For young Mary Lou, life was an adventure. Her father served in the military, and she traveled the world with him and the rest of their family. His assignments took them to Alaska, Virginia, Japan, Texas, and Germany, as part of the US Army's responsibilities in policing the world. This candid memoir recounts her family's life in new places and cultures following World War II.
What was it like to be a child living in Japan seven years after the war? What was it like to be a thirteen-year-old living in Germany twelve years after the war? What was it like to grow up moving between cultures?
This is the story of one family bound to service in the military at a time when the world was being redefined. For a young girl, it was the adventure of a lifetime as she learned the secrets of finding her own way in that new world.
Also included is her father's diary, which offers up intimate and candid insight into the life of a typical soldier in a time of war. His entries describe his time serving aboard a battleship built for 800 soldiers-but carrying 6,000 to war. His tales-told from the perspective of a young soldier in southern England, Wales, and Scotland from 1943 to 1945-are glimpses into a life many will never know firsthand.
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War ReadyIn My Father's Shadow
By Mary Lou Darst
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Mary Lou Darst
All right reserved.
After the war, my father was stationed in Coffeyville, Kansas, and then Cheyenne, Wyoming, where my brother, Frank, was born, and from there he was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not yet part of the United states. We lived across from a forest so thick with trees, we couldn't see the interior even in the brightest sunshine, but we could hear wolves howling at night, which terrified this five-year-old. My mother often came into my bedroom and reassured me with lots of hugs that the wolves weren't going to come in and get us. Army housing—a three-bedroom duplex with hardwood floors, storm windows and doors, and a basement—was our home for eighteen months. the movers had already placed the army-issued furniture inside our new duplex; my father had seen to that before we arrived. But I missed my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins more than anyone could possibly know.
No sooner had we settled in than I began to itch and couldn't stop scratching. Large red bumps appeared all over my body. Frank, eighteen months old, broke out with the same itchy red bumps. Several times a week, two nurses wearing dark blue capes, stiff white uniforms, and white caps with red crosses in the middle came to check on our progress. My mother applied calamine lotion to the itchy red bumps. Frank and I wore socks and mittens on our hands to keep from scratching. The chicken pox lasted about two weeks, but it took a little longer for all the scabs to dry up and fall off.
We had a number of unusual experiences while we lived in Alaska. One of the neighbors on the street behind us had a team of Huskies and a dog sled that he drove to the base every day. Sometimes the neighborhood children were treated to a dog-sled ride on Saturday afternoons. I was always afraid of the whip he used to move the dogs forward, although he never hit the dogs, only the snow-packed road. He talked to his dogs by yelling, "Mush! Mush!" Being the tallest, I stood at the back and held on to the sleigh while the other children sat in the front. Afterward, the dogs were friendly and enjoyed being petted. Their intense blue eyes and hairy tails attracted all the children.
One day my mother sent me on an errand across the street behind us. Remembering how friendly the dogs were when I was on the dogsled ride, I walked right up to the dogs so I could pet them—but they were eating. Before I knew it, those beautiful dogs turned on me—barking, growling, and jumping all over me. one of them bit me on the stomach. The owner's wife came out and calmed the dogs. Luckily, they all had current vaccinations. My mother applied iodine to the wound on my stomach, and it healed in time.
During the winter, it was dark most of the day and very cold. Icicles hung off the edge of the duplex, and we had to look carefully at the roof before entering and leaving the house. My father made deep tracks in the snow when he walked to the frozen dirt road behind our duplex for his early morning jeep ride to the base. When I was in the first grade, to reach the school-bus stop, I had to step carefully into each of his tracks to keep from getting stuck in the snow. In the afternoon when I came home from school, it was dark again, and I repeated the pattern. Snow stayed on the ground all winter, and one Saturday morning, my mother helped me put on my snowsuit and let me go out to play on the front sidewalk. The yard was covered in snow up to my shoulders. Although the sidewalk was fairly well cleared, it wasn't long before I fell off and got stuck.
"Mother, Mother! Come get me! I'm stuck! I can't move!" no response. I called again. "Mother, Mother!" no response. Thick white snow seemed to envelop me the way my grandparents used to hug me. Did my mother want me frozen like an icicle? tears began to roll down my cheeks. My arms were stuck in the snow, and I couldn't wipe my face or my nose, which was running now. "Mother, Motherrr!" I started crying. She was inside with Frank. Did she not want me anymore? Is that why she let me come out and play in the snow, so I would get stuck and then freeze?" My grandmother wouldn't have let this happen. "Mother, Motherrr!" I cried louder, and I was getting colder.
She opened the door a little bit and stuck her head out. "What's the matter?" she asked.
"I'm stuck!" I cried. "I can't move! Come get me!"
"You don't look stuck," she responded.
"I'm stuck! I can't move! Come get me!" I shouted.
"All right," she said. "Just a minute, I have to put Frank in the playpen and put on my coat and boots. I need to get my mittens. Just a minute, I'll be right there. Don't cry, your tears might freeze on your face."
"Hurry up and come get me! I'm cold and I'm stuck!"
It seemed like forever before she opened the door again. now she was bundled up from head to toe. From the sidewalk, she waded through the snow and pulled me out.
"How did you get so stuck?" she asked. "I told you just to play on the sidewalk."
"I don't know," I said tearfully. "I just kind of walked and fell and then I couldn't move."
We went inside, and she carefully wiped my nose and cheeks before removing my snowsuit and boots. Then she made some hot chocolate to warm me up. My grandmother would do that too, and I felt good again. I felt safe.
After my bath one night, my mother took me hurriedly into her bedroom to look out of the north window. She turned out the light and there I could see the magical movements of the aurora borealis. I was speechless. I pressed my face against the window to see every movement of this magic show, each color changing constantly.
"What is that?" I asked in astonishment.
"Those are the northern lights," my mother said.
I saw giant fingerlike forms made from millions of tiny colored lights woven together, creating a constant waving motion in front of a black velvet curtain.
"Can we see it every night?" I asked.
"no," my mother replied, "it doesn't appear all the time."
It was so beautiful and so unusual that I have never forgotten it.
On thanksgiving Day, we dressed in our best clothes, and my father took us to a large hangar with tables and chairs set up inside. Thick white plates and military-issue silverware marked places on each long table. As we entered the hangar, familiar smells of thanksgiving food greeted us. We sat at a table near the kitchen with some other people who only my father knew.
A woman wearing a fur coat spoke loudly, and everyone laughed, especially my father. She kept talking, and everyone kept laughing until my mother abruptly jumped up from the table with Frank in her arms and moved across the room to an empty table. My father took a drink of water and sent me to find out what was wrong with her.
My mother said she missed her parents and Grandmummy, her father's mother from England, as well as the holiday celebration she used to have with her family in Houston. She was especially sad during holidays. I wanted to see her happy and tried my best to make her laugh when she was sad. No one knew that I also missed being at home with our family. As I reported her response to my father, the lady with the loud voice stopped talking and everyone else stopped laughing. He sent me to tell my mother that he wanted her to come back to the table and be with him. In a few minutes my mother returned; although she ate in silence, her eyes never left my father's face. I commented that the mashed potatoes were really good, and everyone laughed. My father sent me to tell the sweaty, red-faced cooks about the potatoes. They were very pleased with my assessment of their cooking skills, and my father was very proud of me. As I recall, Frank and I were the only children present in the hangar for that thanksgiving dinner.
I will never forget the Christmas we had in Alaska. When my mother came in to wake me up, it was still dark outside. I walked into the living room and couldn't believe my eyes. In a corner of the living room, there was a real Christmas tree covered with colored lights and beautiful ornaments. Underneath the tree were lots of packages wrapped in pretty paper with ribbons, and none of it had been there when I went to bed. My parents were very happy that morning, and Frank, who was two, was laughing at the things my mother gave to him. It was a wonderful morning. The surprise of finding a decorated Christmas tree with lots of presents underneath has stayed with me. I tried to recreate the same illusion for my own children every Christmas, but I'm afraid it was never quite like my memory of the holiday in Alaska.
Santa left me a set of My Book House books, which I still have. the twenty books are a collection of children's stories from around the world, including nursery rhymes and young-adult literature. I loved the illustrated stories with Victorian pictures. My mother used to read stories to me every night when we lived in Alaska. I loved the blue leather covers and the large Victorian picture on the front of each book, an illustration from one of the stories. As I grew up, I continued reading the stories that were age appropriate. I read to my children from the same books. My son especially enjoyed the stories from these books.
Behind our duplex there was a playground with a see-saw and a swing set for neighborhood children. Sometimes in the afternoon my mother gave me permission to go swing while she watched me from the kitchen window. Once as I stood pumping away, I could feel vibrations from the swing set through my shoes and my hands. A deafening tornado-like roar drowned out all other sounds. Suddenly, the earth began shaking violently; everything around me was shaking. I held on for dear life, not knowing that it was an earthquake. I was thrown up high out of the swing, over the top of the swing set, but I blacked out when I hit the ground. Later, I opened my eyes to find my mother leaning over me, screaming my name. My father stood on the concrete stoop at the back of the duplex and watched while keeping Frank inside.
Not long afterward, the tornado-like roar came again without warning while we were sitting at the dining room table. My mother's eyes grew large as she glanced quickly at my father. With a smile he simply said, "Just hold on to the table. There's nothing we can do about this because everything else is shaking too." The dishes vibrated in circles and the silverware vibrated up and down while the table was shaking, but nothing fell off. The house shook so violently, it felt like the duplex was moving off of its foundation. We held onto the table, but to our relief, the duplex did not move.
Periodically, my father invited some of the officers from the base to our house for dinner. They always wore their green army uniforms when they came. My mother put on a pretty dress and smiled a lot while she moved from the kitchen to the dining room. no one was aware that she had spent several days preparing for their visit. I entertained my brother for long periods of time so she could complete the preparations. My father was very proud of my mother and liked to show her off. My parents always entertained a lot, and were included in many military social events.
We did not have a car and there was no bus service, which made getting to the commissary to buy groceries difficult for my mother. In addition, she had an active two-year-old. My father brought groceries home in a covered three-quarter-ton army truck. Some of the men who worked for him unloaded the cardboard boxes, which were filled with groceries, including powdered milk, and stacked them on the kitchen floor. My mother was grateful for the groceries, but before she could begin to put anything away, she had to mop up the melted snow and muddy dirt that the men had tracked onto the kitchen floor.
Our luggage was stored in the basement with a wringer washing machine. I loved to go to the basement with my mother and watch the clothes come out of the wringer. Sometimes she even let me feed the clothes into it. Frank loved to run around in the basement and look for bits of dirt or insects. When the clothes had finished washing, my mother carried all the clothes upstairs to the backyard and hung them on the line, even when it was cold. In the dead of winter, she hung the clothes in the basement and in the kitchen to dry.
Sometimes my father took me to the barber shop to see the Eskimos who cut hair for the soldiers. Compared to my family, they were short and their skin was brownish-red. Their eyes were slanted with the epicanthic lid in contrast to our more rounded look. They were quiet and focused on cutting the hair of their customers.
He also took me to a hangar to see the enormous earth-moving machinery he used in Fairbanks. He hopped up on a yellow road grader, turned on the engine, and wanted me to come up and sit beside him. The noise from the engine was deafening. I stood in my Sunday dress—a wool coat with a white muff, patent-leather shoes, and lace socks—frozen to the ground. Finally, one of the soldiers standing nearby lifted me up into my father's arms. I sat close to his right leg until he turned the engine off and handed me down to the same soldier. He seemed very proud to have me sitting close to him. I felt very secure and much loved, although frightened by loud noises and vibrations of the huge machine.
Long summer days and the warm stream of Pacific water produced an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables along the coast. During the summer, we took a drive to the coast to pick strawberries, my favorite fruit. It was a wonderful day. I ran up and down rows of small green plants, unsupervised in my bare feet, picking one strawberry to eat and one to put in my basket. My father said, "Mary Lou, put some strawberries in the basket."
During the middle of the summer, we had daylight for twenty-four hours. My mother put army blankets over our bedroom windows to create darkness, not only so we could sleep, but so my parents could sleep as well. Before she started using blankets to make our rooms dark, we played late at night and did not show any signs of being sleepy or tired.
Neighbors gathered behind the duplexes one afternoon, taking in the beauty of a natural wonder, a mother-of-pearl cloud, as it floated slowly across the sky. A pale pink cloud, with pastel colors of the rainbow along the edge, covered the entire sky. This phenomenon appeared about every forty years, according to my mother. Many of the women in the neighborhood were wearing shorts, and nearly everyone was taking pictures.
Nothing made my mother as sad as the news that Grandmummy had died. She'd lived behind my grandparents in Houston's West end. My mother cried all day, and I thought she would never stop. There was a huge mountain of clean laundry on the sofa. While she wept, she kept trying to fold all the clothes and kept asking me if I wanted to go home and live with my grandparents. I rode my tricycle around and around the sofa and said, "Yes," thinking that we could go home that minute, but we didn't. She didn't make much progress folding the clothes. Late in the afternoon she just gave up, put the wrinkled clothes back in the laundry basket, took her afternoon bath, and started our supper. Not long after this sad day, it was time to move again.
Chapter TwoAlexandria, Virginia
In 1951, the Korean War was simmering. The thirty-eighth parallel became the dividing line between Chinese troops who occupied the north and American troops who occupied the south. Since my father was an army officer and an engineer, would this new conflict involve him too? We followed him around the world, but Frank and I were sheltered from knowledge of his assignments and the work he performed. We knew only of impending changes to our location. After living in Alaska, we headed back to Houston for a long visit with my grandparents. My father went to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he attended engineering school as part of his assignment. We joined him in Virginia when he found an apartment in Shirley Duke, a suburb of Alexandria.
We said good-bye to my mother's family in Houston and arrived in Virginia by train. My father hugged and kissed my mother warmly and marveled at my brother's growth. He hugged Frank and held him close to his chest telling my mother what a Good job she had done with him. I waited anxiously and quietly for a hug and some word of praise as my father handed my brother back to my mother, but he only frowned at me and looked away while my mother looked at me and then at my father. I stood in front of him with a smile frozen on my face. I was wearing the new dress my mother had made, new patent-leather shoes, and white lace socks, hoping that he might notice me. I longed for him to embrace me. Instead, with his jaw set, a scowl formed on his face and he grabbed our large suitcase. "Let's get going," he said, and started moving toward the bus, all the while ignoring me. I was unbelievably hurt, and I couldn't understand why my father wasn't glad to see me. He hadn't lived with us for almost a year. I wondered what I had done.
Excerpted from War Ready by Mary Lou Darst Copyright © 2011 by Mary Lou Darst. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Good-bye, Texas; Hello, Japan....................21
The Old House....................62
The Park, the temples, and Nara....................68
The American Compound....................73
A Japanese School....................80
A Sunday Drive....................84
Ah So Deska? (Is That So?)....................88
A Trip to Blytheville, Arkansas....................111
The Swimming Pool....................144
An Old Woman....................148
A Trip to Paris....................152
A Camping Trip....................167
The Mediterranean Cruise....................174
The Amethyst Ring....................182
About the Author....................197