Picture this: The year was 1942 and World War II was raging. Now picture a location near Oak Ridge, Tennessee where construction and work on the world’s first atomic bomb was in progress. That location was known as Gamble Valley, Tennessee, a trailer city peopled by many of those involved, one way or another, in the best kept secret of World War II—the building of the world’s first nuclear weapon, bombs that would be dropped in 1945 on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and bring to a conclusion our long war with Japan.
And finally, picture a family living in one of Gamble Valley’s modular homes-on-wheels, a small family consisting of one mother, one stepfather and two children, a boy of ten years and his sister, a firebrand just eighteen months older than her brother. We arrived there in early summer, shortly after the end of the school year, and left shortly before the end of summer.
The home was only eight feet wide and thirty feet long while being transported, but when placed for occupancy its width was expanded with panels, some of which had been stored on top in transit and others that folded out to make the home larger. That expansion, with an additional 12 feet of floor space added on each side of the 30-foot length, provided an overall area of 960 square feet, cramped but adequate for that small family.
Entrance was gained through the kitchen, with the dining area straight ahead and two spaces on either side, each measuring twelve by fifteen feet (there was no back door). In effect, in addition to the kitchen and the dining area, the expansion created four other spaces that could, when curtained off, be used either as bedrooms, living rooms or storage space.
Floor-to-ceiling curtains hanging on ceiling rails provided visual privacy for the two spaces on each side of the home, a system identical to that used today in most hospitals. With all the curtains closed, four rooms were created, each closed off from the kitchen, the dining area and the other three rooms by the curtains. The curtains were lightweight and had no muffling properties. And trust me, some of the sounds needed to be muffled.
The curtains were adequate for visual privacy, but there were no provisions for vocal sounds nor for sounds other than vocal—and as one might expect, there were many sounds, both vocal and otherwise. Punishment, including corporeal, verbal and psychological, was meted out behind drawn curtains by one-fourth of the family—the stepfather—to the other three-fourths of the family—my mother, my sister and me. There were lots of arguments, private conversations and various activities that I and my sister always heard, but never were privileged to see.
Now on to my job as water carrier for my home and for paying customers. The trailers had no bathrooms and no running water. The kitchen was equipped with water storage tanks that could be filled to provide water suitable for drinking, cooking and for washing dishes. Known as gray water, the dish water was drained from the trailers and moved through a buried pipeline to a distant waste water area. The village had centrally located communal bath houses that included restrooms, showers and laundry facilities.
My stepfather mandated that everyone in the family be gainfully employed, a trait that extended to animals. He allowed no pets—no cats or lapdogs—he felt that if an animal did no work it was not entitled to be fed, and that included human animals. He would feed and groom a working dog only as long as it produced. If a watchdog didn’t bark to ward off intruders, it shortly disappeared, ostensibly a runaway. If a hunting dog slacked off noticeably in its production of game, whether rabbit dog, squirrel dog or bird dog, that dog would also disappear, and would also earn the label of runaway.
Special note: The paragraph above will reappear as the preamble to another posting, one to be published shortly after this one is published. Stay tuned.
Forgive me for digressing from my original subject, that of being a water carrier for trailer homes at age ten. This is how it was: The kitchen water tanks were fitted with a filler tube that was accessed outside the home. My stepfather convinced several people, a dozen or so, to hire me at one dollar a week to keep their water tank filled. I was outfitted with two water buckets, each with a three-gallon capacity, and a tin funnel with a long neck, ideal for slipping into the outside neck of the water tank.
Water weighs about six pounds per gallon, so with a bucketful of water filled at the laundry facility in each hand, I was carrying (we called it toting in those days) about 36 pounds—not an extreme weight, but more than enough for a boy of ten. I don’t know how much I weighed then, but six years later when I took a physical to enlist in the U.S. Army I weighed a whopping 110 pounds. It’s probably safe to say that I weighed significantly more than I did when I was just ten years old.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the neck of the funnel was flexible, so I curled it around my neck while in transit, full buckets in one direction, empty in the other—admittedly it was not the most inspiring work for which a young boy could wish—I would have been much happier at shearing sheep or castrating bull calves, anything other than carrying water—in fact, it left such an indelible imprint that since that time I have used every excuse available to avoid carrying other people’s water.
Another memory that has escaped me is the capacity of the trailer tanks, nor do I remember how many buckets it took to fill an empty tank. The part I remember best is that I had to continue hauling water until the filler neck overflowed, and I did that twice a week for each of the dozen or so customers on my list. And I don’t remember my weekly income or my total income for that summer, but I have vivid memories of how that income was divided—half of my weekly take went to my mother for my board and keep, one dollar to me to spend at my leisure and my pleasure, with the remainder going for victory stamps, purchased at the post office for twenty-five cents each—this was my contribution to winning the war, albeit a non-voluntary contribution.
Following its purchase, each stamp was pasted into a special book furnished by the post office. It took $18.75 to fill the $25-dollar stamp book, a book that at maturity would be, some seven years later, worth a whopping $25. None of my books ever made it to the $25 dollar level. They were necessarily turned into cash during separations from my stepfather during the war years, separations necessitated by his violent temper that flared when something did not go his way.
When I started this posting, a flood of memories washed over me—friends I made, games I played, digging up our front yard and planting vegetables (under my stepfather’s direction), a gaggle of family conflicts, my mother teaching me to embroider—I finished decorating a tablecloth and a napkin set that summer—and many more memories worthy of telling, but I must conclude my rambling for now—I’m running out of paper.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.