Everybody has a story: Life in Wyoming during wartime
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
I was neck deep in bubble bath at my sister’s house when President Roosevelt’s radio broadcast informed us that the United States had declared war. On our ranch, we bathed in an oversized washtub, so a full bath was a luxury.
We pastured Holstein cattle. Wyoming winters brought quiet time followed by seasons of backbreaking, bone-weary labor. Ranch laborers were hard to find, and because of his ranching status, one of my brothers was exempt from the draft.
There was a prisoner of war camp housed in the local armory. The National Guard provided security. During warm weather, prisoners were hired out by the U.S. government. Mornings, German prisoners waited for Dad to take them out to the fields. Mom prompted me to speak to them in English, which dumbfounded me.
A group of us, including our neighbors the Gallagher girls, worked on ranches where seed corn, beans and peas were grown for the war effort. We earned $7 a day pulling weeds and selecting hybrid seeds for a seed company. My nose became leathery that summer in the sun. We ate lunch in the shade of a tree. When the weather turned mean, we skinny-dipped in a drainage ditch. We dove into the cool water and dried our budding bodies in the sun.
In the ’40s, oil rigs began to boom in the state. Geophysical crews drilled and crude oil was the crop.
Big Wind River froze solid in wintertime, and the ice was harvested and stored near the riverbed. My friend’s mother, Laura, sold the ice, driving a delivery truck down the alleys of town. Laura was a slight wiry woman; she wore dresses even though coveralls might have been more sensible. She wore straw hats that protected her face from the summer sun and brogans on her feet. She had a gold mine of health gleaned from heavy exercise and walking.
Occasionally, Laura left things in our inexperienced hands for some urgent business that took her away. Our first customer was Dr. Cogwell’s son, a handsome Air Force officer in uniform, home on furlough; our hearts flipped out on us, as he was a knockout. He wanted to buy a chunk of ice but we were so titillated we made a mess trying to use a razor-sharp saw. He finally took the saw and finished the job. We danced with delight after he left.
Our ranch was two miles from town and I whined about walking through ice and snow. It was a bone of contention with Dad. Occasionally, I’d get lucky and someone would bring me home. As school activities escalated he’d say, “Tell John to stop by the next time he brings you home and fill up his gas tank.” Ranchers had a supply tank for tractors and equipment; our gas supply saved me walking many miles.
I sang in the triple trio, and played in the school orchestra. The theme of our junior prom was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” My friends and I made paper flowers for the walls and fences for the event.
I became a checker in the Safeway store. Tobacco, mayonnaise and some canned goods were scarce because of the war; coffee and sugar were rationed and we had coupon books. The troops were given priority but occasionally such items made their way to our grocery store.
Our small town grew by about 5,000 during the war. We had war bond drives and metal and rubber collections to support the war effort. The young men in my class turned 18 and were eligible for the draft. To avoid being drafted, many enlisted. Navy garb appeared in town that year and sent our hearts fluttering again.
My cousins came home on furlough and danced the nights away at the Legion Hall to live music. Saturday nights, we had bingo on Main Street and won war bonds and prizes. These same young men were in the Bataan death march or were German prisoners of war; others were missing or killed in action. My oldest brother flew reconnaissance with the Enola Gay to Hiroshima. No one knew back then how dangerous watching nuclear warheads was or how it poisoned our environment.
Life was a roller-coaster ride back then. Three and one-half years later, I was visiting my sister in Miles City, Mont., and I sat on a porch with the man who became my husband. He was a returning veteran of three years’ service with the Air Force in England. Whistles blew and church bells rang; we knew the Japanese had capitulated.
There was never supposed to be another war.
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