HOW LUCKY CAN YOU GET? Kate’s Journal


The summer after high school was warm and lazy, and I took advantage of each day at the beach; no boyfriend to worry about, no time schedule, but also no money. I began to feel disapproval from Great Aunt Helen as I trudged home tired and sunburned after my day in the sun. I felt the ominous suggestion that I get a job.

My two choices for employment in the City were Matson Line and American Hawaiian Steamship Lines in the same building. I snatched the opportunity at the latter and received the staggering salary of $95 per month as a mail girl. Uncle Fred and I rode the bus each morning and were greeted with the wonderful aroma of fresh roasted coffee drifting from the Hills Bros. plant located just under the Bay Bridge as we approached San Francisco.

Now a mail girl’s job is better than it sounds, because I delivered mail to places up and down the Embarcadero, plus the mayor’s office and offices within both Matson and Amer.Hawaiian.

What a magical city San Francisco was. Not the crowded skyline it has now, but the epitome of sophistication and panache nonetheless. Chinatown, Playland at the Beach with its gigantic rollercoaster, and wonderful carousel, crooked Lombard Street, the Mission District, The impressive PG&E Building,restaurants and hotels, the waterfront with the piers where my father was apt to come in. The largest office I ever saw was that of Mr. Roger Latham, whose place of employment I can’t recall, but he received a lot of mail, and never seemed to be in his office. There were so many things to choose from to have a good time.

Hats and gloves were expected and were worn, thus taking one from a schoolgirl to a grownup in the length of time it took to traverse the Bridge. I moved up from the Mail Room to the Reception Desk with no more salary, but loads more distinction,. It was also a good place to meet people, and I met and dated several young officers who, upon reaching port, stopped off in the office.

Me at 17

A heart can be heavy thing, and slowly but surely, mine mended. I wanted to go on to college, but there was no money, and life was not treating me too badly at that time. My grandmother and Aunt Corinne and Judy, who was now seven, had moved to Alameda, taking an apartment right around the corner from us. Grandma had married Mr. Fred Lessing by this time, and with my Alameda relatives nearby as well, we were a family again.

THE DIFFERENCE


ROTC

Old R.O.T.C. photo circa 1944, and yes, that is me, front row center, the only girl. It was a serious time, and everyone still here was gung-ho to go. I really wanted to be a WAVE, but my father wouldn’t hear of it, so I settled for an ROTC uniform. So many of our classmates had already gone to war, and more were leaving as their names came up. Dr. Advice, who had not yet become Dr. Advice, would leave for training soon at Coyote Point, and then out to sea in the South Pacific. Some couples rushed to get married, several girls while still in High School, and one boy, a good Catholic, convinced his girlfriend that they needed to get married before he left because he wanted to have sex before he left in case he didn’t come back.

Jamie Brenneis, Viet Nam</a

And there were plenty who didn't come back. Thinking back to that time, I remember those fresh beardless faces who were so eager to join up, but didn’t make it home again. My father, a career Navy man had been gone for nearly five years when the War finally ended in August 1945. He was at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, though we had no way of knowing this.

GGBridge 2

The point of departure and arrival from the West Coast was the Golden Gate Bridge; the first and last thing of home they saw, and the tears fell unashamedly from war weary faces as they stood at attention on the decks of battleships, destroyers, carriers and cargo ships passing slowly beneath the bridge when on the way home.. At one point during the War the San Francisco Bay was covered with a mind boggling number of ships, all awaiting orders to ship out. You had the feeling there were no other ships left, and yet on the other side of the Bay over in Richmond, Henry Kaiser was building a record number of new ones daily. He got the Government contract by convincing them he could not only build great ships, but do it faster. He got the all time record by building one in 4 1/2 days.

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High School over and the War still on, many of us decided to delay college for a few years and went to work. My family being involved with the Matson Line, it was where I gravitated and I was hired as a mail girl at $95 dollars a month. I lived at home and thought it was a fortune! The job was mundane except for the mail being delivered to the upper echelons, and I delivered mail up and down the Embarcadero and also to the American Hawaiian Steamship Line offices where the handsome young pursers checked in upon arrival back from sea. I was promoted to receptionist status which meant I saw them first!

V-J Day came on August 15, 1945, and all Hell broke out all over San Francisco. People spilled out of stores and offices along Market Street, cars and buses stopped where they were, and the cable cars expelled tourists who were getting more than they bargained for in their San Francisco holiday. It put New Orleans Mardi Gras to shame. Horns honked and blared, whistles blew, confetti flew all over us, either thrown by those of us running madly up and down the street or out of upper windows of buildings. People poured into the area from all the side streets to join the the joyous celebration. You were pushed, shoved and hugged and kissed by any and everyone who was nearby, and you did the same. The screams of “The War is over! The War is over!” filled the air while people shook their heads in disbelief, that after all this time it was finally over and all our boys would be coming home. Bottles were passed hand to hand, and I remember someone shoving a bottle of apricot brandy into my hands shouting “Keep it—the War’s over!”

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220px-Oak-knoll Oak Knoll Naval Hospital

The War was over, and now a new phase began—that of recovery. There was a huge rush of weddings and people a few years older than their classmates enrolled in colleges and applied for jobs–any jobs. We were among the newly married, and I volunteered to work at the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland where returning veterans recuperated. We read to those without eyes, wrote letters for those without arms, made dish gardens of succulent plants for them to watch grow, and simply talked to those who just needed to talk. I worked mainly in the burn unit.

At my real job as a dental hygienist I answered the phone one day to hear a very nice young man’s voice saying he needed an appointment. I did a mental picture of him because of his voice and pictured him as rather tall and good looking, a returned veteran perhaps needing both tooth cleaning or perhaps a filling. As it turned out, we extracted all of his teeth and made dentures.

His appointment day arrived and I looked up from my desk to face a frightening apparition. His face and hands were massively burned with pieces of his face and ears actually missing. He was from the Mid West but would not contact his family or friends. He was a loner at the hospital, sitting by himself by a window whenever I saw him. He had been a tail gunner on a B-17 Bomber which had crashed and burned over Okinawa. I learned that he had liked chocolate cake so I made him a chocolate birthday cake. It was his 22nd birthday—a year younger than I.

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Part of an unfinished column War Correspondent by Ernie Pyle, who died on the island of le Shima on April 17, 1945:

“And so it is over. The day that it had seemed would never come has come at last. But there are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men…..Dead men by mass production….We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousand. That’s the difference.”