Women Who Serve Their Country

A lot of emphasis has been placed on the #MeToo movement which brings awareness to the sexual harassment that women face in the workplace and beyond. It is a powerful movement becomes it brings to the forefront voices and concerns that previously went unheard.

Before this, women’s voices were heard through the suffragettes and then much later, by members of the women’s liberation movement which most people think began with the outspoken voices of individuals like Gloria Steinman.

During WWII women heard the call and responded. With so many working-age men serving in the military, necessary jobs were understaffed. In 1943 a Norman Rockwell painted a poster that was to entice to women to leave homes and do something to help the United States win the war. While Rockwell’s painting might have been the first, it was J. Howard Miller’s depiction of Rosie Riveter, wearing a red bandana and flexing her biceps accompanied by the words We Can do It! that inspired women to take on traditionally male jobs such as welding, riveting and construction.

The movement was not embraced wholeheartedly. A wave of women entered these fields in unprecedented numbers. According to history.com, more than 310,000 women worked in the aircraft industry and a comparable amount worked in the munitions industry. Many men refused to work side-by-side women until ordered to do so.

A sterling example of the impact of these Rosies is in Richmond, California, at the site of Kaiser Shipyards to honor the Rosies who helped to produce 747 ships, more than any other shipyard in the United States. The shipyards worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Over 90,000 employees struggled to assemble the ships, which were created in sections that were then lowered into place.

Women came from all over the United States to learn welding, riveting and various construction skills in order to build ships that were needed for the war effort. The call for help was so successful that the city of Richmond grew from a population of 24,000 to over 100,000 in just a few years.

Kaiser was a brilliant entrepreneur. He employed his own drafts people, many of them women, to replicate the mandatory designs for Liberty and Victory ships that moved soldiers and materials all over the world. In fact, large equipment such as jeeps were disassembled into segments and then crated. Once at the site, the equipment was rebuilt. In this way the holds could be crammed with materials.

He understood that these women were doing the same jobs as men, with the same level of training and under the same working conditions. Because of this, Kaiser paid the women the same wage. He also realized that many of the women had school-age children that needed a safe place to stay while their mothers worked. To alleviate the problem, Kaiser offered Child Care Centers at their industrial sites that were run by highly skilled teachers. The kids received an excellent education in safe environments. This was a novel idea at the time, and still would be considered such today.

Another benefit was health care.  Kaiser understood that more Americans were dying in Home Front accidents than on the battlefields. He knew that only healthy workers could meet his grueling demands and construction needs.

When workers got hurt on the job, because the nearest clinic couldn’t handle the explosion in population needing services, many hours of valuable time were lost. So Kaiser built a field hospital at the shipyard in 1942 that encouraged prepaid medical care at fifty cents a week. Two years later more than 92% of Kaiser employees were enrolled in the plan, which was the first of its kind in the nation. It featured group medical practitioners, prepayment and substantial facilities at a moderate rate.

Another problem was housing. Workers arrived to find no suitable place to live. Many slept in the all-night movie theaters and a huge number shared beds with at least one other worker. Because there were three shifts to work, someone could be in the bed during the morning shift, someone in the afternoon, and a third at night. Today we would find this unacceptable.

Rosies are slowly dying, and so there was a push to be recognized at the federal level. One Rosie began a letter-writing campaign. Every year, beginning with President Clinton, she wrote a letter asking for the government to do something to commemorate the service these women gave to the country.

After twelve years of writing, a letter finally arrived in Joe Biden’s mailbox. He arranged for Rosies to come to the White House for a special day. They were given a private tour, received hugs from Biden, and were astonished when President Obama spoke to them.

On a recent tour of the Richmond Park, we met four of the Rosies, who all shared their stories. They spoke of the call to serve, the desire to do something for their country. None of them had been employed before, so striking out on this journey was quite an adventure. Two of them became welders after overcoming the prejudice of the union that would not allow women to join. Without a union card, they could not work. Kaiser intervened and the rules changed.

The welders learned to set down seams vertically, horizontally and overhead. They said that overhead was the most challenging. To get to the place where the welding was needed, they crawled through eighteen inch square holes dragging their equipment along. It was dark and hot, but they persevered.

Another Rosie worked drafting blueprints. She enjoyed the work because she knew that if she missed an error in the design, the ship might not be sea-worthy.

Because there are so few Rosies left, we felt blessed to be with them and to hear their stories.

Image6If you get a chance to visit a memorial, stop by. It’s an amazing story.

 

 

A Precious Cat

Today a friend shared an interesting story.

Out for a walk, she spotted an orange cat sleeping on the sidewalk. She had never seen this cat before, but thought it was strange behavior.

What cat sleeps like that?

She approached the cat, speaking softly to it, but it did not react.

My friend continued on her walk, never stopping thinking about the cat.

When she neared her home, the cat had moved. It was now lying in the street. It did not appear to be injured, but my friend believed it was probably ill.

She approached the cat, determined to rescue it. Just as she was about to touch it, it hissed at her.

The only thing she could think to do was knock on doors.

Eventually she found someone who thought the cat might be hers. The woman picked up the cat and put it in a carrier. She took it to the vet where X-rays and blood work was done. The vet found nothing despite the fact that something was obviously wrong. Six hundred dollars poorer, the woman returned home.

Just as the woman opened her front door, her cat appeared! She had taken an unknown cat to the vet.

My friend offered to post a notice on the neighborhood blog. She got the woman‘s contact information, composed the notice, then called the woman back to confirm.

The woman was distraught. The cat had just died!

Imagine the range of emotions that the woman had experienced. Everything from worry, fear and then relief when it was not her pet.

My friend felt quite guilty for involving a total stranger in the story. She would have taken care of the cat herself if she wasn’t afraid of being scratched.

Instead, because of her actions, a neighbor had spent a huge sum on a cat that was not hers, all the while terrified that it was her dear pet.

The moral of the story is not clear. Do you get involved or walk away?

Indian Lake

When we lived in Ohio, summer vacation meant a week at Indian Lake. In the early morning hours, my brother and father snuck out of the cabin, fishing gear in hand. After a stop at the bait shop, they got into a rented boat and took off.

While they were participating in a male-bonding ritual, I stayed behind with my mother and younger sister. Times were different then, so I was allowed to roam the fields around our cabin. I went out early each morning, so as to listen to the songbirds talking about the weather. I picked the tops off thigh-high grass, and with God-like hands, scattered the seeds.

One tree had several low-slung branches that I could easily climb. Granted I only went up a few feet, but I was high enough to feel like a princess in a castle tower. When the winds blew, I imagined a retinue of admirers bowing in unison.

When my dad and brother returned, there was the cleaning of fish and gear. I loved carrying the rods and tackle boxes. Somehow it made me feel part of their exclusive club. Only once did I venture toward the fish-cleaning station. I never returned because the stench was nauseating.

In the afternoons my brother and I played outside. Whiffle ball was a favorite activity, as was badminton.  My dad set up the net behind our cabin, and left it up for the week. We played several games every day, most of which I lost.

After dinner the family got in the rented boat for a ride around the lake. I loved the smell of the fuel, the roar of the motor, and the feeling of flying across the surface of the water. Sometimes we rode past the expensive houses lining the shore, and when we did, I created stories about the families that lived there, always including myself as one of the children.

Other nights we went near to the town. If we were lucky, there was a carnival going on. We never docked the boat and walked among the celebrants, but we did drift with engine silent and listened to the music and the laughter.

On the weekend we drove around the lake and picnicked at the state park on the west side. From our chosen spot we watched boats going by. I loved the water skiers, even though I would never have been brave enough to don a jacket just to be yanked out of the lake.

Those were easy times in which my parents relaxed in each other’s presence. Each day offered some new adventure that became the source of storytelling at the evening meal. Even sitting in the large swing on the porch was a joy. It creaked one note going back and a different one going forward.

Nirvana, it was not. My parents did have occasional spats, and I was terribly jealous of my brother’s one-on-one time with my dad. My sister, seven years younger, did not join in my imaginary games, which didn’t bother me as I preferred a solitary life.

One day my father woke me up early to go with them to the bait shop. He bought me a Nehi orange soda, even though it was morning. Holding my hand, he took me across the road over to the dock. As he primed the motor, I handed the gear to my brother, all the while hoping that my dad would invite me to go along.

It was not to be. He put the motor into gear and off they went. My shoulders slumped and tears welled in my eyes. The further away they went, the more I cried.

When I realized that my dad would not change his mind, I turned around. Without looking, my right foot reached for the step that should have been there. Nothing but air greeted me, and so I toppled, comic-book fashion, into the water.

Down I went, into the shocking coolness. The air was stolen from my lungs, to be replaced by the fishy tasting water. I flailed my arms and kicked my feet to no avail, as I had never been interested in learning to swim.

It seemed as if a large fish pulled me down, down, to what felt like the bottom of the lake. No amount of struggle released its grip.

Just as I thought I was lost forever, I flew from the water. Blessed air greeted me with the song of life. My father’s arms pulled me to his chest, where he held me in a tight embrace.

He drove the boat next to the dock and grabbed it with one hand. “Get out,” he said.

I did.

“Go to the cabin and stay inside. Tell your mother what you did.”

As I took the first step, my father revved the motor. I didn’t need to turn around to know what was happening. My father, my hero, left.

For that one all-too-brief moment I felt a father’s love. How sad to think that an eight year old had never experienced that love before and never felt it after.

Indian Lake remained my favorite vacation spot for many years. Too bad that we moved to California and those wonderful, lazy days ended.

 

Not Just a Story

My mom seldom talked about her past, but when she did, her stories were riveting.

She was born a child of poverty, the second oldest amongst a passel of children. Her mother, my grandmother, grew different kinds of herbs, vegetables and flowers. Grandma was a quiet woman who wore soft, well-washed cotton dresses up until the day she died.

The only house they lived in, that I knew about, was primitive. There was a wood-burning stove for cooking and a pump for water. A tin cup hung by the pump for anyone who was thirsty. Heat was a coal pot-belly stove in the main room. It terrified me.

One time an uncle opened the door, picked me up and threatened to throw me in. I screamed and cried until he put me down. Then I scuttled as far away as I could in the tiny house.

My grandmother made her own lace and sewed by hand even though she had a pedal-operated machine. She made beautiful quilts which she pulled out whenever we got cold.

When my brother smashed my plastic doll to pieces, she made it a body, slip, underpants and a dress. I cried when she gave it to me. Even though I was quite young, I understood how wonderful my grandmother’s work was. I still have that doll today.

My grandfather was a tenant farmer who moved his family around to wherever he found work. They most often lived in southern Ohio, near a town called Gallipolis. Sometimes they crossed over the Ohio River into Virginia. At no time were they comfortable financially. In fact, they would have been considered dirt-poor farmers, except that they never owned any land.

My grandfather knew how to hitch a mule to a wagon and how to grow crops, mostly corn. He was a quiet, thoughtful man. He seldom spoke in my presence after I reached school age. My grandfather was embarrassed that he didn’t know how to read or write, and once I learned, then he had nothing to say.

I never understood why my grandparents weren’t more loving, why they didn’t offer hugs and kisses. My mother wasn’t big on hugging either, so I thought it was just the way things were.

While my grandfather couldn’t read, he understood weights and measures and the value of money. Every day he would walk down the road to the store and buy whatever they needed. He watched as things were measured and packaged to make sure he was not cheated. When things started being canned and bottled, he was dismayed. One time he made the store owner open the can of coffee and weigh the contents. Only then would he purchase it.

My mom did go to school. She was not the best student, but she enjoyed her time in the one-room schools that she attended. Often she had to walk through deep snow wearing only a thin coat, cotton dress and old leather shoes. In the spring and fall, she walked barefoot, her shoes tied and dangling over her shoulder. It was important to take care of those shoes, for without them she could not go to school.

When she completed eighth grade, her parents did not have the money to send her away for high school, so my mom repeated that grade two times even though it was hard.

At the age of fifteen she moved into the city to live with a sister. She got a job at Woolworth’s, a five-and-dime store, and worked there for many years.

When World War II started, my mom enlisted in the Army. At a post in Florida, her main job was to carry buckets of water to palm trees. She knew it was a stupid job, but she did it until something better came along.

When an opportunity arose to be a phone operator, which meant connecting calls using cords that plugged from one hole into another, my mother gladly took the position. She must have been good at it, for that remained her job until her enlistment was over. In civilian life she worked as a phone operator for a hospital and then for the federal government.

One night, as the war continued across the pacific, mom awoke to a feeling that something was crawling up her leg. In panic, she bent her leg at the hip, a poor choice, because she pinched a black widow spider. Of course, it bit her. She fell violently ill and, according to her, nearly died. Once she recovered, she was sent home in her uniform, which she wore proudly.

My mom moved back in with her sister. There was a USO in town that frequently held dances for the servicemen, even after the war ended. It was at one such dance where she met a handsome man. They danced and talked and then she brought him home to meet her sister. The man was hungry, so he went to the pantry and took out the last can of food and ate it all by himself. The sister was angry at the man’s arrogance. My mom was intrigued.

They married within months, but continued to live with the sister until they found a place of their own. Within eight months my brother was born. Interestingly enough, my mother claimed that the pregnancy was full term, that he was not born prematurely, and that she was not pregnant when they married. When I got older I understood what the early birth meant, but my mom never changed her story.

A year and a half later I came along. My earliest memories are of a home in what my mother called the projects. It was a small house with only two bedrooms, but a huge porch that stretched across the front. My mom did have a job outside of the home, but being a housewife then was hard work. We were lucky enough to have a washing machine, but it was the old-fashioned type with a wringer that terrified me. I hated watching my mom feed clothes into the wringers, fearing that her fingers would get caught and fall off.

By the time I was old enough to go to school, we had moved to a larger house in the suburbs of Dayton. There was a large backyard, big enough for a swing set, a dog house and a garden. It was here that my mom learned how to drive. She had to, if she wanted me to go to Kindergarten.

My mom decided that I was a slow learner, a backward child, who wouldn’t succeed in school without help. This was a difficult decision, as kindergarten was not free back then, and so it placed a financial hardship on the family. But my mom thought it was important, and so she drove me to school every day, even when the roads were deep with snow.

When I started first grade, my mom returned to work as a telephone operator. She left for work about the same time that my brother and I headed off for school, and didn’t come home until after my dad. She fixed dinner, did the dishes, made sure we were clean and tidy and took care of the house. That’s what women did then, all the housework with no help from the men. My mom was not the best cook, but there was always food on the table.

When I was seven my sister was born. It was a rough time. We were told that my mom had had a nervous breakdown and that we had to keep quiet so as to not upset her. Thank goodness it was summer, so my brother and I spent hours outside. We were not allowed in the house from morning until evening for fear of disturbing Mom’s sleep. I saw very little of both my mother and my sister during that time.

My dad took over the cooking. He burnt most things and undercooked others, but expected us to eat everything he served.

We moved when I finished fourth grade, this time to a house in Beavercreek, Ohio. It was a rural area, far from the city. Nevertheless, my mom drove us into town so to attend the Catholic elementary school. She also took us to the library, all the time driving an old, flat-black business coup that had no backseat and no heat. We sat on piled of blankets and in the winter we wrapped up in the blankets and laid on the floor to try to keep warm.

One time, just as we pulled into the library parking lot, flames shot out from the hood. My mom knew what to do. She sent my brother and I inside to search for books. My mom sat in the car, letting it cool down. When it was time to leave, she got under the hood, tweaked a few things, then started the engine. It worked! She drove us all the way home, probably smiling with pride.

That house used a septic tank for waste disposal which sometimes developed problems. After watching my dad dig into the dirt to reveal the lid, remove it, and dump treatment into it, my mom knew what to do. The next time it backed up, she took a shovel and went to work. I don’t know how she lifted the heavy lid by herself, but she did.

For years afterward she bragged about digging up the septic tank. It was something to be proud of, for it showed her determination and independent spirit.

During my freshman year of high school, my mom’s health went downhill. I didn’t understand what was happening, just that sometimes she seemed unable to breathe. Her doctor said that we had to move, that she had asthma that was triggered by the humidity, and so my dad sold everything and drove us to California.

It was quite an adventure. My favorite part was seeing Pike’s Peak in Colorado and the Native Americans on the reservation in the desert. My least favorite was the field after field of corn and the heat of Arizona.

Somewhere in the desert we developed car trouble. We stopped at a little service station for help, but my dad did not trust the mechanic, so he wouldn’t let the man fix our car. It was blisteringly hot and we had nothing to drink. We also had no money to buy water, so we sat in the car, getting thirstier by the minute. The store owner came out more than once, offering water, but my mom would not take it. She did not want to feel obliged.

Considering her humble beginnings, my mom did quite well in the working world. Once we settled in a rented house in South San Francisco, California, she got a job at a little five and dime store and within a few years became the weekend manager. She kept track of register receipts, placed orders, and conducted inventory. When the store closed due to competition, my mom quickly found a job at a pharmacy, but it was a longer drive from home. She had to go by freeway, and that terrified her, especially in the fog and rain.

Her next job was with the federal government as a phone operator. Once again, she rose through the ranks and became a trainer. This was about the time that equal employment forced agencies to hire minorities and the disabled. Her office hired a blind man.

At this time, calls were still connected by moving cords from one lighted hole to the next. How was a blind man going to see the lights? My mom thought about this for a long time and played around with various creations. Eventually she designed a tool that allowed him to do the job. She received not just a certificate honoring her invention, but a little bonus. She was so proud. In fact, that was probably her proudest moment.

My mom’s story was probably not that unusual. She was unskilled with limited education, but with great determination. She was hard-working and willing to do any job. She was independent and proud of it, even though she continued to be a regular housewife at home.

After phone operators were no longer needed, my mom got a job washing pots and pans at the local school district. It was not full time work, so she also worked at a community college doing the same thing. Leaning over a deep sink, day in, day out, scrubbing out remnants of food was hard on her back. Her hands turned bright red and the skin peeled off, even though she wore thick gloves. Soap got into her eyes, causing burning and intense pain. Even so, she kept at it until physically she was unable to perform the job. By this time she was well past retirement age.

My mom did have one last part time job that she got after her seventieth birthday. She discovered that she could get paid for delivering phone books. She and my dad got up early in the morning, loaded up his truck with books, then spent the day putting them on porches and doorsteps. It was an exhausting, poorly-paid job, but she did it with pride and determination.

Once my mom was no longer able to work, she collapsed physically and emotionally. Dementia set in, robbing her of her memory and her will to fight. She died in her sleep, a fitting ending to a life lived in extremes.