By Charles McLaughlin
Today I’d like to make some comments about my brother, Harold, and sister, Jeane, as they influenced me in various ways while growing up and have important roles to play in this narrative.
Harold was the oldest of us three kids and by far the most intelligent. He was always tinkering with something that had grabbed his interest and once he was interested he kept after it. As I recall it, he was first involved in fitting together balsa wood airplanes, painting and detailing them to perfection, all models of them, from German Fokkers to French Spads to English Sopwith Camels (Snoopy’s favorite).
Like most of his undertakings, he was good at it, so much so that he entered his models in a city-wide contest in San Francisco and won first prize in two different classes! He then was invited on a radio broadcast there to explain his interest and technique.
In High School in Bakersfield he lettered in two water-based sports: swimming and water-polo, and played varsity basketball. As a student he was known as a DGR (damn grade raiser) because his high test scores raised the average class test scores, thereby causing distress to those trying to sneak by with a “D.” In spite of this, he was popular because of his good looks and forthright character. He also enjoyed hiking and if you ever hiked with him you had better bring along your roller skates because he moved along….and he didn’t stop to smell the roses!
He and I shared the same bedroom and slept in bunks (he got the bottom) and though we rarely had any arguments, we didn’t pal around together. He was way beyond me in many ways and, he being a no-nonsense kind of guy, didn’t have time for rascals like me! He hung out mostly with two guys who lived across the street from us who were into scientfic stuff most of the time, like crystal sets and chemistry. He was rather quiet, too, and I was always yacking. We were in two different worlds, so to speak! He was academic. I was pandemic!
In lower grade school years, Jeane was an average student, rather quiet and, to me, my sweet and funny sister. We played together sometimes and jabbered about things and, in that sense, she was much more approachable than my brother. When Jean reached high school, she hit her stride and was extremely popular for her good-looks, intelligence and great dancing skills! She was the best of the best at swing dancing, so much so that guys would line up on the edge of a dance floor waiting their turn. Being somewhat of a stumblebum with girls, I needed something to give me a chance at having a girlfriend, an edge, so in desperation asked Jeane to teach me her dancing style. Miracle of miracles, she felt sorry for her lame baby brother and taught me all the steps she knew, including the fabulous fast-footed “Balboa!” It took some time for me to get the hang of it but finally we began to gel and from that time on I was into it…bigtime! This is not to say I ever came close to her grace of movement on the dance floor. Jean was special, a gem, and she sparkled like one to everyone who knew her.
Times were changing worldwide in September of 1941 when I entered High School. Our country was engaged in Europe in what was to become World War II, Harold, and Jeane were already Senior and Junior class students respectively, Harold soon to be off to war because of the “infamous” attack upon Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941!
Change for me meant an academic catastrophe of biblical proportions that occurred during my first-year algebra class. I flunked! Flat out flunked it! And to add insult to injury, forced to repreat the class and with confidence shattered, I rebelled, ditched two weeks of school, was arrested by a truant officer and locked up in a juvenile detention center! Brought before a hard-nose juvenile court judge, I was declared “incorrigible” and “committed” to 5 months in Camp Owens, a juvenile detention camp high in the Sierra Nevadas some 30 miles distant. No attorney nor parent was present nor allowed to see me before being whisked away. And that, my friends, was how it was in those days if you failed to attend school! I’ll not relate the deplorable conditions of the camp for it truly would be too shocking for some of you. But visualize boarderline “Cool Hand Luke” and you’ll have some grasp of the notorious reputations of detention centers back then.
After release five months and four days later, I returned home and to school, eventuallg passing algebra and taking up gymnastics and diving as sports. But since most coaches and upperclass men had gone off to war, almost all competition was strictly intramural and some athletes received no professional coaching at all! Fortunately, I had a friend whose older brother was a former NCAA diving champion who offered to personally coach me, a gift that was to provide a chance of a lifetime in1945. More about that later.
Sacrifice soon became the order of the day after Pearl Harbor, as the Office of Price Administration (OPA) was enacted to control the price of consumer items, ration food and limit consumption. Families, including ours, were issued cards containing stamps that identified what and how much of any items we could buy! Automobiles, oil, gasoline, rubber, firewood nylon, silk, shoes, sugar, canned milk, among myriad other items, were considered necessary to divert to the war effort.
A stamp was affixed to all automobile windshields to indicate to the owner and gasoline dealer how much they could buy or sell at any time, which meant limiting use of the car to absolutely necessary trips, like to work and back. The most common was the “Ä” card, which allowed the owner to buy 4 gallons of gas per week! A “B” card got you 6 Gallons per week. The further down the alphabet the more gas you could buy, all in accord with the importance of your job to the war effort.
Dinners were often devoid of meat. Food like pastas, yogart, etc. were seen as substitutes. Balogna became the “Victory Burger.” “Victory Gardens” sprang up everywhere, including our backyard. And millions of households supplied themselves with fresh veggies and made them feel they were in a small way helping the war effort.
Because of the lack of adult laborers, we school children were bussed to large farms surrounding Bakersfield to perform stoop labor picking cotton, grapes, tomatoes, berries, you name it! And I can tell you from experience picking cotton is seriously hard work. Dragging a cotton sack around all day in the San Joaquin sun was no fun and a beginning picker can cut their hands to pieces if they don’t know how to get the cotton out of the boll! I cut my cuticles many-a-time and it hurt, believe you me!
The hardest work ever, my friends, was bucking hay bales. Bar none! Try, if you can, to imagine a twerp like me, just 5 ft. 6” tall, picking up a 3-wire bale and throwing it high enough to be grabbed by the hooks of the stacker on the truck. No way was I going to last very long, and that truck kept on moving down the line, I tell you! That is the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, though changing my kids’ diapers after a blowout was a close second!
On the weekends the boxcar train that ran straight across old “B” town stopped long enough for us kids to fill it full of used tires so they could be re-capped or melted down and re-made into tires for Jeeps, trucks and such. In short, whatever could be recycled was recycled, like Cart’m but on a national scale! Women entered the work force by the hundreds of thousands. They helped build ships, airplanes and other in-demand equipment. Essentially single moms became the bread-winner and leader of the family group. Childre, too, as noted above, were then a vital aspect of the economy.
Dear readers, the war effort in this country was phenomenal. The commitment… total. You had to live through it to know, to feel what I’m attempting to tell you! Ask any old geezer like me or “Rosie the Riveter” and they’ll tell ya.
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