CHILDHOOD VIGNETTES-part two
The War Years
Part Two—High School /War Years (Updated 6/21/10)
It was a typical Sunday afternoon on December 7, 1941. My friends and I had just exited the theatre after viewing a movie (the name of which escapes me.) We hurried out into the glare of sunlight, our little bodies shocked out of our reverie, as we encountered a chill wind, our breath's trailing in the air as we spoke.
With the sophisticated air of new high school freshmen… and now teenagers… we complained about the rowdiness of the young boys watching the latest chapter of FLASH GORDON (a popular serial in the late 30's & 40's,) and his impossible space escapades. What a silly premise...as if there would ever be the possibility of anyone traveling to space, or landing on planets there! We looked forward to a time when we no longer were required to settle for a Saturday or Sunday matinee, but like the older teenagers, be allowed to attend an evening showing, sans the noisy kiddies melees and, oh joy, possibly even date!
As we reached the corner, and started to split up to go our separate ways, we became aware of people shouting and surrounding the newsboys who regularly stood outside the theatres and nearby restaurants to catch people on their way out, to sell their papers. This time, it was the customers who descended on them, eagerly snatching copies out of their outstretched hands. I caught a glimpse of the headline, JAPANESE BOMB PEARL HARBOR! President Roosevelt Declares It A Day in Infamy! The newsboys kept shouting for all to hear, "EXTRA, EXTRA, READ ALL ABOUT IT. JAPANESE BOMB PEARL HARBOR. PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT TO DECLARE WAR!"
I couldn't understand what all the shouting was about. What or where was Pearl Harbor? When I got home, my grandmother and aunt were crying. All the neighbors were standing around their front gates discussing what had happened. We lived around the corner from the church and almost in unison, we went there to pray and seek solace. My father (being a policeman,) was summoned back to work immediately just in case the Japanese decided to fly over to New Jersey and drop their bombs on us. Thus began an era that changed our world forever.
Just two years before, we had visited the 1939 World's Fair in New York. We could not believe our eyes at some of the exhibits. Experimental Television made its debut, along with new electrical appliances. Although toasters, radios etc. had been on the market since the middle 1920's, sleek new models were introduced, as well as the upgrade of the washing machine sans the attached manual wringer. The more sophisticated small electric appliances, such as Mr. Coffee and the pressure cooker, didn’t debut until the end of the next decade. (I well remember…as a young bride, washing down the wall and ceiling when the latter ran amuck!)
That summer in Europe, the winds of war were already being felt here in the United States. I can remember to this day… although as a 13 yr. old child at the fair… I couldn't quite grasp the significance of it… the strange sense of foreboding as we silently watched the lights of the various countries… France, Poland, Belgium, Holland etc., slowly being extinguished at their various pavilions to total darkness, signifying their fall to the German Army.
After declaring war on Japan, we also declared war on Germany and started grooming an Army to send overseas. The following year, my brother and his friends were eager to enlist, but they had to wait until they were eighteen. My uncles, however did enlist and subsequently were sent overseas.
Meanwhile, back at school, I was reveling in my status as a high School teenager. My sister and I went to St. Dominic Academy, a private catholic girl's school. My sister, who had preceded me by two years, was a highly exalted junior. I secretly envied her, though I would have died rather than disclose that fact to her. We wore navy blue uniforms with an inter-changeable light blue collar, which we changed daily. For years afterward, navy blue was not a color to be found in my wardrobe.
Our class was unique, and even the Nuns referred to us that way. (They never did tell us whether that was a compliment or sheer exasperation.) They were quite strict...we weren't allowed to wear make-up in school and when nylon seamless stockings were the fashion rage, they would sometimes pinch our legs to confirm that we were indeed wearing them, as bare legs were also taboo. Prior to that, silk stockings were manufactured with a prominent seam that ran all the way up to the top, which resulted in constantly checking to see if they were straight or not. Skirts were a little shorter to conserve fabric, as silk, cotton etc were reserved for troop uniforms and parachutes.
At lunch time, we were permitted to dance to recorded music and as this was a female only school, the girls danced with each other, making it a little awkward for us when we had a male partner. To this day, I still have a tendency to lead on the dance floor…it drove my husband mad!
In our freshmen year, we made history by winning first prize in the Halloween costume contest dressed as the seven flavors of Jell-O, nosing out the senior entry of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs…a feat not really appreciated by them! They retaliated by ignoring us for the rest of the year! We alienated the Junior Class the following year by having one of our members awarded the leading role over one of their members in our annual spring play and my having been chosen as leading soloist in our Christmas Concert. As I said…our class was unique.
When I was a sophomore, my music teacher entered me in a singing competition for high school pupils, and I was awarded a partial scholarship to study with a vocal coach in the Metropolitan Opera Studios in New York City. A life changing experience...at last, I was free to travel back and forth on my own.
When the war began, the average salary in the country was approximately $1300 per year. The minimum wage was $.43 per hour! A stamp was $.03. Only 55% of homes in the U.S. had indoor plumbing, and the life expectancy of females was 68.2 years, while the men's was 60.8 years.
Not everyone had a private telephone. During the war, it was impossible to obtain one and we made do with "party lines" where 3 or 4 people had to share a single line, which made for some "interesting" gossip around town.
My mother was one of the first female Funeral Directors in the state of New Jersey and we lived upstairs in our private quarters...a circumstance that my sister Lucille and I found inconvenient to say the least! My father was a Detective Sergeant on the police force and years later, when I became a soloist, the joke about town was “My father shoots them...my mother buries them... and I sing at the funeral.”
Because of the funeral home, (See CHILDHOOD VIGNETTES Part One) we had a private phone, with an upstairs extension. I was a typical teenager, who longed to gossip for hours with my friends, but I was forbidden to tie up the phone for business reasons, which…as you can imagine… infuriated my sister and I (We did manage to sneak in a few calls on occasion when my parents weren't home but were invariably caught, when my father tried to reach us at home.)
The government issued ration books at that time as most of the food and tangible goods were being held for the troops. Factories, including the automobile industry, were converted to turning out weapons, trucks and airplanes, for the war effort. To supplement dwindling supplies of fruit and vegetables, Victory Gardens sprang up all over the country, by families and groups, in back yards, vacant lots etc. Besides food rationing, we had to conserve gasoline and long trips were out of the question!
Resourceful housewives had to come up with recipes sans sugar, butter and the like, as we were only allotted a small amount each month. People had to patch their automobile tires as best they could, for no new tires were being manufactured for civilians.
I remember standing on line for hours for nylons for our legs. Shipments of any goods were so haphazard, that when people saw other people standing on line, they immediately joined them, not even knowing what it was they were waiting for! Our shoes were also rationed and the soles were devoid of leather which was only being produced for army use. This posed a problem when on the dance floor, as the composition used made it very slippery to execute those “Jitterbug moves."
There was a Woolworth’s in every town...sometimes more than one. The butcher in town knew your name and favorite cut of meat (which in wartime rationing was not a small thing!) On Sunday mornings after church, everyone gravitated to the local bakery to pick up crisp rolls and hot cross buns straight out of the oven. We always ordered a baker’s dozen, so there would be an extra one to munch on as we headed home.
On Easter Sunday, after Mass, we promenaded through the park showing off our Easter finery featuring stylish hats covered with flowers, veils, or even artificial fruit. We shopped and prepared for weeks for the big day...sometimes outfitting our hapless doggies to match our ensembles. Single ladies traveled in groups, past ogling young men and servicemen home on leave who checked us out, before deciding which one of us to approach...all carefully choreographed.
The hot dog man set up shop at the entrance to the park...the pungent fragrance of sauerkraut wafting through the air, was a comforting reminder of spring.
On weekends in the summertime, especially if you were from North Jersey, everyone headed down the Jersey shore...Avon, Spring Lake, Belmar, Asbury Park, Point Pleasant and other fun towns. Some of the towns were referred to as the home of the Irish Mafia; for whether or not you were Irish, you were adopted as if you were!
During the day, you would lounge on the sun-drenched beaches, the hot sand scalding your bare feet, sizzling in the sun, covered with baby oil and iodine to see who could develop the darkest tan. Now and then, the girls in their one piece bathing suits (Bikinis would have landed you in jail in those days) ventured down to the water to cool off, tentatively putting a toe in the water to check the temperature. The boys on the other hand, would run in like wild horses, yelping and calling to each other as they plunged into the waves with wild abandon.
In the evening, young men and women strolled the boardwalks, eating frozen custard and salt-water taffy as they checked each other out as they passed by. The children would ride the carousel and the whip, shrieking with delight as they were tossed too and fro. Curdling screams could be heard for a block, emanating from the fun house, as the girls would encounter monsters that would jump out at them at every turn!
After Labor Day...everyone would return en mass to their home, dreading the start of the school year and vowing to come back next year.