Mama had joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in January of 1943. The WAAC was the predecessor to the Women’s Army Corps, but the women soldiers didn’t have military status. The WAACs were needed overseas, but the Army couldn’t provide them protection, if captured, or benefits, if injured. In March of 1943, Congress opened hearings on converting the auxiliary unit into the Women’s Army Corps, which would’ve made the women part of the Army with equal pay, privileges, and protection. It would also make a much larger army and let the women take over some of the jobs men were doing, so the men could go fight.
Mama was stationed in Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia, the Training Center for the Women’s Third Army Corps. She had volunteered for Cooks and Bakers School because she came from a family of ten children and she thought she’d be good at cooking for a crowd. She was issued all the corps’ uniforms, but the cooks wore white short-sleeved dresses when they worked.
On April 17, 1943, Mama was in cooking school wearing her white uniform. A parade was scheduled on the post that day. The soldiers were expecting somebody important, a high up, but they didn’t know who it was. Mama was hoping for the president. She asked her instructor for permission to go, and her teacher said yes, and told her to put on her Army overcoat and button it all the way up to her neck to cover every inch of the white uniform.
Everybody else was already gathered at the parade grounds. As Mama ran out of the training center and down the sidewalk, a cannon began to fire, announcing the arrival of the guest. She counted the shots. 1, 2, 3. She got to the end of the sidewalk. 4, 5, 6. She ran down the steps. 7, 8, 9. She neared the street. 10, 11, 12. The cannon blasts kept coming.13, 14, 15. She saw a black car approaching. 16, 17, 18. She stopped at the curb. 19, 20, 21. She froze. Twenty-one shots. That’s HIM!
The President of the United States of America was in the black open-air vehicle coming right at her. She collected herself and did what she was trained to do. She stood at attention, straight as a board. She saluted. She had to get the salute exactly right, at the tip of the hat. She knew to hold it until it was returned.
The car stopped right in front of her. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sat in the back seat of the convertible, close enough for her to put her hand down and touch him. She looked right into his eyes. His dog Fala, a Scottish terrier who could curl his lips into a smile, was sitting in the President’s lap. Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, the female director of the women’s corps, was sitting beside the president. They both saluted Mama.
The president wore a black cape, and his face was white as snow. He smiled at Mama and said, “That was good, soldier.”
That day, President Roosevelt reviewed three thousand WAACs on the parade grounds at Barnhardt Circle and inspected the women’s training program to determine for himself whether they should become part of the Army. On July 3, 1943, three months later, he signed the bill into law, and the Women’s Army Corps was born.
Mama was most likely the first soldier the president inspected on the post that day. I think Mama was the reason the auxiliary unit became the Women’s Army Corps.
“What is your favorite candy bar?” That was the question posed on Facebook last week as we spiraled down to Halloween with visions of — not sugarplums — but sugar in our heads.
That got me to thinking. When I was a little girl, I didn’t eat much candy at home because my mama always had a chocolate cake baked, and I could eat two or three slices at one time, sometimes with canned peaches on top, sometimes with a glass of milk. When I visited the grandparents during summers, though, it was an afternoon treat for all the kids to get in Papaw’s old aqua and white Nash and drive up the dirt road to Old Man George Smith’s Store at the intersection of Highway 495 and the old Meridian highway, both dirt with washed-out ruts.
I don’t know whether George was old or not, but my grandfather always called him Old Man George Smith. Some of my favorite candy bars came from Old Man George Smith’s Store. It was a country store, made out of raw wood with raw wood floors and a squeaky front screen door and a side door that stayed open. I think even as a child, I liked the contrast of the blackened, weathered wood and the sweet, sugary candy bar treats.
Old Man George Smith’s was where I learned to like PayDays, Zero bars, and Hollywood bars. To this day a PayDay, caramel nougat coated in peanuts, and an ice-cold Coke pop in my mind when I stop for gas on a trip. But today’s ice-cold Cokes are not the same as yesteryear’s Coca-Colas in glass bottles stuck down in a red chest full of ice. Today, I can barely tolerate a Zero candy bar — caramel and dark nougat covered with white fudge — because it is so sweet. Still it’s the only white candy bar.
And then there was the Hollywood candy bar. A fluffy white nougat center with caramel and peanuts and a darker chocolate coating . . . this candy was different and delicious. By far my favorite.
After the summer I was ten and had my share of Hollywoods at Old Man George Smith’s Store, I turned eleven on Labor Day and started sixth grade. Sixth graders were allowed to cross the street in front of the school during lunch hour to get candy from a neighborhood market. I walked over there every day and got a Hollywood bar. There was an open-flame gas heater right in front of the checkout counter. I’m not sure why anyone would position fire at the legs of paying patrons, but the owner did, and one day I wore my brand new worsted wool outfit from Kamien’s — plaid in shades of gray, black, and white, with a pleated skirt and a thin leather belt tied across the matching wool top — and the skirt was just below the knees where the fire was, and I smelled something scorching. I smothered the smoke out before the wool burst into flames and consumed me with it. It was scary. And it ruined my new expensive outfit.
And my taste for candy.
I didn’t go back to the store any more. Hemline styles got a little shorter the next year so Mama hemmed my skirt and I wore it to seventh grade. I also started having pimples, so I quit eating chocolate. For two whole years I did not eat chocolate. And with that set into motion, all through high school and college and even into adulthood, I didn’t eat candy bars.
It doesn’t matter, though, because in 1996, Hershey acquired the Hollywood Brands company that manufactured PayDay, Zero, and Hollywood, and discontinued the Hollywood bar. What a shame. It could beat the pants off a Hershey Bar.
Brilliant yellows and oranges, they ruffle in the wind when the cold comes and soon are tossed to the ground.
Autumn makes me think. For me, it’s a moving inward time, a time when I want to stare at the October cobalt blue sky and the yellows and oranges plastered to it and make sense of this thing we call life. Because in winter I will be inside, and a barren landscape will be outside.
In early October I was on a panel for a session at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville — memoirs of grief and healing: “What It Takes to Heal.” I shared from my book Remember the Dragonflies and what helped me to move forward after losing a loved one. That talk is here.
And now that my book has been on the market for one year, I will say this. I can see a difference in people and in the way they view my book. Some don’t want to think about losing a spouse at all. They refuse to accept that it might happen to them; they don’t want to consider it. At all. And they don’t want to read my book and know reality. The attitude is: if it happens, I will deal with it then. I understand that. I also understand that reading about realities of life helps us to prepare for the ways we might react if and when it happens to us. I understand this because I’ve done it all my life. It was my approach to life. But that’s me.
Then there are others . . . other strong women who are aware that in all likelihood, at some point, it WILL happen to them. They embrace it and read my book and take note of things that happen to a surviving spouse — the feelings of isolation that come, the death departments of credit card companies that call with coldness, the friends who don’t understand and don’t call, the light bulbs that go out, the vacuum cleaner that breaks, the holidays — and how one woman handled them all. These women store away for a time well out in the future, and when death comes, they will hopefully pull out that memory and know, Oh, that happened to her and this is what she did. And they are able to better stand up to it. They will hopefully do it far better than I.
I wrote my book for these women. The women who have not lost a spouse. So they will know that they can make it, too. So when it does happen and they are thrown to the ground, they will not be trampled upon . . . without at least knowing that they are going to be trampled upon.
Autumn leaves, while they are still hanging on in all their brilliance and beauty, remind us to go inward for a moment and prepare for the coming time. Because at some point, life will boil what’s in your crucible down to the salt of “you.” Now is the time to become aware of the possibilities and to consider the substance of “you.” Now is the time to get to know YOU.
Not only in loss and grief, but in other facets of life as well . . . Autumn makes me think.
This is it. Labor Day. The end of summer.
The calendar doesn’t know that. Officially, summer has three more weeks. The weather doesn’t know that. It’ll be 93 today.
The pale pink, almost white, impatiens at the front of my house are in their heyday. I will plant this color again next year. I love pastels — the lighter the better. Whites, pinks, lavender. This is a girl house; it should be this way.
But school has started, and so has football, and people have other interests than flowers, the grill, and the pool in September. By September, summer is overdone, overripe — a yawn.
This year, I grew tired of summer in July. I don’t know if it was the way-too-hot Arizona vacation or not being able to sit on my deck because of the heat or not having the time or stamina to participate in any fun activities near home. I haven’t taken the kayak out at all this summer. I miss the peaceful water. I miss paddling, listening to riffles, and laughing.
By Labor Day the trees are usually a faded light green with a hint of yellow here and there, like they are losing energy. But this year as I look out in the distance, the trees lining Aenon Creek are as deep green as May. The maples and tulip poplar in my yard are green from sun and a good rain. The crape myrtles are bursting with blooms. They always just keep on going to the end.
And that’s the way it should be. Keep on blooming. Not like my tomatoes that dried up and wilted down and stopped producing. Not like my river birch that just gave up a month ago, now with only a hundred leaves left maybe. It needs more sustenance than it can draw from my hard-baked ground.
I, too, have been gearing down for fall. I keep thinking that in two weeks, or three, we might have a cool spell. I think of cold nights, fires in the chimenea, a cold breeze on my face, fleece jackets, and going inside for winter. I even made a pot of vegetable soup yesterday. Who makes soup on Labor Day?
I need to be like the pinks and purples and whites — embracing summer till the last — denying that fall is before me and the cold will come and the flowers will fade.
There’s still life in September, and my life is a picture of that. I’m a September baby. I took my first breath the day before Labor Day that long-ago year. I should be gearing up, rather than winding down. I should be laughing. I should be looking up into the heavens and thanking God for every breath.
Not a summer goes by, not one, that I don’t think back to my childhood summers in the sweltering hot cotton land of the Mississippi Delta and the contrapuntal oak-lined Fifth Avenue that ran south from Highway 8 past the college and ended when it T’ed into Yale Street. Yale marked the end of town. There was a cotton field on the other side of it.
Fifth Avenue had sidewalks that were in solid shade from Yale ten blocks north to the college at Court Street.
That was my world in 1960 when I was old enough to ride my bike a bit farther than just in circles in front of my house on Deering, which intersected Fifth halfway between Yale and the college.
Fifth had been there a long time — more than forty years, because that’s when Delta State College was founded. The town was ninety years old by then. Houses on Fifth Avenue were established with their own tall trees and lushly landscaped front yards.
The oaks on Fifth Avenue were big and old and twisted up out of the ground to form a canopy over the street. Tree roots pushed the concrete sidewalk up and cracked it and separated it in places. That made it even better for riding bikes on. A girl needs a bump to ride over.
I got my bike for Christmas when I was seven. It was an aqua color with cream trim and a tan seat, from Santa Claus and Sears. I rode it until I married fourteen years later.
Summers would have been pretty miserable without that shady sidewalk. Up to the north six blocks was the Gold Star market across from the college. Mostly, though, I rode south to Yale Street, where a Standard Oil service station was my destination. I’d buy a six-ounce, ice cold Coca Cola, some bubble gum, and five red hot jawbreakers — the ones that were red and hot and melted down to white and then at the center was a black cool taste. I’d also get a few comic books — Archie, Betty, and Veronica or Tom and Jerry or Little Lulu. I’d drink my Coke and ride my bike back up Fifth in the cool shade, then turn right at Deering and pump hard three houses home over the hot concrete under a blistering sun. It was a hundred degrees all summer in the Delta.
There weren’t many trees on my street. My Delta Heights subdivision was still fairly new. There were no amenities, no playground, no pool, no sidewalks, just houses back then. My parents knew how important trees were — for shade, to help with electric bills, to provide a sun cover for children to play — so they planted a walnut tree in the far back corner of the yard and two tall pecan trees smack in the middle of the yard. They planted tall hedges around the yard and some flowering bushes. Mama always had zinnias and morning glories. We didn’t have a mimosa tree, though, and I always wanted one.
Mama put up a badminton net between those two pecan trees, and we also played croquet in the shade of the trees. We had a swing set, a tall sliding board, a merry-go-round, and a sand box. I made many a mud pie in pecan tree shade. We stretched a Slip ‘n Slide across the yard and squealed and slid in the shade across that. We had a picnic table that Mama painted green and put under one of the pecan trees. I did all my summer reading on that picnic table in the shade of the pecan trees.
Every fall the trees would drop nuts, and it was an ordeal for Dad who shelled them as he watched TV at night. Mama made countless chocolate cakes with chopped pecans on top, and every Christmas she made her famous toasted sugar-coated, orange cinnamon pecans. Dad would always accidentally leave pieces of the bitter quick in with the sweet nutty meat of the pecans, and it was a common thing for someone in the house to bite into it and yell a disgruntled, “Da-ad!”
Now I wonder what my life would have been like without shade trees. I grew up in the outdoors, playing outdoor games, loving the outdoors and trees and plants and flowers and fresh air and grass and stars and the smell of green growing things. My imagination grew there, too.
I’ve lived my life thankful for Fifth Avenue and for those Deering Street pecan trees. And grateful to my parents for teaching me to appreciate nature.
My dad grew up on a farm. I now own part of the land — which used to be in crops and timber — that belonged to my dad, my grandfather, his father, and his father. I’m the fifth generation. The land is now a pine plantation. Yes, I own a tree farm, a real Mississippi plantation. I own lots and lots of trees!
But I live in a new subdivision in Tennessee. We have no trees. We do have amenities; we have a half-mile sidewalk uphill and down to the playground and pool in direct sun — not a tree anywhere in sight, just hot concrete. I feel so sorry for the children who make that walk daily to the pool . . . or maybe they ride in a cold car . . . and I remember my Fifth Avenue and my bike rides in the cool shade of old oaks. And I remember my play in the shade of my back yard pecan trees. And I remember summer fun by the creek under ancient trees on my grandfather’s farm.
And I pity today’s children whose parents only value pools that are a long hot walk away and hot playgrounds and hot benches to sit on and watch their kids swing and play in a blistering hot summer sun.
Things that get in us when we’re children stay with us. We might not understand. We might just feel fear, insecurity, uncertainty, and dwell on our perceptions. That’s the way it was with me. Whatever was going on in the U.S. when I was ten, eleven, twelve, and thirteen got in me and never let go. I feared the H-bomb. There was an overwhelming fear that nuclear war would break out between the United States and Russia in the late 50s and early 60s. We even had bomb drills in school. People built and stocked bomb shelters. It didn’t help in 1960 to see Nikita Khrushchev on TV banging his shoe on the podium. He said, “We will bury you!”
How does a little girl sleep at night? I remember leaning on my window sill after bedtime, looking up at stars in the black sky and smelling the honeysuckle on the back fence and wondering what was out there and what if it came down on me and my little town.
I remember visiting one set of grandparents in the city of Cincinnati and looking up beyond tall buildings and worrying that a bomb would hit at any time. After all, it was a city, and cities were targets. I remember visiting the other set of grandparents on a farm in the Mississippi Hill Country. At the edge of the woods was a gully, deep, thirty feet, maybe forty. A natural spring came out of the ground at the bottom and ran in a gentle stream the length of the land. The red clay cliff walls deterred any climbing down to the bottom, but I could walk into the gully via the stream bed. One summer day I did just that and pulled myself up to a protrusion in the wall and sat for a while thinking. I looked up at the sunshine filtering through ancient trees at the top. No one could ever find me here. I vowed to come to the gully when it happened — end times, the bomb, the apocalypse, the burning of Babylon, the crash and failure of society. After all, everyone needs a plan.
I wonder now if I passed on my fear of end times to my own children. When they were little, we had our own secret code word that reflected catastrophe. I won’t say what it was, because it still is our code word.
Just yesterday as I told one son I was preparing to buy a new car, he said, “Good, make sure you have a sleeping bag, a tent, and some survival supplies in the cargo area, and you can head this way [North Carolina] when the time comes.” (Actually, I do have two survival bins of supplies in the garage next to the back of my car, ready to load in an emergency.) Just yesterday I sent the other son a text message and in the middle of it, that code word happened to appear. “Are you trying to tell me something?” he replied. No, I wasn’t. The apples don’t fall too far from the tree.
I’m thinking about all this now because the other day I found an old book that my husband bought in September 1969, so written on the inside cover. Alas, Babylon is the title. It’s a novel published in 1959 about nuclear war with Russia–the dropping of the bomb–and the end of the world. I read this book when I was child, maybe twelve, and it made an impact on me, not only because the subject matter was what it was, but also because it was really an adult book with adult language and situations, and my mother let me read it. One summer week I lay on top of the picnic table in the back yard under the pecan tree, sap dripping on me, and read about Randy in the fictional town of Fort Repose, Florida, near McCoy Air Force Base, who got the warning of doom from his Strategic Air Command brother Mark and experienced the bomb and the rebuilding of life after.
I guess I never got over the Cold War fears of the 50s and early 60s. By the mid-60s, though, Kennedy had been assassinated, Vietnam was on the world news every night on TV, and the bombs and fires and fiery actions of the civil rights movement were on the local news. And a girl tends to push back the H-bomb when all that is happening.
Now I return to read Alas, Babylon. The original version in paperback — the complete text of the original hardcover edition, not one word omitted. My sons read the book in high school as required reading, but it was a cleaned-up, dumbed-down version. This is the real sixty-cent deal.
The words on the back cover still apply today to whatever “bomb situation” comes up:
THE DAY AFTER THE BOMB DROPPED the thousands of years of “progress” that had covered the treacheries and weaknesses of ordinary man with a thin veneer of civilization were dissolved and melted like snow on the desert’s dusty face.
All this makes me want to say: Please, America, for the sake of little girls and boys everywhere, let’s work together and do this thing right. Let’s give and take, let’s don’t push for radical extremes, let’s don’t fight for our own ONE way, let’s be tolerant of others. Let’s work together for the good of all. Let’s keep “progress” and keep it going.
We were in Navajo Nation in Arizona somewhere along the hot, barren Highway 89 near its junction with 160 which goes to Tuba City. It was the fourth day of our summer trip — seven of us, family, from Memphis, Oxford and Tupelo, Mississippi, and the Nashville area — and we four ladies had not yet bought any jewelry. We’d talked for months about buying earrings from a real local artisan. So when we saw the long segmented line of roadside vendor stands, we all yelled, “Stop!” The white Ford van pulled into the desert dirt in a cloud of dust, and we all piled out to look at the wares.
Judi and the men were quick to get back on the van, but Lee, Sally, and I got caught up midway at the tables of a Navajo man named Lawrence Alfred, who was wearing a red and black Redskins cap. A Washington Redskins football team cap?
He was interested in languages, he said, dialects in particular, and he wanted to know about ours. We were all Mississippi born and raised (Cleveland and Oxford), and he asked where the Southern dialect had its origin. I tried to tell him about my Scots-Irish ancestors and how they settled in the eastern mountains and then migrated into Alabama and Mississippi looking for land, and how the speech of all related settlers influenced the language patterns of the people in the South. I did not tell him how my people moved to Noxubee County, Mississippi, in 1833 after the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty was signed, opening the land for white settlement.
I bought a pendant from him with a blue-green turquoise stone that was made by his uncle.
Then Lee turned the conversation and asked Lawrence Alfred about his Redskins hat, and we got his story.
He was a Redskins fan, and the name, in a push to be changed so as not to offend Native Americans, did not offend him. He knew the history, he said. He pointed to the red rock mesas all around us. “We got red clay from the mesa and used it as a sun screen. We rubbed it on our arms, and so people called us the red men.” He would be offended if the team did change its name.
History explains the meaning. Awareness brings acceptance. I wish my people could understand the importance of a name or a concept based on its history, or even historical truth. But as terms and their interpretation change to succeeding generations who are either clueless or embarrassed, my people want to change history instead of understanding it and learning from it.
Lawrence wore his grandfather’s military pin on the cap. His grandfather, now deceased, was a World War II veteran. He was a Navajo Code Talker. Johnny Alfred was his name.
The little-known language of Arizona’s Navajo Code Talkers helped lead the Allied forces to victory over Japan in WWII. The Navajo men developed an unbreakable code alphabet from their language by attaching familiar words to letters. For example, one way to say the word “Navy” in Navajo code would be tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-ked-di-glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca). The enemy could not break the code. The Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945.
In 1982 President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation honoring them. “Equipped with the only foolproof, unbreakable code in the history of warfare, the code talkers confused the enemy with an earful of sounds never before heard by code experts,” Reagan said.
In 2000 President Bill Clinton awarded the original 29 Code Talkers the Congressional Silver Medal.
I felt a kinship with Lawrence. My dad was a WWII veteran. Then I learned Johnny’s wife was named Lucille, as was my mother. Johnny Alfred was 22 years old when he enlisted in the Marines in October of 1942. He survived four of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific: Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian, and Okinawa. He brought honor to the Navajo Nation and the Navajo language.
No wonder his grandson is interested in languages.
Navajo flags were flown at half-staff when Johnny Alfred died in 2011. Johnny Alfred brought honor to America.
The beauty of America is in the differences of its people. We are of different nationalities, religions, political beliefs, educational levels, skills, and language backgrounds, but when our country is threatened, we come together as Americans and we take care of our land. (Or we used to . . . . )
Lawrence’s aunt drove up and came over to enter our conversation. She had been out on the mesa gathering pieces of petrified wood. She gave one to Lee, Sally, and me.
This is a family who wants to keep its stories alive. I treasure this, and I treasure meeting Lawrence, his aunt, buying his uncle’s pendant, receiving the gift of petrified wood . . . and most of all, hearing the stories.