Early Elementary Years (1941-45ish)

(religious hop, skip, and jump)

We moved from about 27th & McKenzie to 2117 McKenzie probably in 1941 or 1942.  I was 6 years old in March 1942 and started school in first grade in September 1942. No kindergarten for me—only “rich” kids could afford to go.

I should, but can’t remember, the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Perhaps daddy & mother deemphasized that to keep our young minds off of it.  Remember T. V.  first came to our home over 10 years later, but I do remember a big floor-model radio that we seldom listened to.  We never listened to Bob Hope—his program was too suggestive—but we did listen to Fibber McGee and Molly.  Mother would sometimes listen to soap operas after lunch while she was ironing.  Plus, I sure remember the noon news and cattle report from WFAA/WBAP.  The two stations shared the same radio kilocycles (I think that is what you call it).  When they switched from WFAA, Dallas to WBAP, Ft. Worth they always rang a cowbell.  The noon news was always sponsored by Gladiola flour.  “So light, so tender, so tasty you know they were baked with Gladiola flour”.  Most of the time we also listened to the Stamps Quartet, the gospel singing group from Dallas sponsored for years by the Dudley M Hughes Funeral Home.  Mother called it “religious hop, skip, and jump” because of its fast pace.  But she listened to it almost every day.  The Stamps (Stamps Baxter Music Schools) in Dallas were the starting point for many more modern sacred music people, including Bill Gaither.

I enjoyed school because there were pretty girls there and I learned the lessons quickly.  Mainly so I could goof off while the others caught up and spend my time day-dreaming about my newest imaginary girlfriend-such as Betty Smith or Janie Williams.  I don’t think they ever knew because I was so shy that I never talked to girls.

United States Army Air Forces, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During WWII there was an air corps training base for fighter pilots just outside Waco.  These were the first real military pilots even though there was some air corps action in WWI, but it consisted mostly of observation planes and bombers that required pilots to throw bombs from their open cockpits.  The air corps was part of the army at that time and became the air force (a separate branch of the military) sometime later.  Anyway, sometime during the war, Waco Army Air Base became Blackland Field–I have no idea when or why.

After the above digression I will try to get back on subject.  There were two giant cottonwood trees by the curb two houses away from ours.  They were about 100 feet or more tall.  These training pilots were allowed a lot of leeway in their training missions, and one hot summer afternoon one of the hotshot pilots must have spotted me standing under the cottonwood trees.  So, he decided that those trees were perfect targets for a training strafing mission.  He came screaming out of the skies right on top of the trees barely clearing the top branches.  He left behind one scared little boy.  It was a great story, but since nobody was outside to verify my account it went into the record books as an urban legend.  Still, I know it was no figment of my imagination.  Do you believe?

School was fun for me those World War II days living as a naive youngster.  I do remember rationing of tires (we didn’t have a car so we traded these off), sugar, meat, gasoline, and a host of other commodities.  I remember Grandpa Thomas eating his morning cereal with coffee instead of milk and saccharin instead of sugar so we kids would have enough.  He lived with each of his kids alternately and always arrived with candy in his pockets for us.  He got from Corpus Christi to W and to Cisco by “travel bureau”.  Travel bureau consisted of individuals who had cars taking passengers with them for a small price.

But, I’ve rambled again-sorry for the interruption.  During the bad days of 1942 and 1943 we had blackouts, fire drills, and air raid drills.  Yep, we were required to turn out all lights in the house, except those that were absolutely necessary, and all windows had to be covered with black material.  Fire drills at school consisted of lining up in a prescribed order and filing quietly and quickly out of the school-probably not much different than fire drills now, yet they were likely conducted with more urgent resolve.  The air raid drills were fun.  We went as a class to the school basement and sat down in our places-all six grades.  Then we sang patriotic songs and pledged alliance to the flag.  Lord knows what the ACLU would do with that now!

We also had drives to collect all salvaged metals we could, and I remember war bond and war stamps.  A bond cost $18.75 and matured several years later at $25.00.  War stamps cost $.10 each and when you filled a book to the $18.75 amount you could exchange the book for a bond. Our family accumulated quite a few bonds during this time because there was nothing available to be bought due to rationing.  I think clothes were rationed also, though I can’t remember clearly.

Since there were three kids in the family, Daddy was exempt from the military for quite awhile. When he thought the draft to be close, he took a job at the Bluebonnet Ordinance Plant in McGregor about 20 miles from Waco.  He commuted every day with friends and, so far as I know, the plant built bombs.  He wore steel toed shoes to work, and I thought they were “cool, swell, groovy”—take your choice.

Daddy, like almost all men smoked.  I believe that even cigarettes were rationed.  Many rolled their own, but Daddy bought Bugler, I think, and bought a cigarette rolling machine.  It was such fun to watch him insert the papers, fill them with tobacco, and then run them through the rolling machine.  I was so proud when I was allowed to roll a few.

During 1943 the war situation was more and more bleak and older guys with more children began to be drafted.  Though Daddy was 33 and worked in a defense-related industry he was concerned that he might be drafted.  At this time, he believed there was a program that allowed men to state their preference in the event they were called up.  Daddy wanted to be in the navy if he were drafted so he went to the draft board and filled out papers selecting the navy.  However, he found out later that he had, in fact, volunteered.

So, in late 1942 or early 1943, away he went to San Diego for basic training.  Meanwhile, Grandpa came to live with us to help Mother with us kids.  Times were tough, but Mother and Daddy wrote letters every day.  When we got a letter from Daddy, we all gathered around to hear the news.  In every case when she got to a certain point in the letter, she always told us that the rest was private.  I always wondered what was so secret about that part of the letters and never knew until a few years ago after mother died.  We found many letters from Daddy and, alas, nothing at all juicy, but like letters from all couples in love with each other.

Daddy’s navy service was short, but interesting.  After basic training he was assigned to radar school (very high tech because it was so new).   He did very well in the school and was assigned to the U. S Lowry, a destroyer assigned to go into battle in the Pacific.  However, one day an officer came through looking for someone with teaching experience to instruct others in this new-fangled equipment.  No one volunteered, but Daddy finally held up his hand and said he had taught Sunday school for years.  So, he was selected to teach enlisted men and officers most of whom outranked him a great deal.  Later, he found out that the U. S. Lowry was damaged in action in the Pacific.  The “crow’s nest” where all the radar equipment is located suffered a direct hit and all radar personnel were killed.

The basic training had taken a toll on the sailor the younger guys called “Pappy”.  Remember his peers were about 18-20 and he was 34.  He never had a strong back and began to have severe back pains—so he spent several weeks in a navy hospital.  He told this for the truth—that he once mistakenly assigned to the “psycho ward”, and it was awhile before he convinced them he didn’t belong there. 

He was discharged with a medical discharge and came home in late 1943 or early 1944*.

I believe it was 1944 since I vaguely remember only getting a sailor cap for Christmas.

Mother rode the train to meet him in Dallas and all of us kids were very disappointed we didn’t get to go too.

During these years our next-door neighbors were the Miller family-Lee and Mrs. Miller and their two daughters, Meta and Kay.  One day in the heat of the summer, Shirley was in the bathtub (an old footed bathtub with ghosts hiding beneath and where I had to bathe at night with the window open–scary), Grandpa was sitting on the porch smoking his pipe loaded with “Ranger Rough Cut”.   He also chewed some Brown Mule to Mother’s consternation.  As always, I was out in the yard doing something.  Our house, like all the houses in the neighborhood, was wood frame and old.  It sat probably 15 feet from the Millers’ with no driveway in between.

Suddenly a Western Union messenger boy rode his bicycle up into the Millers’ front yard, jumped on the porch, and began to tear off the window screen.  When I looked around, smoke was pouring form the side of the Millers’ house closest to ours.  Boy, was I ever scared.  We had no telephone, but an unknown someone called the fire department.  They showed up after seemingly an eternity.  By the time the fire was out the house was totally destroyed and the paint on our house was permanently bubbled up.  Mother and Mrs. Miller had gone to a funeral and were on the way home when they saw the commotion.  They talked together and were sure it was one house or the other.  There was only a small relief for mother when she saw that it was the Miller house.  I can still today clearly see that messenger boy and smell that smoke!

Oh—and there is the incident with James High.  James was a playmate from the next block.  We had loads of fun crawfishin’ in the creek across the street and at the next corner.  We would often take dry salt pork tied with a string and dangle it in the shallow creek bed.  The plenteous crawfish would grab the bait with their pincers and hold on “till the cows came home”.  I’m going to say we caught and released them, occasionally being pinched on the fingers, but I really don’t remember.  Surely, we didn’t stomp them because we seldom wore shoes.  Anyway, James & I were buddies until one day we went to his house & he offered me some chocolate candy. After I had eaten a good bit without noticing that he didn’t partake, he fell over laughing and telling me I had eaten Ex Lax.  He then had to explain to this sheltered little boy that it was medicine and the likely result.  I don’t know if Mother ever found out, but I was a “regular” fellow for a day or two.

The school ground during recess provided a great laboratory for studying personalities.  There were the quiet guys who got off by themselves or with one or two others.  I have no idea what they talked about.  Only the “dandies” ever talked to the girls and made the rest of us jealous because the girls paid them some mind.  Then there were the would-be athletes, including me, who always could find a football or a baseball & bat and spend half of the time playing and the other half arguing about whose turn it was to bat.  The real aggressive boys ran amuck around the schoolyard terrorizing each other and everyone else.  Remember, this was during World War II so it was fashionable among the bullies to run around with arms spread wide, screaming like a banshee, and buzzing everyone on the school grounds.  Scary stuff!

Shirley began to learn to play the piano during these days and later moved on to the cello.  I never knew why the cello, but it must have made some sense to somebody.  I think I was forced to attend one recital—possibly 30 or 40 new pianists (I use the term loosely).  After squirming and misbehaving for what seemed to be hours (or days), I never was expected to go again.

I was an ugly, unkempt boy during those years and lived only to go to school & play outside.  My hair was dishwater blond and very unruly, even with a load of “hair oil”.  My front teeth were too far apart, my ears were too big, and I was skinny.  I deserved to be shy!  I have a picture of my 1st grade class, and I am the worst among a bunch of “dandies”.  Probably forgot to tell mother about picture day–so she had no chance to make sure she spiffed me up.

Lord knows, we went to church every Sunday—in fact every time the doors opened.  I learned to name the books of the bible when I was very young and could quote verbatim a good many verses. 

I clearly remember mother and daddy being in a panic when our landlord decided he was going to “sell the house out from under us”.  In other words, we had to get out pronto and they worried about whether they could get enough money together to buy a house.  Finally, by cashing in all the war bonds they had and any other money they could scrape together, bought the house at 2709 Windsor.  The house had one previous owner and had a small garden and a few young fruit trees.  The Veterans Administration loan of about $3,500 and a down payment of about $350.00 financed the deal.  Payments were about $35.00 per month and were covered by Daddy’s G. I. partial disability check in about the same amount.  Though I coveted it, Shirley got her own bedroom and I shared with Gary and Grandpa Thomas when he stayed with us.  I really got the best of the deal because Shirley’s was the west bedroom and was dreadfully hot in the summer. We had no air conditioning.  No swamp cooler, not even a fan in the entire house.  Though we kept all windows wide open, many nights we woke up in a pool of sweat.

I remember the move.  Daddy borrowed Stratton-Stricker’s furniture truck and he and others loaded up the stuff.  I supposed I helped a little, but the highlight was riding in the back of the middle-sized stake bed truck on top of the furniture.  What a thrill!

To be continued at days at Dean Highland Elementary  

*Editor’s note: Dad’s recollection seems to have shortened this Navy tenure a bit. CJ (Charlie Jefferson) Thomas was “received onboard” the USS Montpelier 27Nov1942 and was part of the crew in the quarter ended 31Mar1945.