If you didn’t live your childhood during World War II, please read one account (mine) below. If you did live through the war, what are your war time memories? Submit your story – or just a comment – below. I’ll share them.
“If the Japanese win any more battles they could win all the way to California,” I heard my grandmother say. She was sitting at the scarred desk that served as the hub of our small dairy farm speaking on our only telephone.
I was sure I shouldn’t be listening so I slipped out to be with the men in the dairy.
I had I overheard some of the men talking about how all the Japanese out west were being rounded up and sent out to the desert. Today they were talking about which of their friends were going off. We were a Navy family – my father and two uncles were gone. Two of our men were headed for the army. That would leave just my grandparents, my mother, my Uncle Carl, and me to handle the farm. We did share help and work with our neighbor farms.
When the depression eased a bit, we had bought a more modern tractor and a portable gasoline engine but with gasoline sometimes hard to get, work was tough.
My grandfather broke out two draft horses we had hung onto pretty much out of affection and so Tom and Jerry became part of the war effort. My mother’s pleasure horse was fit enough to pull a small wagon that we had fun outfitting to deliver milk. We had farm rations for truck gasoline so it wasn’t needed too often but the newspapers loved capturing my pretty young mother delivering milk from a horse drawn wagon. On the farm she was teased about her celebrity.
Besides having to relearn how to use horses, we had to learn how to save grease in cans, how to peel tinfoil, save metal parts and pull down shades at night.
Managing ration books became part of life. For a time my grandmother served on the ration board and told us that some people were trying to cheat and others were hoarding. She also spoke about “draft dodgers” who pretended to be sick. I was surprised that people were doing bad things.
It was no surprise to anyone that I won the Victory Garden contests. The Boss had overseen me and our big vegetable garden ever since I could work a toy shovel and hoe. She liked to take pictures of me and my garden with her box camera. With mostly just me and Pop to do the farming work, I found I could handle Tom and Jerry pulling a white-birch brush harrow and I learned some plowing. I knew from the beginning that I did real work. I always believed what we did—farming—sat at the center of life. People had farmed forever—planting seeds, growing crops, raising cattle—and I felt I was a real part of it. I owned an important place in the world, especially now.
We didn’t have a lot of cash for me to buy the black war bond stamps sold every week at school, but I wasn’t embarrassed. I felt like my garden and my farm work were helping the war effort. The very few letters my father sent us always had a place where he told me to help take care of the farm. He reminded me about my first job when I was four or five, standing with a stick in my hand at the top of the farmyard drive that led down to the state highway. My job was to keep the cows that were coming up for milking from wandering out. My father teased me into making fierce faces and sounds at the cows to scare them off. I don’t remember one coming near me.
During the build-up and early years we didn’t talk much about the war at school but later, with news flashes on the radio and war movies at the theater, we younger ones quizzed each other in constant curiosity about what we were all making of it.
Kids – boys – took up playing at war on the playground and especially on the rowdy walks home from the Saturday matinees. Mostly they used their hands as guns or else spread their arms wide and made airplane sounds as they ran shouting “Bombs away!” There were afternoon radio shows like Jack Armstrong or Dick Tracy where they chased spies and you could get a secret decoder ring but that was my chore time and I didn’t listen often. My cousins who lived in town had lurid war tales they picked up hanging around shops and garages. One boy said he saw a German submarine when he was out on Cape Cod. Under merciless playground grilling he admitted that he hadn’t actually been the one who saw it, but he knew the boy who did.
In school we wrote letters to servicemen, sometimes to relatives and sometimes to strangers. Our teachers, when they learned that someone’s father had gone off, would ask the rest of us to say a prayer. I remember a boy and a girl in my second grade losing their fathers. No one knew what to do or say. If a kid was absent for a few days we might wonder about it, but no one would ask. For a couple months during the war we had a boy live with us. He was very quiet and didn’t know anything about farming. His mother had moved away to be near his father but he was sent overseas and she came back and got the boy.
The girl on our neighbor farm was in my class and she told me that German planes were going to come in the night. She said she knew they were coming because her uncle was an air raid warden and he knew for sure. She, like I, held responsibility for pulling down the blackout shades every night.
Excerpted from “A Memoir from the Homeland 1941-1955 © C. D. Peterson
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