Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nana Story #2: 1943

Another great class today. We had a large-group read-around, meaning that each woman shares a piece that is four minutes or less. It's hard to describe how powerful it is, listening to twenty different women sharing poems, stories, and personal reflections. Anyway, here's the next part of my nana story. It continues immediately after the first one (minus its last paragraph, which I've edited out).


Barbara, my grandmother, still has her photo album from the nineteen-forties. It is filled with pictures that were once black and white but are now a faded gray and yellow. She doesn’t have candid shots of her daily life. No one, those days, had point-and-shoot cameras that they kept in their purses, or phones they could pull out at a moment’s notice. Photographs were for important events and for official portraits.

“This was our Company Commander,” she says, pointing to a woman with a broad face and hair pulled tightly behind her. The woman is standing “at ease” in front of the barracks. “She was from Czechoslovakia. One day, all the girls were outside in formation when a snake slithered right near us. We all started screaming! Well, the Company Commander, she takes a hatchet and chops that snake in half! That’s when we knew we were in good hands. She was going to protect us.”

After basic training in Arkansas, the women went by train to Texas to learn administrative work. They went upstairs to the station and were immediately swarmed by young men: after all, women in uniform were still a novelty. Barbara—blonde, blue-eyed, and twenty-one years old—received a lot of attention. After a while, she looked around and noticed there weren’t any other women; only the men were there. She didn’t know where her cohort had gone. She ran downstairs and saw the train she was supposed to be on. The caboose had a platform full of men standing behind the gate. As Barbara ran for the train, now pulling out of the station, the guys yelled, “You can do it!” and “Come on, baby! Come on!” She reached back of the train and the guys pulled her over. She felt exhilarated.

If her time in Arkansas was lonely and regimented by military rules, her time in Texas was more like summer camp. The women stayed three months on the campus of an East Texas college while attending administrative school. In the evenings, the women traveled by bus outside the small town to go to dances and bars. Barbara joined two other women in a singing trio; together they helped one of their teachers serenade his love interest. At night, it was so hot that they often brought their mattresses outside to sleep.

When Barbara had enlisted in 1942, women weren’t yet allowed into the army itself. They were part of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). But 1943, when she was sent to Fort Warren in Cheyenne, Wyoming, women had been admitted into the army, the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Barbara started out doing administrative work at the base: filing, taking messages. But she didn’t want to do paperwork. She joined the army for an adventure, not to do the same things she’d done at home. She asked to be reassigned and was put on motor pool, where she delivered pastries all around the base each morning.

After a while, she drove the staff car, in charge of taking male officers to their chosen destinations. One officer demanded to be taken to Guernsey, about an hour north of Cheyenne, despite the blizzard-like conditions. They arrived safely, and Barbara waited for hours in her truck, shivering, while he did his business. He hadn’t told her how long he would be, and she was afraid to get out of the truck without permission. By the time he returned, her clothes were practically frozen to her body. The snow had worsened. When she drove him back to Fort Warren, she had to stick her head out the window in order to see.

Another time, Barbara drove an officer to Pole Mountain, about 30 miles east of Fort Warren. During the return trip, he told her to turn off the engine and then the lights. He grabbed the gun from the back of the truck, and she froze. A minute passed in complete silence. “Flip on the lights,” he said. The headlights revealed hundreds of jackrabbits, and he shot them one after the next, as Barbara clutched the steering wheel. “Let’s go,” he said, and they drove off, leaving the dead animals behind.

The following summer, Barbara was asked to represent the WACs for Cheyenne Days, the biggest rodeo celebration in the country. She rode on top of a float, waving to the crowds as the parade went down Capitol Avenue. When the parade was over, a young man helped her down. He asked if she wanted to get a drink.

“I don’t know, maybe,” she replied, tentatively to this man she’d seen around base. He played baseball and basketball and even helped the amateur Fort Warren football team beat the professionals from Brooklyn.

Even if she didn’t immediately agree, she must have said yes at some point: my grandfather’s pictures—team photos, mainly—dominate the second half of the album.

No comments: