It is debatable whether dredging up perceptions from the past helps you understand the present. Of course, psychiatrists try to dig out memories of childhood trauma, but I don’t think I had those kinds of problems. Probably I did not understand enough to be mixed-up, whistling my 4-year-old whistle past those acres and miles of graveyards (, or I might have joined the crowd).
I do remember quite a bit from 1946, when I was 4 years old. Of course I didn’t know that Hitler and the Japanese had both been beaten and to the great relief of Germans and Japanese, they were not to become slaves of the victorious countries. The Marshall Plan and MacArthur’s occupation both put the world on a trip to prosperity instead of the decimation of vanquished countries as had been the rule throughout prior history. A neat trick, to say the least. As a 4-year-old, I was bobbing along in those mighty currents, as curious about learning Life as any 4-year-old before. Luckily, that life did not for some time contain another deathly war – at least for the 4-year-old.
It was actually quite a happy time for me as a 4-year-old. I cannot remember now my father who left to fly B-17s over Germany when I was about two. He was missing in action for about two years. So at the age of 4, I stayed a lot of the time with grandparents and aunts and second cousins, and everyone paid maximum attention to me. Now – at 70 years remove — I hear that, with remote prisoner camps and remote graves in remote crannies of the world, it was years before there was enough evidence of a soldier’s death for his widow to remarry. Those who started dating too soon were seen as brazen and unfeeling. Hard to say exactly what “too soon” was, and how long to wear black, but your friends would tell you.
Right alongside that time” stigma was a necessity for war widows to marry again. Their biological window was shrinking as surely as that of thirty-year-olds now. One of the cruel residuals of WWII was that many of the prettiest and brightest women were available right after the war, and some with no kids. Many were much more mature than they had been when they married soldiers and knew a lot more what they were looking for besides true love. There were, of course, a lot of the less attractive men around, because so many of the strongest and handsomest men had given themselves to the war. In truth, Life’s cruel advantages sort of evened themselves out, but with everyone only moderately happy. The pretty widows had lost their first true loves, and the men who claimed these prizes yet knew, for all their future lives together, that they were second best.
Widows with one or more children had a greater problem. I discovered just a few years ago, at a conference of World War II orphans in Seattle, that many widows sent their kids to a grandmother’s or a sister’s house and only sheepishly brought up the fact to a suitor once they were becoming seriously involved. And with good reason. In many, many cases the young male suitors went running off when they learned there were kids involved. In some of the orphan’s minds, as they approached their late sixties at the time of this Seattle Conference, the men who ran off were worse than second best and the pretty widow-moms were better off without them.
However, everyone seemed quite cheery to me. Little did I know at four what tolls the war took, in shattered loves of their lives, in sons who had just become men coming back in boxes, in sisters and cousins and uncles and everyone in a the vast connection of souls that the war short-circuited. Because my mother’s mother’s sister, Aunt Lucille, was especially fond of Sunday dinners, we spent Sundays there. Aunt Lucille was a bit fat with a boisterous Oklahoma incredulity that broke into laughter all around. When she hugged me to her heavy breasts and started a lot of sentences with “Boy Howdy” I did not feel much could be wrong in the world. She had a ne’er do well high school son named Dane who would slink into Sunday dinner and go out back with some friends and a bottle. And Barbara was a freshman in high school whom I thought truly pretty except for her acne. She barely listened to me, though. The older people were the ones who made me feel special.
Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty special, in that I was the only male survivor in three families. My father had been an only child. My grandmother had married my grandfather in Seminole, Oklahoma where her parents had come by covered wagon from Tennessee — my great grandmother a direct descendant of Davy Crockett. My grandfather had come down from Illinois with the railroad and got a job as a supervisor in the new Seminole oil fields. Apparently they were a rough crowd (known as “roughnecks” who manipulated the big pipes around on the oil drilling rigs), and he had to be a bit rougher to keep them in line. He was kind but unschooled, and my grandmother was very pretty and very smart and in Seminole, Oklahoma in those days I guess he was a catch and so was she. She had had two girls born as “blue babies” whose lack of circulation killed them within weeks of their birth. Modern medicine was not much in the 1930s, and out in the Oklahoma oil fields there were no incubators or newborn care units. They lived or they died with how strong their basic constitution was.
When she was about forty, my grandmother fell down some concrete stairs from the front porch of their house when their little dog ran between her legs. She had to wear braces and use crutches and wheelchairs the rest of her life, and my grandfather loved her and was devoted to her. To me she was extremely kind and we had long intelligent conversations (for a four year old). She was ever demanding of her “Arthur” and was often as grumpy with his slow actions as he was diligent and devoted to moving his “Robbie” (for Robin) about and bringing her whatever she might need. I felt sorry for him, and as I think back, I loved him for that selflessness. Some things even a 4-year-old can see.
My Grandma Hon loved to sit with me in her rocker. She would sing me songs from Tennessee, and tell me stories of Davy Crockett and bear-hunting in Tennessee and of his death at the Alamo. These were things she had known from her mother’s family, years before Walt Disney dragged out a coonskin cap and made him a folk hero of early television. As I think back, the focus on me was a monumental distraction from the worry about their son flying a heavy piece of sheet metal through in the middle of all hell. And their apprehension in not hearing from him suddenly. And the letters from men in his plane whom he’d ordered to bail out, asking if she knew about the whereabouts of others who had scattered across an unwelcoming Germany in their parachutes. Occasionally she would hear about one or the other who had made it back to safety, or who was alive in a prison camp, and she would write that to the others. It was all in letters that took so long to travel, while the worries were daily, hourly and the worries built up all the more waiting for news from letters.
My mother’s mother, Grandmother Ridgway (with no “e”), occasionally took me to her house, where she was a master seamstress and made dazzling quilts with intricate patchwork. The Kansas towns on the prairie where she had grown up had many of these true artists, lauded in their communities but totally obscure to the rest of the world for all their lives. One of my first intellectual feats was when this grandmother let me play Canasta with two other ladies she brought around. (I remember that they all looked at my cards and told me what to play.) It was hot in the Oklahoma summers and we had only fans whirring around. She poured me Dr. Pepper over a glassfull of ice while we played, and that was pretty much heaven for me.
All this went on for me while the war thundered to a close across two oceans, and everyone listened to the radio and read the newspapers and grew more and more sure it would be over. But there was always one question. Was my father just missing in action, but still alive? And would the war be over before it took him in, like so many others?
My mother, Daphne, and my father, Clint, had graduated from the University of Oklahoma – she in Education and he in Geological Engineering. He worked looking for oil for Standard Oil about a year before he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. Because she had me as an infant, my mother lived at home with her parents in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She spent time among relatives, and most of her Tulsa friends were from her days, only a few years before, at Central High School there in Tulsa.
Central High School in Tulsa had two distinguished alumni from 1938, the year my mother and father graduated. One was Tony Randall, who became a well-known Hollywood actor in The Odd Couple and many other movies. The other was Paul Harvey, who had a syndicated radio show with lots of opinion and a distinctive style that was easy to listen to (, and millions did listen). Both of these seniors from Central High School entered the all-city speech contest, and so did my father. My father won it with a speech on how armaments manufacturers had fomented the First World War so they could profit from all sides.
In those high school days, my father and my mother went steady, but Charlie, his best friend went along with them constantly. It seemed they were always a threesome and always got along swimmingly. Charlie had gone into the Navy and was still in training to be a tail gunner when the war ended, and in 1946 they let almost all the draftees out. I remember him visiting my mother a lot of times, still in his Navy seaman’s outfit, home in Tulsa until they official released him. Charlie was the funniest person everyone one knew, but not because he was a show-off clown. It was because he observed each situation and a put a pleasant, and never mean, humor to it. I personally remember being in stitches as Charlie talked as if he was the voice of our brown eyed dog, who sat thinking things about all these people in the room. I could see that the threesome must have had great fun in high school. I thought about that as I grew older. Although she was in love with my father, I am sure Charlie loved her then, and as the girl member of a threesome, I’m sure she knew that on some level.
Charlie saw my mother quite a lot in the months after the war was over. It had been over a year since my father was officially dead, and my mother married Charlie, kissing him at the alter while holding my 4-year-old hand. That is how I came to move to Minnesota in the dead of winter with my mother and Charlie, who had returned to work in Minneapolis for a new airline, Northwest. I really couldn’t have had it any better than in that loving family. My toes froze but I learned to skate on frozen basketball courts in the parks, and wished I’d been old enough to play some kid hockey as well.
Well, life rolled on past the Millennium but it still had more cards to show from when I was 4 years old. Because Charlie had gone to work for Northwest Airlines in 1942, when Delta Airlines acquired Northwest in 2008, my sister Sue called one day. “Hey” she said, “you know Delta gives us all free passes now?”
It was true. Dependents of retirees got free passes to anywhere Delta flies, always on standby, but as many trips as you wanted. Suddenly in 2009 I would take trips overseas and trips to friends on other coasts, a trip to France for an emergency book negotiation, a trip to make some talks in Tokyo. Better yet, most of the overseas trips were in first class because those seats did not fill up. Each time, of course, I would travel standby, and within the U.S. I learned to go at days and times when flights were not fully booked. One of the really fortunate things I discovered while waiting in those standby lines was about Charlie’s seniority in the combined airlines. Because he went to work for the young Northwest Airlines in 1942, thus at age 65 until I was 71 (when Charlie died,) I was not only the oldest living dependent in Delta, but first in line when they looked at employment seniority.
Funny the lucky things that just keep happening on your way from 4 years old.