BEING A FRESHMAN Kate’s Journal


Episode 9

Torrance, 1940

Arthur Murray taught us dancing in a hurry when we sent for his printed paper diagrams and invited him into my bedroom to follow the colored footsteps. Not that the two-step benefited me in any since I wasn’t allowed to go to school dances yet anyway. Jitterbugging was learned by grasping a doorknob in one hand and shimmying forward a few times.

arthur murray Arthur Murray

When we returned to California I was skipped ahead another half grade making me a year younger than my classmates. Being younger is a definite social disadvantage at the age of thirteen.

I fell in love with my Biology teacher Mr. Katz while dissecting a frog, but I don’t think it was reciprocated. For some reason I developed a strong desire to become a psychiatrist and asked him for books I could read. To give him credit, he honestly tried to discourage me, though I may have been a good one.

The sports teams were the Tartars, and I was unexpectedly elected Junior Tartar Queen. The acquisition of a crown gave me confidence to actually run for office. It was always clear to me that the reason no one voted for me was that I was wearing my grandmother’s light blue lace evening gown and a pair of her strappy dancing shoes.

While living in Connecticut I had for the first time had a room of my own except for the times I lived with Auntie. In this new home I again shared a room with my mother, but as Grandma obtained new roomers, this room kept changing. When leaving for school in the morning we might have one room, but upon coming home, I would find myself in another. One roomer who became a boarder, was a girl my own age who had recently lost her mother. Her name was Dorothy Graham, and much to my shame, I was not kind to her. Dorothy kept most of her possessions under the bed, including old comic books, candy bars and empty soda cans. She had a sullen personality and though my Grandmother nagged me to take her into my group of friends, I never did. Poor Dorothy did not live with us long. I understand now that she needed much more than I could have given her anyway, but I still feel the guilt.

Sometime during the Fall semester, I discovered boys. One of our football players, a senior boy called “Shifty Hips” Parton, lived across the street, so I was always ready to mow the lawn when he was home. I wore glasses, and one day he insulted me by saying I “looked intelligent”. From then on I tried never to wear my glasses.

I never knew what to say to boys. They were a whole different breed except for one boy who rode his bike down our alley on his way home from school. I was frequently up in the fig tree when he came along and we developed an easy comradeship. We would talk, he would scuff his toe in the dirt and I would occasionally give him a fig. It was not a hot romance. One day a boy actually came to the front door and my mother let him in. What do you do now, I thought. At my mother’s suggestion we made fudge and sat silently eating it in the living room while my three year old cousin kept turning summersaults on the living room floor.

Judy and Me 1941 Redondo Cousin Judy and Me at Redondo Beach

Somehow I developed a singing voice which caught the attention of my choral teacher and an acquaintance of my Grandmother who was the vocal teacher of Deanna Durbin, a young movie star. I have to attribute my singing voice to the outhouse in Connecticut. Singing allows you to breathe through your mouth. I had sung my way across country in the backseat of our car.

The family, convinced that i would one day make us all famous, pooled resources and gave me voice lessons. I loved singing so much that I searched all over for a church which would allow me to join their choir, since the Christian Science church where my female family member attended did not have one.

I spent Sundays going to most of the churches in town and finally found that the Episcopal church choir could use another voice. And thus began a secret life, ostensibly in the name of religion. Upon being issued a choir robe and marching out for my first practice, whom should I see but my Grandmother’s gentleman friend sitting in the bass section. I lived in fear that my family would learn I was not attending the Christian Science church, but the dear man never told them. On my mother’s death bed I asked her if she ever knew and she shook her head.

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GOLD HEARTS AND HOCKEY STICKS/Kate’s Journal


Episode 8
New London, 1940

In New London, several dogs came and went and all belonged to someone else until Rex, the king of all dogs, followed me home from school. Rex was a fine looking animal, showing a strong resemblance to German Shepherd ancestry, and referred to in those days as a Police Dog. He was the first dog I gave my heart to.

Our last months in Connecticut went fast, and I learned to sing in the outhouse, play hockey with the boys and build my own sled. I became a good correspondent to my grandpa and to Mrs. Jaquish, an old next door neighbor of ours in Long Beach.

Grandpa had been a good hockey player in Montreal, and we planned to skate together once I returned home, though that never happened. He was small in stature, probably only about 5’6″ when he was young, but apparently very fast. My memories of him are of a humorous man who could wiggle his ears and make jokes. He claimed my grandmother was still his wife, though she married three more times after they were divorced, which shows a strong sense of renunciation on his part.

Grandpa JimGrandfather Jim Black

Christmas 1940 was a nonentity as we had our orders to return to Long Beach in a week. People who live in rented furnished apartments can pack in a hurry, so putting our few belongings in the old Chevrolet which brought us here, we were ready to go. My gift from my Dad that Christmas was a gold heart locket with my initials on it, in which I put small photos of my parents. I still have it tucked away, and the hockey stick of my own I had asked for never came to be.

Long Beach, 1940

Back at Grandma’s our family had grown as my aunt Corinne had divorced and with her cute three year old daughter now had the coveted back bedroom where Harry Hance had lived for so long.

I was sent to stay with Aunt Georgia for the summer, and my Dad came there to say goodbye, looking quite handsome in his new uniform of a Master Chief. He was shipping out but didn’t know where.

Torrance, 1940-1941

When school started in September, my mother bought a new blue Plymouth sedan and we moved back to Grandma’s this time to a gracious old house in Torrance, California.

Grandma had met a nice widower with whom she was “keeping company” who lived in Torrance. Our new house had lots of bedrooms to rent which soon filled up with two or three young women till we were nicely crammed again.

One of our roomers was a tennis player with a large and shapely bosom who gave me an old racket, and instructed me in the basics while I practiced banging the ball against the garage door in the back alley by the fig tree. She seemed to live in her white tennis outfit, which probably helped her game. Since I did not have one, I put it on my Christmas list.

One evening I walked in on my mother and aunt being given instruction in the proper method of putting on their bra. According to her, she gained her extra dimensions by bending at the waist and letting gravity do the rest. I’m not sure she deserved being considered a good teacher either of tennis or the fitting of lingerie, since I saw no difference in the measurements of either of my relative’s busts, and I never became a great tennis player.

WARM BREAD AND HAZARDS Kate’s Journal


Episode 7
New London, 1939

The reassuring warmth and smell of freshly baked bread greeted me upon my arrival home after the hurricane in 1938. Since that time, I equate that pleasant smell with home.

We toured the eastern seaboard from Maine south to the Carolinas numerous times during our tour of duty. The first weekend we visited my mother’s birthplace of Woodsville, New Hampshire also introduced us to the Lake Morey country club/resort in Fairlee, Vermont where my aunt Corinne was born. The two towns seemed to be separated by just a cow-path, but that may be my faulty memory.

The resort was first built by my great-grandfather George Kendall and cleverly named The Kaulin. From the beginning it had golf course, tennis courts and country club amenities showing great foresight in a country gentleman.

“Gone With The Wind” was being shown in Hartford, and we treated ourselves to new clothes. Mine was a pink wool coat and the ubiquitous hat with streamers, this time a pink one. Yet again it shows my absolute shallowness to remember what I wore instead of Scarlet O’Hara’s plight.

Mom & ad 1938
Mom and Dad 1939

My Dad was studying hard these days, bringing home piles of books, and we often studied together. Since he was often annoyed by my complete brain vacancy in math, I began reading some of his papers hoping to impress him with my memorizing skills. As we sat down I brightly asked “What is the definition of a limberhole?” Without giving him time to answer I replied “A hole in the bulkhead of the doublebottom which facilitates the flow of water and lightens the weight of the metal.” I had the answer in case he ever needed it.

The diving gear in those days consisted of Men from Mars suits, with a large round helmet bolted to it. In his training, my father was dressed in this heavy confining outfit and lowered into the tall narrow tower on the Thames River, working at whatever skill he was perfecting.
helmet

“On the morning of May 23, 1939, the submarine USS Squalus slipped beneath the storm-tossed surface of the Atlantic on a sea trial. Minutes into the maneuver, she began flooding uncontrollably. The boat sank to the ocean floor nine miles off the New Hampshire coast, trapping 59 men on board.”

For some of the crew this date would be carved on their headstones. For others it would mark a 39 hour ordeal they would live with the rest of their lives. And for a hastily-assembled Navy rescue team rushed to New Hampshire, it would be remembered as the date they launched an unprecedented rescue mission that stretched their abilities.

No submarine rescue had ever taken place below twenty feet of water–the Squalus was 240 feet down resting on the bottom. The rescue methods had only existed in theory before this time.

In the end, there would be four Medals of Honor, 46 Navy Crosses and one Distinguished Service medal awarded to officers and men of the submarine rescue and salvage team. There would be a glorious new chapter written in the history of underwater rescue.

My father was part of this rescue mission, with a change of rank and uniform, and a new appreciation of the unforgiving power of the sea for those who choose to challenge her depths.

FAREWELL SWEET PRINCESS


“Look what I found Mom! It’s your silver charm bracelet I took five years ago when I left home!” All delivered in a voice of some amazement while my daughter nodded her head in sage acceptance, reminding me of the lapis ring she took from me some years ago. I recall the pair of scissors I brought from my mother’s sewing basket when I married 69 years ago. They long ago lost their edge, but then so have I in the ensuing years. Perhaps they were payback for the beloved stuffed raccoon my mother kept when I left on my honeymoon.

Is this an unconscious method of keeping some part of our childhood or of our past? I think it must be, though I can’t imagine why I took scissors–surely there were other things more useful?

Our Kate, world traveler that she has been as a tourist or traveler, departed today for London as a resident which is an entirely different thing. She called the other day to tell me about the woman in Paris who wore a full length mink while leading her little dog wearing an identical coat. She said “I fit in Paris—I have tried to fit in in London, but it isn’t the same.” Although she has been a frequent visitor of her new home, it will take time to “fit in” as she calls it. A Londoner of my acquaintance says it sometimes takes a long time to feel comfortable in that large labyrinth of a city. I might add that all moves take time to make you comfortable. It’s more than learning which Underground gets you to where you want to go. It’s really about making the people you smile at, smile back. Bon Voyage my Kate. Please don’t make Luca wear a fur coat.

CROSSING THE COUNTRY Kate’s Journal


Episode 6
New London, Connecticut, 1938

Through these past years I have blogged about various events which happened during our time in New London, Connecticut. Whether more things happened to me during that time, or whether I was simply old enough to have a better memory I can’t say, but Connecticut made a deep impression on me.

Still living in the details of my memory; the hurricane of 1938, my near-kidnapping, rustic country life and the summer-long case of poison ivy which greeted our arrival in New London, Connecticut.

In 1938 we received orders to go to New London, for two and a half years where my father began training in the submarine service. We loaded our belongings into our used black Chevy car and set out across country, like today’s migrants.

Assigned to the submarine base, both enlisted men and some officers could choose to find their own living quarters, which were few and far between off the base.

Our first was a one-room apartment bathroon-down-the-hall over a small grocery store, and the second was slightly better though it had no indoor plumbing, just a privy some distance away. Water had to be pumped each morning, and baths were taken in a tub after water had been heated on a huge wood stove. It sounds awful, and it was, but for two and a half years it was our home.

outhouse

The whole monstrosity overlooked a large field and a small lake which in New England is called a pond. The field was promptly planted with vegetables, and the pond supplied recreation both in summer and in winter when it froze solid and we skated. During the winter freeze I skated part of the way to school.

Connecticut abounds with rivers and streams, and we lived between the pond and across the road from the Thames River, a deep-water river with the Submarine Base situated on its shore. Local kids swam in sight of the diving tower, where my Dad trained. It was there I first learned to swim when my father threw me into the river.

The Base had a commissary, or ship’s stores, where we did most of our shopping. There was a movie theater, a bowling alley, and other places of recreation. A large parade ground was in the middle of the compound, and there was always a dress parade on Saturday mornings, where I loved to watch my father, in his dress blues, march in formation behind the Navy band. We Navy kids used to play ‘parade’ with a majorette, and the rest of us following behind blowing on combs covered with waxed paper.

The first winter we lived there, New England felt the tremendous power of a hurricane, still referred to as one of the worst of the century. It was a school day and we were all hustled into the hallway to protect us from flying glass should the windows cave in. The incredible roar of the wind and the rain pounding on the roof was very frightening. One of the big double doors at the end of the hall blew open, and three teachers pushing on it could not close it. When the noise quieted, and the wind calmed somewhat, we were sent to our various homes.

It still amazes me that we were sent on our way alone in the wake of such a terrible storm. But the road was impassable for cars because of fallen trees etc. I lived some three miles from the school and walked each way except for cutting off about a mile in winter. The rest of the children were local farm children whose parents in most cases had attended the same small school.

The school consisted of two rooms and the principal’s office and I went there during part of the fifth and all of the sixth and seventh grades. We were expected to memorize poems regularly, and a Charles Kingsley poem reproached: “Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever.” I still feel a twinge of guilt knowing I grew up more clever than good, and as a “sweet maid” I was a disappointment. Having practiced being “good” up to this time without gaining the benefit of friends, I chose to be funny.

I still remember the smell of oiled wooden floors in the closkroom, wet wool snowsuits, and egg or tuna sandwiches emanating from the tin lunchboxes or paper bags containing our lunches. I had close contact with these odors on the occasions when I was sent out of the room to consider my acts of disobedience.

My teacher, Miss Lillian Ingraham, was possibly the best teacher I ever had, and thought I was smarter than I was, because I had read the most books, for which I received a prize. She was quite tall and skinny and had dyed red hair and eyes in the back of her head. She placed me in the front row, not because I had trouble seeing the board, (which I did) but so that she could keep one of her eyes on me.

A boy named Cecil Kirk was in my fifth grade class and passed me a note one day suggesting that we meet after school behind a certain stone wall, where he would show me ‘his’ and I would reciprocate. I ran most of the way home never looking at the aforementioned stone wall. We never spoke again.

I was not a star at team sports, but I was a fast runner, and could shinny up the flag pole faster than most of the boys. I was also an apt pupil of my father in games of marbles, cards, and mumbly-peg, which was a game of skill in throwing a jack-knife point down into a preordained spot within a large circle drawn in the dirt. I ‘m afraid that most of the games my father taught me were not looked upon with great favor by my teachers.

PERSONAL GRAVEYARDS


First let me say that I think everyone needs a “personal graveyard”; because we all have grievances which need to be buried.

What do you do with the small niggling thoughts flying around in your memory that need to be forgotten? It speaks poorly of me to admit that I remember all of them. They may come unbidden at odd times, but especially when lying quietly in bed trying hard to think of nothing. These are the troubles which need to go right back into Pandora’s box because that was yesterday’s story.

Years ago I took a boy having prepubescent troubles to visit a gallery show I had just hung to get his take on the paintings. The boy was a budding artist with potential in computers as well as in painting. The featured artist had recently recovered from a serious illness and I wanted to show how her choice of color had influenced her painting.

The first room of the gallery showed the artist’s illness in very dark paintings with lots of black and red. In the other two rooms we hung her “I’m all over it, take me out to the ballgame” paintings. The young boy “got it”.

I recognize that we all don’t paint, but choose your own way to bring these feelings out into the open just to give them some air.

During my lifetime I have collected memories both good and bad. I long ago chose to paint them all, making it my personal graveyard. I slashed the canvas and splashed it with paint and small icons for parts of my life for which I had anger; codes only I knew, I gritted my teeth and got myself into a real snit, and then I put it up in the attic.

We are at the stage of life when we need to get rid of things we no longer need; it was a good time to visit the attic.

Dragging out old ancestral pictures and bad paintings of my own, I came upon my personal graveyard painting and found I no longer remember why I painted it.

When we leave this house someday, as we all must do, I will tell my children to “toss it in the bin with the rest of them.”

DANCING THE BLUES AWAY Kate’s Journal


Episode 5
Long Beach 1934-1938

Indomitable people always seem to find a way to lift their spirits and in the Great Depression, spirits needed a lot of lifting. Grandma loved to dance, and often went out in the evening dressed in great style, sometimes taking the boat to Catalina Island to dance at the famous Avalon Ballroom. I liked to rummage through her closet looking at her lovely evening gowns which she probably either made or picked up at a second hand store. Both she and my mother were excellent seamstresses.

The phenomenon of the marathon dance came about during the Depression. Dancing couples would remain dancing as long as possible on their feet, only taking time for a bite to eat and bathroom breaks. Otherwise, they even slept one at a time while dancing. If one or both fell they were disqualified. There was a monetary prize, so it was a good incentive to stay on your feet. People paid to watch, sitting on hard bleachers, and followed favorites, calling encouragement now and then.

Grandma was also a sucker for a sob story, and everyone seemed to have a story to tell her. I remember so many faces which showed up for a meal or two and then left. Harry Hance was the only male roomer we had and he lived with us for many years. I never knew if he started out as a “stray”, but he became part of our resident “family”.

Grandma’s theory was that everybody deserved a second chance. “You don’t throw a whole life away just because it’s banged up a little.” You can always find few rubies in the rubble.

Harry had the biggest bedroom in the house, one which my mother and I had occupied for a short time before he came to us, which probably led to any feelings of resentment I had toward him. He came and went through the laundry room which always smelled a bit like dry cleaning solvent because Nellie cleaned her own clothes. It’s a wonder she didn’t blow us all up, but that was the extent of thriftiness then.

I was named for my Great-Grandmother Kate Hadley Kendall and for my mother who went by the name of Kathy. The name now belongs to my Granddaughter Kate.

As a child I was dubbed “Katie Lou”, and I disliked it so much I began changing it with each new school I went to. It gave me a sense of mystery because no one really knew who I was. It was harmless entertainment and got me through the initial period of being the new kid on the block.

In 1937 we were stationed in San Diego again, the town of my earlier bullying at the age of four. I lied once more and used the name of “Elsie” when asked by the teacher. I greatly admired a neighbor of Auntie’s named Elsie Brown who was a few years older than I and may have played the piano.

My fourth grade class was putting on a talent show for which we signed up to perform our particular talent. For some unknown reason I chose to play the piano, which was a terrible choice since I did not know how to play the piano.

In the class of nine year old strangers I heard my “name” called to come to the front of the room. “Elsie Sweetland will now play a Russian piece on the piano for us.”

At Auntie’s I was allowed to bang away on the piano as often as I liked, though I somehow knew the mandolin resting against the wall beside it was off limits. Staying there often I was steeped in the classical music playing off their record player. I don’t remember listening to music at Grandma’s, though I often heard that Grandpa Jim was a lover of classical music, and his sister Corinne was an opera singer in Montreal.

I confidently stood and not looking at anyone I walked to the piano and sat on the small bench. After announcing my intention, I pounded away until the teacher mercifully brought my performance to a close. I believe I was as surprised as anyone that I could NOT play the piano.

Shortly after my disastrous debut the census was being taken, and a man came to our door and after assuring himself that my mother was indeed Kathryn Sweetland married to Walter Sweetland, came to question number three: “And you have Kathryn and Elsie in school?” I was busted.