Wednesday, September 12, 2007

MEMOIRS OF FLEMING LEE Chapter Three, Part 1


While we were living in our little rented house after arriving in Gainesville, our main entertainment, other than my parents’ ritualistic reading of the daily newspaper, was the radio. Even before we left St. Augustine I had developed an addiction to afternoon serials like “The Lone Ranger”, his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, and his great horse Silver (“Hi ho, Silver!”); “Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy”; “The Johnson Family”; “The Shadow” — all of which, as I recall, were sources of trinkets such as rings that glowed in the dark (the excitement of opening the little package and going into the closet and seeing the mystic light in the blackness) and secret code wheels. There was also “The Whistler” and some character who investigated apparent supernatural phenomena and always uncovered some comforting natural explanation, such as proving that the howling ghost was only the wind in a chink in the lighthouse wall.

The after supper radio programs were aimed more at adult tastes, or what passed for adult tastes in the United States. There were musical programs, from Kate Smith and opera singers to the Grand Old Opry, as well as dramas, but for us children the best shows were clustered on Sunday night: Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber Magee and Molly, and Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy were the much-anticipated high points. I also liked The Great Gildersleeve, Amos and Andy, and Henry Aldrich, although I’m not sure when they were broadcast. On Sunday nights the incomparable comedy lineup ended when “One Man’s Family” began.
One Sunday morning in December, not many months after moving from St. Augustine to Gainesville, we drove down to Blitchton, the farm where my father was born and raised. Our Blitchton land, which at that time consisted of 3000 acres or more, will have a chapter of its own, and so I will just say here that it was about thirty miles southwest of Gainesville, and that my father’s mother, and his brother and his wife and two children, lived there in adjacent houses near the crossroads of Route 27 and State Road 326, where the community of Blitchton had grown up around my then grandfather’s rural medical practice and other activities.
Several times each year we would go down to Blitchton for the day, sometimes not making our grandmother and uncle and cousins aware of our presence, and enjoy walking through the expanses of pine woods, hammocks, and grazing lands. Those who were old enough to bear the weight of a .22 rifle would shoot at tin cans and bottles lined up on a fence. We would visit a pond or two and admire the basking turtles and the occasional alligator, and on occasion launch a floating bottle to explode with rifle fire.
“Look at that boat. Watch the boat! Pow! I sank that boat!”

For lunch we would build a fire and open a can of pork and beans and stick it down in the coals next to the flames, turning it until all sides began to bubble. Meanwhile out came the inevitable picnic viands: Canned Vienna sausages, Underwood deviled ham, Saltine crackers, and cold hardboiled eggs with salt and pepper for dipping. Then, after stuffing ourselves, we would lie back on the cushion of pine needles and watch the clouds and the leisurely circling of black buzzards high, high in the sky.
We always went to Blitchton to get our Christmas tree, evergreen boughs and mistletoe. On the particular Sunday in December that I’m telling about we made our usual trek to find a tree — which was never a quick process, since we would find several candidates scattered through the woods, perhaps half a mile or more apart, and debate their merits, and then travel back and forth between them to refresh our memories before finally cutting one down. Along the way my father would skillfully use his shotgun to bring clumps of mistletoe down from high up in an oak tree without damaging the berried cluster, and my mother would supervise the cutting of the choicest boughs of wild holly.
Daddy had no fear of directing his automobile off across fields and woods unmarked by roads or trails – just as he had astonished my mother when they were first married. He knew the land so well that he was (usually) able to avoid tree stumps and boulders even in tall grass.

On that December Sunday we made a point to get home with our Christmas tree in time not to miss our favorite evening radio programs -- but only just in time. When I ran to the brown Gothic arch of the Philco and turned it on and turned the dial to the right number, we heard these words:
“We are interrupting our regular programming to bring you the latest news on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”
Mother and Daddy looked shocked as I never seen them before, hurrying to stare at the radio at close range, but my only reaction was dismay that the unbelievable, the unthinkable had happened: A Sunday night without Charley McCarthy and Edgar Bergen’s dialogue with Mortimer Snerd! What possibly could be more important than that — or Allen’s Alley, with Mrs. Nussbaum, or the riotous opening of Fibber Magee’s closet, or Jack Benny trading gibes with rasping Rochester?
My parents’ efforts to explain the situation to a seven-year-old — much less to a four-year-old and a two-year-old — were futile. I was no more aware that a war had already started in Europe two years before than I was that I had been born in the depths of the Great Depression. I was beginning second grade, and the only links I had with Far Eastern affairs were picture books of “Children of the World,” in which young Japanese ran merrily about in kimonos, flying their dragon kites above cherry blossoms. But now that young Japanese were flying airplanes above American warships, the connection with the picture books was not obvious.

So began the Second World War for the Blitch family. My understanding of what it was all about did not really begin until considerably after it had ended when I was in the sixth or seventh grade. In fact I did not understand what it was really about until I was in college and beyond.
During the war years, which approximately spanned my sojourn at J. J. Finley Elementary School from first through sixth grade, I was impacted mainly by the incessant propaganda, the rationing, the collection drives, the air raid drills, and the radio war news to which my father attended religiously.
The construction of our new home would have been thwarted, but Mr. McLain told my parents that he could go ahead and build it with materials already on hand . . . though ours would be one of the last two houses he could build until after the war.
After Pearl Harbor it was impossible to get through a day without seeing posters of bucktoothed Japanese in thick glasses brandishing knives dripping blood from their blades. Franklin Roosevelt having achieved his goal of getting the United States into a war against Germany, the Japanese were joined by fanged Hitlers and Mussolinis waving handfuls of bombs, and evil-eyed German soldiers whose oversized boots marched across carpets of bloody women and children. I was most impressed by a poster of a giant octopus with three heads — Tojo, Hitler, and Mussolini. Its tentacles stretched around the world, threatening even the peace-loving United States.

Washington and Hollywood lost no time reinforcing the lessons as to who was good and who was evil. The demonic triumvirate of Tojo, Hitler, and Mussolini was balanced by the Twentieth Century’s leading saints -- Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and jovial Uncle Joe Stalin.
We children collected newspapers, crushed tin cans flat, made balls of the tinfoil wrappers of chewing gum and candy, and marshaled other items of questionable value to a military effort. We even put dented pots and pans in a bin on the courthouse square, where a poster showed a child looking up at an American bomber flying overhead and saying, “Look, Mom, there goes our frying pan!”
After I joined the Cub Scouts there was a contest to see which Cub could collect the most newspapers for the war effort and win a prize. The Den Mother exhorted us to patriotic action even though she was unable to explain how the newspapers would be used in the war. In addition to confiscating all the newsprint that came into our own house, I pestered the neighbors with an atypical display of aggressiveness,. Eventually I had a small mountain of papers stacked in our garage, and I easily won the prize . . . which turned out to be a Hershey Bar. My own disappointment was exceeded by my father’s outrage.
“A five cent Hershey Bar?” he said. “A Hershey bar for all the work?”
He was still upset about it forty years later, and would occasionally retell the story, with a rueful grin and shake of his head.

Next door to us, on the opposite side from the Hills, now lived the Fields family, whose house had been built soon after ours. Mrs. Fields, her son Peter (about my age), and her cute daughter-in-law, Patty, who was pregnant, lived there, while Colonel Fields and Patty’s husband were off at war. Colonel Fields came back with war souvenirs from Europe, some of which he gave to me: A large swastika flag from the schoolhouse at Aachen, its wooly material punctured by shrapnel and bullet holes. A German helmet with a man’s name and the city, “Munchen,” written on the leather lining with a pen. A heavy leather belt with “Gott mit uns” on the big buckle.
Rationing meant coupons for gas and tires and sugar and I don’t know what else. Butter was replaced by white blocks of margarine that came with little packets of yellow color that had to be kneaded into the lardlike glop. (I actually enjoyed doing that job for Mother, briefly.) We saw a lot of Velveeta and little cheddar -- cheddar and Philadelphia cream cheese being the two forms of cheese to which we’d been accustomed, along with the little glasses of Kraft spreads, pickle-pimento and pineapple.

We learned the word, “hoarding,” a bad thing. It was also unpatriotic to use your car any more than you absolutely had to. “Is this trip necessary?” Daddy had always been an excruciatingly slow driver, but now he drove slower than ever to save gas and wear. The rare thirty or forty mile drive to Blitchton or Ocala seemed to take hours, aggravated by the attitudes of other drivers who did not think that thirty-five miles an hour on the highway was appropriate even in wartime. Of course the roads were all two lane, and we would have accumulated a caravan of several automobiles by the time we came around a curve with a long, straight view ahead and the people behind us could finally sail past.
“Darn yankees!” my father would invariably say as they started around. “Get down here after driving in those mountains and think they can go seventy miles an hour.”
It mattered not (except to me, who kept score and listed it as one of those things I didn’t like about my father) that the license plates on the passing cars usually turned out to be from Florida or Georgia; the commentary on cursed yankees remained the same.

After my food-loving grandmother in Ocala (my mother’s mother) taught me to make fudge, I saved rationed sugar by not putting it in my iced tea until I had saved enough for a batch of candy. As for meat, we suffered no deprivation as many people did, because we had the cornucopia of Blitchton with its uninterrupted supply of chicken, beef, pork, and lamb. For awhile my parents rented a freezer locker to accommodate the Blitchton bounty. We would take a side of beef or a pig which had been slaughtered at the farm to be cut into steaks and roasts and stored it in the freezer room.
A visit to our freezer locker was a treat. We would enter through a massively thick wooden door and instantly be at the North Pole. When the big door boomed shut, a shiver of terror augmented the shivers of cold. What if it wouldn’t open? What if it stuck? What if somebody locked it from outside? We would go to our locker, put white-wrapped packages into our basket, and hurry back out into the suddenly incredibly hot, moisture-heavy Florida air. Later my parents bought a deep freeze, like a refrigerator on its side, in order to store the meat at home in the breakfast nook.
It was in the short, windowless hall between our home’s entrance hall and den that we huddled during air raid drills. A siren would disturb the night, and the citizenry were supposed to turn off all lights except in a light-proofed inner room. Air raid wardens would move through the dark streets blowing whistles at any moving object, and knocking on doors if there were any leakage of light. In our downstairs hallway, where the telephone (on a shelf in the wall) and the oil furnace alcove were located, we could close the door at each end and safely leave the light on without fear of alerting air raid wardens or German pilots.


  1. Fleming,

    Keep going! I haven't been blogging much due to flat-out busy-ness, but I'm really enjoying this.

  2. Well, Marc, in view of your busy-ness it's especially gratifying that you took time to look at my self-centered scribblings.

    When I look at your posts and mull over what I might write in VIEW FROM THE MOON, I find another reason for not blogging as much as I used to. Writing a "political" blog, in the broad sense, is like planning a daily excursion to the local sewage treatment plant.

  3. So it is, Mr. Lee, so it is. I try not to be annoyingly repetitive on my blog, but the only antidote on the political scene is to wear waders and take fresh angles on the same exact themes. Not often an appealing prospect, or at least I don't have the same stamina for it as do others.

    My next post will be about our family trip to Seaside, Oregon, and will contain a joke about Norwegians in it.

  4. Marc, I'll be looking forward to your joke, especially since my wife's family is Swedish and have taught me to relish jokes about Norwegians.

    At last, some comic relief.

  5. Years ago my wife's Dad showed me pictures of their kids growing up in Granger, Indiana 30's and 40's. One picture caught my eye because it showed a bunch of men with rifles on rooftops smoking ciggies and talking. My God, what on Earth were they doing on the house tops with rifles? Well, Dick explained, they were watching for any sign of German fighter pilots. I really couldn't find words to respond to that explanation. Now that I read your Chapter three, it's getting to me. Thanks. I thought they were all crazy.

  6. Well, Zoey, I still think they were crazy. A German air attack on Indiana?? In part 2 of this chapter you'll read more about this kind of nonsense.