Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nana Story #1: 1942

Before Barbara followed the “Uncle Sam Wants You” sign into an army-recruitment office, she’d already been a waitress, a cashier, and a bank teller. She’d been earning money to buy her own clothes ever since she turned seventeen, and before that she’d sold magazines with her siblings to get tires for bicycles that their dad would make out of spare parts. She’d been raised by Chrystella, a true pioneer who grew up on a mountaintop and was self-sufficient to the core, and by Frank, an alcoholic, who sometimes worked and sometimes didn't.

Barbara didn’t plan on enlisting when she walked into that office. She just wanted to check it out, get some information. But the sergeant was so good-looking; he was one of those guys you don’t want to give a wrong answer to for fear that he’d drop his smile or be disappointed in you. So she signed the papers and took the oath, not thinking about the sister with whom she shared an apartment or how this impulsive action would shape the rest of her life.

That evening she went to her mom and dad’s house and invited them into the living room. They probably thought she was going to announce she was pregnant. She said, “I’ve joined the army.” Her dad replied, “Why couldn’t you have joined the navy?” They were in San Francisco, after all, and the navy had a large presence. But Barbara didn’t have a college education, a prerequisite for the navy at the time. She hadn’t given the navy a second thought. Then again, she hadn’t planned on the army, either. Her mom was ecstatic, though; she could put another star in the window (two brothers had already enlisted).

The train ride from Oakland, California, to Arkansas for training took five days and five nights. Nearly seventy years later, certain memories of that trip stand out to Barbara: coming over Donner Pass and seeing snow for the first time, eight feet of it; getting off at Ogden to buy tee-shirts because the girls only had the clothes they were wearing, along with tooth brushes and combs; going through Moffat Tunnel, a six-mile stretch underground in a chug-chug train that filled the compartments with so much soot they could hardly breathe; and arriving in Arkansas, feeling so scared. Until that point, she had never been away from home.

“You can’t imagine what it was like,” she says today, almost ninety. “You don’t have anyone you can talk to; you don’t know anyone who’s with you.”

After basic training, Barbara was sent to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where she would meet my grandfather, ultimately leading her to Ohio.

(Tonight I'll share this in class, getting feedback and suggestions for revision. I'll be interested to see how all of the pieces fit together once I've written six or seven of these.)


mkcillip said...

I love this! Double exclamation marks!! How'd it go over in class?

August said...

Aww, thanks! It went well, and I'm excited about writing more, though I had a bit of a block when I started #2. Need more interview from Nana!