waking again and again to the sounds of trains coming and going. The next morning we left for
Salt Lake City to visit Helen and Henry Lerner on our way home. Even after a long day of travel, we had difficulty sleeping and sat up all night with nothing to eat and only water to drink. We tried to snuggle up together under our coats to go to sleep, but the train chaperone made us separate, despite our explanation that we were married. In those days, the railroads hired chaperones to patrol the cars, partially to ensure the safety of the passengers, but primarily to enforce proper behavior. By the time we got to Salt Lake City, we were totally bedraggled. Our mood lifted quickly, however, when we saw Helen, Henry, three-year-old Toby, and baby Bennett waiting to greet us.
Our time with the Lerners was rejuvenating. Upon our arrival, Helen suggested I relax in a hot bath while she made a delicious breakfast of baked eggs and homemade cinnamon rolls. The sweet aroma of the meal reached me as I lounged in the tub, reminding me of my recent inept attempts to teach myself to cook. How much I still had to learn about running a comfortable home! By the time we’d spent two days with the Lerners, we felt thoroughly refreshed and ready to travel again. We’d been wined, dined, and made to feel special and loved.
When we returned to the station to arrange for the remainder of our trip home, we were fortunate enough to snare the last two tickets on a sleeper to
Chicago, but we could get only one narrow, upper berth for the two of us to share. Given the discomfort of our previous train ride, that tiny berth looked spacious and inviting, and we thankfully crawled in, completely exhausted, and slept soundly through the night. When we awoke, I peeked out and saw that ours was the only berth not made up. The porter, thinking we were newlyweds since we shared a single berth, purposely didn’t wake us when he got everybody else up. The other passengers were already up and dressed, busy chatting or reading books and newspapers. We rang for the ladder and I made Leon go down first. Everyone smiled at us and I was totally embarrassed.
When we got home, expecting to have a joyous reunion with our friends and family, we were disappointed. My father was annoyed with us for not having taken his advice about a vacation on the west coast. Everyone else found it awkward for us to be there because in the back of their minds was the awareness that this was the last time they would see
Leon before he went off to the war. No one talked about the possibility that he might never come home again, somehow believing that if we didn’t talk about it, it couldn’t happen. It was as if the proverbial elephant were standing in the living room while everyone else pretended it wasn’t there. I, on the other hand, could see the elephant, for I had already lost many friends in training accidents, and my innocence along with them. Part of me no longer worried whether I would lose Leon, but when it would happen.
After two weeks, Leon and I got back on the train for the five day journey to
. We had traveled two and a half times across the country in three weeks. With the exception of the difficult time from Walla Walla, Washington Fresno to Salt Lake City, and the embarrassing moment climbing down the ladder on the sleeper to Chicago, I enjoyed every minute of the trips. The scenery in the Northwest was spectacular, the majesty of the Rockies, awe-inspiring. While I loved the beautiful White Mountains of Northern New England, the sheer vastness of the Rockies took my breath away, and I’d never seen anything like the golden hills of Washington. I felt privileged to explore my beautiful United States.
When we arrived in
Walla Walla and found a home, I couldn’t help but notice the two gold stars in the front window. I got choked up every time I looked at them. The woman had lost both her husband and son in the war, but instead of being angry with the military for taking them from her, she supported the soldiers of the Army Air Corps. I felt honored by her friendship.
There were two other couples in the house and we all spent time together each evening when our husbands came home. We played bridge, did jigsaw puzzles, went to the movies. None of us had kitchen privileges, so we ate all our meals in restaurants. Life seemed relatively normal.
Walla Walla was so spread out, Leon and I decided to buy a car. We were pleased when we found one for only ninety dollars. It turned out to be quite an effort to get the car home. Before I could purchase gasoline, I had to go to a government office to have the tires checked and receive ration stamps. The man who sold me the car assured me there was enough gasoline in it to get me there. He lied. Halfway into town, the car died. A gentleman stopped to help me, put a stick in the gas tank, and told me it was empty. I left the car by the side of the road and he drove me into town.
When I got to the government office and asked for ration stamps so I could buy gas, the agent said they had to inspect the tires first. It was so frustrating! Over and over I explained that I couldn’t bring the car in for inspection because it was out of gas, but no one would listen. After several attempts, I found an administrator who was sympathetic to my problem. He believed my story and agreed to give me a single ration stamp. Gratefully, I left for the gas station to purchase one stamp’s worth of gas, poured it into the gas tank, and, after a four-hour ordeal, drove the old clunker home. Incidentally, the day I left
Walla Walla, I was able to sell the car for the same ninety dollars I paid for it. The only difference was that I was nice to the new owner and left gasoline in the tank.
The car was used every day. Each morning,
Leon drove it around the block to warm it up, and then pulled up behind our friends’ car to give it a push, without which it wouldn’t start. Then the two cars would go rattling off to the base. An hour or so later, we wives would take the bus into town, have breakfast, and take another bus to the Officers’ Club. The time passed quickly as we spent the day there chatting, reading, writing letters, going for a walk. My heart went out to one of the women because she was nine months pregnant. I ached to have a child of my own, yet I knew she must be terrified at the possibility of being widowed with a young infant. I did what I always do when a friend or relative is expecting; I knit a sweater for the baby. The other wives admired my work and said they wished they could do the same. Without giving it a second thought, I tackled my first teaching position and held class each day. I loved sharing my skill with others and the hours flew by as we all sat and knit for the baby.
With all the time we spent chatting, we never talked about what was most on our minds. Each of our husbands would soon be leaving
Walla Walla for overseas and actual battle, and we might never see them alive again. We were so afraid, yet pretended to be brave, partially to avoid breaking down and partially to support our young husbands who needed us to be strong. Always in the background was the unmentioned fear.
One day we were on the bus going to camp when we heard the sirens, saw the ambulances. Someone jumped on the bus and said quietly, “Kruger’s plane is down.” I don’t know how I held it together. The minutes until we pulled up at the airfield lasted an eternity. As I stepped off the bus,
Leon’s bombardier came running up to me. Before I could wonder why he hadn’t been on the plane when it went down, he grabbed my hands and said, “It wasn’t Leon. It wasn’t Leon.” The squadron was practicing flying in formation and, if a plane went down, each pilot was supposed to move up to cover the empty spot. Leon had moved up per order, but the next pilot behind him was still in his original position as the planes flew overhead. When everyone on the ground looked up, they saw an empty spot where Leon was supposed to be, and thus assumed it was his plane that crashed. The downed plane had hit a mountainside, killing all ten aboard.
We wives were all in shock. What a way for our husbands’ training program to draw to an end! We knew that any day now the soldiers would receive their orders to go overseas, and there was nothing we could do to ensure their safety. I thought about the day in
Nashville when Leon and his fellow cadets acknowledged that one in seven of them wouldn’t return home alive. It was hard to be strong and not let our husbands know how scared we were for them. We discussed how we would act the day they left. We knew they wanted us to behave as if this was simply an exciting adventure, and we promised ourselves to do just that, to wave our goodbyes with smiles – and we did. The men lined up for an informal ceremony on the flight line while we watched with lumps in our throats and smiles on our faces. Then the fliers broke rank, husbands kissed wives goodbye, and the soldiers marched off. After the men were gone, we consoled one another. That night, I tossed and turned, unable to sleep, crying into my pillow. The next morning, for the last time, this Army Air Corps wife took the long, sad journey home alone.
I stopped once again in
Salt Lake City to visit Helen and Henry, and they invited me to stay with them for the duration of the war instead of going home to New England. Helen was lonesome for home. She especially missed having family with whom to share the children. She missed having grandparents and aunts and uncles to ooh and aah over toddler Toby and baby Bennett. While I adored being around the children, I had no intention of remaining in Utah. Before I had a chance to share my decision with Helen, however, I received a phone call from Leon telling me to go home immediately. When I asked him why, all he would say was that he couldn’t tell me.
Curious about what was happening, I boarded the train with no idea about why I needed to hurry. As far as I knew,
Leon was in San Francisco waiting to go to the Pacific Theatre of Operation. What I learned later was that instead, he and his crew were put on a troop train to the East Coast, but not told their destination. Despite the uncertainty as to where he would be, Leon wanted me there, too, just in case we could spend more time together. That didn’t happen. After he and his crew arrived on the East Coast, they immediately shipped out to Europe. A month went by while I waited to hear from him, having no idea where he was – not even whether he was in the United States or overseas.
Then one day, a letter arrived. We had worked out a code so he could tell me where he was. I opened it eagerly, examining it carefully for the expected clues. I knew that the first sentence might not make much sense, but if I underlined the first letter of each word, it would spell out where he was. I held my breath as I read: “In the afternoon light, you always look beautiful.”
Leon was in Italy. Italy! He was so focused on serving in the Pacific that I knew he must have been disappointed. Later, I found out why the plans had changed so suddenly. When Leon was in San Francisco waiting to be shipped to the Pacific, the Battle of the Bulge hit Europe. All air crews waiting on the west coast were put on a troop train across the country, and then sent by ship to Europe. They were replacement crews for the airmen who had been shot down.
Leon risked his life flying bombing runs over the Ploesti Oil Fields in Romania, I settled into a routine back in my parents’ home in Boston. I finished up the last of my coursework at Emerson, earning the degree I had been given a year earlier. I wrote to Leon daily, never able to forget that I might not see him again. I was grateful to both our parents and to my grandparents who frequently sent him care packages. Leon, in turn, wrote interesting letters home. He never discussed his military activity, but always managed to find the humor in everything he saw and did. He was protecting not only me, but also himself, as he avoided thinking about the horrors of the war surrounding him.
Months went by and then V-E day arrived, victory in
Europe. Everyone celebrated and I knew Leon would come home. My joy was mixed with sadness, however, for I knew that our visit would be short since he would be redeployed to the Pacific. He had not yet flown enough missions to qualify for a stateside assignment, and thus would have to return to active duty immediately.
When I heard from
Leon, he was calling from Nova Scotia, where his squadron had landed briefly before continuing on to Bradley Field in . As I had so many times before, I went to be with him, checking in at the large, downtown hotel to wait for his arrival. I had dreamed of our reunion so many times, picturing how we would melt into each others arms, and spend hours and hours saying how we’d missed each other and how we much we loved one another. When it actually happened, however, instead of being the warm, tender moment I’d anticipated, it was downright awkward. There was a lack of warmth, almost an embarrassment at being together, and we found it hard to make conversation. When we did talk, I spoke at length of some problems I’d had dealing with his family while he was overseas. Instead of the sympathetic and grateful response I wanted, all I got was silence. Hartford, Connecticut
For ten days, we were together, but not together. Couples all over the country were going through the same readjustment process. Soldiers returning from overseas were not the same young boyfriends and husbands who had left for battle such a short time before. At the time, I blamed myself. I thought there was something wrong with me that
Leon didn’t seem to love me in the same way he had before. It was almost a relief when he got his orders to move on to in western Fort Devons Massachusetts, and then ship out to the Pacific.
At last, our Army Air Corps days were over. As I hung up the phone, I thought about the concerns thatOf Heroes and Transitions
Leon had shared with me during his training – whether he would be a good enough pilot, and whether he could be courageous in life-threatening situations. He turned out extremely well in both areas. He had been both competent and brave throughout. And he was coming home. The sense of relief was so powerful that for the first time in four years, I let my guard down and cried.
Life brings sorrows and joys alike. It is what a man does with them – not what they do to him – that is the true test of his mettle. - Theodore Roosevelt
My father wasn’t the only one frustrated.
Leon was unhappy with himself, not
realizing that every returning soldier was stumbling, trying to start life
over. He knew he needed to keep busy, so
he answered a help wanted ad and got an assembly line job in a watch factory in
Waltham for the
summer. Mornings, he walked the mile to
the streetcar stop. Evenings, I drove to
Newton Corner to pick him up. By the end
of each day, he was exhausted, which was exactly what he needed. In his own way, he was putting the horrors of
the war behind him.
My father was annoyed with this turn of events. He couldn’t understand how a young man with a Harvard education could waste his time as a laborer. He kept saying, “
Leon spent all
that time in college just to take a mindless job at a rock-bottom wage. It’s not right. He needs to quit working there and take a job
with a future. He’ll never amount to
anything if he stays there.” At least my
father vented his anger and disappointment on me, and not on Leon.
Dad had watched Herb go through a similar readjustment period a year earlier. Herb had been discharged from the service following an emotional breakdown caused by combat stress syndrome. Mother and Dad watched while he and Karyl pulled their lives together. It took a few months, but they succeeded. Herb returned to Harvard to earn a PhD, and while he was doing so, worked as an instructor there. They found an apartment near
Harvard Square and
seemed content. Karyl enjoyed learning
to cook, shop, and do everything else necessary to run a small household.
As the summer wore on, I envied Karyl and Herb. They were established in their own home while we lived with my parents. Karyl played the role of the young housewife while I lay about recovering from yet another surgery on my back. They no longer were subject to my father’s attempts to control their lives, while I had to deal with such attempts on a daily basis. I constantly served as a buffer between my husband and my father, trying to keep peace in the household, just as I had done as a child for my mother and Grandma Lena.
Another major difference between Karyl and Herb and
and me was that they had a social life, while we had none. One weekend, Leon and I were sitting in the
back yard discussing how different our lives had become from our time together
in college and during his training. Then
we had friends, went places, did things.
It occurred to us that in college and the service, our social life was
provided for us and we had thus lost the habit of calling friends, setting up
evenings together. Recognizing that we needed
to cultivate those activities once again, I started contacting old friends and
our social life blossomed.
By the end of the summer,
Leon had regained much of his former equilibrium.
He still had bad moments but no longer seemed stressed all the
time. His job in the watch factory had
worked its miracles and Leon
decided he was ready to take Dad up on his offer to join him in the restaurant
I was initially surprised when Dad agreed to implement Leon’s ideas, but then I saw that Leon had presented them to my father as beneficial not just to the employee, but to the business owner as well.
Leon pointed out that if Dad’s
restaurant workers were content, they would perform better on the job. Any money spent on vacations and insurance
would be saved through higher productivity and lower employee turnover. It turned out that Leon’s predictions were
accurate. Dad kept his employees for
twenty years, an unusual statistic in the restaurant business. Because they were content, the workers
created a pleasant environment in the diners, which in turn brought in many more customers.
Leon enjoying his work in the
restaurant business, we decided it was time for us to move into a place of our
own and found a charming two-family house on Cloverdale Road in Newton Highlands. I’d loved the area the first time I saw it
when Karyl and Herb were house hunting several months earlier. Although they liked the neighborhood as much
as I did, they concluded it would be better for them to rent an apartment in Cambridge within walking
distance of Harvard. I on the other hand had kept returning, hoping to find the perfect house on the perfect street.
The home of my childhood dreams was becoming a reality. My parents handled the down payment for us, glad to help, as always. We were eager to move in, but there was a problem. Both apartments in the house were occupied by tenants, and we couldn’t simply evict one of them. We were required by law to give them six months notice to find another place to live. After World War II, vacancies were at a premium all over the country, and people needed that time to re-locate.
So Leon and I became landlords, happily making plans for the day we would move into our own home. Whenever we got impatient about the inconveniences of living with my parents, we’d talk about what life would be like in the future. We’d quote Lenny’s line from John Steinbeck’s book, Of Mice and Men, “Tell how it’s gonna be,” and then we’d say George’s answer, “I’ll tell you so you can almost see it…We gonna get a little place.” It was our way of promising each other everything was going to work out fine. We’d quote those words, and then hold each other in a long hug.
While we waited,
to work with my father. In addition to
proposing improvements for the workers, Leon developed ideas for opening
diners in cities up and down the East Coast, as Howard Johnson had done in the
1930’s. Leon said he could fly back and
forth, overseeing the new locations. Dad
laughed at the idea. Had he agreed to Leon’s
expansion proposal, perhaps Leon
would have continued to work in the diner business. Instead, he felt trapped, unchallenged by
the routine activities. Wanting his job
to be more than a paycheck, he decided to seek advice from his undergraduate
counselor at Harvard, Saunders MacLaine.
We talked about it in bed that night and I begged
to get a second opinion before giving up. From the day I met him, he spoke of wanting
to go to MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and prepare himself to
work in mathematics. As a high school
senior, he was accepted there as well as at Harvard, but his parents insisted he go to Harvard. Since he was still
dependent upon them financially, he felt as if he had no choice but to follow
their wishes. However, he didn’t enroll as a
pre-med student, which what they wanted. Instead, he became a math major, unwilling to
give up on his dream. Yet now, seven
years later, he wouldn’t get a second opinion after listening to Saunders
MacLaine. He got angry with me for even suggesting it, saying I didn’t know
anything. I was hurt
by his harsh words and too insecure to realize they sprang from his own disappointment.
In any case,
remained depressed for several days before snapping out of it. Then he said, “If I have to leave
mathematics, I’ll go into medicine.” I
family to be pleased with his decision.
After all, that’s what they’d wanted for him from the time he first
showed such promise as a student, many years earlier. Instead, they thought Leon was
foolish to give up working for my father. They said he could become a rich man in the
restaurant business, and they couldn’t understand why he would walk away from
that opportunity to begin the long, difficult, and costly process of becoming a
My father, on the other hand, was supportive. Instead of trying to talk
staying in business with him, he encouraged him to apply to medical
school. He said he’d always regretted
not pursuing a career as a lawyer after he graduated from law school, and he didn’t
to have those regrets.
“I didn’t have a choice," he said. "I graduated during the depression and there were no legal jobs to be had. But you do have a choice. Apply to med school and Mother and I will help in any way we can.”
“I didn’t have a choice," he said. "I graduated during the depression and there were no legal jobs to be had. But you do have a choice. Apply to med school and Mother and I will help in any way we can.”
How did I feel about it? I had been eager to make a home with
Leon and start
a family. Now, I had to let go of that
dream. Instead, we were looking at ten
difficult years of medical school, internships, and residency. With Leon’s decision to go back to school,
I felt as if all of my dreams were falling apart. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I grew
ashamed of my self-centeredness and resolved to be the Rock of Gibraltar through
the difficult years ahead. My
parents were being supportive and I should, too.
As soon as
Leon began to
look at medical schools, he discovered it would be more difficult to get in
than he had thought. Many returning
soldiers were taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to go to school and admissions
offices were growing more selective.
hadn’t chosen the field while an under-graduate, he’d never taken organic
chemistry, a class required for anyone wanting to attend medical school. It became apparent that he would have to complete
this one course before applying.
At first we thought it would take a full year, and
Leon was disappointed. Henry Lerner, hearing of the dilemma, came to
our rescue. Henry had been teaching
radiology at the in University
of Utah Salt Lake City ever since
he got out of the service. He told Leon the school
was still operating on a wartime schedule that offered accelerated organic
chemistry over the summer. He and Helen
said we could come to Utah
and stay with them until we found a place of our own. Leon could enroll in the course and
be able to start medical school in the fall of 1946, thus saving an entire
year. It was the perfect solution to our
We packed a few things and took the train to
Lake City. It
was reminiscent of my wartime travels, which on the whole had been quite
pleasant. Only this time, not only did I
get to enjoy all the beautiful scenery and sense of adventure, I didn’t have
the fear of Leon
getting injured lurking in the back of my mind.
We arrived on June 6th, ready to jump into our new lives, and
two days later the University went off its wartime schedule and canceled
organic chemistry for the summer. Leon would have
to wait until the fall after all.
Helen and Henry urged us to remain for the year, saying
might as well take the class at the , since he had to
take it somewhere. We’d had a good time
visiting them during the war and they seemed eager for us to stay. Helen especially spoke of how special it
would be to have family near by. With
their encouragement, we decided a year in University
of Utah Salt
Lake City made sense and accepted their invitation to
use their guest room for a few more days while we searched for an apartment.
Our few days with Helen and Henry turned into six weeks because housing was unavailable. We looked in the newspaper every day, following every lead to no avail.
started teaching math at the University, leaving me alone all day with Helen
and the children. I thought I would
enjoy my time staying with Helen but instead felt very
much in the way. While
Helen said she was happy to have us there, her actions said otherwise. I’d help prepare the evening meal, only to
find she expected Leon and me to eat bread and butter in the kitchen with five-year-old
Toby and two-year-old Bennett, rather than sharing dinner with their parents. I loved being Auntie Aura to the
children, but found myself treated as a servant, a nanny, and realized
something had to change.
Leon and I became more aggressive about looking for an apartment. One day, we found a promising ad that said, “Do not come before .” We went at and sat on their doorstep, planning to ring the bell at seven. Fifteen minutes later, another couple walked out the door with a lease in hand. They’d shown up even earlier than we had. It was frustrating. My discomfort with the situation grew more intense when little Toby said, “Why do you only read the ads in the morning paper? Why don’t you look in the afternoon paper, too?” I knew a five-year-old could never have thought of that herself. Helen must have been complaining in front of her about how long we’d been there.
Eager to get out of the house, even if it was only during the day, I responded to an ad for a position at the Photo-Reflex Studio of ZCMI, the large department store in the center of town. I was hired on the spot and started work the next day. It felt great to have a job once again. I had enjoyed my work during
Leon’s army training, preferring
employment to sitting about with little to do.
I liked being productive. An
added benefit of my job was that it helped us find an apartment; one
of my co-workers told me about a studio apartment for rent near the
store. Leon and I took one look at it and
decided to move in.
It was nothing like what I expected of our first post-war home. The apartment was so tiny that when we pulled down the Murphy bed at night, we had to step on the couch to climb in. The neighborhood was poor, though not as bad as some of the places I’d stayed in during the war. Despite the dingy surroundings and tight quarters, we got used to living in our one-room home. We loved keeping house and going to work every day. Each morning
took the bus to the university and I walked over to ZCMI. We were free and independent and grown up,
and it was wonderful.
One of my favorite times each day was when Leon and I would sit together on the couch working on a cross-stitch rug. It was
suggestion. Perhaps because his father
had been in the textile industry, he didn’t consider needlework to be for women
only. We would sit near each other with
the rug spread out on our laps, Leon
working on one end while I worked on the other.
We’d tell each other how our day went and talk of our dreams for the
On the weekends, Henry would pick us up for a few hours of visiting. We’d talk of the news, how
math classes were going, all the cute little things the Lerner children were
doing. Helen frequently mentioned
newspaper articles she’d read regarding the dearth of teachers in Salt Lake City. During the war, many female teachers left the
field, preferring to take higher paying jobs that became available as young men
quit to volunteer in the army. Although
the war had ended, many of the women chose to remain in their new jobs,
enjoying the better salaries associated with the traditionally male positions. The school district was begging anyone
remotely qualified to apply, and Helen suggested I call for an interview.
It never would have occurred to me that I could teach. I had no training in education.. Not only that, I was still shy, to the point of stuttering if I were complimented. I’d always admired the way the entire Kruger family seemed so sure of themselves, never doubting their capabilities, always willing to try new things. My family was conservative and I would have considered it audacious to apply for a teaching position. Not so with Helen and Leon. They both encouraged me to explore the possibilities.
Still scared, but also curious and eager to please
I made an appointment. As soon as the
gentleman interviewing me learned I had a college degree, he said he was going to hire me. The only
decision to be made was the subject I would teach. I hastily said I would only be comfortable
teaching English. He ask more questions about the rest of my background. When he found out I had four years each of
Latin, French, and German and could play the piano, he said, “You could teach
foreign language. You could be a music
teacher.” My confidence soared as he
Then he asked me to tell him a little about my life. I said I came from
Boston, and my
husband and I were in Salt Lake City
so he could take organic chemistry at the University before applying to medical
school. When I said that Leon was
teaching mathematics at the same time, he grinned widely and said, “Then you’ll
teach math as well. I’m desperate for an
8th grade math teacher.”
Math! That was impossible. I told him I couldn’t do it, having had only beginning algebra and geometry in high school and no aptitude in the field. He said, “Mrs. Kruger, in addition to my responsibilities as assistant superintendent, I’m in charge of math for the district. I’ve watched many math teachers over the years and I know you can be a good one. I can easily hire someone to fake their way through an English course, but I can’t do that for math. With your college degree and high school algebra and geometry, you’re the most qualified person I’ve got. Besides, your husband can work with you each evening, teaching you what you’ll need to know for class the next day.”
On my way home, I kept replaying the interview in my mind. I knew when I was nine years old that I wanted to be a teacher but never dreamed it would happen this way. I thought I’d get additional training and would then teach English, speech, or drama, the fields for which I was prepared from my time at Emerson. But there I was, still in my early twenties with no background in education, and I was going to teach mathematics.
While I found this all very difficult to take in,
Leon was not surprised that I’d been offered a job. He always believed more in my capabilities
than I did. His praise over the
years went a long way toward helping me believe in myself when my parents had
made me feel inadequate. He said I
shouldn’t worry at all, and we spent much of the weekend reviewing the math I’d
had almost ten years earlier. Just as
the assistant superintendent predicted, Leon prepared me each night for the
next day’s work, and I muddled through and even enjoyed the process.
Before we settled in for a weekend of studying, we joined Helen and Henry for Friday night at the movies. We were sitting in the theater waiting for a Bob Hope movie to begin when I told them my news. I expected Helen to be happy for me, and she was, but she also said I might wish to delay starting for a few weeks.
“I hate to spoil a surprise," she said, "but my parents told me that your parents are planning to visit next weekend and stay for at least ten days.”
“I hate to spoil a surprise," she said, "but my parents told me that your parents are planning to visit next weekend and stay for at least ten days.”
No longer concerned with the start of the movie, I went to the lobby to call my folks and let them know I would be teaching. While I was eager to see them, I was also looking forward to starting my job and didn’t want to wait. I thought it was important to tell them this because I was afraid they would be disappointed if they came all this way to visit us and I was gone all day. Dad said not to worry. We would have two great weekends together and he and Mom could sight-see on Mondays through Friday. I thanked Dad over and over, grateful both for his understanding and his willingness to work around my schedule.
The following Monday morning, I went to school early to get my room in order and review the textbook one more time before my students arrived.
Leon had helped
as best he could, but I still felt unequal to the task before me. How was I ever going to teach the children
when I didn’t understand the material myself? I sat at the desk flipping through pages of
the book. Meanwhile, several teachers
stepped into the room and opened the cabinet next to the door. They each waved hello but didn’t come in to
chat. I found it curious, but my desk
was situated in such a way that the cabinet door blocked my view, and I was too
worried about preparing for class to get up and take a look.
A few days later I discovered what had been going on. The students and I had used up all the supplies that had been out on desks and tables, so I asked at the office where I could get refills. One of the secretaries told me to look in the cabinet by my door, saying there should be enough there to last the rest of the year. She walked to my room with me to show me, only to find the cupboard almost empty. That first day, all those teachers that came into my room were stealing my supplies. Apparently, this happened every time a new teacher started. This was my introduction to the insufficient funding suffered by many schools all over the country. No one blamed the teachers for using whatever means they could to get what they needed for their students, even if it meant stealing from other teachers.
I learned another lesson that first week. Although I viewed myself as a mature adult, quite a bit older than my students, the rest of the world didn’t see me that way. I was 4’10” tall and petite in every way. As a result, the boys didn’t realize I was a teacher. They mistook me for a teenager and flirted with me, coming up behind me and snapping my bra and swatting me on the behind. It happened so often that I stopped walking in the halls between class periods. This behavior had made me uncomfortable when I was in junior high myself, and now, as an adult, I found it intolerable. Today, of course, boys who harass girls in this manner are stopped, but in the 1940s, people saw it as innocent flirting, not harassment.
It wasn’t just the students who had trouble recognizing me as a teacher. One time I was leading my class into the auditorium and stood aside to let them sit down ahead of me. As they filed past me into their seats, another teacher came up behind me and shook me, reprimanding me for stepping out of line. When I turned around to speak with her, she realized her mistake and apologized.
Somehow I got through that first week. I loved my students and they could tell. They warmed up to me immediately and didn’t seem to mind that I barely knew more than they did. Because the actress in me projected a sense of confidence, the students were unaware of how much I was struggling. On my last day in class I shared with them the fact that my math background was so weak that I’d been learning right along with them. I said, “If I can do it, you can too.”
As much as I enjoyed my first week of teaching, I eagerly awaited the weekend and my parents’ arrival. Mother and Dad, always interested in exploring new places, took us to see
Canyon . Zion National
Park Leon packed a
picnic lunch of sardine and cucumber sandwiches with thermoses of hot
coffee. When we got hungry, we pulled
off to the side of the road and ate our lunch, gazing at the beautiful
When we arrived at
we discovered we could go for a horseback ride to the bottom. As I looked at the tiny trail hugging the
side of a cliff, my heart started to race.
Not only had it been many years since I’d been on a horse, I’d always
been bothered by looking over the edge of a long drop; the combination of
the two fears seemed overwhelming. When I
expressed my concerns, the leader assured me the horses knew what they
were doing and all I had to do was hold the reins. No one had ever gone over the edge. Bryce Canyon
Not wanting to disappoint
Leon, I gritted my teeth and told myself I could handle this. We started out and three minutes later were
headed toward the bottom, making one hairpin turn after another. Each time we changed direction, my horse
walked to the edge of the trail, leaned out over the abyss, and looked down
into the depths of the canyon. My
stomach churned as I pictured him losing his footing and the two of us tumbling
over the cliff. When we finally reached
the bottom, I breathed a sigh of relief and tried not to think about the trip
back up to the top.
Somehow I got through the ordeal, but it was four hours of torture and I ended up with a headache. I slept in the car on the way to
where Dad had arranged for a cabin for the
night. The next morning, Zion National
Park Leon wanted to
go riding again, this time taking a trail up a mountain instead of down into a
canyon. Although he tried to convince me
it would be easier than the day before, I decided to enjoy the view from the
porch of our cabin, visiting with Mother and Dad instead. I appreciated the view a lot
more from my comfortable perch on a rocking chair than on the more precarious
perch atop a horse.
By the following weekend, memories of the difficult ride had faded and I was looking forward to another adventure. Dad drove us through
to Logan Canyon . Once again, we were treated to views I’ll never forget – Yellowstone National Park Old Faithful, the
bears, and the morning glory pool. We
stayed overnight in and returned to Jackson Hole,
Wyoming Salt Lake City through
the . My father certainly had a flare for road
trips. Grand Teton Mountains
Because he loved to travel, Dad always encouraged Leon and me to explore new places. At the end of their visit, he and Mother said that our Christmas gift was going to be a week in
Las Vegas, including plane tickets and a few
days at a hotel. We were overwhelmed by
their generosity. Without it, we could
never have considered such an extravagance.
Even if we could have afforded the trip, we wouldn’t have
thought to vacation in Las Vegas
because it was a relatively new tourist destination, a small town with only a
few hotels. Most people wanting to
gamble went to the much more established town of Reno.
Dad always prided himself on identifying exciting places to visit before
they became well known.
The semester ended and Christmas arrived. As promised, Mother and Dad arranged a
vacation for us. It began with a flight
on a small plane with fewer than 20 passengers, all headed to Las Vegas for a week of
entertainment. We landed at a tiny
airport in the middle of the desert with no town in sight. As we looked around with our fellow
passengers, a man greeted us, saying he would drive us to our hotels. He looked like cowboys in the movies,
complete with a Stetson hat and boots with spurs. I wondered how he could drive with those
spurs sticking out from the back of his boots, but he didn’t seem to have any
After about 20 minutes, we arrived at what would eventually become the famous Las Vegas Strip. We could see no sign of the town itself, just two hotels plopped down in the desert. After checking into our room, Leon and I walked to the stables to reserve horses for the next day. The man there took out a book and asked us what time we wanted to go. When we said eight in the morning, he laughed, saying we wouldn’t need a reservation. He said, “Nobody else will be up that early.” Not quite believing him, we asked him to write down our names anyway, and he grinned as he did so, shaking his head.
That night we went to the dining room for dinner and a show. For $3.50 each, we had steak, danced to Orrin Tucker’s orchestra, and listened to Wee Bonnie Baker singing songs like Oh, Johnny and others she’d made famous. It was still relatively early when we went to bed, planning to get up early for our ride.
When we left our room at seven in the morning to have breakfast, we figured out why the stable hand had laughed at us for insisting on a reservation. There was no one in sight. The casino was empty, the dining room was empty, and when we walked over to the stables, we found them empty as well, except for one employee. We rode for an hour and I was relieved to find there were no steep mountains or canyons to terrify me, just the flat desert. Our horses walked slowly, never going faster than a slight trot, so I was able to enjoy taking deep breaths of the clean desert air and looking around at the beautiful terrain.
When we returned to the hotel a few hours later, it was still almost deserted. There were two or three people wandering about in the casino and
Leon said he
was going to try gambling. I was never
tempted to gamble, for it reminded me of the days when my father was involved
with the illegal numbers racket, so I sat in a lounge chair with my knitting
played the slot machines. He quickly got
bored with that, and we decided to sign up for a tour of Hoover Dam in the
afternoon. It had just opened and was
supposed to be spectacular.
We had a couple of hours before the tour started, so we took a cab downtown and walked around looking for a place to eat lunch. We couldn’t believe our good fortune when we found a delicatessen. It was the first Jewish food we’d eaten since we left
Newton six months earlier. I don’t think we realized how much we missed
it until we had the chance to dive into a big pastrami sandwich again. It was so good that we returned the
next day. Not only did we enjoy the food,
but it also felt good to know there were other Jews around. In Salt
Lake City, surrounded by Mormons, we had felt isolated.
We were soon to discover why there was Jewish food available in
Las Vegas. The dinner theaters at the hotels were bringing
in Jewish comedians, performers from the Vaudeville circuit who starred in many
of the 1930’s movies. While we were at
Hoover Dam, we met an older Jewish couple staying at the other hotel, El Rancho
Vegas. We talked about the delicatessen
we had found, and that led to a conversation about the restaurants where they
lived in New York City. By the end of the tour, they’d invited us to
join them for dinner at their hotel, where they were going to see the comedy
team of the Ritz Brothers. We’d been
watching Ritz Brothers movies since the mid-1930s, enjoying them almost as much
as we did their fellow comedians, the Marx Brothers. When we heard the El Rancho Vegas had booked
the Ritz Brothers for their first West Coast tour in ten years, we were eager
to see them.
After a brief nap to recover from our horseback riding and tour, we met the Moskowitzes in the lobby of their hotel and walked past the casino to the dinner theater where Leon and I expected to sit at a small table for four. Instead, the maitre d’ showed us to a large table near the stage. We would have a perfect view of the performers. As we sat down, we recognized the others at our table – the Ritz Brothers. Our hosts knew them in
New York City and we were all having dinner
The conversation was lively, barely stopping long enough for Leon and me to be introduced to everyone. They were all discussing how upset Mrs. Marx was because her son was getting married to a girl who wasn’t Jewish. My new friend leaned over and whispered in my ear that they were talking about Groucho. It was hard for me to believe I was sitting at the table with such famous people.
When it was time for the Ritz Brothers to perform, they pulled me up on the stage with them. I never had a chance to say no. Before I knew it, I was part of the act. They did all kinds of crazy stunts, bouncing me around like a rag doll, taking advantage of my tiny size. Although we hadn’t talked about it over dinner, they quickly figured out that I was comfortable with the acrobatic nature of the routine and they began having me do more and more complicated tricks.
|ACROBATIC AURA AT GRANDPARENTS' BEACH|
Shortly after I sat down, the Ritz Brothers took a break and Peggy Lee, a singer still new on the scene, took the stage. We were impressed with her style, her presence, and her voice. For years afterward,
said he was in love with Peggy Lee.
Although I knew he was joking, it always hurt. He described her as the ultimate beauty with
her long legs and blonde hair. How could
I help but feel insecure, knowing that as a short- legged brunette, I was the
exact opposite of Peggy Lee, and moreover, I couldn’t sing.
The show ended around and
Leon and I got
up to leave, thanking our friends for a superb evening. They said, “Don’t go yet. The night is young. You have to join us in the casino.”
For the first time, we found the casino full of people. Mr. Moskowitz kept
by his side saying Leon
was his good luck charm. Perhaps he was,
for our host won over three thousand dollars in a short time. Meanwhile, Mrs. Moskowitz and I played bingo. It was considerably tamer, but just right for
me. Three hours later, the chuck wagon
restaurant opened, providing free food for the remainder of the night. We gambled and grazed until six in the morning,
finishing our escapade with a breakfast of eggs and coffee. Leon and I went back to our hotel at dawn and
slept through the next day. We had
finally discovered what Las Vegas
was all about.
We returned to
Salt Lake City, exhausted but satisfied. While the vacation had been just what we
needed, we both felt ready to go back.
We’d grown to love the city with its beautiful views of the mountains,
its perfectly maintained streets and sidewalks, and its strong sense of family
and community. There was, however, one
aspect of Mormon life I found upsetting.
The church dogma has been revised in recent years, but back in 1945,
Mormons preached that the more you sinned, the darker your skin became. Blacks were systematically excluded from
important roles in the church, and segregation was not only practiced, but
supported by the religion. The secondary
school in which I taught was the only one in the entire city that allowed
students of color to attend.
I had two black students in one class and none in the others. One young man was exceptionally bright, the son of a captain at Kern Air Force Base. The other was sweet, but had difficulty with math so I spent a lot of time working with him. The seats in the classroom were double and the administration encouraged teachers to sit with their students to give them individual help. One day I was sitting with the black student who needed extra help when I noticed the principal had walked in to observe my class. I was pleased because everyone was working diligently and I was sitting with a student as I was supposed to do. After a few minutes, I went on to the next student, and the next. The principal stayed about 20 minutes and then, just before leaving, whispered he would like to see me for a few minutes after school.
When I went to his office late in the day, he reprimanded me for sitting with a black student. I pointed out that at faculty meetings we had all been urged to sit with students. He said, “Yes, but not the black ones. If you must work with them, stand by their desks. Don’t sit with them.” I told him I was disappointed that he was prejudiced. I said, “As our leader, I expect more from you.”
He answered, “Oh, I forgot. You’re from the North.” Before he could add anything more, I said I would continue to sit with my students and he could fire me if he wished. He shook his head, clearly unable to understand my position, but said no, he wouldn’t fire me.
Another time, the school held a talent show. One student performed a monologue in black-face that was highly offensive. She wore her hair standing on end and clothes that were mismatched, and she spoke with a heavy dialect. I was angered that the teacher in charge allowed this to happen. How could she not have realized how rude and hurtful the monologue was? At the end of the day, my two black students came to my room to talk, saying I was the only teacher in the entire school who might understand. They were upset and didn’t know what to do. I told them that I, too, was offended by what we had seen and that I intended to discuss it with the principal. They were pleased by my willingness to take a stand and say something, although not optimistic that anything would be done.
When I spoke with the principal, I told him I thought a public apology at another assembly program was in order. He said he’d consider my suggestion and wanted me to be aware that he had not known about the monologue beforehand. I said, “I appreciate that, but it’s still your responsibility. You and that teacher should apologize together.” And they did. But not in front of the whole school, just to the black students individually. I believed that this was inadequate, for it wasn’t only the black students who were injured by the monologue. Every student in the school was being taught it was acceptable to make fun of people for the color of their skin, and they all deserved better.
The prejudice I found at the school was a reflection of the same attitude prevalent throughout the community. The great concert singer and actor Paul Robeson came to
Salt Lake City
to perform at the and was denied a
room at the only major hotel in town.
Their policy was “No Blacks Allowed,” and they had no intention of changing
it just because Mr. Robeson was famous.
Henry, through his connections with the university, heard of the
situation and he and Helen asked Mr. Robeson to stay with them. University
Leon and I went with his sister and Henry to the concert and it was a memorable evening. At one point, Mr. Robeson sang The Ballad of Joe Hill, a social protest song describing the life and death of labor organizer Joseph Hillstorm, executed by a firing squad in
City over thirty years earlier for a murder his
supporters claimed he never committed.
Mr. Robeson was known for using his concerts to challenge his audiences’
political beliefs, but no one had ever dared to perform this particular song in Utah before and the
audience refused to applaud when it was over.
The following night, the Lerners invited us to their home for dinner with Mr. Robeson and we talked for hours. The more Leon and I listened, the more impressed we became. Not only was Mr. Robeson a talented performer, he was also brilliant. He was valedictorian at
could sing in over twenty languages, and was deeply involved in politics. Little did we know at the time that within
the year, he would be one of the first victims of the McCarthy era, banned from
theaters throughout the country for his leftist views.
The conversation moved from concerts to the theater, and Leon and I told Mr. Robeson we’d seen him do Shakespeare’s Othello at the Brattle Theater in
Harvard Square. He was pleased when we said we’d seen the
show twice, returning for a second time because we’d enjoyed it so much. He then told us his history with the play and
how he’d first performed it in England
because American producers didn’t believe audiences in the United States
were ready to see a black man play opposite a white woman.
After a highly successful run in
London, the decision was
made to try it out in America,
but not on Broadway. The show was staged
in Harvard Square,
playing to a university town where it was believed that the younger, more
educated audience would accept him when the general theater-going population
was not yet ready to do so. Othello’s
wife, Desdemona, was played by the well-known actress Uta Hagen, and her
real-life husband, Jose Ferrer, portrayed the villain, Iago. When the show finally moved to Broadway, it
was a smash hit.
Our talk of racism in the theater evolved into a discussion of the hostility Mr. Robeson had experienced playing college football. He described how he was the only black athlete on the
football team when he was in college. He
expected players on the other teams to harass him, but was shocked to find his
own teammates attacking him as well. In
the first week of practice, one of his teammates intentionally stomped on his
hand when he was stretched out on the ground, tearing off a couple of his fingernails. During his junior year, he
was benched for a game when players from
refused to play against a black man. Washington & Lee College
Part way through the evening, Helen excused herself, saying it was time to put baby Bennett to bed. Mr. Robeson asked her to name her favorite lullaby and then offered to sing it to Bennett. He sat in a large armchair with my infant nephew cradled in his arms and then the gentlest sound I’d ever heard came from this great, big athlete. It was an evening I’ll never forget.
Not long after that,
semester ended, and he was done with organic chemistry and teaching math. My school year, however, still had a couple of
months to go. I would have liked to
stay, but Leon
was eager to return to Boston
and asked me to quit early. Since I’d
never been given a contract, we both believed this would not be
unreasonable. When I spoke with my
principal, he understood the situation and supported my decision to leave
before the end of the school year.
As I stood to leave his office, he thanked me for all I had done for the school. He shook my hand, held it, and said I had taught him more than I had taught my students. No one had ever challenged his beliefs about black people before, and he appreciated my willingness to do so. It made me feel good to realize I’d been a positive influence in his life, and I wondered if others at the school felt the same way, or if they objected to my Yankee views. I got my answer the last day I taught, when each of my classes had a party for me and, at the end of the day, the faculty did the same.
When it was time for us to leave, Helen, Henry, Toby, and Bennett took us to the train station and stayed with us until we boarded. Helen, pregnant with her third child, cried as she hugged us goodbye. Once we were gone, she would again have no family with whom to share her children. I too was sad, knowing how much I would miss my little niece and nephew. I comforted myself with the thought that when we got home to Boston, I would finally get to hold and cuddle my sister’s new baby boy, Stephen, who’d been born while Leon and I were in Utah. Karyl had sent me a photo I looked at so often that
Leon joked one day, “No matter how
long you stare at the picture, he won’t open his eyes.”
Home. It would be wonderful to get back to
Boston, to see my
parents, my sister, and her family again.
As we sat on the train, I dreamed of the new life Leon and I
would have together, the life that had been postponed by our time in Salt Lake City. I looked about our roomette, thinking the
luxuriousness of the space boded well for the future. Throughout World War II, we had traveled
primarily in coach cars where all we had were our seats. On rare occasion, we were able to get a
sleeper car, where our seats turned into beds at night. On this last train trip
before we settled down in our new home, we had a roomette, a small, private
room with its own toilet and sink.
Our second night on the train, I woke up crying, having just had a troubling and realistic nightmare. I was so certain that something awful was happening to my father that
had trouble convincing me it was only a dream.
All the next day, I had a sense of foreboding. I began to dread our arrival in Boston, fearful of what I
would discover about my father once we were there. In one of those inexplicable coincidences,
it turned out that my dream was true, only it wasn’t my father who was in
danger, but Leon’s. As soon as we got off the train, we learned
that my 57-year-old father-in-law had been diagnosed with leukemia, for which
there was no cure. This was sad news, especially coming on the heels of my beloved Grandpa Philip’s death
from a heart attack a few months earlier.
I had gotten through the war years without losing Leon, but now I
was losing the men close to me from earlier generations.
Despite the unhappy news, it was heartening to be back in Boston again. Leon and I moved into our bedroom in my childhood home on
Fellsmere Road, staying with my parents
until our downstairs tenants on Cloverdale
Road could move out. We gave them six months notice and began
making our plans. Leon had been
accepted at ’s medical
school and would start the following September.
Over the summer, he worked in the restaurant business with my father, as
did I, and Dad taught me to how to keep the books. Boston
My job running the financial side of the restaurant business didn’t pay quite enough to support our household once
went back to school. When Leon first
decided to go to med school, tuition was only four hundred dollars a year and
the GI Bill provided enough money to cover it.
Unfortunately, over the summer before Leon started, the school raised the
tuition to eight hundred dollars and the GI Bill didn’t keep up. All of a sudden, our financial situation
looked bleak. If we evicted our tenant
so that we could move in, we would lose the rent money and not have enough to
pay the mortgage. But if we didn’t evict
our tenant, we wouldn’t have a home.
The summer should have been a wonderful time of looking forward to the move into our first home. And it was. But our excitement was muted by the need for me to have yet another surgery on my back. When the procedure was described to me, it sounded terrifying. Unlike my earlier surgeries in which I was given ether to knock me out, this time I was to be awake for the whole process, having only a local anesthetic. I would get a spinal, involving a large needle inserted in my back. For three weeks before the operation, I found myself weeping before falling asleep.
me and wanted to know what was wrong. I
was embarrassed to tell him I was scared, so I said that everything was
fine. When I saw that he was convinced it
was his fault that I was crying, that he had done something to hurt my
feelings, I admitted I was frightened of the spinal needle and didn’t know how
I would get through the next three weeks.
The summer drew to an end and our tenant moved out. We were finally going to move into our own home. Dad papered and painted all the walls, with
occasional assistance. Mom and Dad
provided the furniture and Leon’s
parents gave us a piano. No home was lovelier
than ours. No couple was happier than we
were. All that was needed to make
everything perfect was for us to have a baby.
I had dreamed of this from the time I was barely more than a toddler, playing with dolls. I knew I could be a wonderful mother, if only I could get pregnant. It had been four years since we stopped taking precautions, yet every month, my period came and I knew I’d have to wait. I cried inside every time I watched my sister with my little nephew, longing to have a baby of my own.
Devastated by the news,
bring himself to come home and tell me what he’d learned. He stopped first at Karyl and Herb’s
apartment to tell them what had happened and recover his composure. When he later got home and told me about it,
I tried to hide my feelings from him, not wanting to make him feel any worse
than he already did. In a daze, I called
my doctor’s office to cancel my appointment. What good would it do to learn about my
problems and potentially get them corrected, when Leon had problems as well?
That night, I cried myself to sleep, burying my face in my pillow so
wouldn’t hear me. What was I going to do? I wanted a baby more than anything in the
world. What point was there in life and
marriage if I couldn’t have children, if I couldn’t be a mother? My dreams were shattered,
and I had nothing left to replace them. Leon