Thistles Cut, Ironing Done


In late May of 1943 I quit teaching in Markesan to join Howard in Louisville, Kentucky where he had found a two-room apartment for us. It was only a few blocks from Nichols General Hospital where he was assigned to Personnel. He spent only his working hours at the hospital, even coming home for lunch. The short walk was easy for him. At the end of it he frequently jumped the ornamental fence that surrounded our yard. He said that jumping the fence made the distance to the door shorter. Besides the gate had a squeaky hinge. Perhaps this boyish feat was evidence of his gratitude for our being able to live in Louisville at a time when being in the Army offered less attractive possibilities. When he was drafted in 1941 Howard weighed one hundred twenty-two pounds. By this time he had gained a few pounds but at five feet ten inches he was still very slim and jumping over a fence was easy.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 Howard was recalled into the Army and sent to Fort Custer near Battle Creek, Michigan with the 12th General Hospital. That January of 1942 they began waiting to be sent overseas. No one knew when it would happen. In late August the Hospital was moved to Ft. Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis. Soon after, he wrote a letter to me. He said, "I may be here three days, or three weeks or even longer. Come and let's get married."

I had a signed contract to teach in Markesan again. It would not be easy to say to the school principal so late in the season, "I will not be there to teach third and fourth grades." I was torn between keeping my word and wanting to follow Howard's suggestion. Although the teacher who preceded me had been a married woman of many years, the rule for me and my colleagues was that any woman who married while under contract was instantly dismissed. I knew that I had to inform the authorities of my plans.

I had an uncle on the School Board. Uncle Charley was a power in Markesan and in the community, but it was soon evident that Aunt Ida was even more a power as far as my position was concerned. I went to tell them I wanted to break my contract. It was a long evening of uncomfortable discussion. I was not used to confronting my elders and especially Aunt Ida and Uncle Charley. They didn't see how I could think of not honoring my contract. "How would that look?" And part of Aunt Ida's argument was, "You can't get married. Your father is ill." That thought struck a real guilt chord in me. I certainly didn't want to do anything to hurt my father. My response was, "If I were a flighty seventeen years old, I might agree with you, but I am twenty-six and not an impulsive person." (My father lived ten more years and after Sheldon's death my parents and I needed Howard's patient help caring for my Dad.)

I couldn't defy Uncle Charley and Aunt Ida in their living room so I agreed to go home and telephone Howard. I was supposed to tell him that I would not meet him in Indianapolis to get married. As I drove home on that quiet summer evening I contemplated the consequences of turning down Howard's proposal. Perhaps I might destroy Howard's courage to suggest marriage even in the distant future. I wasn't going to take that chance. I didn't call him.

The School Principal solved the problem by letting me take September off and plan to return for the rest of the year to teach. On the first day of school, I hurried to arrange lesson plans to start off the substitute teacher and caught the train for Indianapolis. Margaret Sieber, a college friend, teaching in Two Rivers, Wisconsin arrived in time for the wedding ceremony at the Belmont Church of Christ on September 12th, 1942. Charles McRee from the 12th General served as the other witness. Winston W. Tynes read the marriage vows. He had never seen or heard of either one of us before.

Even though meat was rationed the first dinner I cooked for Howard when he came in from the base in the evening was a beef roast with carrots and potatoes in the same pan. He was pleased because Army meals nearly always had seasoning of one kind or another that he didn't like. But one day when he came in unexpectedly I offered to warm up the Campbell's chicken soup I had had for lunch. He said, "No, it has onion in it." I didn't think it did, but when I read the list of ingredients on the can, he was right. Even though I had had the soup hours before he could still detect the odor in the air. I learned that I need never try to fool him on foods.

Nowadays when I find it difficult to find a quiet time I can remember those weeks I spent in Indianapolis. There was not much work for me to do and I knew no one in this strange city. In my walks to find a grocery store, I discovered the Public Library not far from where we lived. That pleased me. Since I was a temporary resident I did most of my reading in the pleasant atmosphere of the library. In my rooms, I wrote letters, a dozen a week. It was a way of talking to someone.

Before September ended, Howard was taken out of the 12th General Hospital when it was being sent to North Africa. He was sent to Abilene, Texas for a few months and then to Louisville, Kentucky.

When he arrived in Louisville late in 1942 he visited various congregations of the church and made friends. That made finding an apartment easier. We shared the bathroom and refrigerator with Mrs. Minzenberger and her teenage children. Mrs. Minzenberger was a widow. She had made a kitchen-living area in the basement for herself and family and rented her first floor kitchen and one bedroom to us. I used her wringer-type washer to do my laundry and hung the clothes out to dry on the line in the back yard. (Laundromats were not yet available with their automatic washers.) Many defense workers and military couples were glad to find this kind of limited accommodation.

On my arrival I plunged into housekeeping in the two rooms in the manner I had been taught early in life. Sweeping, dusting and mopping were not my favorite jobs. One day when Howard came home I described how thoroughly I had cleaned. With a big smile, he turned to rub his hand over the top edge of the door facing. He said, "You did?" as he showed me the black dust on his fingers. What was up that high was out of my sight and didn't bother me, but he had learned how Army officers inspected barracks. Every house used soft coal for winter heating. Factories burned it year around. The air in winter in Louisville even had visible flecks of coal dust which collected on our faces as we walked outside. After winter the walls of the rooms had enough so that an accidental wipe left a lighter streak. I prepared meals. I had much to learn about cooking so I spent a lot of time fixing food. It was complicated by our limited income and limited space and equipment. Since Howard was in the Army he did not have ration books. We had to manage on mine.

Each civilian had ration stamps in order to buy meat and canned goods as well as sugar. Beef required more coupons than pork. Chicken or fish took fewer and liver, heart and kidneys required least of all. To have hamburger was a very special treat. In those years there were no fast food places of any kind and having a hamburger on a bun was a rarity.

As early as the spring of 1941 the government rationed sugar. Teachers were called on for extra duty to meet with each family to sign them up for the ration books. Although I was teaching in Markesan I was asked to issue the books to the farm folks of the school district in which my parents lived in Wisconsin. I was given the forms and printed instructions late on the day I was to meet the families at the country school house. I went to the abandoned building that evening and dusted off places for the people to sit and a place to spread my papers. (I think there was an electric light instead of a kerosene lamp.)

I hurriedly tried to study the instructions. They were threatening about the consequences to anyone misrepresenting the number of people in their family or about misuse or theft of the ration books. In filling out the forms for each family, I ruined two. The forms were serially numbered. I wanted to be sure that these two did not fall into mischievous hands. When I returned to my home after the long evening of responsibility I wanted to take good care of those two forms. There were just a few coals in the kitchen wood-burning stove. I dropped those two forms in and watched them burn. A short time later as I was dropping off to sleep in my bed, a horrible thought jerked me wide awake. I had burned those forms! I had no way to prove I wasn't using them for my own purposes! I would be held accountable! Over and over in my mind I saw those papers burning in the stove all the rest of the night. Although the prescribed fine of $10,000 was more money than my family or I ever hoped to see, it was the disgrace that would come to us if I were prosecuted that bothered me more.

There were other kinds of rationing. During the two years we lived in Louisville rubber was scarce. Elastic was no longer made for use in ladies underwear. Rubber for making automobile tires was also limited. It was not easy to buy new ones. Soon car owners were discussing the merits of retreads and the best place to have tires retreaded. Rayon and nylon were used for military purposes too, so that ladies hosiery was very dear. Most of us learned to try to mend the runs neatly, but catching a thread on my hosiery accidentally was still unforgettable.

Those years in Louisville everyone shopped at the nearest neighborhood grocery. I walked the few blocks to the store. I soon learned that a sack full of groceries that seemed light when I lifted it off the counter could get very heavy by the time I reached our apartment.

Soon after my arrival Howard introduced me to John and Anne Lacaria who lived in rooms not far from us. John was a handsome short young man with brown hair and brown eyes. He worked in the finance department in Nichols General. Anne was proud of a bit of Indian blood. She wore her light brown hair shoulder length setting off her lovely features. When she first saw my short curly hair and attractive dress, she said, "Oh, I thought you would be wearing a long-sleeved black dress with white collar and cuffs and have greasy hair pulled back in a tight bun. You even wear lipstick." She had heard some of Howard's religious convictions and had imagined that my costuming would be conservative in the extreme. (Her speech was even more frank than mine.) Anne and I spent time together while "the boys" were at work. One spring day we each took a sack lunch and walked about a mile to Iroquois Park. The park had lovely trees and hills with a view of the distance. It was springtime with redbirds singing from their perches among the opening blooms of white dogwood trees. It was hard to think that elsewhere in the world there was horror and ugliness.

I often walked to the branch of the City Library near our apartment. One day the librarian mentioned that since school was in session her high school helper was unavailable. "Would you like to take her place three afternoons a week," she asked? Would I!! To have the chance to be surrounded by books even in that one room library was a dream come true. I would have a chance to select books for my own reading at my leisure. I might even have time to read "on-the-job." I replied that I would ask Howard what he thought of the idea. The work would be only a few hours and paid thirty-three cents an hour. When I told Howard about this opportunity he smiled and said, "Yes, you can do that if you give away all that you earn." When we married we had discussed how much better it was to learn to live on one salary, rather than start out on two salaries and then perhaps someday to have to try to live on one. We were both convinced it was the right way. I was perfectly satisfied with his answer. All I wanted was to work at that library. Our decisions on a wife's working may have been a result of our personalities. I was willing to let Howard go out to face the work-world. We have watched others build fine lives and families where both husband and wife worked.

As three of our grown children and their spouses sat at our dinner table recently, a daughter-in-law, Alice, asked me, "How did it happen that you never went back to teaching school after your marriage?" I was not prepared to answer the question immediately. My first response was, "I didn't like teaching all that well." To be a teacher had been a decision handed down to me by my family and by the economic situation when I entered college. My aunts had been teachers. It was one of the respected professions for women. A state teacher's college was one of the least expensive ways to get an education. I found actual teaching stressful. It is not easy to maneuver a roomful of children all day long.

I continued answering Alice's question by telling of Howard's response to the opportunity for me to work in Louisville library. One of the girls questioned, "Was Howard serious when he told you you had to give your earnings away?" "Yes," I said. Then I explained our idea of living on one salary and even though the amount I would earn at the library was very small, we didn't feel the need to change our commitment. These questions by our own young people emphasized how much ways of living have changed since 1942.

As I enjoyed the afternoons in the Library I discovered new areas of reading. I started with books about and by Admiral Byrd and went on to those about Amundsen, Scott and other South Polar Explorers. Reading about their suffering in the extreme cold kept me cool in our hot airless apartment. Air conditioning was still a dream in the minds of inventors. Looking into some of the accounts of polar exploration today I noticed that adventures on Antarctica are very different from those early explorers. One of the other books I remember reading was Big Family by Bellamy. It was hilariously funny. I read much of it aloud to Howard and later I checked it out for my father to read from a library in Wisconsin. He thoroughly enjoyed it too, even though we had to help him turn the pages of the book propped up on the table before him. He remembered growing up in a big family.

One steady library user was a woman of medium age who dressed garishly. She read only the lightest fiction. One day she asked for help in choosing a book. She had exhausted the shelves from which she usually made her choices. I looked around and finally chose a book, saying to her, "Here's one you might like. It's kind of trashy." She checked out the book. After she left, the librarian turned to me and asked, "Do you know what you said to her?" My mind was a blank. I said, "I have no idea." Whereupon the Librarian quoted my statement about the book being a trashy one. I had been completely unaware that my honest appraisal had been an insulting remark.

Howard began a pattern that continued down through the years. Just before lunchtime he might telephone from the Hospital to say, "I'm bringing Doc with me for lunch." (Doc Allen was a friend who had known Howard's brothers, Anglo and Lloyd in Pepperdine College in California. Now Doc, a young chiropractor was stationed at Nichols General.) Even though food was rationed and Howard's salary was small, I was expected, or considered able, to produce a presentable meal on short notice for an extra person or even whole families.

We met a number of young couples at church. All of them were in Louisville temporarily. Doc and Thelma Allen lived across the Ohio River in Jeffersonville with his parents, Dr. and Mrs. William Allen and their two daughters, and sons, Philip and Austin. The Allens freely extended their hospitality with good dinners for their son's friends. I remember a day when cake was dessert. (Don't forget, sugar was rationed so that cake was a very special treat. A line in one popular song was, "If I'd known you were coming, I'd have baked a cake," indicating that we didn't have cake everyday.) As we ate it we remarked on its light texture. Thelma attributed its delicacy to the fact that she had used an electric mixer to beat it. An electric beater was very new on the market.

Two other couples, Woodrow and Ruth Wilson and Eugene and Glenn Clevenger came to the city so that Woodrow and Eugene could continue study for advanced degrees. Both Woodrow and Eugene preached wherever they could to add to their income. Buford and Evelyn Hollis were there while Buford was employed in the area as a safety engineer.

These three couples spent hours with us discussing our ideals and dreams over picnic lunches at parks or over meals in our apartments. Now in 1990, Buford and Evelyn Hollis are with us again at church services in Nashville. We continue to have long discussions around their dining table or ours. We are no longer authorities on how to bring up children. We are amused as we look back on ourselves and some of the ideas we firmly espoused those long years ago. Other convictions remain the same. Best of all we can be very frank with each other. These old ties are dear to us in a world where we meet many people but have no time to develop friendships.

If we wanted to go into downtown Louisville we caught a street car on Taylor Boulevard near our apartment. Fifteen cents bought two tokens which were enough to cover the trip both directions. If we wanted to go to Cherokee Park on the east side of the city we rode a bus. In that direction also was Bardstown Road Church. Howard visited there before my arrival and was invited to go home with Ethan and Norene Dunn to eat Sunday dinner. The Dunns had four children, David, Margaret, Miles and Ann - all of teen age. The discussions with the family began as soon as we crossed the doorsill. We thoroughly enjoyed everyone in the family.

Norene often served mutton because ration points were especially low on it. Of course, in the meat shop it was labeled lamb. Howard and I had never eaten either but we could enjoy it in those days of shortages. We liked the Dunn's company so much that on one occasion they invited us for meals and also to spend the night. When Miles heard of the plans he said, "You mean they are going to stay overnight, just like little kids?"

During our first year in Louisville my parents came from Wisconsin to spend a few days with us. At that stage my father was still able to walk with my mother's help. They traveled in a Pullman car on the train. While they were with us we attended a horse show at Churchill Downs not far from where we lived. We wanted to give my father the pleasure of seeing beautiful horses. We also made a bus trip to Mammoth Cave. My mother and I took the tour through it but since Dad wasn't able to walk that much he and Howard spent the time out in the green but chilly Kentucky countryside. It was the first time my parents had ever been that far away from home. Before she left home Mother was explaining to Sheldon who lived with them, how to manage his meals and gave suggestions about washing dishes. His comment about that was, "I'll have enough." With cupboards full of dishes he figured he wouldn't have to wash any. Even though the visit was pleasant Mother was so glad to be at home in her house that she immediately mopped the kitchen floor. No one had walked on it but Sheldon.

In Louisville we knew that tomorrow could bring drastic change to our lives. Howard's name was often on the list to be sent away. For two years life was "on hold." We realized that each day was a day to be treasured. There had already been too many good-byes in railroad stations. In August of 1945 our honeymoon ended when Howard was sent to the east coast for an assignment in Special Service on board the S.S. Costa Rica to bring back the men after Germany surrendered. It was hard to say "Good-bye," and leave that two room apartment where we had been happy.

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Copyright 1991, 2004 by Zona S. Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this page are property of the author and may not be reproduced, posted, distributed, or used for any commercial purpose without prior permission.