Saturday, September 20, 2008

Return to Alabama, 1945



Here is the continuation of my mother's story of her family in the years of World War II, beginning with the sea voyage from the Philippines to the USA. They settled in Birmingham, Alabama where my grandfather's family had lived for generations. (The photo above shows my mother and her brother David, wearing the knickers he so disliked.)
My memories of the sea voyage to the US are that of a storm at sea where the ship was said to have come within 6 degrees of capsizing. I remember a long dark night with the ship rocking, people screaming and tumbling all over the place, suitcases and other articles sliding back and forth, and everyone getting severely sea sick. We were all confined below for safety, and my mother held me close to her in her bunk so I would not tumble around and end up with broken bones or worse yet, a concussion. During this voyage a US Destroyer could be seen in the distant horizon protecting us from Japanese submarines because we were still at war with Japan. Our ship the USS Eberle, as I recall it was a Coast Guard ship, had to take a zig zag course in order to elude the Japanese submarines that could possibly be stalking us.

It was spring of 1945 and the Atomic bomb was yet to be dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of that year. (On my brother's birthday, August 7th.) I recall landing briefly at Honolulu and watching a US Navy Band play 'Anchors Aweigh' and parade on the pier far below us. We then landed in San Pedro California, and were put up in a hotel by the Red Cross before boarding a train to Alabama.

A news reporter somehow got word of our presence in the hotel because he came and took photos of me holding an apple and an orange. I had never before seen fruit such as that. It made quite an appealing human interest war story.
The train trip across the country seemed endless. I remember traveling across Texas, and asking my mother repeatedly if we were still in Texas.

When we arrived in Alabama we ended up at my grandparents’ farm in Hollins, Alabama. Both my grandparents were still alive at that time and my father's sister, Lena Vernon and her husband, Frank, and son Raymond, lived in the house next door. We liked Raymond and had good times with him. My Aunt Lena, who was the only girl among all sons, was the one in charge, as my grandmother's health was failing and she was paralyzed in a wheel chair. I remember my grandparents, Allison Missouri (Watson), and Elisha David Strong, as being rather mild mannered people who were quite affectionate. My grandmother had given birth to eleven children, nine of whom had survived. Of the two who died, one was a boy named John Heflin who died when just a baby, and Floy Ruth, who, I believe, lived to be about the age of nine. (Southerners like two first names). The story goes that she ate green apples causing severe gastro-intestinal distress which brought on her death. One of their sons was a flier whose plane crashed during the war while flying over the Himalayas. I recall being quite fond of all of my uncles and their wives, as well as my cousins. My father was the youngest in the family, and I was the youngest of all the cousins.


It should be noted here that my grandfather was born in 1856 and lived to be a hundred years old. He loved the fact that he had lived to see cars travel 'a mile a minute', as well as witness the age of the jet plane. My fondest memory of my grandfather was when he would take me with him when he would walk to the train depot to pick up the mail. Hollins was such a 'backwater' that the train only stopped if someone was disembarking, otherwise the mail bag was thrown from the train onto a sort of hook attached to a tall pole. The depot manager would go out and get the bag then sort the mail. People had to go to the train depot and pick up their mail.


While at my grandparents farm I remember lots of wonderful good southern food, my favorite being thick fresh milk straight from the family cow, and hot buttered biscuits (home churned butter). There was a mule named Ida, and the cow had a name as well but I no longer remember what it was. There were lots of chickens that clucked around the chicken yard and one rooster who made their lives miserable. At night they roosted in muscadine vines in the chicken yard. It was a special treat to get to feed the chickens. There was a smoke house, but that was where my brother and Raymond got washed by my aunt in a big wash tub. I got to be washed in the kitchen sink. There was no indoor plumbing and we had to use the dreaded outhouse built over a small creek. During the night we used chamber pots that were kept under the bed. My Aunt was a meticulous housekeeper and very industrious. She and my mother were not fond of each other, but my mother loved my grandmother and I think it was mutual.


During this time my mother and father would make trips to Birmingham to find a house for us and a job for my father. He finally obtained a position with the Internal Revenue Service in Birmingham. Before we moved we had a huge family reunion and everyone brought clothes, and household goods to help us get started in our new life. My brother did not like hand me down clothes, especially knickers. He said that no one wore knickers anymore. (To this day he is particular about what he wears.) The whole family being there was, of course, an occasion to serve lots of good southern cooking at a huge table. There would be several kinds of meat such as ham, roast beef and chicken, 'Irish' potatoes, and sweet potatoes, lots of fresh vegetables from the garden, glasses of milk, sweet ice tea and hot buttered biscuits. The milk was thick with bubbles on top and I would go around and pop the bubbles in everyone's glass until my mother stopped me saying that was unsanitary. For dessert, there were several kinds of freshly baked fruit pies as well as home made cakes. All the leftovers went to the pigs. Southerners did not eat heated over food. Everything was made fresh for each meal.


After we moved to Birmingham my brother, father and I would still visit the farm, but my mother would avoid going. That is another story. As for me, I loved it there, but I now understand that my mother did not want to spend her weekends in another woman's house who was hostile to her.


There were many pleasant experiences at my grandparent's farm and in the neighborhood where I grew up in Birmingham. In spite of the perils and trauma of the War, I remember having a happy childhood and feeling loved, protected and nurtured by my family. My mother, as you may have noted, is the heroine of this story, and my sister was indispensable. I have lived my entire life being in awe of them and their courage and resourcefulness during some of the most daunting years of our modern era.

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2 comments:

Madeleine said...

Was this account of your mother's experiences taken from a journal? If so, what a treasure that must be. It's easy for one to see the source of your writing talent!

elena maria vidal said...

No, she wrote it all out on the computer, I believe. Yes, she writes well, thank you!