9. Post-War

No, California would never be the same: not after the federal government had spent more than $35 billion in California between 1940 and 1946 …, multiplying the manufacturing economy of the state be a factor of 2.5, tripling the average personal income between 1939 and 1945; not after some 1.6 million Americans had moved to California to work in defense-related industries; not after millions of young Americans had been trained in California for the military, with so many of them vowing to return after the war.”                                              Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950[i]

Image (59)

Coronado Avenue (c. winter1945-1946). Uncle Ed, Nita, Me, Dad
I am wearing a dress with a sailor collar Mom made for me. Uncle Ed’s dress uniform hat completes my sailor outfit.

The end of the war brought relief and rejoicing. The fighting was over. Men could go home and resume lives interrupted by the nation’s emergency. Resuming their lives, however, was not simple. All those men needed jobs, and they all needed a place to live. More than 11 million men were entering a post-war economy. The nation was faced with an army of suddenly unemployed men. It would take time to shift the economy back to peacetime production. On top of that job crisis was a severe shortage of housing. Construction material had been co-opted for defense work during the war. Regular home construction had stopped. When those 11 million men returned to civilian life there simply weren’t enough houses and apartments for them and their families. Until new houses were built, the veterans had to make do, move in with family or live in temporary make-shift housing—Quonset huts, old street cars, airplane fuselages “shorn of the wings and tail structure,”[ii] chicken sheds—any possible existing structure that could be quickly adapted as shelter for desperate humans.

Norman & Julius

             My family was fortunate. My parents owned a pre-war home. No one in our family had to live in a chicken shed. When Uncle Ed got out of the Navy, he came to my parents’ house in Stockton bringing his buddies with him.  Two of those buddies, Norman and Julius, actually got to our house before Uncle Ed, who was not discharged from the Navy until his four year enlistment was up in early 1946. Norman and Julius stayed with us only a short time, but my memory of them is vivid. It was such fun to have these young, virile men stay at our house. Norman, a blond Norwegian, was not actually handsome, just good looking in a healthy rugged way. Julius, though, with his dark hair and olive skin, was definitely handsome—handsome and exciting like Cornel Wilde and the other dashing dark haired actors I saw in the movies. Did I flirt with him? Probably, even though the very fact that I found him handsome would have tied my tongue.

My mother, too, found Norman and Julius attractive, I think. I know for sure they admired her. I could feel it in the way they looked at her, the respect with which they treated her. They stayed with us only a short time, but when they left, they gave Mom a beautiful set of china. We had nothing that nice in our cupboards. Those plates, saucers, cups and serving pieces remained Mom’s ‘good dishes” for the rest of her life, graced our kitchen and dining room tables each Sunday and holiday, were set out every time we had company.

About a year after Norman and Julius left us, they were able to buy some land close to the north shore of Lake Tahoe. They were carpenters, and they built a cluster of vacation cottages, and invited us to stay in one of them, a vacation that was one of the highlights of my childhood. The cabins were widely spaced, surrounded by ponderosa pines and huge boulders. The air was cool, smelled of pine; the sky was intensely blue, Lake Tahoe a blue mirror we could see through the trees that slopped down the road that ran next to the water.

We parked behind the cabin and entered the place through the kitchen, which was bigger than our kitchen at home. I can still smell the new wood in that two-bedroom cottage—the walls were covered with bright, freshly varnished pine tongue and groove boards; the floors also wood, oak, I think. The living room, too, was as big—or bigger—than the one in our house in Stockton. A big picture window looked out over the lake and filled the room with light. A deck ran across the entire front of the building. Norman and Julius were good carpenters. This cottage was well built, nicely finished. Looking at it satisfied me eyes.

I loved that cottage set on a pine-covered mountain side. Here I was free to climb boulders and explore, dream that this was my real home.

Uncle Hoppy

I hated to see Norman & Julius leave. However, our house was not absent young, single men for long. In February 1946, Uncle Ed’s Navy enlistment was up, and ‘going home’ meant returning to my parents’ house. He and his good buddy, Lowell Long, had been living with my parents when they enlisted, and when that enlistment was up, they headed back to Stockton and my family’s house on Coronado Avenue. Lowell was Uncle Hoppy to me, ‘Hoppy’ a nickname given him in high school because people thought he looked like the cowboy actor, Hop-along Cassidy.

Our small house had only two bedrooms, but there was an attached single-car garage with access to the house through the service porch that opened into the kitchen.  Dad converted the front part of the garage into a bedroom.  Lowell and Uncle Ed shared it, sleeping on a couch that pulled out into a bed. Two heterosexual men sharing a bed seems strange to people now, but back then it was not at all unusual among people from big families with little money.

I remember that garage bedroom. Dad furred out the garage door wall and put sheetrock on the ceiling and walls. The seams of the sheetrock were not taped, the walls unpainted. Uncle Ed put a linoleum rug on the bare concrete floor, and  bought a green, pull-out sofa bed that he put up against the inside wall. There was a window on the outside wall that brought natural light in the room. Stockton is a dusty town, and before long what the light revealed was dust, lots and lots of dust. Hoppy and Uncle Ed decided to pay me fifty cents a week to clean the room.

I doubt that I changed the sheets on the bed. That would have been too hard for an eight year old girl, but I did know how to make a bed, straighten up a room, use a dustmop and dust furniture. Dusting was fun. It gave me an excuse to snoop. I didn’t find anything shocking, but I enjoyed looking through the Orosi High School year book to see what Ed and Hoppy looked like when they were seniors. I also made a very interesting discovery. On an old, blue fabric covered binder I found the name Martha written over and over. The binder belonged to Hoppy. Hoppy was in love, and Martha was my Aunt Martha, one of Dad’s sisters. On January 10, 1947, Hoppy became “Uncle Hoppy” for real.

Hoppy didn’t smile much. I knew he had a sense of humor, but he spoke with a dead serious face. I could never tell if he was serious or just joking. One of the things he would tease me about was my much loved cat, which he said he hated. One evening we discovered the cat at the back door gagging, in deep distress. A great hunter, she looked like something might have pulled out her tongue. Hoppy said she needed to be put out of her misery. He said he would take her and have her put down. Hoppy finally had his chance to get rid of the hated cat, but I agreed to let him take her. I didn’t want to have her continue suffering.

A short time later, Hoppy returned—and he had my now perfectly fine cat with him. Hoppy took her to a vet, not animal control. And the vet had discovered a gopher head stuck in the cat’s throat, which he was easily able to pull out. When Hoppy handed the cat to me he still did not smile, just said, “Here’s your cat.” I knew then that his “hating that cat” was just a tease. Behind that sober face was a smile. I missed him when he moved away. The house felt like there was less life in it after he moved away.

Willems family 1947

The Jacob C. Willems Family (January 1947). My mother, Agnes (black dress), stands behind Grandpa, my dad to her left. Uncle Frank stands on Dad’s right. Lowell Long (Hoppy) is on Dad’s left. Martha is on my Mom’s right side. Velma, Frank’s wife is on Mom’s right side. Ed is seated next to Grandma.

Looking back now, I am struck by how much extra work my mother had when those single men stayed with us. She was the one who did the cooking for the whole household, whoever was there. She probably did the guys’ laundry as well, adding their sheets and clothing to the already big stacks beside the wringer washer on Monday morning. Every Monday, beds were stripped, towels gathered, clothes sorted into whites, lightly-colored, dark. Each pile was put into the washer, then put through the wringer into the rinse water in the concrete laundry tub, then put through the wringer again before being taken outside to be hung on the clothes line to dry. At the end of the day, the laundry would be taken down and either folded or dampened and rolled up and put in a towel-lined basket to await ironing the next day. There was no permanent press back then. All washable clothing had to be ironed. Mom already had a full basket of ironing before the guys stayed with us, but men didn’t know how to iron back then. I’m quite sure Mom added the guys’ washable clothes to the ironing basket.

Uncle Ed and Hoppy would have paid something to my parents for room and board. That extra money would have been a big help to my folks. I sure hope the guys paid mom extra for doing their laundry.

 ~ ~ ~

                 [i] Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 193.

                [ii] Ibid., p. 205.

2 thoughts on “9. Post-War

  1. What an enjoyable read, Loretta — thanks! I especially enjoyed the description of doing the laundry — ‘just like it was as I remember my own childhood. — Loretta C.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s