Chapter 20

The World Goes to War

Betty and I became officially engaged. We had selected a ring at Herb McCarthy's, a jewelry store next to the Surprise store, costing the magnificent sum of $12. That doesn't seem like much these days, but back then twelve dollars was a respectable week's pay. I paid about two dollars a month on it. It had several diamonds which actually sparkled under certain conditions, and my wife always cherished it. Oddly enough, I can't remember my wedding date, but even now I will always remember the day we became engaged ­ Sept. 14, 1941.

Something else I should relate may be amusing to you. My brother Pete and my sister Margaret always used profanity in their conversation while I, on the other hand, had never been known to use it. I would not so much as say “hell” or “damn” or even say “Jesus Christ," not even in church. My sister Berenice did something particularly spiteful to me. I cannot recall what it was, but before I could catch myself, I had started to cuss her out. Nothing obscene, of course, but I had called her a goddamned fool.  This was as far as I got before I was overcome with shame for what I had said. The effect on my family, however, was astonishing.  They looked at me, thunderstruck. Even Pete was speechless. You could hear a pin drop for minutes afterward. They avoided me as if I were a madman, and I was stricken with remorse, not only because I had never cussed before, but also because I had never become angry enough to do so.

 The Inevitable Break with Pete

Shortly after this the expected break with my brother Pete came. Since I had come home from the CCCs, we had used stilted courtesy toward each other to avoid a confrontation which neither of wanted to bring on. I was now as big as he was and our dislike for one another was never far below the surface. Except for myself, the rest of the family was terrified of him. Anyway, he complained to my mother about the electrical bill. In all fairness, he was mainly responsible for the size of the bill. He had a radio which he played day and night. Since it belonged to him, the rest of us would not touch it.  In those days of vacuum tubes, a radio could be expensive to operate.

Nothing more was said about the bill, but that night he came home drunk and proceeded to break all the light bulbs downstairs. I was in bed at the time, but the noise woke me up. I had bought a couple of bulbs upstairs with my own money. Besides I had just about had it and felt that this was as good a time as any to indulge in my long-awaited desire to tangle with him. I came to the head of the stairs in my shorts and yelled down to him that if he came upstairs and broke any more I would knock him back down the stairs again. He did not come up, but my mother came to the bottom of the stairs and pleaded with me not to fight with him.

Pete said nothing, and did no more damage. But the following day he told me that one of us would have to leave. I was still angered from the night before and told him that if he was man enough to throw me out, I would gladly leave. Again, he said nothing. But within a week he had packed his clothes and left for Utica, where he soon got a job at Savage Arms in Ilion.

My sister Berenice left shortly afterwards and my mother took a WPA job at the sewing room at City Hall. The sewing room made shirts and dresses for the poor in this area. At this time, there were six of us at home. There was myself and my mother, along with my sisters Elizabeth and Dorothy, and my two younger brothers Robert and Howard.

 That Fateful Day

I was at Betty's house on Dec. 7th, playing the radio in the afternoon when the news came over it that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. This was, as I remember, somewhere around 1 o'clock. At first the implications were not apparent. You must remember that in those days the word "rape” was not mentioned either in books or on the radio. But when a woman was raped, it was generally described as "attacked." Therefore our first impression was that an unknown woman, probably a politician's relative from the publicity, was raped by a gang of Japanese thugs. No one, to my knowledge, had ever heard of Pearl Harbor.

As the news started to come in depth, the gravity of it soon became clear. The following day the United States declared war on Japan. The day after, Germany declared war on the United States. Mobilization moved at a swift pace thereafter. The draft was stepped up, the National Guard was mustered into the Army, and we were so short of guns that some of the units had to practice with brooms rather than rifles.

It was around this time that Mrs. Walling, Betty's grandmother, was stricken with anemia. She was required to take liver extract, which was the only medicine for this ailment then. Her condition gradually worsened, and she soon had to take to her bed. About a month later, around January of 1942, her bed was brought from upstairs and set up in the living room, since it was too lonesome in her room. Betty and I did all we could to keep her company, although it hampered our romance somewhat. 

In January I went to the machine shop in trade school under the VEND program. This, too, put a strain on our romance. I was working eight hours a day at the NYA and attending classes eight hours a day. My schedule looked like this: 8:00 am ­  4:00 pm, working at the NYA; 4­10 pm. go home, get cleaned up, and visit Betty; 10­12 pm, sleep, get ready for class; 12 pm­8 am, machine shop classes. I always arrived late at the NYA of course, but I was allowed to work over to make up my time. I had to forgo breakfast and lunch, but I could eat suppers. I also packed a lunch so I could eat in the middle of the night.

I got very little sleep during the week except for Sunday morning. I often fell asleep at Betty's or during a lecture at school. In fact, several times other people at school caught me just as I was about to fall off a bench.  Everyone knew my schedule, however, and they were all pretty lenient with me. The course was taught by Clyde Barkley, from Canton. Like every new thing I came into contact with in those days, I soon developed an intense interest in machine shop and learned very fast. Soon Mr. Barkley would entrust to me outside jobs that came in, and perhaps half a dozen other things.  I made several projects there which I still have.

 The Death of Katie Walling

I was at Betty's in February of 1942, the night Kate Walling died. I knew she was dying because of her breathing.

My father used to speak of a death rattle, but the sound was more like the sound of wind in the pine trees. Once heard, you never forget it, and I had heard if from my brother. Mr. McClelland, the undertaker, was called and I helped carry her out. In those days they used a long wicker basket with handles at both ends to handle bodies. Both the undertaker and his assistant were quite old. I have often wondered how they managed to carry a large man down a long flight of stairs since there was only room for one man at each end. Of course, the wake was held at the house since funeral parlors had still not come into general use.

I finished the course in machine shop about the middle of march. The government was building a new power line to Massena to step up the production of aluminum. I applied for a job on it and was accepted. Our headquarters was in Canton and I rode there each morning with John, Red, and Polly McPherson.  "Red" and "Polly" were nicknames, but I never heard their real names. The holes for the poles were dug by a crew that went ahead of us. Our crew set up the huge poles, leveled them up, and piled rocks around them. Then we filled in the holes.

They used huge machines to handle the poles. The long poles were first laid down with their butts over the holes they were to go into. Then four stakes were driven into the ground each ninety degrees from the one before it. Lines were run to a girdle near the top of the large pole. A large tractor was brought up to pull the pole up. Since this would be impossible with a straight, horizontal pull, they used what was called a “gin” or “gin pole,” which was quite a bit smaller than the main pole. The gin pole was raised by the crew while the tractor pulled. The gin pole was pulled about halfway erect, at which point the cable from it to the main pole became tight and the larger pole started to lift. The purpose of the gin pole, as you can see, was to give a higher point of leverage to raise the larger pole.

As the large pole came up, lines were wrapped around the stakes with half hitches to prevent the pole from toppling sideways or going too far forward. The pulling was done slowly. As soon as the pole was straight enough, it slid into the hole and the lines from the tractor were cast off.  Then, by pulling or slacking off on the lines going to the stakes, the pole was leveled by the foreman, the rocks were thrown in, and the hole was filled. We then went on to the next one while the rigging crew came behind us to put up the crosspieces and hang on the insulators. Since this was spring and we had such heavy machinery, the right-of-way on the power line was often a sea of mud. We had to ride to our next pole on a large stone boat pulled by a large tractor, which was often into the mud up to the top of the caterpillar tracks.

It was hard work, but the pay was magnificent. At the time Eddie Cayen was making about twenty dollars a week at the paper mill and the men on the WPA were making twelve fifty a week, I was making eighty five dollars a week. I gave my mother over half of what I made, and used what I could to fill up Betty's hope chest. There was a service for twelve in silverware, matched glassware with every conceivable type of cup and goblet, blankets and other things too numerous to mention. Sadly, not one item exists today, as far as I know.

 Getting Ready for War

I worked on the power line until the first of June, at which time I quit. The news was that there would be an especially large draft in July, and I was almost sure to be in it. I thought I would spend as much time with Betty as I could, never knowing if the opportunity would ever come again.

Each summer while I was going with her, she would spend at least two weeks at a Girl Scout camp. During this time I was devastated. The fact is that she was the only close friend I had ever had. I had never allowed anyone to get close to me and have been a loner all my life, but I had complete trust in her. We spent hours discussing everything under the sun. I had an interest in practically everything and did a great deal of reading. Although she was not much of a reader, we would discuss every interesting fact I came across. She would ask very intelligent questions, had a retentive memory, and soon knew my interests almost as well as I did.

As I may have mentioned, there were few books on sex available in those days. We had to learn from each other. Since we were quite shy, and I feared rejection, our romance proceeded quite slowly, which made it all the more meaningful and tender. I still think that ours was the greatest romance I had ever heard about. Consider that in these times that I write it is not unusual for a couple to meet and be in bed the same day. And yet, I had been seeing her for over two years and we had not yet reached this point.

 Coming to Blows

Betty's sister Catherine, or Fanny, had been going with Joseph Martin for a short time and the inevitable happened. They decided to get married, and I was Joseph’s best man. Eddie Cayen was not too much perturbed at this new acquisition to the family, but such was his dislike for me that he swore that if Betty ever became in the same condition, that he would kill me. Unfortunately, about ten days before I was to leave for the Army, he came close to keeping his promise.

One night I was a little late leaving Betty's house. It was only a few minutes past the deadline he had set, and he made a snotty remark to me. I figured I would soon be gone anyway, so I lashed back at him with an equally snotty remark. He then called me an SOB which in those days, were fighting words.

So I invited him outside. It was not much of a fight.  He made a swing at me which missed, and I swung at him and cut three knuckles open on his teeth. At this point his wife grabbed him, and Betty grabbed me. It was unfortunate in that I did not have much time left, and yet I could not see Betty at her place any longer.

I wanted desperately to have all of her before I left, since I was not sure that I would ever see her again. Like a lot of boys who were in the same spot, we finally went all the way. The only justification I have is the fact that I wanted her for a wife over any other girl in the world, but in the short time left to us I had no place to keep her and no income to support her.