Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Child's Reflections on the War Years - a Memoir by Linda Root

FDR circa 1933, Wikimedea Commons
I was born in 1939. There is a biography floating around that says I was born at a Franklin Delano Roosevelt fundraiser, but actually that is not entirely accurate. My mother's water broke at the fundraiser, leaving just enough time for her to make it to University Hospital in Cleveland without stopping to get a handshake from FDR. I have a weird memory for details, and I recall that the doctor's name was May McKinley and the maternity wing was called of all things, MacDonald House.  I, of course, have no independent recollection of the event but soon acquired a strong awareness that I had somehow robbed my mother of her shining moment.


For some strange reason, my first clear memory was entering a cemetery with my mother's two hated cousins Rachel and Charlotte. I have no clue as to whose grave we were visiting, perhaps President Garfield's.

By Greg via Wikimedia Commons
I also had no idea what I was doing with Rachel and Charlotte whom I hated worse than the bugs that crawled out of the drain pipe.  Feeding me horseradish on a teaspoon was their idea of  fun. Maybe we were at the cemetery visiting Charlotte's dead husband whose name was George. Rachel's husband Jimmy had left her after her mother locked him in a closet for three days simply for being Irish and for suggesting that he and Rachel get an apartment of their own. They all hated my grandfather who was also Irish, and if Aunt Liz Bussler had her way, my Grandma Julia would have locked him in a closet, too.  My mother swore that when the day came for her to bury her mother, she would tolerate Liz and her daughters during the wake in deference to the other guests, but when she walked them to the door she intended to tell them to never come back and would slam the door behind them. When I was eleven and my Grandma Julia died, that is exactly what my mother did. Even into her eighties, when she perceived that I had crossed her,  she would look me in the eye and declare, "Remember what happened with my Aunt Liz and my two hateful cousins."


I was two and a half years old when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Then life became a series of strange events none of which meant much to a two-year-old.  Hardly anyone drove automobiles, and we sold ours, since there was no gasoline.  All of a sudden, toys were made of paper and we spread grease on our toast and called it butter after we squeezed orange -colored food coloring into it to turn it yellow. When I was a little older, coloring the Oleo was my job. 

In my family, the war had not begun on December 7, 1941.  It began just after I was born, when my Godmother Helen Cooper Patterson died.  When I was older I realized that she was part of the kind of bittersweet love story that F.Scott Fitzgerald should have written. I still have her photograph.  She was a tall, regal blond heiress from Chicago, the daughter of a man who owned a chain of theaters in the Midwest, and that was how she met my mother's cousin Guy Algae Patterson, who played bass fiddle in George Duffy's Band.  Right out of the script of the Eddie Duchin Story (Tyrone Power and Kim Novak, 1956) came lovely Helen to listen to him play every night in every city, except during the season when she had to check into the sanitarium.

Unfortunately, lovely Helen had what my mother called T.B.  Her doctors told her she could come to see me when I was born and could participate in my Christening, but she could only kiss me by brushing her lips on the back of my neck.  Towards the end, my parents would drive Helen's Stutz Bearcat from Cleveland down to Saint Louis and carry her inside the ballroom so she could watch G.A. perform.

Photo GeorgeDuffyBand , G.A. Patterson  in car at right.

Wikimedea Commons
After she died, he nearly killed himself doing daredevil stunts in his glider and probably would have succeeded if it hadn't been for Hitler and the Blitz. Grieving Guy Patterson defied the edict of his government, packed his bags and went to Canada to join the RCAF, presuming that he would end of crashing into the Channel.  His parents were our 'rich relatives' and Guy was their only child.  They were heartbroken when he left, and so was my mother, another only child.  She thought G.A. was a god, and now others were calling him a traitor for seeking to embroil America in a foreign war.

That's when my parents started wheeling me in my baby buggy to the movies to watch the newsreels. By the time I was three, I could sit through a double-feature, and long before December 1941, I had a vague idea of what war was. By the time I was three, I knew that the man named Hitler who shouted in the newsreels was a very bad man. And I also knew that G. A. Patterson was now an all American hero. When the United States entered the war, all of the boys who went across the pond to fight the Hun were given amnesty,and suddenly G.A. Patterson was a Captain in the United States Navy and the commander of an Air Wing. 

True to the tone of the story, he married a showgirl named Muriel Patterson Twelvetrees, widow of stage actor Clark Twelvetrees whose first wife was the screen star Helen Twelvetrees, to whom Muriel  bore a strong resemblance.   Muriel always sent  me expensive presents from Sax Fifth Avenue and called me "Doll Girl." Later when they descended into their Wine and Roses Phase, she bought the gifts at JCP and replaced them with labels from Sax. For a while after the war was over, Guy and Muriel were movers in the Coronado, California social set, but they never quite got off the cocktail circuit until they were living above a garage with a liquor bill at the North Island Officer's Club that equaled my father's salary as a mid-level executive with General Dynamics. In spite of their flaws, I loved them dearly.

By then I had read Gatsby and Theodore Dressler, and I knew a tragic love story when I saw it.  Even when he was dying, G.A. always was my mother's hero, whether or not he deserved to be. Her fawning over him often embarrassed me when I was growing up, because in Mother's eyes, he always outshone my Dad, who quite coincidentally had grown up as Guy's next door neighbor, the family of poor kids with the divorced mother.  Ironically, when G.A.'s mother died, she left all of her personal property to my father, the oldest of the Fetterly Boys.  Now as I reflect upon G. A.'s life, I see how much Guy Patterson was a creature of the times.  He and Muriel joined the ranks of the post war Beautiful People with no new worlds to conquer.  The lounge in the Officer's Club was his last battlefield.


On December 8, 1941 both of my father's younger brothers enlisted, one in the Navy and the other in the Army Air Force.  My father had been born in 1908, already a little old for a buck private. And he was working in what was called a 'war plant', a company that made valves for aircraft engines.  I of course had no idea what a valve was, but it seemed that knowing how to price them was keeping my accountant Daddy from the war.

But I was aware that the draft could change all that and  I was convinced that if he left, I would die. Even as a three year old child, I knew my mother did not like children all that much.  In all fairness, there were reasons. She was afraid of us, and she was jealous.  Her firstborn, my brother Robert, was a SIDS death. Mother later told me that she was certain than if she had stayed up all night and watched him sleep, she could have saved him.  But there was more to it than that. 

While my mother had been an only child, Dad was one of five, and there was a large spread in ages. When  my father's father Thomas left Grandma Dick (another story there) for another woman, he left my nineteen-year-old father to serve as surrogate father to his unborn child, her toddler sister, and my father's two younger brothers. 

Dad  put off marrying my mother until he was 25 and she was out of patience. Even after I was born, when my aunts Edna Mary and Ruthie needed him, he was there for them. There was a lot of jealousy and resentment in that situation. Mother also envied my father's competence in child-rearing. He was the one with  hands on experience with measles, mumps and chicken-pox, and I benefited from his experience in raising his sisters.

It was Daddy who diagnosed my Whooping Cough when May McKinley was treating me for Scarlet Fever. And he was the one who took me to his mother's house and let me raid the candy store that had been there when he was a boy. That's  where I developed my life long love of licorice, although I soon outgrew the Horehounds.  If Mom had known he let me eat French fries when he took me to his bowling league meets, she would have collapsed.  I was terrified that he would be drafted.

FDR signs Selective Service Act of 1940, aka The Draft

I became so preoccupied with it that when I was five, on the advice of his aunt, my father took me to see the  team doctor for the Cleveland Indians who in private practice was a pediatric orthopedist or something of that ilk.  He talked to me for a few minutes and declared I had an overactive mind and nothing to keep me occupied.

Since I was three weeks too young for kindergarten, he suggested  art lessons at the children's program at the Museum of Art at Wade Park. Dad presented by enrollment there to my mother as a fait accompli.  I suspect his enthusiasm had less to do with my art talent than the excuse it gave to my father to visit his beloved Aunt Nanny, Miss Edna Jameson, who lived in a penthouse apartment in an upscale building across from Wade Park and knew absolutely everyone who mattered, including Eliot Ness, Bob Hope and Kate Smith. 

She controlled ticket sales for the Indians, and ball games were one of life's few pleasures during the war years.  She was considered the First Lady of Baseball, the first woman to have a night game dedicated to her honor. When most of my family slept under likenesses of the Christ, Aunt Nanny slept below autographed glossies of Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker, all of whom knew her well. When I was about seven, Lou Boudreau taught me to play Gin Rummy at a time when Mother thought I was painting landscapes at the Art Museum. When I was older, we played Canasta.

Jack Fetterly, courtesy of Dean Fetterly
Those were the good times, but there were some that were not so good.  My Grandma Dick received two telegrams from the War Department, one for Ralph, missing in action in the Pacific, and another for the youngest, Jack, shot down over German occupied France.  When my Cousin Marcia's Daddy suddenly became a war statistic, it all became very real to me, even though my redoubtable Grandma Dick kept consulting her Ouija Board and announced that both of her sons were alive.

Letters that came to our house in the mail from the draftboard were colored coded.  I've forgotten what the color scheme was, but I know that I was barely tall enough to reach the mailbox on my tiptoes, and I recognized the letters from the draft board immediately, because they were written on the cheapest paper imaginable, and they were produced on an Addressograph. 

The Addressograph-Multigraph Company was down the hill near the railroad yard  that I could see from my upstairs window. Someone told me that as long as both of my father's brothers were classified as Missing-in-Action, Presumed Dead, that Dad could not be drafted by Presidential Proclamation.  Finally my Uncle Ralph came out of a coma and was shipped to Crile Hospital in Ohio, and  Uncle Jack appeared on the list of prisoners in one of the Stalags. 

Ralph learned to make little wooden toys during his rehab and he sent one to me.  We received letters from Jack, censured by the Germans who cut out the words they thought might reveals locations or plans.  We were allowed to purchase pre-packed packages to send to him through the Red Cross.  I remember him telling us later that on the day his stalag was liberated the International Red Cross set up a canteen and actually charged for the donuts, although the coffee was free.  He resented that for as long as he lived. After months in a hospital he too returned to the states.

By then Ralph was out of Crile and had married a nurse from Cleveland to whom he had been writing.  I have a wonderful picture of the five Fetterly kids all lined up, Ralph and Jack in uniforms, their sisters grown up young women. Now only Ruthie is left.  She is 86  and emails  me off color jokes regularly.  She has a wonderful boyfriend.  As I recall, when she was in high school, she was what now would be called a 'hottie'.


I remember the day that FDR died.  The Spangs Bakery Man brought the news to my mother and he was elated.  She threw a loaf of bread at him, and that was the end of our bakery delivery.  If he had been the milkman, he would have been concussed.

FDR Funeral at Hyde Park, NewYork.-Wikimeda Commons

The injuries to the piano occurred three years earlier when one of my grandmother Julia's friends whose name I do not recall since it soon became anathema in our house, informed my mother that between Mom's Steinbacher bloodline and my father's Fetterly surname, she could approach acquaintances of hers  to help my parents smuggle me into the Third Reich to be among my people before it was too late. She had forgotten, apparently,that my mother's temper was pure Patterson Irish and her politics were one hundred percent American. We never saw that woman again, but the dent remained in the piano where the tines of the meat fork missed the fat lady's leg.  Mother would not permit anyone to polish over it as a reminder of where my mother's loyalties were. And to boot, the Fetterlys were from Nancy and like many Lorrainers, my father considered himself more French than German. His grandparents had bilingual arguments when he was a boy.  If he had been home and thrown the fork, it would not have missed the fat lady and hit the piano.


Other than her brief venture into politics in 1939, my mother was never comfortable in crowds.  She was quiet and withdrawn when she ventured outside of the house, which she ruled with a velvet fist. Even as a child of five, I found it amazing that one of Cleveland's best known glamour girls, Miss Ann Swanson, was her closet  friend. Ann was a natural blond, a Swedish beauty who always had two romantic interests, one who was way too old and way too rich and another who was younger than she was, usually dirt poor, and better looking than Errol Flynn. Not surprisingly, the most handsome soldier in Cleveland was in love with Ann, and a frequent visitor at our house on the evenings when Ann was dining with whoever was heaping her with luxuries that only the wartime Black Market could yield. Of course, I fell madly in love with Sergeant Pruitt and had no idea what he saw in Ann.

On the night when Bud went off to war, my parents and I met him and Ann at the Terminal Tower Building, which was, of course, a railway terminal, and I watched sadly as he presented her with an engagement ring.  I remember him hanging out of the train as it departed, frenetically blowing kisses a few of which  I swore  he sent to me.  I also remember  that as soon as he was out of sight, she took the ring from her finger and put it in her handbag.  It was the autumn of 1944. On the way out of the terminal I noticed young men on crutches, missing legs.

Wikimedia Commons


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.