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Slowly, I Start To See
The Person I Wart To Be
By John Schreiner
Balboa PressCopyright © 2016 John Schreiner
All rights reserved.
The Journey Begins
"It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was."
— Anne Sexton
During the depression fathers lost their jobs, families lost their homes, and parents struggled to even feed their families. Out of desperation, parents were forced to leave their children in the care of an orphanage where they were fed and sheltered, while their parents struggled on. My father was one of those children. After his parent's divorce, his father disappeared, his mother needed time to find a job and a place to live. So my father and his sister were left in the care of an orphanage in Ogden, Utah.
Although the matrons were strict and the living conditions were not warm and friendly, living in the orphanage meant three meals a day, an education, and a warm bed to sleep in. Since resources were scarce, nothing was wasted. At meal time any remaining food was distributed among the children who were still hungry. My father often told the story of one particular dinner at the orphanage. At the end of the meal one of the matrons brought out a small plate of what appeared to be mashed potatoes. "Raise your hand if you want this" the matron offered. My father loved mashed potatoes so he quickly raised his hand. The matron set the plate down in front of my father who dug in. It took only one taste for him to realize that what he thought was mashed potatoes was actually mashed turnips, and he detested turnips. He knew the rules, you had to finish everything on your plate, so he had to eat the turnips or risk punishment, so he forced it down. He struggled over each mouthful until he finished it all. He then asked to be excused, went outside and threw up.
After a few months, his mother found a job as a seamstress in a local ladies clothing store. After the divorce she had moved in with her mother in a small, one room house on the edge of town. So my father left the orphanage to live with his mother and grandmother. Growing up during the depression didn't allow for the normal pleasures of childhood for my father. His mother was absent most of the time, forced to work 7 days a week. During the day he was cared for by an aging grandmother who was not particularly happy raising a small child. With an absent mother and a reluctant grandmother, my father would say that he, "raised himself". He spent most of his time exploring the woods that surrounded their property. During this time, he became a self-confessed "loner", since the house was fairly isolated and there were few children who lived close by.
By the age of 8 he started working odd jobs to earn extra money to help his mother. Later he was offered a job delivering newspapers. Although it was hard work, still it provided a steady income. Though he gave most of his money to his mother, he managed to save enough to buy a second hand BB gun from a friend. With his trusty air rifle he hunted small birds and animals in the woods to supplement his diet. He recalled he always felt hungry, since there never seemed to be enough food to go around. Although most of the men in his family were six feet tall or more and well built, he stopped growing at five foot nine. Short and slim, he blamed malnutrition for his small stature.
As a boy, my father was an impatient student, preferring the outdoors over sitting in a classroom. He was bright, often completing his assignments before the rest of the class. When he turned in his assignment his teacher would tell him to sit quietly while the other students completed their work. Forcing him to sit quietly, with nothing to do but wait, constituted cruel and inhuman punishment for him. So he sat there, staring out the window at the beautiful, sunny day, wishing he could be exploring the world outside. But "idle hands are the Devil's play things" and the Devil certainly made use of his idle hands. It was during one of these idle periods that he was overtaken by youthful bedevilment, amusing himself by teasing the other children. One of his favorite tricks was to take a thread, tie a knot at one end leaving loose threads sticking out at the end. He would then lower the knot over the face of an unsuspecting classmate. At close range the thread appeared to be a spider dangling down at the end of its web. This prank was especially effective on the girls in his class who would shriek while jumping out of their seats.
All through his young life my father balanced work with school. By his senior year in High School he was working nights, catching a few hours of sleep, and then rushing off to school the next day. In the spring of 1941, war raged in Europe and soon America would join the fight. Old enough to be drafted, with no desire to be a foot soldier, he dropped out of school and joined the Navy. If America was headed for war, he wanted to be trained and ready before the conflict started.
After basic training, the majority of his classmates were assigned to ships as ordinary sailors. But my father had chosen to train as a signalman so he was sent to school in Chicago to receive his specialized training. Due to the training schedule he postponed his boot leave until after he finished his training. Afterward he returned to San Diego where he was given leave before reporting to his first duty assignment.
He rose early that Sunday morning eager to see his mother and Sister who had agreed to meet him at the entrance to the base. As he approached the guard station his mother and Sister waved to him, patiently waiting for him outside the gate. The guard rose to greet him but stopped to answer the phone. As he stood there waiting, he waved back to his mother and Sister, happy to see them. After putting down the phone the guard walked past my father and closed the gate in his face. It was Sunday morning, December 7th 1941. Pearl Harbor had been bombed and America was now at war. The base was placed on high alert and all leave was cancelled. Later he discovered that many of his friends from boot camp had been assigned to the Battleships Arizona and Nevada and lost their lives during the attack.
During a night patrol off the coast of North Africa, my father finished his late night watch and went to bed. Falling into a deep sleep, he dreamt that he was in his grandmother's room, standing next to her as she lie in her bed. Although she appeared to be ill, she smiled and told him she was still happy to see him. He asked her how she was feeling and she told him that she felt much better now that he was there. They talked a while and then she told him that it was time for him to leave, "Your father's coming, so you must go." As he started to leave her side he noticed a figure approaching her bedside, the figure was wearing a uniform. He awoke from the dream feeling confused, wondering who was approaching his grandmother's bedside.
A few days later he received a letter from his Sister. She wrote that his grandmother had been very ill but had miraculously recovered. Reading the letter, he remembered the dream where his grandmother appeared to be ill. Had she actually contacted him through the dream? After his ship returned to port he received word that his father was there to see him. My father? What's my father doing in North Africa? He wondered. The answer came when his father arrived sporting the uniform of an Army sergeant. Too old to serve, his father had lied about his age and joined the Army to fight for his country.
This wasn't the first time these strange coincidences had occurred in his family. As a young boy he helped his mother with household chores such as washing and drying the dishes. One day he was helping his mother with the dishes. As she turned to hand him a knife to dry it fell from her hand and landed tip first, stuck into the wooden floor. He looked up from the knife to his mother who stood there staring off into space. She muttered "Your Uncle Archie just died." He was shocked by this sudden revelation. Later that day they received word that his Uncle Archie had indeed been killed in an industrial accident. His Uncle's death occurred at the same time that the knife hit the floor.
"Being a mother is learning about strengths you didn't know you had, and dealing with fears you didn't know existed ..."
— Linda Wooten
My mother was the youngest of three children and her parent's only daughter. Of their three children, their second son was lost during the great influenza epidemic of 1918. My mother's surviving brother was eleven years her senior and though separated by age they still maintained a close relationship. My mother was a cute little blonde girl, a bit precocious but still respectful of her elders. Though you might expect that she would be doted over by her mother quite the opposite was true. My mother was "daddy's girl" and though her mother loved her she was the apple of her father's eye.
Born a year before the great depression she was too young to remember the hardships of the time, wanting for nothing, she was raised in a comfortable home by loving parents. She grew up just a few miles from Hollywood and the heart of the movie industry, where the numerous movie theatres allowed her to attend showings of the latest films. Watching movies was one of my mother's lifelong joys. She loved watching the actresses of the time dressed in their beautiful costumes, swept off their feet by a handsome leading man. As she watched the adventures of the glamorous actresses of the time, she pictured herself traveling to the same exotic locales. The movies filled my mother with a yearning for romance and adventure. She dreamed of becoming an actress and traveling around the world, experiencing life outside the confines of her sheltered life. By the time she married my father the extent of her travels took her only as far as Nevada, Utah or Colorado to visit her distant relatives.
She first met my father when he came to visit his mother who had recently rented the ground floor unit of my grandfather's duplex. At first she found him brash and a bit of a show off, as he sat on the front lawn shirtless, sunning himself in front of everyone. She wouldn't see him again until years later after the war had ended, this time my mother saw him in a very different light. Now a senior in High School, she was quite taken by this older and wiser veteran of the war. He too noticed her transformation into womanhood. They got to know each other over milk shakes at the local ice cream parlor. Soon they were going to movies together or strolling together along the pier. He escorted her to the High School prom for their first big date where he held her close as they danced the night away. It was that night my father realized he had fallen in love and so as they sat together under the stars he offered her a piece of gum, as she took it he smiled and said, "Well I guess we should get use to sharing things from now on." This was his way of proposing marriage. At first she didn't understand but once his intentions were made clear she accepted.
She was willing to marry him but she insisted on a long engagement. This would allow her enough time to finish High School, attend Business College and then pursue a career. Later my mother recalled my father's impatience to get married and settle down. He was so anxious to get married that he pressed her to quit school. He saw her as a wife and mother so she had no need for further schooling or pursuing a career. He felt her time would be better spent caring for their children and tending to the house work. After all he had left School in his Senior Year to join the Navy and he was doing just fine without a High School diploma. As he became more insistent she agreed to a compromise, she agreed to marry him immediately after her graduation. Years later my mother confessed that she had not only been pressured to get married by my father she had also been prodded by her mother to "trap that man as soon as you can". Although my maternal grandmother had worked outside the home when necessary during her marriage to my grandfather, she was still of the mind that a woman's primary function was to be a wife and mother. She goaded my mother into marriage with warnings such as, "you don't want to be an old maid now do you?"
But the pre-marital conflicts would extend beyond deciding on a date. Up until their engagement my mother had maintained a causal relationship with her future mother-in-law, now she tried to get to know her a bit better hoping to establish a friendship with her. But my grandmother was quite protective of her one-and-only son questioning whether or not my mother was "good enough" for him. These protective feelings led to heated arguments, one in particular involved the selection of the church for the ceremony, due to a limited budget it was suggested that they hold the wedding in a small chapel in downtown Santa Monica. My grandmother was outraged that the chapel was used for funerals as well as weddings. She complained that they would be married in a place where, "they marry them on one side and bury them on the other." My poor father was nearly brought to tears while he attempted to reconcile the differences between them. Later he confessed that the situation nearly caused him a nervous breakdown and he contemplated suicide. My mother claimed that after one heated argument about his mother that my father went into the bathroom and threatened to drink a bottle of Iodine if they didn't reconcile their differences. But as time passed they managed to reconcile their differences and actually became rather good friends, much to my father's relief.
My Parent's Marriage
"The secret to a happy marriage is if you can be at peace with someone within four walls, if you are content because the one you love is near to you, either upstairs or downstairs, or in the same room, and you feel that warmth that you don't find very often, then that is what love is all about."
— Bruce Forsyth
After all the fights and disagreements my parents were finally married in June of 1947, just a few days after my mother's graduation from High School. One day she was a naïve girl of 18, a recent High School graduate who had never been outside the United States, the next day she was the wife of a former sailor who had traveled around the world. After four years of fighting for his country my father's only desire was to settle down, buy a home and live a peaceful life. Whereas my father had spent the war years fighting around the world, my mother had just started her life looking forward to a career and independence and though my mother was not particularly distinguished academically, she performed well enough in her business classes to warrant a recommendation from the Girl's Dean to attend a business college in Santa Monica. She agreed to marry my father on the condition that they would wait to start a family. But as fate would have it she became pregnant during their honeymoon and nine months later my older brother was born, his birth, which came so soon after their marriage, sparked rumors that they "had to get married."
My father was 25 when my brother was born, my mother just 19. My father had only been out of the Navy for a couple of years when his life was completely changed around. No longer free to do what he wanted and go where he wanted to go he occasionally felt tied-down by marriage and family life. During this time, he was struck down with spinal meningitis, to this day he doesn't know the cause but over the years he blamed it on the stress he felt over the conflicts between my mother and her new mother-in-law. The affliction left him bedridden suffering from high fevers and delirium, his doctor cautioned that he might not live through it, but my mother's care along with the help of family members pulled him through. Severely weakened by the illness he had to learn to walk all over again, steadying himself on a chair as he made his way back and forth through the house.
With the birth of my brother, my father was faced with the reality of raising a child. Changing diapers, late night feedings, and the additional cost of a family soon had him reassessing his plans. Fatherhood meant that he was no longer free to go about as he liked and to do as he pleased. Shortly after my brother was born he suggested to my mother that one child would be enough to satisfy their parental needs, but my mother had other plans. She had been raised with a very large, extended family. Her home was often the scene of large family parties filled with numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. She embraced motherhood and she held my father to their original plan to have three children. Still it took eight years before my father agreed to have a second child.
Excerpted from Slowly, I Start To See by John Schreiner. Copyright © 2016 John Schreiner. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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