Christmas and war
April 14, 2006
by Frances E. Hanson
Elbow deep in warm bread dough, fingers pause. My eyes catch the first light of dawn filtering through the willows on the north side of the river. Cautiously a doe and her fawn step from the willows to the river’s edge. The doe stands watch while her fawn sips the frigid water. In the pale light of dawn, ice crystals glisten on a Courier and Ives landscape. My fingers again quickly knead the warm fragrant dough.
Occasionally, the elasticity of the dough pops, breaking the silence in the warm cozy room. As my fingers form each roll, my mind races with sound bites and photo clips of the war against terrorism being fought right in my own town, state, and country. Archived in the recesses of my memory are other wars, military actions, and rumors of wars of my lifetime.
Forming roll after roll, I search these wars out, remembering and comparing: World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, Desert Storm and many smaller military actions, all fought with sacrifices by American sons and daughters; rarely by the country as a whole. Yet, none of them are engraved in my very being, as are memories of World War II.
Like most Americans in 1938, my Colorado farming parents were still struggling to recover from the Depression; never mind what Hitler did in far off Europe. However, by the winter of 1938-39, Americans knew a war brewed in Europe.
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In May of 1941, I celebrated my 4th birthday, and on Sunday Dec. 7, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor; we were in World War II. Geared up in just eight months, every ounce of America’s resources went to the war effort for the next 3 1/2 years. Jobs and money were more plentiful, but there was little to buy. The government portioned out to its citizens goods needed in everyday life via a little book of stamps called a “ration book.”
One pair of shoes a year for each person kept Dad busy at his cobblers bench repairing shoes. With seven growing children, shoes were handed down from the older child to the younger. My older brother’s shoes were saved for a brother younger. However, I wore his outgrown snow boots for the duration. Non-essential items, such as fur coats, jewelry, and fancy cars carried a huge luxury tax. Middle class America hunkered down for another long haul; only the wealthy celebrity type managed to live large on a smaller scale and party on.
Much to their regret, my parents were convinced by Mom’s folks that coal mining in Wyoming offered better financial opportunities than farming in Colorado. A farmer at heart, Dad found a job with the mine at Hanna, Wyo., bought a dairy near Elk Mountain and moved his family to a few acres on the edge of this small ranching community. Mom left her spacious Colorado farmhouse with electricity, running water and a bathroom, trusting that she would find the same in her new home. After a brief tour of the four-room house ” without running water, a bathroom, and the benefits of the Rural Electric Association ” Mom sat on the back porch and cried. His children, her children, and their children equaled seven, she wondered where they would all sleep and eat. Somehow, we managed in the little four-room house until Dad built the new kitchen and converted the old kitchen into another bedroom.
The new family “bathroom” consisted of a washtub behind the stove for bathing on Saturday night, and a little house at the end of a long trail that led into pitch-black night. An excursion to the bathroom required one to follow a narrow path across the yard to the little house perched on the edge of a hill near the cow trail. This little house had three or four holes in the seat and a stack of catalogues for “toilet tissue.”
During the winter, snow and ice had to be brushed from the seat. No one holed up in the bathroom in those days. Most winters I wished for an outhouse with a heating stove, an electric light or lantern, and some kind of softer paper. After dark, in the summer, a run down the trail might connect with a fluffy odorous skunk.
Like most families in town, a battery-operated light plant furnished our electricity. New batteries were out of the question, therefore the light plant ran two or three hours in the evening when Dad was home to start and stop it. Other times we used kerosene lamps.
We used the lamps sparingly, since kerosene was rationed too. One of my most hated jobs was washing the lamp chimneys. The dairy barn windows were boarded up tightly, kerosene lanterns lit the dairy barn year around when our 32 cows were milked.
Even the youngest child knew never to mess with any kind of light. Before any light could be lit, the heavy thick woolen blackout blanket must be down and well secured. No enemy bomber would find our house! Two worlds existed, that of children and that of adults. The lights and blackout blankets belonged to the adult word as did talk of the war. We listened, observed, said nothing, and accumulated a lifetime of information and life skills. Without being involved in heavy discussion with our parents or teachers, we knew about rationing, Victory Bonds, Victory gardens, preserving foods, and learned to be self-sufficient.
Probably the most important lessons we learned were self-discipline and to get on with life without complaining or whining.
We also learned to distrust anyone of German or Japanese decent. Although Dad knew nothing about his ancestors, let alone his distant cousins, the FBI came calling one summer day and gave him a genealogical lesson. Seems our last name is indeed German and, in 1749, the family came to this country. To make matters worse, a distant female cousin had married a German man who the FBI suspected to be a German spy. Much to Mom’s horror, the men went to the hay barn and tore the heck out of the neatly stacked hay she had worked so hard to put there. With our parents standing helplessly by, the men searched the attic and the house ” all but the room where Mom had stashed her children. We were not afraid; we trusted our parents to protect us and we did not know what it was all about until years later.
My older brother and I went along with Dad to one of the Air Raid warden’s homes where he purchased extra blackout blankets. This group of men at night watched the skies over the town at for enemy bombers.
Years later I learned that these blankets were made by the convicts at the State Penitentiary at Rawlins.
Federal laws restricting the use of prison-made goods were eliminated during the war, permitting the reopening of the woolen mills at the Pen. England depended on Wyoming sheep and inmates at the Wyoming State Pen to produce the required amount of wool blackout blankets needed during the war.
On Sept. 9, 1941, the Wyoming Eagle reported that, “Together, 469 blankets have been manufactured at the Wyoming State Penitentiary woolen mills here, and sent via the Interstate Motor Line to Houston, free of charge.” Historians say that a government contract of 8,000 blankets was completed in 30 days, ahead of schedule in April of 1943. The achievement won for the penitentiary a national service award from the War Production Board. A second contract of 12,000 blankets was undertaken May of 1943.
Nevertheless, from here on, the going was rough. The prisoners complained that the poor food, (no sugar, fresh vegetables, fruit, pastry, butter) made it impossible for the men to keep up their strength. In September of 1944, Secretary Joe Weppner of the State Board of Charities and Reform reported the prison was still behind on blanket orders because of the antiquated machinery and the shortage of young, able-bodied convicts.
During World War II, the War Department reported that the wool of 26 sheep was required to clothe one soldier during his first year of service. The war department released this information in the following manner:
“Mary had one little lamb, but each soldier in the United States army has to have 26 sheep to provide wool for his clothing for this first year of service. Each enlisted man received the equivalent of approximately 199 pounds of wool, as it comes from the sheep’s back.
According to statistics compiled by the Quartermaster Corps, it takes the wool output of 10 sheep to provide the soldier with clothing in the beginning of his military service and six more to maintain proper clothing stocks.
Another 10 sheep are required to provide the maintenance of clothing issued to the soldier. These needs make the army one of the largest consumers of wool products.”
Later, the government subsidized the sheep industry to insure a steady supply of wool for the nation’s army.
To be continued next week …