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Jackie: It could have—should have—would have been

She was from Huntington, West Virginia and her name was, and I sincerely hope still is, Jackie Nichols. By that I mean that I hope she still lives and loves, whether her last name is Nichols or she married and took another surname. I knew Jackie only briefly—no, no, not in the biblical sense as Adam knew Eve, but only in terms of society’s acceptable normal everyday intercourse between two children of the opposite sex, always verbal and never physical, other than in games—real games—that children play.

Jackie and I and our families lived in Happy Valley, Tennessee. The village was a community of modular homes, created for the families of workers involved in the big secret, the development of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, creating the conflagration that conclusively ended World War II. Happy Valley boasted an elementary school and high school, a post office and a small shopping center that
included a theater—some folks back then referred to the theater as a movie house.

When I knew Jackie—oops, there’s that word again—when Jackie and I met and spent time together, we were 13 and 12 years of age respectively—yes, she was an older woman—and we were still in those years when our lives abruptly went in different directions with very little warning, and no reasonable opportunity to consummate our romance—you know, like with a farewell hug and kiss, both of which would have been our first and our last. I consider that to be a sad tale of unrequited love, a real life parallel that rivals Shakespeare’s fictional story of Romeo and Juliet.

My family—mother, stepfather, an 18-month older sister and I—left the trailer village in Happy Valley, Tennessee and returned to Mississippi, and I could only console myself briefly with the view of our trailer village through the back window of our 1939 Plymouth sedan. Don’t laugh too loudly about the age of our transportation.
The year was 1944 and our car was a spry five years old.

I cannot speak for the others in my family but as for me, I left Tennessee for Mississippi under protest, albeit silent protest, but definitely protesting. I remained silent and left because I had no choice, and because I was bright enough, even at age 12, to realize that I couldn’t remain in Tennessee and support my first real love on the earnings from my paper route, papers that I delivered on Shank’s mare—on foot. I didn’t even have a bicycle.

Jackie and I reversed a situation that is replicated frequently in friendships between young boys and young girls. Normally the boy gets the girl into trouble, but in our case the girl got the boy into trouble, and I hasten to explain how that happened. The witching hour for me to be home in the evening was 8:00 PM, whether the next day was a school day or a Saturday or a Sunday, whether the sun was still high in the sky or had dropped below the horizon. That rule was laid down in menacing tones and promised the punishment if the rule was broken—a whipping was guaranteed for the first and for any subsequent violations—there would be no other warnings.

On one memorable day night fell with a thud, and I stayed with Jackie well past my witching hour. The other kids had all gone home—only the two of us remained, perched on the wooden side rails of a bridge spanning a dry stream and talking boy/girl stuff. Jackie was entranced by the golden tints in my brown eyes—honestly, she said that! And I was entranced by everything about her, including her dark eyes and thick black tresses, her long brown legs and her—well, let’s just say that Jackie was not your usual 13-year old. She was light years ahead of the other girls in our neighborhood in her age bracket—far advanced in worldly knowledge, conversational skills and physical development—especially in physical development.

I was about an hour late in getting home. I believe that had I stood my ground for another hour or so, my life would have been very different, because I believe that some—not all, of course, but some—of that worldly knowledge would have been passed on to me, and that belief still infuses me today.

As regards my decision to head for home instead of staying that extra hour, it echoes the truth of the words penned by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892):

For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these—it might have been.

So that’s my refrain—it might have been. It could have been and it should have been, and perhaps would have been had I tossed caution to the wind, shrugged my skinny shoulders and completely ignored my stepfather’s rules. Oh, well—we win some and we lose some, and life goes on.

Here’s to you, Jackie. I hope and trust that life has been good for you, and that you married and had children and that everyone in your family are happy and doing well. I have retained memories of you and our times together for almost eight decades—none of the memories have faded and none will ever fade. To paraphrase Jimmy Durante’s closing words on his old-time black-and-white television show: Thanks for the memories and good night, Jackie, where ever you are.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Age 10, with a job as water carrier for mobile homes . . .

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.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2010 in Childhood, Family, Humor, Travel, wartime

 

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