California, 1942

Elaine Greensmith Jordan
 

© Copyright 2005 by Elaine Greensmith Jordan
 
 

             2005 General Nonfiction Winner

In this account of World War II we meet a child whose selfish wishes contrast with the suffering caused by that enormous catastrophic war. Time is said to heal our wounds and soften the guilt we feel for past mistakes, but fifty years later I recognize that child still living in my soul.

Can I get some free paper from the butcher?” I asked Mother as I climbed into the passenger seat of our black Chevrolet. I liked the feel of the scratchy upholstery on my bare legs. The coarse material made me feel secure. “I told Mrs. Oldham I would—for a banner for Scouts.”

 “Yes,” she answered. “You ask him yourself—and be sure to thank him.” Mother’s glasses shone as she turned around in her seat and backed the car out of the driveway. She had a stern look, as if we were going on a trip costing a lot of money. I worried I’d caused her grim face.

Every time we got in the car, it was serious business because America was at war in 1942. Our troops were fighting in Europe and the Pacific. Gasoline was rationed. Today we were making our weekly drive to the grocery in our town, San Gabriel, a former center of colonial Spanish life in early Southern California. Few Spaniards remained in this white suburb of Los Angeles, but I knew Mexican children lived in a corner of town and went to school there.

Though the afternoon sun burned my legs through the windshield, I was distracted from the heat when we drove through the Mexican enclave and passed the San Gabriel Archangel Mission Church, a seventeenth-century monument to our Spanish past. The sight of the high façade, hung with six bells, could take me back in imagination to where the street was a dusty track and Indians toiled in the fields. An ancient wisteria vine decorated the mission walls with beautiful purple blooms like drooping violet cones. The Mission seemed a protected place, far from the scary war that preoccupied everyone. World War II frightened us children despite its distance from California. Someone had told that us they’d seen a submarine off the coast. We had to darken our windows at night or bombs might find us. What would happen next?

I couldn’t see many cars or people on the sidewalks today. It was too hot, mid-summer hot. I imagined myself jumping into the cold water of the public plunge, but I knew Mother wouldn’t take me. She told me that in her day she didn’t have a public pool. She swam in an Alabama bayou with poisonous snakes called water moccasins. You couldn’t argue with that even though there were no bayous in California that I knew of.

I got out of the car, glad I’d worn shoes. You could see the waves of heat radiating up from the asphalt. Pretty soon, I thought, I’d get new shoes for Fourth Grade. The prospect made me happy: new shoes. Mother looked at me to make sure I was next to her as we walked, but she didn’t take my hand.

 The butcher stood behind the white cases of meat along the side of the small market. He tore off some paper, made a roll, and put tape over the end. I put the roll over my shoulder like a rifle and marched behind Mother singing quietly to myself:

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We will fight our country’s ba-a-attles.
On the land and on the sea.

That was my favorite war song. My knowledge—at the age of nine—was minimal about World War II. General Dwight D. Eisenhower had been made commander of U.S. forces in Europe and was about to take some 400,000 U.S. servicemen to the “shores of Tripoli.” The Germans had attacked Stalingrad. Close to one-third of Europe’s nine million Jews had already been exterminated. But little was said at home about those cataclysmic events. I did sense fear in the atmosphere in my town. Reminders popped up everywhere: blackout curtains, voices over the radio. Houses on our street had big stars in their windows if anyone from their family had gone to fight. The star turned to a gold color if their soldier or sailor had died.

* * *

Mother and I left the store and walked to the Nakajima’s produce market, but there were no bins out front on the sidewalk. The place looked like a dark cave. I couldn’t hear the familiar music from Mr. Nakajima’s radio. A man in a fedora hat and white shirt stood on the sidewalk in front smoking a cigarette. He looked important and frowned at us. “This store is closed,” he said. “Mr. Nakajima and his family had to leave.”

Where’s Mr. Nakajima?” I asked Mother on our way down that boiling street to the car.

You heard. He’s had to leave,” she said. “He’s been taken to a special place for Japanese people because of the War.”

Taken away! Mr. Nakajima was always there, standing at the back of the store in his green apron, maybe listening to his radio. The bewildering news from this stranger in the hat seemed to change the whole street. The stores, the heat and the cars had been swallowed by the darkness from inside the empty market. I thought of my five-year-old cousin Uta who lived with her family in Austria. They had to hide in a basement because their home had been destroyed by bombs. It must be so dark in a basement, like the market in front of us. I shivered.

 “What place?” I asked. “Who gets his store? Are they coming back? Is Mr. Nakajima in the War now?” You had to ask my mother a lot of questions to get any answers.

 “They probably won’t be coming back until the War’s over,” she said.

 “Why not?” I blurted. “He was here last week when we came. He didn’t say anything.” Nothing had ever disappeared from my life before. Everything had always been there—sun burning my legs, radios humming, the Mission wisteria blooming.

I didn’t look back at the forlorn market and the man in the hat. I watched my mother. She sat facing straight ahead, her hands on the hot steering wheel. “The Nakajimas had to leave because some people think they’re spies,” she said, talking slowly as if she didn’t want to say those words.

Spies? That word made me think of black and white movies with Orson Wells lurking on a dark street. Mr. Nakajima did not fit in a movie like that. In a few days, I later learned, Southern California was emptied of all Japanese Americans who were taken to relocation camps and made to stay for the duration of the war. I clutched my butcher-paper rifle and hummed my song about “the shores of Tripoli” trying to cheer myself with thoughts of new shoes for school. All summer I’d looked forward to getting new school shoes, one of the more exciting rituals of my life. The war effort needed leather and we could have only one pair of shoes each year. I wondered if Uta had the shoes she needed down in that basement.

 * * *

On shoe-day in late August, my younger sister, Connie, sat on her unmade bed putting on a shoe. Pieces of underwear and crumpled white socks lay around her bed like trash around our incinerator. Her blond braids were messy. I’d have to wait while Mother did her braids, and that could take forever. One time Connie won a prize at the movie theater for the longest braids, but she hated going up on the stage.

I loved to go up on a stage! A magician had come to our school last year and asked for a volunteer. I went right up in front of everybody with the lights on me. The magician made birds come out of my cupped hands and everybody clapped. It was perfect.

The ride to the shoe store was so hot the chromium handles on the car door burned your hand. It seemed like we’d never get there, but eventually we pulled up to the curb. I hopped out of the car fast so I’d have time to look in the windows at the display of shoes. Admiring my nine-year-old reflection in the glass, I turned side to side in my yellow sundress. My brown hair was pulled to the side with a clip and a yellow bow. I looked pretty good. Some day I’d have a pair of party shoes like those in the window. I felt a surge of guilt: I’d wished for party shoes when I knew Cousin Uta didn’t have enough food down in that basement.

The store smelled like carpet and shoes and strangers. People talked in low voices. After Mother conferred with the salesman, I stepped up into the fluoroscope machine, the size of a big doghouse, and slipped my feet into the slot. Looking into the viewer I could see my greenish foot-bones. A marvel of technology. After the salesman fitted my brown oxford shoes with their heavy soles and long new laces, I walked proudly to the low mirror where you could see your feet. I pretended my skinny legs were the gams of a pin-up girl. Gams was a word John Garfield said in the movies.

 “Come over here,” Mother said. She pressed her thumb on the end of my new shoe, looking at me as if I caused her a lot of trouble. Maybe she thought I cost too much money. “Does this feel okay? Like you’ve got some room?” she asked.

 “I guess so,” I said, worried I might make a mistake.

Mother gave a thankful sigh, and we left the store with our packages. I turned to look back at the display windows again, feeling wistful about the long year I’d have to wait before we came back to buy shoes.

* * *

On the first day of school that fall—outside in the front yard—Mother got us ready for a photo. We wore our clumpy new brown oxfords and the dresses she’d made. She arranged me, my sister, Ronnie and Tommy—two neighbor boys—in a row. “You kids better appreciate how lucky you are, getting to go to school in new clothes,” she said. Mother hadn’t had a chance to go to school much. Her family had left Austria—except for her older sister—when she was small and settled in a worn-out house in Mobile, Alabama. I’d seen a photograph of her standing in a dirt yard, feeding chickens. Watching her today, I felt guilty about my easy life—but still wished for fine things, like party shoes and bracelets.

I wanted my blue lunchbox in the picture. I loved the feel of the metal handle and the promise of food that feeling held. “No one had lunchboxes in the old country,” Mother said, “only a piece of bread wrapped in a cloth.” I felt glad to live in America where a person could carry a real lunchbox, but Mother had a way of making me feel guilty for all the glories of my selfish American life.

Alright now, look smart!” Mother said.

Everybody in America hated the Germans. I worried that deep down people hated me too—for having German people in my family. I didn’t feel like a pure American. My grandparents spoke with German accents and my Grandma cried about missing Vienna. My friend, Ronnie, told me, “The Gestapos eat little kids and Hitler chews on carpets.” He knew all about the evil Germans because he read comic books.

After Mother took the photo, we children walked up the street to our elementary school. Even though we passed familiar houses and yards, so safe-looking, I worried about the Germans and the War. I thought of dark basements and bombs. What if the Gestapo came here? Would they bomb an elementary school? Where would we hide from the airplanes?

When we got to school, Jimmy Ellington stopped me in front of the open classroom door. “Hey! Elaine! Wait. Guess what? My Dad can get me some Double Bubble gum!”

My dark worries vanished. We hadn’t had bubble gum in months. “You lucky,” I said.

I can bring it tomorrow . . . and you can have some.” His face flushed.

Jimmy’s father must be a black market guy to get Double Bubble, I thought, but I’d take some anyway and live with the guilt.

We walked into the classroom together. The blond wooden desks, fixed to the floor in tidy rows, had recessed inkwells on top. I realized that this year we’d get to write with fountain pens and real ink. Jimmy’s promise of Double Bubble, the desks and new varnish smell of school seemed to take away my fears of war and disappearances and bombs. I took my seat feeling relieved and no longer guilty about my lunchbox.

 * * *

I remember the sweet taste of that pink gum today, at age seventy, and the smell of the ink on my fingers. I am that child, and writing about her is easy. My sister still loathes the spotlight, and I still crave attention. I still stand in my bedroom and try on clothes, hoping I look good. I covet new shoes and sweets. The guilt I felt over Uta’s incarceration—over the disappearance of the Nakajimas, over having a German-speaking family—is still with me. Like a tiresome houseguest, Guilt doesn’t leave. It puts on new clothes, but it doesn’t leave.

My jumble of worries and selfish hopes of those days define a Nineteen-Forties so unlike those of Ann Frank or the other European and Asian children who lost so much. Yet, the terror of war—in that sunny citrus-grove world—haunted me too. I was fearful every day. The war was in my mother’s face, in the words of President Roosevelt over the radio, and in the songs we sang about soldiers and their waiting sweethearts. I was twelve when the War ended, and it colors my childhood memories with a vivid stain.

Looking back on my wartime childhood, I’m struck by all that sunshine in California, in 1942, and by a child’s absorption in shoes and bubble gum while her cousin waits for help in the darkness of an Austrian basement, obsessed, I’m sure, by thoughts of sun and food too. When I ask Uta now about those days she will not tell me what made up her dreams.

My worries have grown up a little since then. I now ponder genocide in Africa, war in Iraq, and American complicity with evil in both regions. But I’m sure that if those problems were to evaporate, I’d remain worried. The world is not a better or safer place than in 1942. My seventy years have seen a host of new struggles, new challenges. Our planet is compromised; we have alienated so many of the world’s peoples.

Mother would recognize my guilt and worries, but she is gone and so is Ronnie—killed in Viet Nam. My yellow dress is gone too, and the matching bow, and the frightful brown oxford shoes, the butcher paper and the butcher.

Elaine Jordan is a former high school English teacher. In middle-age she obtained a degree in religion and served churches for eleven years. Now, in Prescott, Arizona, she tries to resist too much nostalgia and survivor's guilt.
 
 

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