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Everybody Has a Story: War changed everyday life

By Elizabeth Duke , Battle Ground
Published: February 24, 2024, 6:02am

I fondly remember growing up in San Diego County, Calif., in the 1940s — before freeways, high rises, traffic jams and too many new houses. A vacant lot was next door where there were trapdoor spiders, a few wildflowers and plenty of space to play. And perfect weather. Every day was so clear I could see the sunlit neighborhood of Point Loma, across the bay, from my bedroom window.

I recall being surprised at so many new kids enrolling in school. Classrooms were crowded and became a stream of changing faces as folks came to the San Diego area for jobs. When this began, I was too young to realize the reason was World War II. But I knew things were different.

Sailors in their uniforms and jaunty white hats seemed to be everywhere. Dad was a block warden. My Aunt Carmen, Mother’s sister, lived in Navy housing near the 32nd Street shipbuilding base. Her husband, my Uncle Fred, was a chief petty officer, and he was deployed to the Pacific for months at a time.

I saw ration books and heard Mom and Dad discussing best use for the different coupons — what was needed and what could wait. Butter was non-existent and we kids would fuss over who got to pop the yellow dye pod on the plastic bag of colorless margarine so it at least looked like butter.

I had my own little war savings stamp booklet, which started out empty, waiting to be filled with 10 cent stamps, bought at school once a week. When it was full, the book could be redeemed for a $25 savings bond that matured in 10 years. I filled three.

One week Dad didn’t have a dime, so he gave me a quarter to buy two stamps and told me to bring home the change. But my teacher didn’t believe me, and made me buy a 25 cent stamp. I don’t know what she thought a 7-year-old was going to do with five cents.

Rationing allowed two pairs of shoes per year. A boy at school made fun of me when he saw folded newspaper through the hole in my shoe. I still don’t know if Dad needed a shoe coupon but it didn’t matter because he was upset that I’d been mocked. The holey shoes were immediately replaced.

Maybe that’s why, as an adult, I could never have too many pairs. Fortunately, retirement doesn’t require an extensive footwear wardrobe.

Dad rode his maroon Schwinn to work at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company with his metal lunch pail, the kind with the domed top to hold a thermos, belted to the back of the seat on top of the fender. One day he took us to the shipyard to watch the launching of the ship he’d worked on. It was huge and slid slowly backwards, making a gigantic noise and splash, then rocking gently back and forth as it settled into the water.

My most vivid memories of the war years are air raid sirens. San Diego was an important Pacific Fleet Port. When the sirens blared there were standing orders to pull down our blackout shades so we couldn’t be seen from the air. We hoped the sirens wouldn’t turn into an actual attack.

Sometimes at school we kids would talk of dangerous men across the world. I remember seeing a front-page newspaper photo of Benito Mussolini and his mistress hanging by their legs. I knew then and there, bad things happen to bad people.

Victory in Europe was unnoticed by me, most likely because I was in school and didn’t see the newspaper, but victory in Japan wasn’t. The world went nuts. The San Diego Union headlines seemed about 4 inches high. Radio announcer’s voices stopped sounding measured and somber. Everything they said was faster, louder and repeated. V-J Day meant Uncle Fred wouldn’t be deployed to the Pacific anymore.

Aunt Carmen wanted a party to celebrate not only the war’s end but the end of spousal separation and a return to normal life. Since my folks owned the only place suitable for a celebration, the party was held in our small house.

The living room rug was rolled up, cornmeal was sprinkled on the worn wooden floors, drinks were served and the music turned up. My younger sister, brother and I knew without being told to stay in our rooms or in the adjacent dining room. This party was for adults.

Laughing, dancing, drinking and just being happy put the party in overdrive. A lot of empty bottles got lined against the wall in the adjacent dining room, all containing dregs of alcohol.

I was standing in the dining room watching the adults having a good time. All of a sudden, my 3-year-old brother came running in and saw the bottles. He quickly picked up the nearest one and tipped it up, draining the dregs.

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He promptly hit the floor.

I yelled for Mom. She rushed in, knelt by my brother and asked what happened. In the time it took me to tell her, my brother came to. She made sure he wasOK, picked him up, put him to bed, put the empties on the kitchen counter and went back to the living room. I’m pretty sure none of the partygoers realized what had happened. No one missed a beat, not even Mom.

There never was another party.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.