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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Big Mistake


Leave in Vancouver—Spring 1943

"It was only in later years that I came to the conclusion that I had made one of the dumb decisions of my young life.."

The world that I returned to after two years in the South Pacific was, in a sense, an entirely different world than that which I had left behind in July 1940.  Then, the economy was just coming ouf the Great Depression of the Thirties, spurred only by the pre-World War II Lend Lease program for embattled Great Britain.
The Japanese sneak attack on December 7th 1941 had unified the nation overnight and the war machinery of the United States had finally gotten into full swing.  One of the Henry Kaiser shipyards to build escort aircraft carriers (CVEs) was being built on the Columbiar River waterfront east of the Interstate Bridge across the river to Oregon.  (When it was in operation, my father quit his job at the DuBois sawmill and went to work at the shipyard as a machinist.  In later years, Dad was very proud of the fact that he helped send nearly fifty of the “jeep carriers” down the ways and off to war.)
The Vancouver Barracks Army post, successor to old Fort Vancouver, was at capacity with Army recruits in training and awaiting orders overseas.  Across the river past Hayden Island an entire temporary town of housing units called “Vanport” was being built to accommodate the influx of workers for the shipyards on both sides of the river.  Once sleepy Vancouver was busy and booming.
It was a joyous reunion with the family.  Rex had grown to match me in size and would be graduating from Vancouver High School that spring.  He had a job waiting for him—my old job at the CC Store.  Little Sandra was now a lively affectionate six-year-old and would be starting school the following fall.  Mother hand Dad were both healthy and happy.
Unexpectedly, I was also reunited with Grandpa and Grandma Stanley from the Ozarks  They had retired, sold the Bona store to Tom Humbert across the road, moved to a house a block off the courthouse square in Greenfield, and had come to Vancouver for a visit.  It was a memorable homecoming and a delightful change from the long months of war and austere living condition at Ile Nou.
In one respect, my homecoming from the Pacific was anti-climactic as had been my Christmas leave from San Diego in 1940.  After a day or two of visiting with the family, answering their many questions, and telling my sea stories of life in the Pacific, I set out to find old friends.
I was not very successful.  Elaine Eberle was away in her freshman year at the University of Washington in Seattle.  I went to see Patty Cross and delivered the grass skirt that I had picked up for her at Bora Bora.  Patty was now a senior at VHS and was very much a young lady.  Something seemed to be missing from our old relationship.  She had new friends and new interests and was planning to go to the University of Washington the following year.  We had one evening date and that was it.  I was simply a good friend from the past.
I telephone Elaine in Seattle.  She was as happy and bubbly as always and in a few minutes in her inimitable rapid-fire fashion filled me in on classes she was taking and her life at the university.  I considered hopping a train to Seattle to see her but felt that my short leave should be more directly with the family and my grandparents.
I also went back to the old hangout at Gearhart’s Drug Store.  I found none of the old gang there except little Ariel Mansfield who was now Ariel Davis, having married one of my classmates at VHS, Buster Davis.  The rest of the old group were either in one of the services or had moved away.
Although I had written her a “dear Jane” letter form Kaneohe more than a year previously, I finally telephoned Shirley Mills.  She was delighted and immediately invited me to visit her.  She was still the same full-figured, platinum-haired blonde with legs similar to Betty Grable.   She artfully arranged that our first meeting was when she was home alone.  She had dressed carefully and had soft music playing on the phonograph.  (I should have realized that “the tender trap” was set and baited when I realized that the song she had selected was “It Started All Over Again” but I was still the na├»ve old country boy and was simply flattered.)  I took her out a couple of evenings and accepted an invitation to go skiing at Government Camp on Mount Hood with she and her parents.
On March 18th I left Vancouver on the Great Northern for Chicago accompanied by my father.  Dad had quit his job at the sawmill and waking taking a short vacation to re-visit our old home and relatives in the Ozarks before he started his job at the new Henry Kaiser shipyard in Vancouver.  We travelled together as far as Casper, Wyoming, when he changed trains for Kansas City and I continued on toe Chicago.
Dad never concealed the fact that he like a drink now and then nor did I hide the fact that I drank occasionally.  Before we left Portland, I bought a pin of bourbon for us to have a few belts together on the train.  Dad saved the day for me when a roving Shore Patrol on the train found us in the smoking lounge and I had the bottle in my hand.
When the SP nailed me (uniformed military personnel were not allowed to drink in public and in transit) and started to take the bottle, Dad interceded.  He reached out and took the bottle and said to the SP, “Tain’t that sailor boy’s bottle, boy,--it’s mine.  I just offered him a drink.  Look at thos ribbons he has on—he has just got back from the war!”
The SP issued a warning to me and went on his way.  We waited until he crossed into the next car before we laughed, had another drink, and went back to Dad’s tales about his short time in the Army in 1918.
Upon arrival at the Naval Aviation Technical Training Center at 87th and Anthony in South Chicago, I found that the next advanced aviation machinist mates class was not due to be formed for more than two weeks.  I knew that I would be put on special work details in the meantime; therefore, I talked the division officer to whom I reported into allowing me an additional fifteen days leave.  When I told him that I had had only two weeks leave totaling less than three weeks in more than two and a half years that I had been in the Navy, the lieutenant was sympathetic and issued me leave orders for fifteen days. 
I debated going to visit our relative in the Ozarks or going back to Vancouver for two weeks.  Since my grandparents were still Vancouver and I thought “What the hell,--there I can always go out with chubby and affectionate Shirley,” the latter won out.  (It was only in later years that I came to the conclusion that I had made one of the dumb decisions of my young life.)
Back in Vancouver, I spent relaxed days with the family.  I tried going out in some of my old civilian clothes but felt alien and uncomfortable and was afraid that people would think me a draft dodger.  I went back to my familiar uniform with its AMM1/c badge, aerial machine gunner’s badge on my lower left sleeve, and the campaign ribbons.
I dated Shirley Mills several times and she became increasingly affectionate.  It bothered me at times that she also exhibited an increasingly possessive air but I enjoyed her company and her willingness to neck a bit in the old Chevrolet after a movie or dance.  I was flattered, I guess.

On the final evening of my leave, I believe I took Shirley dancing at the big band ballroom at Jantzen Beach on Hayden Island.  We probably stopped at Waddle’s for a coke or something and it was after midnight when I parked on “F” Street near her house.  She was compliant up to a point for some heavy necking.  I recall that she was wearing a mink dyed-skunk fur coat that she had bought with savings from her wartime job with a housing office.
It had been a fun leave and with her cuddled in my arms I impulsively asked, “Will you wiat and be here the next time I come home?”
She drew in a breath, went silent for a long minute, then said, “Did you just ask to marry me?”
I was momentarily stunned.  Marriage had not been in my mind.  I believe I stuttered and stammered and must Have made the mistake of not simply saying, “No, that was not what I meant.”
The next thing I knew, Shirley was talking excitedly as if it were an accomplished fact that we were engaged.  She had obviously given marriage a lot of previous thought (with me or someone else) because she knew just what church the wedding would be in, her china and silver patterns, and she already had a well-filled camphorwood carved hope chest.  She was so happily excited that the dumb old country boy simply went along with it.
I was leaving for Chicago the next evening.  IN a sort of daze, I took Shirley in the afternoon to my parents’ house and introduced her to them and to my grandparents as my future wife.  They were shocked, to say the least, but they received her graciously and said they were happy for us. J (Later, in privacy, my mother would ask me seriously if I was sure it was what I wanted to do.  When I assured her I thought it was, she just smiled wryly and said, “You are a grown man.”)

That same day, 4 April 1943, I was scheduled to leave for Chicago at 6:30 PM from the station in Portland.  Shirley and her parents, Chapin and Ruth Mills, drove me across the river and came to the platform to see me off.  The Mills seemed very happy with the engagement.  I recall feeling very awkward as we stood and chatted until the conductor called, “All Aboard!”
Shirley moved toward the door with me while Chapin and Ruth waited where they were standing.  Short of the loading steps, she pulled me to a halt, hugged me, and whispered in my ear, “I love you, Conrad.”
I was speechless.  No one but my mother had ever said that to me and I had never used the words and they would not come to my lips then.  I finally muttered, “I guess that goes for me, too.”
My ears were burning so I knew that my face was red with embarrassment as I pulled away and boarded just as the porter was ready to move the steps and close the door.  When I looked back Shirley was standing there, plump in that fir coat, smiling happily.
As that train pulled out of the station then chugged up the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge in the fathering darkness, I felt no elation.  I soberly thought, I didn’t really ask her to marry me.  I knew, however, that I had effectively given my word by going along with it and telling the parents that we were going to get married.  It was deeply ingrained in me that a man did not go back on his word.  She was from a respectable family (her father had served in the Washington State Senate) and her apparent liking for heavy necking boded well for the marital bed.  What the heck, I thought, if she can cook and keep house I could do a lot worse.  Her full curves were nice to feel and I gave no thought to the fact that her mother was quite a heavy woman and that Shirley would have a weight problem all her life.
I cogitated also about what Shirley had said to me on the platform, that she loved me.  Did I love her?  I did not even know what love was or how one should feel in love.  I had read somewhere that if you were in love your heart would beat faster at the sound of her voice or the sight of her and that you should have a protective feeling when you looked at her.  Nothing had made my heart beat faster since that grim Sunday morning when the Japanese had come out of nowhere, laid waste in fire and explosions our airplanes and our hangars, and had caused that bloody row of bodies of my good friends under the wing of that bullet-ridden airplane.  I wondered again if I was capable of real love.  Did I have a protective feeling about Shirley?  I did not know.  Had I “gone off halfcocked’ because she was the first complaint white woman I had been with in more than two years?  I did not know.
The whole thing seemed beyond me.  The majesty of the gorge had passed unseen in the twilight outside my window and we were rolling into eastern Oregon when I mentally shrugged and stretched out to get some sleep.  My Chicago adventures lay ahead.  This time no door closed behind me, however.  I reckoned I had sort of left it propped open.