“We are supposed to be defending democracy when, in fact, the government we are defending is a corrupt dictatorship.”
Another of my mother’s all-too-relevant essays.
“We are supposed to be defending democracy when, in fact, the government we are defending is a corrupt dictatorship.”
Another of my mother’s all-too-relevant essays.
My mother wrote letters. For her, letters were a means of communication, an art form, a way to express herself, and throughout her life one of the few ways an ordinary woman could make her views known.
Born in 1913, Florence Wick was a reader from the age of four. Like all grade school students at that time, she studied the Palmer Method, and she developed strikingly beautiful handwriting. An album made by a family friend contains letters she wrote at age six.
Besides regular handwritten correspondence to friends and relatives, Flo wrote letters to Congressional representatives, media people and writers commenting on their stories, and hundreds of letters to the editor of our local paper in Yakima, Washington. She’d had lots of practice. Taking shorthand and composing and typing letters was her job as a secretary.
I had thought all of her letters were lost, but while going through files helping my brother Don move to Canada we discovered a box containing copies of some of her letters. The earliest is a letter to the editor condemning bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, written in 1949. The last, disparaging toxic pesticides, she wrote a couple of months before her death on August 9, 1983. Most of the letters are from the 1970s. They deal with government policy; environmentalism; and the rights of women, minorities, prisoners and seniors. Many letters eloquently protest the war in Vietnam and its casualties.
My mother changed the course of her own life through letters. She told me that when she applied to work for the Red Cross during World War II, a college degree was a basic requirement. She had only a high school education but she made her case in a letter and was accepted. I’ve often wished I had a copy of that letter. Flo served in the Red Cross as a “donut gal” in Italy, France and Germany during and after the war, earning a bronze star. Although only two of her letters from Europe survive, the letters she wrote to her mother (her father had died in 1938) were passed on to a local newspaper reporter who turned them into reports from the front lines. Along with photos and mementos, these newspaper clippings were pasted into a huge album my mother made upon her return from Europe. The war had changed her. She had lost her fiancé to a land mine in 1944 and when she returned home it seemed Americans’ concerns had focused more on the dearth of gasoline and nylon stockings than the deaths of millions. People didn’t want to talk about the war. Making the giant album served as an antidote to her depression.
What strikes me about the letters is their universality and timelessness. I remember her phoning me to read me a letter she had written about war. In it she proposed that the government employ a department of peace instead of a department of war. “It’s great,” I said. “Send it!” “I did,” she said. “Twenty years ago.” Her letters illuminate conversations of her time, and they also instruct us now in the 21st century. I think they deserve to be read and I’ve scanned some of the most compelling to publish here.
Attacks on immigrants are a common feature of American history. Flo was proud of her parents, immigrants from Sweden and Norway, and she wrote many letters with this theme.
The feminist revolution in Yakima, Washington was not televised but I can testify that we were just as angry and militant as the sisters in New York who got all the press.
In the summer of 1970 I got a job as a reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic, returning to my hometown to raise money to finance my senior year at college. I’d joined the feminist movement and I’d brought along my mom, Flo. She was already feminist material, a prolific writer of letters to the editor–an activist at heart. A look at my first paycheck radicalized her further. She’d been making a quarter of that all her life as the kind of secretary who actually runs the business while being paid as a typist.
At that time, newspaper reporter was a non-traditional job for women. It was ok for women to write for the women’s section and the food section and to work as secretaries, but reporter was a man’s job. The reporters at the YH-R had been organized into the Newspaper Guild and this was my first union job. I was elated, although I knew the Guild to be a weak union. I felt strongly that the secretaries and office workers ought to have a union too so I started talking up the idea of organizing. That got shut down fast! The office workers made it clear that they felt joining a union would be treasonous. They identified with the owners of the paper, at that time the descendants of its founding family. So, at the outset, this radical feminist succeeded in making enemies of the women workers. But they had been predisposed to dislike me from the beginning, especially one territorial secretary who saw me as a threat and whose put-downs had me hiding in the bathroom crying—the only time in my working career.
In the newsroom, the editor predictably assigned me to the women’s page, where readers turned to discover which of Yakima’s maidens were getting married that week. My job was to type up the wedding descriptions, which involved all of the fussy details like the cut of the bride’s dress and color of the bridesmaids’ frocks. In journalism school and as a student newspaper editor, I’d learned well the craft of editing. In my world, these unimportant details didn’t belong in any story. My wedding paragraphs got shorter and shorter until–busted! Brides’ mothers had begun calling my editor demanding to know why all the important details were missing. It turned out some people thought, and I venture to guess still think, that the color of the bride’s mother’s dress is big news. So my editor returned to writing up weddings and I went on to the news desk.
I did want to write about women, just not weddings. The features editor threw a few human-interest stories my way: a legally blind woman who’d become a pilot, a man who tatted, a dog that could ride on the back of a bike. I pitched a story to the news editor about where women in the Yakima Valley worked. Agriculture, mostly fruit orchards, was still the economic base of the region. My own grandmother had worked the line at a fruit processor and I’d picked apples in high school. I was truly interested in the demographics, but also wanted to investigate where we were not allowed to work. The editor thought it was a pretty good idea, but later reproached me, saying he had not known I was a feminist. How could I possibly write about this subject objectively, he wanted to know? Word sure got around fast.
When I pitched a story about the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, they bit. Maybe I could find some real suffragists who’d been part of the struggle to win the vote! Washington women got the vote in 1910, the fifth state to give women the vote, ten years before the 19th amendment became law, so I figured there must have been a suffrage movement. My mother, who’d grown up in Yakima, wasn’t born until 1913. She didn’t know any suffragists, but I got a few leads and started searching nursing homes. I did find women to interview, but they had been mostly too busy raising kids and running farms to pay attention to politics, they said. This I dutifully reported in a feature article. If there had been militant suffragists in the early 1900s in Yakima, I failed to find them.
Yakima is a conservative place, infamous as the hometown of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When FDR appointed Douglas to the Court, the Yakima paper disowned him. “Not From Here” said the headline. Douglas had been born in Minnesota and raised in Yakima. Ironically, Douglas was nominated to the Court as a representative of the West. But he couldn’t wait to get away from Yakima to seek his fortune. He wrote a book titled Go East Young Man.
Though I was undeniably a Yakima native, like Douglas I couldn’t wait to get away from my hometown. But the prospect of living with my parents, working as a reporter and making trouble just for the summer seemed like fun. A small group of us formed Yakima’s first National Organization for Women chapter, meeting at the home of a woman even older than my mom to document the inequality we experienced. We listed low pay, poor access to jobs and humiliating dress requirements, like having to wear hot pants to work as a waitress. There were restaurants and bars reserved for men only; and all those cultural expectations that we would serve our husbands, bear children and become homemakers. Also, everything we read placed the women’s movement in New York City. We chafed at that version and wanted to show that sisterhood was powerful in little towns in the West too.
In the back seat of a VW bug on the way to the first meeting, the young woman sharing the seat with me whispered that her female lover had left her. Distraught, closeted, and with no community, she was looking for a friend to talk to. She saw in me something I had yet to see: I was a sister dyke. Later, I regretted that my own life experience was too sparse to understand or even to sympathize. I had yet to love and lose. I had yet to come out, even to myself.
While not well schooled in romance, by this time I was an experienced organizer, having planned and executed anti-war and women’s liberation protests at college. I’d learned how to run a campaign, how to get media attention. I’d written and performed in guerrilla theater plays and given speeches, painted protest signs and silk-screened armbands. I’d participated in consciousness-raising and I was ready to act to change my world.
We aimed our first action at a restaurant where businessmen lunched that barred women. We had read about McSorley’s bar in Manhattan, which had denied women entry for 116 years until it was forced to admit us that very summer. A journalist, Lucy Komisar, the first to test the judge’s order, was dowsed in beer by jeering men. Our plan was to just walk in, sit down and demand service. We doubted beer dousing would follow, but who really knew what the reaction would be.
Resisting authority always made me nervous but also thrilled me. Just that spring we students had staged a giant strike and shut down Washington State University over racism. Flo had joined me at student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. My mother had saved me from threatened expulsion for moving off campus by making my case in a letter to the university president. Women’s protests had led to the college aborting in loco parentis rules requiring us to wear dresses and to observe curfew. Old sexist ways were crumbling in our wake, making us feel the power of sisterhood. We were on a roll.
We had cased the restaurant and, as planned, six of us marched in and took a table right under the sign that read “MEN ONLY.” Flustered waiters ran to the manager for advice and we were asked to leave. Would they call the police to arrest us, we wondered. We weren’t doing anything illegal were we? They refused to serve us but we did take up a table during the lunch hour. As it turned out, men didn’t give up their privileges easily, but no dousing followed our restaurant protest and after some resistance we helped the restaurant to see the light. We won! I don’t remember the names, or how many visits it took, but I do remember the determination, the camaraderie and the elation we felt when the restaurant gave up its policy and served us all lunch.
That summer our other protests involved wearing pants to work (handy tip: start with culottes) and pasting stickers that said “This Insults Women” on public signs and ads we deemed sexist (the ubiquity of these messages is hard for us to remember and for the young to imagine now).
Our NOW group chose as its summer coup de gras a rally to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote on August 26, 1970. One day, at my desk at the newspaper, I got a call from the New York Times. They were doing a story about how feminist groups across the country were celebrating Women’s Equality Day. Elated, I eagerly catalogued our victories and detailed our plans for the rally.
In preparation for our celebration, the artist in our group made signs that we posted about town, others secured a sound system and a soapbox. We planned to rally in Franklin Park, near the city center. We arrived dressed in 1920s garb, imagining throngs of women all excited to speak out about their oppression publicly, but the hoped-for crowd didn’t materialize as it had on the college campus. We gave a few short speeches, and then made the microphone available for other women to speak. No one stepped onto the soapbox except young boys experimenting with guttural sounds. Among the lessons we learned: maintain control of your mic and know your audience.
I couldn’t wait to see how my phone interview with the New York Times had come out. I rushed to the library to check out the paper and found the story–not in the women’s section. Our rally may not have been televised, but our little group of Yakima activists made the Times!
Epilogue: We went on to change our world.
When you hear the word antifascist, you might think of the people who try to reason with right-wing paramilitary brawlers in Berkeley. Or it might call to mind the black bloc, hooded with faces covered, on a rampage smashing windows. Probably you don’t think of the US government.
But there was a time when the villains of US foreign policy were fascists. It was after the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, in which the US refused to intervene, letting the fascists win with the help of Hitler, Mussolini and US oilmen (see Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild). It was before the CIA incorporated Nazi war criminals into its organization and focused our wrath on communists and the Soviet Union after WWII (see The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot).
In the aftermath of WWI, European writers sought to alert the world about the fascist threat and Americans—if they were paying attention—would have known about what was happening in Europe. My mother, Florence Wick, was paying attention. Trying to understand why she decided to join the American Red Cross (ARC) and serve in Europe during the war was what impelled me to study this period.
Watch on the Rhine
In the years before television, theater played an influential role in shaping the culture. Visiting New York City in 1941, my mother saw Watch on the Rhine, an antifascist play written by Lillian Hellman. The popular play won the New York Drama Critics prize that year and was still on Broadway when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. Made into a movie starring Bette Davis in 1943, Watch on the Rhine was representative of a genre of antifascist art popular in the US during the early years of WWII whose purpose was to persuade isolationist Americans to get involved in the European war. It certainly influenced my mother’s decision to join the Red Cross and go to war. I think it may have been one reason she chose to join the ARC, which promised a job in Europe, rather than other slots that opened for women, which may have kept her behind a desk back in the States.
I watched the movie, intrigued by the genre, and several others with similar messages. Some are just naked propaganda with unbelievable characters and dialog. Others, like Hellman’s, seek to educate Americans about the crisis in Europe, about class and about anti-Semitism. Hellman, who had briefly joined the Communist Party, wrote the play in 1940 following the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939. Her call for a united international alliance against Hitler contradicted the Communist position at the time. She was labeled a “premature antifascist” by the Communist Party, ironically later a moniker used by the FBI during the McCarthy purges to target communists. Her lover, Dashiell Hammett, who had also joined the Communist Party, wrote the screenplay.
His introduction reads: In the first week of April 1940 there were few men in the world who could have believed that, in less than three months, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France would fall to the German invaders. But there were some men, ordinary men, not prophets, who knew this mighty tragedy was on the way. They had fought it from the beginning, and they understood it. We are most deeply in their debt. This is the story of one of these men.
The man is Kurt Muller, a German who has devoted his life to the antifascist movement. We learn that he and many of his comrades fought in international brigades along with the Spanish Republicans to defend Spain’s democratically elected government against Francisco Franco’s fascists. They and others have constructed an underground antifascist organization in Europe. Watch on the Rhine shows us that fascists come in many shades; that Americans, naive about world politics, haven’t moved so far from slavery; that Bette Davis (bless her heart) excelled at overacting. The part played by Davis, Muller’s American wife, was expanded for the movie to make use of her star power at the box office.
The play is set in the Washington DC mansion of the wife’s family, whose dead patriarch had been a respected US Supreme Court justice. The family matriarch, Mama Fanny, runs it like a plantation, overseeing black servants with strict control. When Joseph, the male servant, is summoned, he answers “Yasum.”
But Joseph gets some good lines. When Mama Fanny orders, “That silver has lasted 200 years. Now clean that silver,” Joseph says, “Not the way you take care of it Miss Fanny. I see you at the table and I say to myself, ‘There’s Miss Fanny doing it to that knife again.’ ”
Hellman uses the three Muller children, sophisticated, language rich and worldly, to teach Americans about the outside world. “Grandma has not seen much of the world,” says the oldest, Joshua. “She does not understand that a great many work most hard to get something to eat.”
We learn that the antifascist movement is nonviolent. The youngest kid, Bodo, says, “We must not be angry. Anger is protest and should only be used for the good of one’s fellow man.”
I was so impressed with this movie, I watched it twice, taking notes the second time. It’s both a critique of American culture and an attempt to school Americans about developments in Europe. Hellman did deep research for her script, and I thank her for helping me to understand this historical period and the forces that shaped it. Like most films from this era, it’s not available on Netflix, but I was able to check it out from the San Francisco Public Library.
The Moon Is Down
During Hitler’s rise, Nazis were winning the propaganda war. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, was and still is much admired. Alarmed artists approached the US government with proposals for antifascist plays, movies and books, among them the famous writer John Steinbeck. The result of his effort, the novella, The Moon is Down, was published in March 1942. The next month it played on Broadway and a year later premiered as a movie. Its purpose was to motivate the resistance movements in occupied countries. The sinister title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
I accidentally discovered the thin book in a friend’s library and read it with great interest. Perhaps there are many books like this one, which describes life in a town that has been invaded, but I have never encountered another.
There is bloodshed. Orders are followed. People resist, are arrested and executed. People flee. Some people collaborate. Others form an underground to communicate with those on the outside. At the end of the book, the war is still going. But the invaders have been surrounded and we are very aware that the invaders have become the harassed. In a way, the occupiers have become the occupied.
Steinbeck acknowledges the humanity of the enemy. We learn as much about the motivations and humanness of the invaders as the invaded. For that reason the book was criticized mercilessly in the US and Steinbeck’s patriotism questioned. But Europeans loved it. It was translated into many languages and became the most popular piece of Allied propaganda in WWII. This year the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California is celebrating the book’s 75th anniversary.
Five Came Back
Things weren’t looking good for the Allies as the US joined the war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Germany and Japan were conquering Europe and the Pacific. The US had only just started to gear up its factories to make war materiel and Europe feared we wouldn’t get it there in time to stop the Nazi advance. It was during this time that the US antifascist propaganda machine went into high gear.
From 1942 to 1945, Frank Capra directed a series of seven antifascist propaganda films, narrated by the actor Walter Huston. The series, called Why We Fight, was produced by the War Department to make the case for US involvement in WWII. These films can now be accessed online. I also saw Five Came Back, a three-part Netflix series about five American film directors, including Capra, who produced propaganda for the US government during the war. The others were John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens.
Making movies of the war changed the filmmakers as well as audiences. We learn that they were haunted by what they saw. Wyler was shocked by racism against black soldiers and refused to make a film meant to recruit blacks. Stevens, at Dachau, realized he should be there to film evidence of crimes against humanity, not propaganda. Ford turned to drink after witnessing the bloodbath on D-Day. Huston took on PTSD only to have his film suppressed by the government. Racism was present in these films. While Germans were depicted as humans, Japanese were often seen as subhuman caricatures. The government worried, rightly, that violence against Japanese Americans would result. Then, in 1942, it incarcerated them until the end of the war.
Women in WWII: 13 short films featuring America’s Secret Weapon
Most of these are US military propaganda films whose purpose was to convince women to join the WACS or other service, and also to persuade men that women could do the work. Some were written by Eleanor Roosevelt and narrated by famous actors like Katherine Hepburn. The American Red Cross, in which my mother served, wasn’t mentioned, but there was a picture of an ARC club in North Africa.
I wish the government had made films like this for women in the trades. In one scene a couple of men are talking on their front porch about how one’s sister wants to join the WACS and they think she’s crazy. It’s a man’s war, they say. Then the film counters their sexism and shows competent women doing all sorts of jobs. However, these films also endeavored to persuade women that they were taking men’s jobs and they needed to go back home after the war and relinquish their war jobs to returning soldiers. It was made clear that the jobs belonged to men.
I don’t know if my mother saw any of these films, but it was this sort of government propaganda that propelled her and her generation into World War II. When the enemy was fascism, she was “as patriotic as they come,” according to her sister. Only after the war did she begin to question the government-constructed enemies of the state.
Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust
Released in 2004, this film makes the case that the story of the Holocaust has been told to the world by films made in Hollywood, starting with Warner Bros. Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, then MGM’s The Mortal Storm in 1940. Neither of these films used the word Jew. The Jewish studio heads wanted to stay in the closet and just be known as Americans. Also, the movie industry made a lot of money from selling its films to Germany during the early years of Hitler’s takeover. Some historians now view studio directors as Nazi collaborators.
Finally in 1940 Charlie Chaplin used the word Jew in The Great Dictator, which he made with his own money. Imagining that an antifascist film can also be hysterically funny might be difficult until you see The Great Dictator. Chaplin slays as Adenoid Hynkel, a thinly disguised Hitler. Jack Oakie’s spoof of Mussolini inspires hilarity. I confess I had never seen the film. Now, having watched it, I understand why Chaplin is praised as a comic genius. In the globe scene, Chaplin/Hynkel performs a ballet dance with a balloon earth, achieving perfect domination. Chaplin impersonates Hitler to great comic effect. He watched Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will to learn Hitler’s speech patterns and body movements. Chaplin later said that if he had known the extent of Nazi atrocities, he wouldn’t have made the film.
My mother told us kids stories about her time in Europe during the war, but she never talked about the Holocaust and we were not taught about this historical period in school. So I didn’t learn until 1970 that she had been present at the liberation of Dachau. What finally got her talking was an American TV mini-series, QB VII, about a British court case involving concentration camp crimes. It exemplifies how American media jogged the memories and imaginations of war survivors even 25 years after the war.
Night Will Fall
In 1945 a team of British filmmakers overseen by Alfred Hitchcock went to Germany to document the Nazi death camps. Their documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, was suppressed and then lost for seven decades. Night Will Fall, a 2014 documentary directed by Andre Singer, chronicles the making of the 1945 film and includes original footage. These images are hard to watch, but I think we need to see them, to witness the consequences of fascism.
The death camp films were suppressed partly because they were thought too graphic for British and American tastes. And American tastes had changed almost as fast as superstate enemies revolved in Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. The Germans, our most recent deadly enemy, had become our friends. The Soviet Union, our recent ally, and communism, was now our mortal enemy.
Flo was awakened in the middle of the night by some kind of howling. It sounded like an animal in distress. She was a light sleeper, so she gained consciousness quickly and it didn’t take long to realize the sound was coming from downstairs, inside the house. She threw a robe over her nightgown and rushed down the stairs, her feet brushing the bare floor.
The howling emanated from her parents’ bedroom. There she found Gerda doubled over at the side of the bed keening, holding her husband’s head. Ben’s face was gray but his expression peaceful. He had died in his sleep, painlessly at least, thought Flo. She embraced her mourning mother, hugging her for several minutes as Gerda wailed.
They had known this day would come, but that had not lessened the shock. Ben had been ill with heart trouble for some years and had been recovering from a recent heart attack.
Flo tried to comfort her distraught mother. She would have to take control of the situation. She would grieve later.
Betty and Ruth came out of their rooms at once to find Flo consoling their mother.
“What happened?” they wanted to know, but it was a question born of shock. They knew it was Ben.
“This will ruin my wedding,” wailed Ruth without thinking. Flo glared at Ruth.
Gerda sat on the bed, still sobbing. Her girls surrounded her and offered comfort.
“He said to me this morning that his heart felt hollow,” sobbed Gerda. “If we had taken him to the doctor he might still be with us.”
Flo was closest to Ben of all the daughters. He had set great store by her and made his high expectations clear. Flo had loved him dearly, sharing his appreciation of reading and politics. She was proud of both her immigrant parents for having worked so hard to make a life in a new country. They were exemplary Americans and she had tried to follow their example in her own life. Ben was only 58. What a sad thing that his life had been cut short so young. He had done his very best to support their family during hard times, taking any jobs he could find during WWI and then the Great Depression.
Life on the farm at Meadowview for the girls had been a delight. They were too young to do much work and so they got to play, as long as they stayed away from the train tracks, which ran nearby. Ben and Gerda cut the meadow with a scythe and pitched the grass into piles with pitchforks.
The haystacks had been such fun to play in, but now Flo was keenly aware of the work that had gone into harvesting the hay for their one cow. In her mind she could taste the tart fresh buttermilk that was left after Gerda had made butter and paddled it into the buttermolds. But as a child she was unaware of the effort that went into the making of butter. Gerda had to milk the cow twice a day every day and churn the butter by hand. Then it was stored under the floor through a trap door that Ben had made with a screen-covered frame for foods that needed to be kept cool.
Gerda now had an “Easy” copper washing machine with an electrically operated wringer. She used two tubs for rinsing and bluing. But on the farm she had washed clothes outdoors by hand using a galvanized tub and washboard. Clothes were hung to dry outdoors in the summer and on lines strung across the kitchen in the winter. Flo remembered her mother hunched over her treadle sewing machine making clothes by kerosene lantern, and her father’s rounded back as he worked at keeping the books, squinting to see in the dim light.
Ben had grown delicious strawberries and now Flo was thinking too of the work that went into planting, irrigating, harvesting and marketing. She remembered the brooder house where Ben had incubated the eggs and the pens where rabbits were raised for sale. Ben had taken all the produce and animals to the little town of Junction City five miles away to sell. During the school year he had also worked as teacher and janitor in a one-room schoolhouse nearby teaching all eight grades. The farm had been a losing proposition, but had failed not for a lack of hard work. Their parents had given it their all before they had reluctantly sold it and moved into town where Ben found a teaching job. At heart he had been a teacher and artist, not a farmer. Still, after they moved to Yakima he and Gerda had worked the hop fields in the summers when Ben was not teaching. The family also worked picking brush in Gerda’s sister Ellen’s apple orchard in Selah. Aunt Ellen often “forgot” to pay the girls, but Ben had earned 15 cents an hour, $1.50 at the end of the day, enough to buy some bread and hamburger.
He had worked until his heart gave out. After that Gerda and the girls took over. Flo pictured Gerda mowing the lawn, sweating in the sun in her house dress and straw bonnet while Ben lay in the hammock they had put up for him on the front porch, his nitroglycerin nearby in case of an angina attack. Was he ashamed to be seen there by people driving by on 16th Avenue, a man loafing while his wife did the man’s work?
Had Ben regretted fathering five daughters and no son? He had never once indicated that, but friends and family made the assumption. One relative had even put in writing in a letter how tragic it was that there had been no boy. Flo would not allow herself to believe that her father had shared such thinking. Besides, she thought to herself, she had been the best son that Ben could ever have.
The setting full moon shone an eerie light into the kitchen window where Flo led Gerda, sat her down and lit the wood stove to make coffee. The family had prepared for this day and knew they needed to make funeral arrangements quickly in such hot weather. The doctor must be contacted to certify the death. A funeral date must be agreed upon and relatives must be contacted. Ben had two brothers in the US. Erick had gone to the Yukon during the gold rush and still lived there in a one-room cabin. Flo took out a pencil and note pad and began making a list of out-of-town relatives who would have to be sent telegrams. Ben had a small insurance policy and Gerda hoped it would cover the cost of his funeral.
Their father was gone. Life would never be the same in the Wick household.
Flo was thankful for her driver’s license and use of the family car. It gave her the freedom to attend Biz-Pro and YWCA events in other towns in the Northwest, and easier access to meetings and social events at the homes of friends. Having use of a car afforded real power, the kind of power that was mostly reserved for men. She had taken her driver’s test as soon as she turned 16 when she graduated high school in 1929, and she had been the family driver ever since.
Flo had even gotten good at fixing flat tires as they happened with regularity. She and her mechanic had recently solved the mystery of the 52 flat tires the Model A had suffered in recent years. They traced the cause to nails from the old wooden sidewalk on 16th Avenue that stuck up through the asphalt after the road was paved.
After Flo picked up Ruth at the county building, they stopped at the butcher’s shop on the west side of town to pick up Betty, who had taken over the shop’s bookkeeping for her father since his heart attack.
Gerda had dinner nearly ready when the three sisters arrived home. Flo found Ben sitting in the back yard at the foot of Gerda’s vegetable and flower garden in the shade of the big cherry tree reading the evening newspaper. She pulled up an Adirondack chair to sit with him.
“How are you feeling, Dad?” Flo couldn’t help worrying about her father.
“Oh, I feel like I’m on the mend. Soon I’ll be out working in the hop fields again,” he joked. Ben had not been able to do any physical activity for the past three years because of heart trouble and now since his recent heart attack he was confined to a desk where he could do bookkeeping or a chair where he could sit and read or work on his art.
Flo recalled the family’s frequent trips to the Cascade Mountains to fish and swim in Bumping Lake and the Yakima River. The mountains of Washington reminded Ben of the Norwegian mountains and the landscape of his childhood. He had been born Bernt Evensen on a farm near the little fishing town of Borsa on a fiord about half way up the Norwegian coast. Ben’s favorite excursion in his adopted country had been to Mt. St. Helens to pick huckleberries in late summer. He loved camping at Spirit Lake just at the base of the mountain. Ben often drew the mountain and its lake and he had completed a tourist advertisement titled “See Washington First” with a pen-and-ink drawing of the mountain. There would be no trip to Mt. St. Helens to pick berries this season, thought Flo sadly.
She took Ben’s arm and they walked through the bountiful garden filled with flowers. In the far corner was the spot where Ben had dug a little grave and buried the fetus that Gerda had miscarried some years before. The coroner had not reported the stillbirth so as not to charge them for any burial costs, and they were allowed to bury the remains themselves. Gerda had wrapped the fetus in the blanket she’d been knitting along with baby hat and booties. Had it survived, the baby would have been a boy.
The temperature had begun to cool off. Betty and Ruth brought an oilcloth and table settings out to the picnic table near the garden to avoid the heat of the kitchen where Gerda had been canning apricots and cooking much of the day.
Wiping her brow with a handkerchief, Gerda came out of the kitchen to sit with her family for a few moments before dinner. She still wore her long graying hair as she always had, braided in one long braid, wrapped in a bun and pinned on top of her head. She removed her wire-rimmed glasses and wiped them carefully on a hanky pulled from her apron pocket.
“You look a little peak-ed,” she addressed Flo, putting a hand on her daughter’s head and smoothing her hair. “Are you feeling alright, dear?”
“I’m just very happy to be home from that hot office. I feel all wrung out,” sighed Flo.
Gerda had made potato salad earlier in the day and put it in the icebox to cool. Ruth set it on the table along with freshly picked corn from the garden, boiled over the wood stove. With the stove already hot for canning, Gerda had also fried chicken in rendered fat. She had sacrificed the old hen that had stopped laying, chopping off her head with an ax, gutting her, then dipping the bird in hot water before plucking her. There was fresh butter, too, cucumbers in brine, and iced tea.
The family sat down to eat and Ben said the prayer. They could be thankful for many things. They had each other. Although the past six years since Ben had been let out of his teaching job had been hard times. Flo could not help but wonder if her father’s Democratic politics had played a part in his being laid off in 1932 at the nadir of the Depression. The superintendent had laid off a man with a wife and four children to support while keeping on a single woman in the commercial department of Yakima High School, very unusual at the time. Protocol required women, single or married, to be let out before any man.
“Remember when we went to high school together, Dad?” said Ruth. “You went to teach and we went to learn.”
Three of Ben’s daughters had attended Yakima High School while he taught business mathematics, bookkeeping and penmanship there. For Flo and Ruth there was no shame at having their father there, in fact for them it was rather comforting. But sister Eva could not contain her embarrassment when she overheard her friends making fun of her father’s foreign accent and calling him a blockhead. His office, such as it was, had been relegated to the basement, an indication of his low status.
“Remember when we met Orville Douglas your first year at the Yakima High School faculty picnic?” said Gerda. “And now he’s William O. Douglas and he’s been appointed to a big job in Washington DC. We met Mildred too, the woman he married.”
“Yes, I was sorry to see them leave Yakima,” said Ben. “Mildred Riddle was the best Latin teacher Yakima High School ever had. She was quite an intellect.”
Ben had overlapped only one school year with William O. Douglas, who had taught English and coached the debate team, but soon enough they were known as the only two Democrats on the faculty. People joked that they were the only two Democrats in Yakima County. And now Douglas had been appointed by FDR to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. Their father’s friend from Yakima had gone to Washington DC and made it big. It gave them all hope.
Flo pulled the Model A into the gravel parking lot at the State Highway Department offices, a single-story brick building on a back street of the little town of Union Gap. Its just-watered closely cropped lawn sparkled in the morning heat, an oasis in dusty brown surroundings that had once been the location of the huge U&I Sugar plant.
Union Gap had been the original Yakima before the Northern Pacific Railway bypassed it in 1883. In 1884, in response to that snub, the whole town, over 100 buildings, was moved with rollers and horse teams four miles north along the Yakima River. After that, the new town of North Yakima grew while Union Gap remained a one-horse town just at the gap between Ahtanum Ridge and Rattlesnake Hills where the Yakima River flowed toward the Columbia.
The office building had stayed relatively cool during the night, but was already heating up when Flo arrived just before 8 a.m. Someone had set electric fans around the office to circulate the air. Temperatures above 100 degrees were not uncommon in the summer. People said it was a dry heat and that was supposed to somehow make it feel less hot. The district chief engineer had put in for an office air conditioner but the state chief’s office, located in the relatively cool western part of the state in Seattle, had not yet been convinced of the need.
Flo greeted her coworkers, all men since the other female stenographer had recently been laid off when she had married. Jobs during the Depression were reserved first for men, and married women were not allowed to work at all, unless the job was agricultural—picking fruit or sorting it in a packing warehouse. Plenty of women and children worked in the fields and orchards and lived in the surrounding labor camps.
“Good morning, Theron, how was your engineers’ meeting?” she asked the tall blond young man as she went to her desk.
“Very productive,” he replied. “I was elected president of the Engineers Association. Now I’m out to take over the world, one road at a time.”
Flo had been dating Theron B. Stone on and off. It was nothing serious, if you asked her, although he had clearly been courting her. They would go together to dances and engineering events. He had driven her and a group of friends to Snoqualmie Pass to witness the historic paving and widening of the highway that crossed the Cascade Mountains from western to eastern Washington. They’d all had a fine time picnicking near the summit.
But Theron had made some crucial errors. First he had given Flo a subscription to the Reader’s Digest after learning about her love of books. She had accepted gracefully, thinking all the while that anyone who really knew her would know she disdained the Reader’s Digest and that she would instead want to read the actual books themselves.
“The engineers have hairy ears. They live in caves and ditches. They screw their wives with butcher knives, the dirty sons of bitches.”
His other error was to reveal to her the secret motto of the engineers: “The engineers have hairy ears. They live in caves and ditches. They screw their wives with butcher knives, the dirty sons of bitches.” What did he expect her to do with this information? she wondered. How was she supposed to react to something that appeared to her to be disgusting, vile and, at the very least, inappropriate? She had smiled uncomfortably to conceal her shock and perhaps he had been sorry he’d said it. But the words could not be taken back. It had changed her view of the men she worked with. Could they really want to screw their wives with butcher knives (surely they didn’t really do it) and why would they want to do it in the first place? The whole thing was very puzzling, but she had not asked Theron to explain.
On the whole, Flo had a positive relationship with all who worked at the Highway Department. She had started working there just out of secretarial school at 18 and the men had teased her mercilessly. She was a naive rube in a sea of cynics. The practical jokers chose her, the youngest and smallest, as the butt of their endless pranks. The young stenographer’s face remained in a permanent blush for the first year she worked there. But she was a good sport and saw that the attention grew partly from the mens’ fixation on a pretty young woman in their midst. And now she was an old hand at 25. She knew them all and had learned how to play along.
The constant ribbing was one reason Flo had joined a women’s organization, Business and Professional Women. There she met other young workingwomen and they could commiserate about their jobs and talk about ways to improve them as well as just having fun with each other away from the men. The national organization fought against laws that prohibited married women from working and supported equal pay initiatives. Women’s pay was far less than men’s, even when they worked in the same jobs. Through Biz-Pro under the umbrella of the YWCA, Flo had already traveled to the big cities of Chicago, Columbus and Minneapolis as well as Seattle and towns in the Northwest. Her sojourns away from the small town of Yakima fed dreams of traveling to New York, Paris and London.
Flo’s desk was a handsome oak government issue with three drawers on the right for typing paper and carbon paper, envelopes and typewriter ribbons. The shallow drawer above the space for her oak rolling chair held pencils and pens. Her best friend and most important tool was the Royal typewriter that sat on its stand next to her desk. It featured typewriter ribbon with both red and black colors. To get red she only had to lift the carriage with a lever. Flo’s mastery of the typewriter had grown during her year at secretarial school. She was a fast typist who made very few mistakes, and that was good as mistakes were not easy to fix. All letters were typed with two carbon copies. Each carbon would have to be pulled apart and erased with a typewriter eraser before being retyped, so it was far better not to make any mistakes at all.
When one of the engineers called her into his office, Flo took a steno notebook and pencil to record his thoughts in shorthand. Then she would recompose his letter using proper English and grammar as she typed it. The bosses, who often did not excel at writing letters, depended on her to make them look good.
The Washington State Highway Department was tasked with engineering, building and maintaining the state’s roads and highways. In 1938, teams of engineers were assigned to survey the state’s entire highway system. There were several high mountain passes and thousands of miles of roads under the department’s purview. Engineers were in demand in Washington in the 1930s as FDR’s New Deal funded infrastructure projects across the state, including the Grand Coulee Dam, bridges, sewers, stadiums and, of course, roads.
The office workers took lunch at noon daily, leaving one person to answer the phone during the half hour while the others ate. The men routinely brought their lunches to work, made daily by their wives or mothers. On nice days the workers could walk over to the Yakima River to eat lunch under a cottonwood tree. On this day Flo remained in the office with the electric fans rather than confront the blazing sun outside. Her mother had packed a butter sandwich, a tomato from the garden and some fresh apricots for her lunch.
Flo looked forward to lunch break when she could be alone with whatever book she was reading. Today it was Man’s Hope by Andre Malraux in a new English translation, about the Battle of Teruel in the Spanish Civil War. The war continued although things were looking bad for the Republicans. The fascists had bombed the town of Guernica the year before, killing hundreds of civilians in the historic first targeting of civilians by a military air force. It was the shape of things to come.
While typing up a chart for the roads survey report, a thing that required lots of underscores to make the horizontal lines, Flo felt a the dreaded hot gush of blood of her period. She was wearing a pad, but she knew from past experience that the pad might not absorb gushing menstrual blood. It could quickly stain her underwear and her skirt when it came out so fast. She grabbed her bag with its supply of Kotex and walked quickly to the bathroom, hoping it was free. There was one toilet room for all the employees in this office and very often it was in use, but she found the door unlocked. She rushed in and locked the door. Sitting on the toilet, she found that the blood had overwhelmed the pad and stained her underpants. The sight of the pad covered with bright red clots repulsed her and made her queasy. It sometimes seemed to her that her period was like birthing a baby every month. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and intense pain from cramping often came with it.
She was relieved that she had chosen a dark skirt to wear. When she examined it she found her skirt was still unbloodied. Luckily she had thought to bring an extra pair of underpants with her. She quickly washed out the bloody underpants, wrapped them in a wax paper bag and stuck them back in her bag. She used a wet paper towel to clean the insides of her thighs where the blood had seeped over the sides of the pad, then put on the clean underpants and a new pad. She wrapped the stained pad in a paper towel and pushed it to the bottom of the wastebasket hoping the used towels might absorb any smell. Then she swallowed two more aspirin from her bag with a glass of water from the sink. Someone was trying the door. She unlocked it and saw Theron there. She exited with as much aplomb as she could muster. The crisis had been averted although she still had four hours to go till the end of this workday and the possibility of another accident loomed.
The stifling afternoon moved along tortise-like. Flo downed more aspirin to dull the radiating pain. She desperately wished to lie down in a cool dark room. By the time the workday ended at 5:30, the office temperature was nearly as hot as it was outside. The thermometer on the wall read 85 degrees. After changing her Kotex pad once more, Flo bid goodnight to her coworkers and left the building to drive home. At least there was a slight breeze outside. She would pick up her sisters at their workplaces.
“Breakfast, girls,” called Gerda. She had already been out to open the chicken coop and the hens’ cluckings came through the open upstairs window. The smell of coffee boiling wafted up from the kitchen below where Gerda cooked breakfast on the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Gerda always served coffee in the morning, and also as the Swedish custom, in mid-afternoon. This afternoon the coffee would be cooled with ice delivered weekly by the iceman. Betty and Flo made their way down the steep stairs.
The family had taken out a mortgage for $3500 to buy the house on 16th Avenue South in 1921. It had been built by Gerda’s brother, Albin Lunstrum, who had brought his carpentry skills from Sweden. Most of the houses on Johnson’s Corner, the Swedish neighborhood, had been built by hand by Albin and his brother-in-law partner, Axel Jacobson. They were boxy two-story clapboard-clad frame houses with generous front porches, a popular style at the time. The family had come to Yakima after having failed at chicken farming near Roseburg, Oregon during WWI. When Ben was offered a teaching job at Yakima High School, Gerda was happy to join two sisters, two brothers and some cousins who had also immigrated from Sweden.
Ruth smiled good morning from her place at the dining room table which she had set for the family. She had fixed her light brown hair in a neat Marcel wave and she wore a floral cotton dress. Her well-scrubbed rosy cheeks shone with radiant good health.
“Don and I have set the date for our wedding,” she blurted. “I wanted to wait till you were all here to tell you. It will be August 30 at the Presbyterian Church. Of course I want my sisters to be bridesmaids.”
“Congratulations!” chorused her sisters, mother and father.
“Will there be time for Momma to make your dress?” asked Betty.
“Oh, I won’t need a dress. I can wear the suit she made me last year. It’s very stylish,” Ruth said.
“Gee, you’re in an awful hurry,” said Flo. “Where do you and Don plan to live?”
“We’ll find an apartment in Yakima. Of course you know this is all your fault for introducing us.” Ruth was looking forward to having her own home, away from her bossy older sister.
Flo was happy for her sister, but worried about the family’s welfare. She silently calculated the loss of Ruth’s contribution to the mortgage payment. Ruth brought in $60 a month from her job and she could thank their father for that. He had rung doorbells for the Democrat running for county auditor who had won the seat in 1934 in the wake of FDR’s election two years before. Ruth got a patronage job and now she would lose it when she married. Women were expected to give up their jobs when they married and there were even laws prohibiting married women from working. She and Flo had paid the hospital bill for their father’s care after his coronary. If he ended up in the hospital again it would be all on Flo this time. Ruth would be a married woman starting her own family. At least with the vacated bedroom they would be able to house a boarder, thought Flo.
“Good morning Daddy. How are you feeling?” Flo bent to give her father a kiss on the cheek and a hug. At 58, Ben was looking old. His still abundant head of hair had turned from black to gray and his blue eyes seemed sunken.
“I’m feeling quite well today,” he answered. “Did you see that we got a letter from Eva yesterday? She says she’s doing well in her nursing program. I think my brother Erick’s loan to her was a good investment.” He had retrieved the morning Yakima Herald and was dividing the sections to be shared. Both Flo and Ben usually read a book or newspaper as they ate. For breakfast this day Gerda served homemade toast, boiled eggs she had collected from the little hen house and the first of the fresh apricots she had gleaned from the Pacific Fruit Packing Co. The canning season had begun and Gerda was preparing to get started on stone fruit. As hot as it was, this would still be a canning day. Gerda had procured boxes of culled apricots from her seasonal job as a fruit packer and they would spoil if held for processing. Apples, the primary crop of the Yakima Valley, did not ripen until the late fall.
Flo scanned the front page. It seemed little news was good in this Depression year. Five of the Negroes who had been attacked earlier in the month by a mob of 200 whites in Wapato had filed a lawsuit against the local marshal, deputy marshal and the county sheriff for failure to enforce the law and protect them from the mob. (They would later lose in court.) The Anti-Japanese League, the American Legion and the Grange were still harassing Japanese farmers in the Lower Valley where they leased land on the Yakama Indian reservation.
“The American Legion is still trying to run the Japanese out of town,” said Flo. “No matter that they’ve been here longer than most of the Legionnaires.”
Abroad, Jews in Germany were being ordered to report to police to receive identification cards. The war in Spain continued, but, even with thousands of volunteers from around the world joining the Republicans to fight, Franco’s fascists were winning with Hitler’s help.
“Why won’t our government take a side in this war and send armaments?” asked Flo. “Can’t they see this is the ultimate fight for democracy?”
“I don’t think public opinion supports our intervention,” said Ben. “But that doesn’t mean it’s right.”
In Yakima, agriculture was always front-page news. The cherry crop, harvested in the first week of July, had been ruined by the hot weather.
“The farmers complain every year, no matter what the weather,” said Ben flatly. “It’s either too rainy in June or too hot in July.”
Orchardists and farmers nervously geared up for harvest season, hoping they would have enough migrant workers and that labor agitators demanding higher wages would stay out of the Valley. A strike by the Wobblies had been put down five years earlier and the stockade built to hold the strikers still stood downtown, daring any to stand up for better conditions in the fields and orchards. None had.
Farmers advertised for migrant labor and migrants traveled from Mexico and other states hoping to find work. They were housed in several labor camps called shacktowns. Some had tiny cottages built by the farmer. Others were built by the migrants themselves of scraps of wood and found materials. Growers did not want to let the migrants get too comfortable. They were urged to move on after harvest season.
After breakfast Flo would drive the family Model A to work at the State Highway Department in Old Yakima several miles away, dropping off Ruth at the county offices downtown. Betty would take the streetcar to her part-time bookkeeping job at the butcher’s on the west side of town. Ben had a summer break from part-time teaching jobs. Gerda had arranged for her sister Anna to come over to help her can the apricots.
Flo slid into the driver’s seat and put on the horn-rimmed glasses that corrected her nearsightedness so she could see to drive. Girls with glasses were seen as bookish and unattractive, and she only wore them when absolutely necessary, never when her photograph was being taken.
Flo sometimes imagined that the four sisters were like the sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, although the comparison didn’t altogether work. They had lost a sister to typhoid fever just as the March sisters had lost Beth to scarlet fever, but Elizabeth had died at seven, not 17, and that was 18 years ago now. The Wick sisters hadn’t written and produced plays like the March sisters had and they weren’t genteel poor like the Marchs, just plain poor. But Flo saw herself in Jo, the tomboy reader, writer and intellect of the four. She pushed against the constraints of gender and rejected the idea of romance and marriage just as Jo had in her youth. As the oldest sister after Elizabeth’s death, Flo saw herself as the family caretaker, not in the traditional female role, but as the wage earner who took over the father’s role after he had been laid off from his teaching job six years before. The school superintendent who laid him off seemed to think that Ben’s four daughters could support the family and Flo took up the challenge.
As I delved into my mom’s scrapbook from her time as a Red Cross “donut girl” in Europe during WWII, I began to wonder what motivated her to sign up for a job so close to the front lines in the war. What were Americans in small towns thinking about the wars in Europe and how were they affected? I was moved to look into my mother’s childhood and young adulthood in Yakima, Washington, and that research resulted in my last essay, Make America White Again, about the roots of racism in my hometown. I just read a fascinating book of creative nonfiction, We Were the Lucky Ones, by a young author, Georgia Hunter. It started as a blog about her Polish Jewish family and how they escaped the Holocaust during the war. That book inspired me to look deeper into my own family history.
So before I jump into WWII, I want to explore what my mother and her family’s lives were like as Europe was gearing up for war and the US was still stuck in the Great Depression. I chose to tell their story in one day, July 27, 1938, in five short chapters. Chapter One follows.
July 27, 1938 started out hot and it just got hotter. Flo and her younger sister Betty had left the window in their upstairs room open all night but when the alarm woke them the room was still hot.
Flo had come in late the night before after Betty was asleep. When they were both awake she confronted her sister.
“Where were you yesterday? I came by the butcher’s to see if you wanted a ride home after work. Were you with Cecil?”
Betty’s face reddened. “Well….”
“He’s a married older man, Betty. He will destroy your reputation.”
“There is nothing going on between us. He just likes my company and he gives me things. Look what he gave me.” Betty opened a small box to reveal a gold necklace.
“This is terrible,” rasped Flo. “You must never accept these things from him. Return it to him and hope Mama never sees it.”
“But I don’t want to give it back,” complained Betty. “Look, here’s proof I’m a good girl.” She pulled from a large envelope a certificate signed with three names. It was titled The Senior High Society of Christian Endeavor DIPLOMA and it certified that “Betty Wick has for three years been a member of the above mentioned society of the First Presbyterian Church of Yakima, Washington, and that now she is affectionately graduated and earnestly commended to the Young Peoples Society of Christian Endeavor.” It had the gold corporate seal of the church with a red and a white ribbon pasted on.
“I’m sorry,” said Flo, gently putting a hand on Betty’s shoulder. “You must return the necklace. Tell Cecil your family says these gifts are not proper.”
Flo did not know what to do with her younger sister who, at only 16, seemed so very different from herself. But she loved her dearly and put some effort into protecting her from their mother’s wrath. Their Swedish mother, Gerda, had early on been influenced by her own sister Ellen who had joined the Pentecostal church and who believed that movies, dancing, playing cards and makeup were deadly sins. Flo and Ruth, the oldest sisters, had been most affected by their mother’s religious piety, which forced them as teenagers to lie about attending movies and to wipe off makeup before going home. By the time the youngest sister, Betty, came along, Gerda’s strict rules had relaxed but she still expected rigorous moral standards to be met.
The sisters each had their own bed ever since their two other sisters, Ruth and Eve, had taken live-in housekeeper jobs. Ruth had recently returned to the family home when she got a job as a stenographer. She now slept in one of the downstairs bedrooms. Betty, who was still in high school, had shared a bed with Eve as a child and Flo and Ruth had slept together. As kids, the four sisters had all shared the one big attic room accessed by a narrow unlit stairway from the kitchen. Gerda, a master of many skills, had hung cheery yellow flowered wallpaper, painted the fir floor a dark red and made a braided oval rug from scraps of wool left over from old clothes people had given her. One light bulb hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. It cast light through the window into the yard at night indicating that Flo was reading instead of sleeping. Their father, Ben, would see it and call up the stairs, “Turn off the light.” Sometimes she did, recalled Ruth.
Neither sister wanted to get up. Betty liked to sleep in whenever possible, but that was rarely allowed in this household where early-to-rise was the rule. Each had her chores, although Flo, now the main breadwinner in the family, was exempt from most household chores. Gerda took care of the cooking and canning, shopping, washing, ironing, sewing and knitting of clothes, gardening and cleaning, with some help from the girls. Ben was still recuperating from a serious heart attack, which had landed him in the hospital a couple of months before.
The sisters took turns using the indoor toilet and sink in the downstairs bathroom where they also dumped their chamber pots. Bath day was Saturday and all family members used the same water from the little tank in the kitchen heated by the wood stove. The youngest went first with poor Dad last. Sponge baths at the sink supplemented bath day during the week. Flo was feeling sticky and grimy on this Wednesday. To make matters worse, she saw blood in the toilet. Her period had started, which meant she’d be in pain with cramps for the next couple of days. She found the bottle of aspirin in the medicine cabinet above the sink and swallowed two pills, taking the bottle with her. At least she didn’t have to wear rags as she had when her periods had first begun, but Kotex pads were just one more expense to deduct from a tight budget. She found the box of Kotex hidden behind folded towels in the linen cabinet and took several to hide in her bag to take to work, making sure she was not seen. Menstruation was something to be hidden and not talked about, except with her sisters.
Flo was glad for the family’s indoor bathroom and running water. In their last home on the chicken farm in Meadowview, Oregon, they’d had only an outdoor privy with a Sears catalog for toilet paper and a water pump near the back porch. She returned to the bedroom to dress.
“How was your gathering last night?” asked Betty.
“It was great fun. We took the potluck out to Mrs. May’s lawn. We’re planning for the summer party next weekend up in Naches.”
Flo had been out the night before with her sorority sisters at their bi-monthly meeting. She had pledged the working girls sorority, Epsilon Sigma Alpha, in 1933 and become the chapter president in 1936, organizing the social outings as well as discussion groups and business meetings. She was now a central person in the sorority and in the Business and Professional Women’s group, representing them at conferences around the state and at national events. She was a busy woman, working 44 hours a week as a stenographer as well as spending many hours doing organizational work and singing in the Presbyterian church choir.
Flo pulled newly bought cotton underwear from their shared dresser. Since she had been working she’d been able to afford her own underwear and some clothing, although Gerda sewed most of her wardrobe. Betty still wore the underwear Gerda had made from bleached flour sacks—crude brassieres, underpants and garter belts.
Flo picked out a white cotton blouse and darker-colored mid-calf cotton skirt to wear to work. It would be hot in the State Highway Department office too. As she rolled on rayon stockings to her knees, she thought about their father, whose health had been poor for the past several years. He had gone back to working as a bookkeeper and part-time teacher after his heart attack because the family needed his income. During her school summer vacation Betty had been helping him with the bookkeeping job at a butcher shop. Flo wished he didn’t have to work at all.
Their wardrobes may have been skimpy but the one thing the sisters had plenty of was shoes. Flo loved shoes that showed off her shapely ankles and legs. The year before, she had won a year’s supply of shoes for a slogan she had composed for Fashion Week. Her winning slogan, out of 40,000 entries, read: “I like Paris Fashion shoes because…their smartness and quality make feet fashionably well-shod and comfortable….Their reasonable price keeps them within my budget…yet does not cramp their style.” She had allowed Betty to pick out one pair of the eight she had won and the shoes still graced their shared closet. Flo was always submitting essays, ditties and slogans to contests, and she seemed to win most of them. The year’s supply of shoes was the prize she was most proud of.
As they each combed and shaped their short dark hair into place before their shared mirror, Betty tapped Flo’s arm. “What’s eating you, sis?”
“Oh, I’m just worrying about Dad. I know he says he feels better but he seems so fragile since his heart attack.”
“Well worrying won’t get you anywhere. Let’s put on a happy face for him.”
It is massive, about the size of a small suitcase, with a dark blue padded leather cover now, 70 years later, quite beat up. It weighs 25 pounds. Throughout our childhoods my brothers and I pulled it out, looked through it, listened to our mother’s war stories. The scrapbook is filled with photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, travel paraphernalia and it tells the story of Mom’s two years as an American Red Cross (ARC) “donut girl” in Europe during World War II. With a crew of three other women she drove a clubmobile, a truck retrofitted with a kitchen, near the front lines, making and serving coffee and donuts to soldiers of the Third Infantry Division in Italy, France, Germany and Austria.
Mom was a scrapbook maker and for that I am now grateful as I try to piece together the events of her life. Perhaps she had the idea for the album even before she sailed to Europe on a hospital ship in May 1944. I do know that the act of putting it together when she returned home after the war in 1946 salved her sadness at the deaths of so many and helped her readjust to life stateside where it seemed compatriots had moved on and no longer thought about the war.
When my mother, Flo, died in 1983 at the age of 70, I claimed the album and it’s been stored in garages and closets ever since, occasionally brought out for perusal by relatives or friends with an interest in World War II. For a time it lived in the mold-infected storage room and so it was infected along with other archives. I’ve exposed each page to sunlight in an effort to reduce the mold and that’s helped, but when I really want to examine the book I don a respirator to avoid breathing in clouds of invisible mold spores.
In trying to understand the World War II era, my ongoing research includes reading about this historical period and the books I know Flo was reading during the 30s and 40s. Her saved scrapbooks from the 1930s give many clues to what she was thinking and reading, setting the stage for the advent of the 1940s and the war. I’ve found useful artifacts in boxes saved by my brother Don and my cousin Gail. Don dug out a box of Flo’s essays and letters-to-the-editor from the 1960s to the 1980s that I had thought were lost. We have precious few of her personal letters, but my cousin recently found two letters written to her mother, Flo’s sister Ruth, from Europe in 1944! Don, the family historian, has helped me track down information about Flo’s clubmobile comrades. They are now all dead, but I’m in touch with one of their daughters, who is providing another perspective on the “donut girls.” I’ve read accounts of their experiences, although I haven’t found one that mirrors Flo’s particular journey. And I’ve read the stories of men who served in the Third Infantry Division, to which Flo’s clubmobile was attached.
I’ve dreamed of traveling to Europe to trace Flo’s route through towns and battlegrounds. Someday I may do that but I’m thankful that now I can take a virtual trip right here on my computer.