World War II was real enough to people who lived on the east coast. They knew ships were being sunk every week by German submarines. The explosions on the stricken cargo vessels and tankers could often been seen from the shore. On the west coast, also, anxiety about the war was intense following Pearl Harbor. A Japanese ship had actually lobbed a few shells onto mainland USA. An invasion could be next. World War II
Patriotism galvanized citizens in the Midwest to do their part even though they took comfort in realizing no aircraft could ever fly over their farms and villages. No enemy fleet would suddenly appear.
World War II Comes to Chalkstone, South Dakota
“Ow!” My sister cried. “That hurts.”
“Sit still,” Mother demanded as she tugged through Ellen’s long brown hair with a heavy plastic comb. “Impossible,” Mother muttered. “Anything to make you think there’s a war going on.”
The darkness outside did not suit Mother. She wanted to get up to a rising sun, not in the middle of the night. Wartime daylight savings time was propaganda, nothing more. There were, after all, 24 hours in the day. The sun rose and the sun set. Moving the clock back did not create more time for anyone. World War II
The war did not suit Mother. She knew that there was fighting and dying somewhere, of course, that people were being bombed out of their homes, but the unrelenting, unavoidable inconveniences imbedded in every day annoyed her. Counting ration stamps. Saving the left over cooking grease. Cutting both ends out of emptied tin cans and flattening them out on the linoleum floor in the kitchen for the scrap drive. Her displeasure with it all was raked each morning into my sister’s long brown hair.
“You watch, the Japs will throw all of the junk back at us in the bombs they drop.”
Poor Ellen, she rose every morning to the same torture. Her hair, a tangle from a night of sleep, needed to be combed and braided. She sat on a four-legged stool looking our in the upstairs bathroom window like a condemned person.
“There,” Mother would exclaim, finishing with a flourish by pulling rubber bands off her chubby wrist and wrapping them tightly around the ends of Ellen’s braids.
Ellen sighed as she stood up, wiped her tears, and shot Mother a hateful glance.
“Get dressed,” Mother snapped.
I did not mind the darkness. I liked it. I liked seeing the day begin as I looked out over the neighborhood from the upstairs window. The homes and buildings of town were silhouetted against a long sash of pale orange light that stretched across the eastern horizon. The Slaggi grain elevator stood like a sentry, marshaling an orderly retreat of the darkness, preventing it from turning and swallowing the dawn before the deep glow swamped the horizon and spread bright orange sunlight across the corn fields and rooftops at the edge of town. As long the Slaggi elevator stood guard, Chalkstone, South Dakota would not become part of the war. No airplanes would fly over it and drop bombs on my home. World War II
“Keep moving!” Mother shouted up the stairwell. To my brother and me, it meant that we needed to hurry. I closed the bathroom door so that I could “zizz,” Mother’s word for urinating.
“I need to go too,” Timmy, my younger brother, whined. I flushed and stepped away back from it.
“You didn’t put the seat up,” Timmy said. “Dad said that if we didn’t put the seat up, he’d make us sit down and go like a girl.”
I knew girls sat down to go. I had walked in on my sister often enough to know. I tried it myself once, just to see what it was like. I had to push my zizzer down so my pee would go into the toilet bowl, but other than that, I didn’t see why my dad thought it would be a punishment to sit rather than stand.
When my brother finished, we walked together down the long hallway to our bedroom at the front of the house.
There were four bedrooms upstairs in our home. The one in the front of the house that overlooked the street was our playroom. A long central hallway stretched back from it to the rear of the house where a door on the left opened into the bathroom and a door opposite opened into a spare bedroom where my father slept from time to time. The spare bedroom was forbidden because my father stored all of his hunting gear, including his shotguns, in the closet of that room. I could smell gun oil as soon as I stepped into the room. A step or two more, and the sharp order mingled with what I recognized was my dad’s scent, something very much like smell of dry, yellowed newspaper.
Half way down the hallway, doors opened on either side to bedrooms with dormer windows. My sister’s room was on the north side. It too was off limits for the most part. My brother and I shared a room on the south.
I was not proud of our room. It was pink. A girl’s room. I wanted our room to be a boy’s room, to look like boys slept in it—something that was almost impossible because of the frilly furniture that our parents bought at auction and set up for us. I hated the furniture.
I persuaded my father to hang a bulletin board over our dresser so that I could pin up the pennant to the Cleveland Indians and pictures of Bob Feller and Satchel Paige that Aunt Belle had sent us from Toledo.
South Dakota, like most of the central Midwest, bore the full brunt of the season every year. Temperatures plunged to 20 below in the winter and blizzards would make going out of doors nearly impossible. The first snowfall of the year could come as early as the middle of October, and snow could be on the ground, one storm following another, until the middle of April in the spring.
I became fascinated with the drama of the passing seasons. In the summer, the air was heavy with humidity as it streamed up the Mississippi/Missouri waterway from the Gulf and spread out over the wheat fields and grazing pastures. Heat would soar to 100 degrees and higher by the middle of July and well into August. All the seasons stretched out and took their time to inflict the fullest of their repertoire.
I cut out cartoon pictures that represented the best of each season and pinned them to the bulletin board. I was intrigued looking at the summer pictures when winter was raging with blizzards and sub-zero temperatures. A longing for the days when I could fly through the open screen door with wearing nothing more than a tee-shirt and shorts. I savored the nostalgia of autumn when a yearning hung in the air, a beckoning to take on the day more slowly, to revere returning to home when play was through for the day. Or spring, when I would tend the emergence of the tulips and Jonquils as the pushed through the dark humus along the foundation of the house. I awakened to the passing of time. I wanted the bulletin board to attest to my new awareness and enjoy being reminded of the sweet recollections I could conjure by stopping for a minute or two and studying the cartoons.
In time, the bulletin board also held my collection of military shoulder patches. Airborne. Infantry. Marines. My knowledge of what each represented as very general, but having them in full view each days was important. The represented my heroes. They protected my home, my family, and my town, and I was proud and grateful for our country’s military who were fighting the war somewhere far away.
Mother had hung a picture of the boy Jesus in our bedroom on the wall by the window. I avoided looking at it because he looked like a girl. not a boy who I would ever like. A goody-goody. He didn’t have a shirt on. His skin looked sissy soft. Long curly hair. I knew that he would grow up and became the big Jesus Christ who was really important to the priests and everyone at church. I’d wait for that. I guess he turned out all right, but until then, I did not want anything to do with him.
I hung a picture of Black Beauty on the opposite side of the room, but it did not make much of a difference. The room looked like it was a girl’s no matter what I tried to do.
“David, get a move on. Timmy’s already down here, and you need to walk to Mass with him. You hear me!” Mother shouted from the kitchen.