Mom was born into a well-to-do family; Dad was not. His parents were immigrants from Ireland, and they lived on the wrong side of the tracks running from Cambridge to Concord. Dad was born in 1916 and named for his father, George Augustus. George Sr. was an engineer for the Boston to Worcester Limited. Leslie has a photograph of Granddad standing in his engineer overalls in front of his train. His occupation was the spark igniting Dad’s life-long love of model railroads.
His family lived on the second floor of a three-decker. They attended the Catholic Church a block away. His parents had only high school educations. Money was a constant worry, aggravated by his father’s fondness for alcohol and gambling on horses at Suffolk Downs. Dad never spoke about his father. In fact, he never told us any stories about his childhood.
His mother, Margaret, earned money from sewing, by hand. A sewing machine was too expensive. She also laundered women’s dresses too delicate for a washing machine. She hung the clean dresses on racks in the kitchen; drying them outdoors risked soot stains from coal heating neighborhood buildings. When dry, she ironed each dress twice, hung them on wooden hangers, and covered them with brown paper. As the tallest member of the family, Dad’s sister, Rose, returned the dresses, her arms raised above her head to prevent the hems from touching the ground. Only once did she forget to bring the wooden hangers home.
Dad’s parents were always a mystery. Margaret died when I was four. I remember nothing about her except for a photograph from 1949. She sits in our living room reading to me. Her feet don’t reach the floor. I stand beside her chair while she holds Leslie, still a baby, in her arms. I imagine Dad seeing us grabbed his camera. She’s wearing a non-descript housedress with her white hair tied up in a bun. I have no sense of her as a real person, only as an image in a Brownie camera snapshot.
As a teenager, Dad joined the Scouts, a rite of passage for boys in the 1920s. He earned money for his uniform delivering papers. He and his friends joined the troop at the town hall. I have a photo of Dad, one of the few Leslie and I have of him as a young man. Looking closely, I recognize him: the jawline, the straight nose, the thick hair slicked back from his forehead. He’s handsome, clean cut, thirteen, maybe fourteen years old. The boys stand ramrod straight with chests puffed out, their feet shoulder-length apart. Dad is at the end holding the troop flag. They are dressed in baggy pants tucked into knee socks, a uniform with an unsettling resemblance to doughboys in WWI, the ‘war to end all wars.’ Waiting in their futures are the stock market crash, the Depression, another world war.
As part of his Tenderfoot badge, Dad needed the signature of his parish priest to affirm his attendance at weekly religious services. “The housekeeper at the rectory told me to wait in the parlor while she went upstairs to tell the priest. When the priest didn’t come down, I thought he’d forgotten, and prepared to leave. At that moment, he entered the parlor in his black cassock and asked what I wanted. I explained why I needed his signature. He examined the front and back of the card. ‘What troop do you belong to?’
‘Troop 2146, Father.’
‘Where’s that? The Town Hall?’
‘Why aren’t you in the troop here at your church?’
‘I wanted to be with my friends.’
‘You have no friends at Saint Barbara’s?’
‘I mean my friends at school.’
The priest slapped his hands on his knees and stood up. ‘I’m sorry. I only sign for boys in the Saint Barbara troop.’ He handed the card back to me and left the room.”
Dad left the rectory, upset and embarrassed. At the next meeting, he told the Scout Master what had happened. The troop waived the requirement. Dad earned the rank of Star Scout. After high school, he left the Catholic Church and, before marrying Mom, became a Protestant.
In high school, Dad excelled in math, physics, and shop. Mom said he didn’t care for English or history. He barely passed Latin. Before applying to college, he took a year of post-graduate work after his senior year to improve his grades or, as I suspect, to spend another year at home with his high school sweetheart – my mother.
In his family, only Dad attended college. Rose never had the opportunity. Daughters married after high school and wouldn’t require a college degree.
In September 1936, he enrolled at the University of Maine in Orono. He won a partial scholarship and majored in mechanical engineering. I still have his imitation-leather kit with the tools needed for his studies: compass, protractor, and slide rule. He lived on the top floor of a men’s dorm. During the winter the dorm was cold, and he slept with his clothes tucked beside him under the covers. To let off steam during exams, the men on his floor divided into two teams, each stocked with a closely guarded pile of potatoes. Shielding themselves behind mattresses, the teams pelted each other. The best missiles were spongy or soggy potatoes. The splatter always brought forth a roar of laughter and renewed vigor. Occasionally, a potato missed its target and broke a window, which went unrepaired for several days. The students woke with frost on their faces.
With Dad away at college and Rose married and out of the house, the fortunes of my grandparents slowly improved. But one morning at dawn, when Dad was home for the summer after his freshman year, the police came to their home to inform his mother that her husband was found dead on the street across from Saint Barbara’s. The circumstances indicated foul play.
The conductor of the trolley remembered George Sr., drunk and bragging about his winnings at the horse track. The police assumed another passenger followed him off the streetcar to rob him. In the struggle, Grandad fell against the curb and was killed. A man on his way to work found my grandfather and called the police. Dad accompanied the police to the morgue. Mom told be about Grandad’s death, but I never asked Dad about when he identified his father’s body.
If he’d had the money, Dad once said, he’d have gone to medical school. He had the manual dexterity of a surgeon. For most of his life, he built model railroads, constructing buildings with balsa wood cut using straight razors and a scalpel. But if his dream was to be a surgeon, he could have found the money somehow. Lack of confidence, indecision, or something else, held him back. With US involvement in WWII inevitable perhaps he considered joining the Army after graduation. In December 1941, Dad enlisted as a lieutenant ‘for the duration.’
After officer training, the Army sent him to Oregon to protect Puget Sound and the Seattle seaport from invasion. Stationed on Whidbey Island, he commanded the base artillery. At the highest elevation on the island, soldiers positioned the guns over bunkers clawed from a shelf of granite overlooking Puget Sound. His men drilled at target practice every day “We sank the Inland Waterway Ferry about four times a day.” But there was never a need to fire the guns. They saw no action. And he was bored.
Once settled in Oregon, Dad proposed over the telephone. Mom accepted, having long ago made up her mind while walking home with my father from high school. Wartime had changed society and parents had less control over the romantic decisions of their daughters. With her fiancé three thousand miles away and unable to plead his case, Mom faced her mother’s insistence that they postpone the wedding until after the war, although no one could guess when that would be. By converting to the Protestant faith at college, Dad avoided the major objection of his future mother-in-law, although in her opinion ‘once a Catholic, always a Catholic.’ Grandma was convinced that her daughter was marrying below her station. Her father quietly supported Mom’s decision. After all her fiancé was a fellow engineering graduate of the University of Maine.
The lovers prevailed, and a date was set. Grandma crossed the country a second time accompanying her daughter, now twenty-three. The wedding dress was folded with tissue paper and packed in a trunk with other clothes Mom needed for the Oregon weather. Aunt Ellen, the maid-of-honor was too ill to travel. Grandad once again remained in Boston.
Grandma reserved a compartment for two in the first-class compartment on the Empire Builder, a luxurious Streamliner with a retinue of ‘colored’ waiters and attendants. Their fellow passengers were older, married couples, government officials, and military officers. Only two people Mom’s age traveled in first class, but, newly married, they kept to themselves. Most of the time, the passengers played endless games of Canasta. “What did I expect?” Mom asked sarcastically. “There’s no shuffleboard on a train.” Besides enjoying the extraordinary scenery, the only activities to relieve her boredom were books and meals. Mom remembered how her mother was glued to her side every minute. Most of the passengers in third class were servicemen heading to fight in the Pacific. If left to herself, Mom would have walked the length of the train to discover what was going on.
The train terminated in Seattle where they stayed overnight. Dad met them the next morning to accompany them on the ferry to Whidbey Island. Arriving mid-afternoon, they found Dad’s friend, Captain Richard Crawford, waiting on the dock. He and Dad loaded the trunk and other luggage into the jeep; the bride and mother-in-law followed in a taxi. The Army built the base in a clearing shaped like a saucer surrounded by a forest of pine and evergreen trees. The crew also constructed barracks, administrative buildings, and married officer homes around a grassy parade ground which was the Colonel’s pride and joy. “Shortly after I arrived,” Dad said, “we held a parade to impress a newly-minted general touring the West Coast fortifications. But when our Colonel saw the damage to the parade grounds, he refused to hold another.”
On their first night, the commander hosted a dinner for Dad, Mom, Grandma and the other officers and wives. After dinner, the ladies retired leaving the men and the liquor behind. “That was your father’s stag party!” Mom said when she talked about the wedding. “Why wasn’t it held before I arrived?” She had her suspicions. “The colonel wasn’t keen on ‘mail-order brides’ and made sure I knew who was in charge. That night she and Grandma stayed as guests of the Crawfords.
The next afternoon, Mom and Grandma attended a tea party hosted by the other five wives on base. They’d frosted the wedding cake that morning and were decorating the home issued to the newlyweds. The women were excited that their numbers on base were increasing.
“When he doesn’t get his way, the colonel is stubborn and irritable. Just ignore him,” one woman told my mother.
“Carry treats with you so you can feed his dog,” another wife suggested. “That’ll get you in his good graces.”
“Sylvia, the cute girl over there, was the last one married on base,” a third woman confided, handing Mom a teacup and offering her a tray of sandwiches. “Got hitched two months ago. Hey, Sylvia, tell Harriet about your first day working at the library.”
Sylvia came over. “I was in the library office completing some paperwork, when the Colonel arrived for inspection. The head librarian met him at the door. “Colonel, we have a new girl working here.” “What’s she like? They’re either beautiful and dumb, or smart and homely.” When I heard that, I came to the door of the office. “Good morning, Colonel. Today’s your lucky day. You’re getting two for the price of one. Beautiful and smart.” The Colonel looked surprised, said we’d passed inspection, and left.”
“She’s my hero,” her friend said.
Sylvia laughed. “The Colonel trained his dog to growl at me ever since.”
The base chaplain performed the nuptials the following morning in the chapel. Richard Crawford, Dad’s friend, was his best man; his wife was Mom’s matron-of-honor. Grandma gave the bride away. Enlisted men not on duty could attend the ceremony, but only if their nails, hands, and uniforms passed inspection. After the ceremony, they were dismissed, and the newlyweds walked with the other officers to their new home for the brunch reception. I have a photograph of my parents standing in front of the small fireplace, reflected in the mirror over the mantel. The mirror remains there to this day.
The reception and toasts lasted less than an hour. My father had twenty-four hours leave and a reservation at The Camlin Hotel in Seattle. With his mother-in-law in tow, Dad took Mom on the ferry to the mainland. The best man and his wife accompanied them. They dined in the hotel’s Cloud Room and then, with a bottle of scotch, they retired to my parents’ room for a nightcap. Dad said it was the worst mistake of his life. After two rounds, he signaled to Richard to escort his mother-in-law to her room. “She wouldn’t budge and nursed her drink for another hour. Finally, she got the hint.”
The next morning after breakfast, the Crawfords hopped the ferry back to the island. My parents accompanied Grandma to the train station. They didn’t wait to see her off. They rushed back to the hotel and caught the last ferry that night. A honeymoon was no excuse to be AWOL.
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