Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sirens of War

The house at 424 Washington Avenue was only slightly different looking in 1941 than this later picture. The siding was white wooden planking then, not yellow aluminum. The front door was solid wood with an inverted cross design, no window. The railing around the porch was wood and painted green. There was a porch swing in place of a bicycle. Do you know the kind I mean? It looked like a sofa with large metal armrests on each side, but it was build on a frame that gently swung back and forth if you wished. I think they called it a glider. There was a matching chair to one side, but it didn’t swing. It might have rocked a little.
What can I tell about that first year? Not much. I can’t tell you a lot about the next three years 
either. I was at first an infant and then I was too busy trying to talk and learn to walk.

(Photo right; my dad holding me on the front porch, March 1942. You can see the solid white door behind us.)
The most vivid memory of those first three years were the sirens.
Downingtown blew a siren every day at twelve o’clock just to tell everybody it was noon. You could set your watch by it and that may have been the purpose, to allow everyone to synchronize clocks and watches each day. I believe it was the siren at the Minquas Firehouse on East Lancaster Avenue, just at the edge of the downtown business area. It was the closest to us and the siren was loud. Perhaps both the Minquas and the Alert Fire Companies sounded their sirens. The Alert was on the west side of town. I don’t think there was a municipal siren at Borough Hall.
I probably wouldn’t have remembered the sirens as much if this were the extent of their blasts or the occasional fire call. They would have become regular noises of daily life, but life in Downingtown after December 1941 was no longer routine. There was a war engulfing the whole world. The sirens that remain in my memory were for air raids.

(Downingtown from the railroad bridge on Rt. 332 looking north, 1940)

We never had an actual air raid, of course. But we had air raid drills and false alarms. No one looked at the clock when the air raid siren sounded or asked, “Where’s the fire”. Everyone sprang into action, all tinged with a bit of panic and fear.
“Is this the real thing? Are the Gerrys or Japs coming to bomb us?”
Well, I didn’t understand any of that. I was one, two, three years old and had no concept of 
war or bombs. I only knew everybody around me was nervous and running about doing strange things that I didn’t like. The blackout shades were drawn, all the lights turned off and the radio switched off. The house became very dark inside and the street quiet outside, except for those sirens blasting away. I was still afraid of the dark then and all this excitement scared me to death and made me cry. Then my mother or grandmother would hold me and tell me I had to be quiet.
Grandfather Brown was a member of Minquas and a Fire Policeman, which meant he was also the Air Raid Warden for our block. This only added to the chaos for little tottler me. First of all, we were going to do it all by the book. Second, when the blasts came he was dashing about getting his helmut and whatever other official equipment he was supposed to carry and then fleeing out the door to make sure the neighbors were in compliance.

We had a large chart tacked to the back of the cellar door, which opened from the dining room.  (The photo left was taken in 1952, long after the air raid sirens went quiet, but is one of only two of the interior of that house. You can see the celler door just behind me as I imitate  Frankenstein’s monster. The siren patterns were posted on the other side of that door.) The chart showed what all the different siren blasts meant. Long blasts meant one thing, short blasts meant another. So many blasts in a row and how fast or slow they came signled something. Grandfather had the whole thing memorized. If he was home he would announce what was going on, if it was his company or the Alert, whether it was a fire or something else, and how big a blaze.

I would tense up at any blast, even the noon horn, because I didn’t make any distinction. I immediately looked about to see if the shades were being drawn and began trembling in fear.

In March 1943 my father went to war. I was one year and nine months old. With the exception
of people cursed with total recall most of us lack any cognitive memory of our first two years of life, certainly so when you reach the golden years. Who was most attentive or least attentive to my infant needs is not in my data bank. I do have one fairly clear memory from those years other than the sirens.
It is the earliest image I have of my father and probably defines the family dynamic of my childhood. I was a couple months past one year old in late August 1942. I was walking by this time and my hair, like Samson, had never seen a scissors. It was red. It was wavy. It was long and my parents were having an argument about that fact. As best as I can paraphrase such a long ago conversation, it went something like this.
“His hair is too long,” dad said one day.
“I like it. It’s so pretty,” said my mother.
“He looks like a girl. It’s time to get it cut,” dad said. I can still hear the tone of his voice in my head. Dad was not making a statement; he was giving an order.
My mother sniffled. “Do we have to cut it? It’s so beautiful. I love his waves.”
“It makes him look like a sissy. I’m taking him to the barber.”
And he did, to Clarence Miller’s Shop in the middle of downtown Downingtown.
I was terrified of the barber. I bawled my head off. It is a good thing I didn’t need a shave or that might have been a literal comment. The way I fought, one slip of a sharp straight razor and off goes my head. “Uh, Mr. Miller. I think you took a bit too much off the top.”
My dad had to hold me in place on that contraption placed across the arms of the barber chair for children to sit within reach. I flung my head about and cried. Dad was angry with embarrassment, but the hair got cut.
When I came home my mother cried.
Perhaps that is why most my life I’ve kept my hair too long.

These conflicts over my appearance or behavior were a constant of my childhood, mother trying to slow my progress and father trying to rush it. It was a looping soundtrack of “Bill, leave the boy alone, he’s scared” and “You coddle him too much. You’re making him a sissy.” It was a constant tug of war and I was the rope in the middle. It resulted in my manipulating my mother and avoiding my father. Mother didn’t turn me into a sissy and dad didn’t turn me into Macho Man. All they created was a conflicted and confused child with a determined will to do things his own way.
The only other memories I have of my dad in those early years aren't even really memory. They are images from photographs. Dad left for his Boot Camp training in March 1943. After his
training he came home on leave before shipping out to the South Pacific. He brought me a sailor suit when he came home.
By the stripes on my sleeve, I think I outranked him.
Dad was home for two weeks. I am not sure he spent much time with me. I could be wrong because I don’t remember it at all.
I vaguely recall the excitement in the house that he was coming home, but that was around me, not in me. Did I run to greet him? Did he hug me or kiss me? I don’t know. There is a picture
where he holds my hand before an open car door. I don’t know if we were about to get in the car and go somewhere or if we had just gotten out of the car.
Behind and across the street in that photograph is a house. The Buckleys lived in that home. It sat right next to the East Ward School Grounds. Both those things would play a part in my next clear memory of my dad, but that would come a few years in the future after he returned from the service. These are pictures taken just before he disappeared from my preschool life.
My parents had a professional photograph taken during this leave. It is somewhat startling to see the physical resemblance between my father and me. I notice how much I look like him in other photographs. It is
a frightening thought. I know where my own countenance is headed seeing what he looked like in later years.
In this family grouping everyone is beaming, but you wonder what was going on inside his or her head. My dad was about to ship out to the War in the Pacific. His assignment was on a destroyer escort, very dangerous duty at the time. The Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway (May and June 1942) were considered turning points in the Pacific conflict, but by 1943 the Allies were experiencing set backs. The Japanese fleet had been decimated. They did have submarines, although the boats were not particularly used efficiently. Still, in 1943 Japan was using its subs to disrupt U.S. supply lines. It was the job of the destroyer escorts to locate and destroy any predator subs so the convoys could move safely. My dad’s ship did confront some submarines during his enlistment and at least one aerial Kamikaze Attack during 1944. These desperate suicide attacks by Japan were not restricted to airplanes. Japan employed other vehicles in Kamikaze warfare, including submarines, adding more risk to the destroyer escorts assigned to ferret out subs.

After this brief encounter when dad finished basic training, he sailed out of my life for the next few years.
You will note in these photographs I looked like a happy child. My mother told me I was a very happy child and very gregarious in those preschool years. I was not at all shy, apparently quite the opposite and would both strike up conversations with complete strangers, somewhat to her concern, and blurt out my observations to her embarrassment.
There was an incident where I accompanied my Grandmother Brown and my mother to Joseph Mfauewd the shoemaker on Lancaster Avenue in Downingtown. A man came into the store that had a large reddish birthmark covering about half his face. I did not miss this and asked very loudly, “What’s that man got all over his face?” My mother was mortified and apologized to the man, which probably made matters worse by focusing more attention on his discoloration. Of course, I got a stern lecture from both women about keeping my mouth shut about such things. Frankly, I think it was perfectly natural for a three or four year old to innocently ask such a question. I had seen people of different colors, but never one half and half.
In later years I wondered if this youthful indiscretion led to my affliction of psoriasis. Did the
man put a hex upon my skin?
This brings us back to the question, where was my mother  (pictured right, 1942) when I was tagging after my grandmother as she did all the household chores and cooking? (See previous post.)

1 comment:

Jon said...

A very enjoyable post filled with interesting memories. I always love to read about the histories of others. Also liked the photos.
I was reminded of some of my own early experiences at the dreaded barbers. And my father always chastised my Mom for "over-protecting" me.