Wartime Memories

How I learned about war from the movies.
How I developed a philosophy of scarcity.


The War

How I Got to Know Evil

In the romantic and adventure novels I loved to read, in stories we read or heard at school--we were always being shown ideal, even saint like, behavior. I continued to imagine the best, to live in the best world I could, to love the good, to cling to ideals, even when they were unrealistic and imaginary and projected from my own imagination onto others. I looked for the ideal and the perfect, believed that all people were good. I knew from our history classes that there were evil emperors like Diocletian who killed the Christians, and demonic forces like atheistic Communism which tortured innocent people. And from our religion classes I knew about Satan, who was behind all my temptations to lie or talk back to Mother. But suddenly the news began reporting a new evil--the Axis powers, and upon the screen of my imagination there erupted and spread an evil so monstrous that it brought out all my fury of hatred . Where does a ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen year old find in herself the anger and hatred and fury that I felt for the Germans and the Japanese, whose soldiers I demonized?

I was 10 when the U.S. entered the war in 1941 and 14 when the war ended in 1945. I remember the wholesale effort that involved every family. We experienced rationing of sugar, butter (margerine was invented as a substitute), rubber, gasoline, meat (spam was discovered-our lunches included it), shoe leather, even eggs. Mother felt challenged by the rationing to come up with special substitutes. Mother's ingenuity was stretched to provide us with substitutes for the bacon and egg breakfasts and meat dinners we were accustomed to. She used to save up our sugar coupons and allow us to have a treat of fudge or chocolate chip cookies on Saturdays. Oddly, I remember these treats as a benefit of the war to our family. Mother felt challenged by the rationing to come up with something special. She tried to be fair, using her shoe coupons for the one of us who truly needed new shoes. Hardship had a way of evening out the suffering and equalizing the favors. These were special times of family togetherness, watching the pan of chocolate hardening into fudge, making the cookies. I don't remember as many arguments, and there was always the consciousness of something appalling going on in Europe and the Pacific. Dad's architectural practice was interrupted, and he went to work every day as an engineer at the Sunflower Ordinance Plant in Emporia, Kansas, using his gasoline ration coupons for the long drive. Life became scheduled, rationed, -- a few days a week when we could go for a drive, or bake cookies, or have meat.

I accepted the austerities war imposed upon us. I might add that at school we were constantly being asked to make “sacrifices” and to give up something we liked—not only during Lent but on Fridays, in Advent, and with the advent of war, the nuns who taught us asked us to come up with special sacrifices to bring about the war’s end.

One had to be inventive, as Mother was, to squeeze something out of less; pleasures were rationed to one day a week when we could go for a drive, or bake cookies, or have meat. We enjoyed them even more.

Every Saturday afternoon (spending half our 50 cents allowance we got weekly digests of war. The Movietone News showed the weeks worth of battles in Germany and the Pacific. Real world violence--cities being bombed, bridges being blown up, maps showing advancing enemy lines—these were our regular movie fare from 10 to 14. We got to know the allied Generals like Bradley, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton, and leaders like Churchhill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Montgomery; as well as the axis leaders and generals --Hitler, Mussolini, Hierohito and Tojo—Goerring, Goebbels, Rommel, all became familiar to us through the Movietone War news at the movie theatres.

It was the war movies, especially, that brought the war home to me. The movies could recreate what the news couldn’t—behind the scenes looks at the enemy and at the allies. Movies dramatised the peril our fighters were exposed to in the air and on the land and on the sea. I fell in love with the heroes of the war movies--especially British heroes won my heart, in their Spitfires. Through my brother's drawings and model airplanes, we knew about the Spitfire, the Zero with the rising sun, the Messerschmidt with its cross. The American planes like the B52 flying fortress, the Flying Tiger (was that a plane?). We saw Japanese pilots in Zeros doing kamakazee dives onto ships. We saw the heroic efforts of individual fighters in their Hurricanes and Spitfires. Since then I haven’t liked war movies, but as a child I watched them absolutely mesmerized. I remember hating the Germans, and even the Japanese. My hate and anger were so strong that I remember praying for God to damn the Japanese.

When I left the movie theater and came out into the bright daylight, I still was in the world of makebelieve and brought my fantasies out with me. I was the American or British fighter pilot shot down over Germany; I was hiding in the foxhole on Guam looking our for the Japanese. I exulted in every enemy plane that was shot down. I loved Audie Murphy and the war heroes. One of our neighbors Jim Griffin was killed when his plane was shot down over Germany. He became an idol. The American soldier's cocky, upbeat spirit was engaging, but the Brits sophistication and wit appealed to me.

Of course, we still enjoyed books, movies, movie magazines, and daily radio --Jack Benny, Terry and the Pirates, Jack Armstrong, Stella Dallas, Let's Pretend, The Shadow. But the upbeat content of these could not change the fact that we seemed to be losing the war.

The Legacy of the Depression and the War

The impact of the Depression, the War--which we seemed to be losing, and Rationing made me feel that life was not generous in dealing out pleasures and goodies. They were special treats; they were rationed. Life was hard and serious and we couldn't take good things for granted. They were temporary and could be withdrawn in the first emergency. I had become used to frugality as the norm. As a result, I saved and hoarded pleasures even more than usual, saving them for a rainy day when I would need them. I did not let myself enjoy them everyday; they were not everyday pleasures. I found it hard to give away things that I'd saved or hoarded; I regarded any "extras" as necessities for which I should be exceedingly grateful. I had to get more out of whatever came to me because I couldn't take it for granted. I knew that I must savor oure Saturday night fudge-making as the highlight of my week. I also knew that I could survive with some books and my imagination.

Later in life, I continued to count my blessings and to believe myself especially looked after, a survivor by the grace of God. Perhaps in truth God or good is bestowed on everyone in abundance, but most people let it slip away, without the fine strainer I use to pan for gold. I am grateful for every blessing. I take nothing for granted.

To me sacrifice became normal life; it went along with my being a "depression baby"; life was curtailed. I didn’t expect life to offer more. I did not complain later wherever I found that scarcity was the norm. To me sacrifice became normal life; it went along with my being a "depression baby"; life was curtailed. I didn’t expect life to offer more. I did not complain later wherever I found that scarcity was the norm.

When I went away to St. Mary's College, the scheduling and rationing of life continued: prayers were every evening after supper; we had to sign out to go off campus. We wore our uniforms until they fell apart. Scarcity was the norm. I had to work at getting more out of less. In the convent again everything was rationed and scheduled; one had to ask permission to get even a new tube of toothpaste. When I left the convent, I was shocked by the easy availability of everything, and the waste. It took me a while to get used to abundance.

When I went to China I felt a kindred spirit: for the Chinese doing without and expecting the worst is normal, for they know the standard minimum allotment meted out. To them life is difficult and therefore, everything seems to matter more; the simplest thing takes on a meaning. That meaning, that more is what I seek in life too, because life has always seemed and been difficult for me, and I have chosen a difficult life over an easy one, knowing that I would get more from it. Putting meaning into my life is my chief preoccupation. I always remember the negatives, what I have been through. The positives, while I may grasp at them, float to the bottom of my memory pool and the negatives remain to be strained out and understood.

I followed the news eagerly, learning of the war in the Pacific, the gradual retaking of the islands, the invasion of Europe on D-Day. I didn’t dare believe we had won until V-E Day and then V-J Day. I felt as liberated as those celebrating in London and Paris and New York.

No war since WWII has asked anything of ordinary US citizens. Why can’t our leaders imagine that we could put up with sacrifice or deprivation?

Perhaps following the war and accepting sacrifices made it easier to leave the world behind when I entered the convent at 21. I had already had more extras than I had ever expected out of life, given my low expectations. I deliberately shut the door on any further embarrassment of undeserved riches and entered the outward state of deprivation that I believed was my inheritance. It wasn't until I was 35 that I admitted to myself that I had hoped for more.



The Letter R
Idylls of the Queen