Family Histories: An Unexpected Trip

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

Today BRIAN from EQUINOXIO shares a secret story from his mother who served in the French Women’s Army Corps at the end of  World War II:

The photograph came in the post. In a manila envelope, with a note from my brother:

“Here’s a picture of the family star. You’ve probably seen it before. I had it enlarged. Ask her the story behind it. I hope it lifts her spirits. Hugs. Richard.”

My brother’s handwriting was as bad as usual. But decipherable. I looked at the photo. A black & white blow-up of a picture I had indeed seen before in a much smaller format. The enlarged pic was good. My brother had been a photographer before shifting to flea market vendor of old furniture. Had he enlarged the photo himself?

One could easily recognize my mother, early twenties maybe, in an army uniform. With a cap daintily placed on her combed back dark curly hair. She wore a French W.A.C. uniform (Women’s Army Corps). What the French called a P.F.A.T: Personnel Féminin de l’Armée de Terre. Army Female Personnel. Or so I thought. On close look there were wings on her cap. So she was Air Force Auxiliary Personnel. A P.F.A.A, pronounced “Péfa”. There was tall grass in the foreground, trees in the background. It looked like the picture was taken in a garden or a field. Maybe at my grandfather’s house in Rennes? I remembered the house, on the outskirts of the city. It opened up on fields all the way to the horizon.

I’d never asked my mother ‘why the uniform?’ I’d assumed she’d joined the Armed forces at the end of the war as so many had, when France had been liberated. But I had no details. I only knew she’d met my father in Air France in the Fall of ’45, in Paris.

I put the photo and note back in the envelope. I’d give it to her in the evening when I dropped by my parent’s house on my way back from the office.

F Berlin

My mother was in bed. She was mostly bed-ridden then with the cancer that would eventually claim her life. Though always a fighter, she still tried her best to walk a few steps every morning and afternoon in her room. She would say a phrase I will always remember:

“Bon! Ne mollissons pas.” ‘Let’s not get soft’. She would swing her feet to the side of her bed, maybe ask for a helping arm, walk a few steps in the room to a nearby armchair. Rest for a while. Chat. Get up, walk a few more steps and climb back in bed.

She was in good spirits as I kissed her cheek. Later, in the last weeks of the “crab”, she stopped talking. She’d once said that before her mother died in ’44, of a cardiac condition and the privations of the war, she’d spent the last weeks without a word, or a complaint, never whining. Neither were whiners.

I showed her my brother’s envelope. She smiled. Read the note. Said: “your brother’s handwriting is getting worse every day.” Looked at the picture and said:

“Hah! Of course. I remember that picture. That was in Rennes (Brittany) outside your grandfather’s garden.”

“When was that?” I asked. “Do you remember?”

“Summer of ’45, I think. I joined the Air Force after my mother died, that must have been late ’44 or early ’45. There was nothing else to do. Not many jobs. Brittany, Paris, and most of France had been liberated but the war was still on. The Germans were fighting back very hard. Remember the Ardennes?”

“Yes”, I said, “The German counter-offensive that took the Allies by surprise. In the winter of ’44-’45? Were it not for Patton, the outcome of the war could have been very different. So, you were stationed in Rennes?”

“Yes. I lived in Rennes, so I signed up there. I wanted to go to Paris. I’d never left Brittany, and Paris sounded like a promise of liberty. The Air Force was as good an option as anything else.”

My mother never finished high school. Between a working-class background, blue-collar to a fault, the war, her mother’s illness, she had to drop-out. As a typist. At least she had a trade. She even taught my sister and I shorthand. Which I forgot, of course. Quite fun, it was like writing in code.

“I was a typist at the military command for Brittany,” my mother went on. “I asked the Colonel several times for a transfer to Paris. Which he always refused. I was getting desperate to move out of Brittany.”

“What did you do then?” I asked.

She laughed: “I sneaked into the Colonel’s office one day while he was out somewhere. Probably in the loo. And I stole a few “ordres de mission” forms that were lying on his desk. Orders and transportation forms. I filled them with my name, destination Paris, assignment: typist at the Ministry of War, Paris, forged the Colonel’s signature, and hopped on the first train to Paris.” Smile. She was pleased with herself. And I was not surprised. She could cut corners.

“I remember those trains,” I said, “when I was in the Army, stationed near Rennes. Took them back and forth to Paris for a full year! The train back to Paris was always a train to freedom. And nobody noticed? That your orders were forged?”

“No. You must remember this was the war. People moving around, stationed here, moved there, the Colonel probably never even noticed I was gone!”

She was smiling at the good trick she’d played. Got her way as she had always done and would always do. I can imagine the young, pretty Breton girl having the time of her life in Paris.

“If you left for Paris around April or early May, you were, what? Barely 18, or 19?” (My mother was from May 18th, 1926)

“Yes. I was 19. Barely, but old enough to know I wanted a different life.”

“I can imagine. And how was work at the Ministère de la Défense?”

“Mostly boring. I was at the typing pool. Memos and memos, in 4 or 5 copies, with carbon paper. In early May 1945, the race was on between the Allies and the Russians to see who would deal the final blow to the Germans. We all knew it was a matter of days.”

“Hitler shot himself on April 30th in the Bunker in Berlin. Goebbels and his wife killed their six children before killing themselves as well. The Soviets were rushing West, the Allies running East at full speed.”

“Yes”, she said, “the thing was: who would get to Berlin first?”

“The Russians did, right?”

The Soviet Army under Joukov (Zhukov in English) and the first US Army corps under Hodges make their junction on the river Elbe at Torgau on April 25, 1945. The Reichstag is destroyed by the Soviets on April 30th, the red flag hoisted over the ruins. On May 2nd, the German troops in Berlin surrender to the Russians. On May 7th, the Germans surrender in Reims to the Allied troops (British, US, French). On May 8th, Keitel signs unconditional capitulation of the Reich in front of all four Allies including the Soviet generals. A third of Berlin has been completely destroyed, up to 70% in the centre of the city.

“Yes, the Russians got there first,” my mother said. “And then, on May 8th, the war was over. Celebration everywhere, Blue, White, and Red flags in all the streets of Paris, and every village. Japan was still fighting in the Pacific, but for us, in Europe, it was over…”

“And then what?”

“Nobody knew what was going to happen. Many cities in France had been destroyed: Le Havre, Rouen and others. France was basically in ruins. I didn’t know what would happen to my job at the Ministry. If the war was over, there wasn’t really much need in the War Office for a small typist from Brittany. Until…” She paused. My mother always had the knack to pause at the right moment.

“Until what?! What happened? Don’t ‘pause’ me!”

“One morning, I can’t remember when exactly, a few weeks after the capitulation of the Germans, a young and dapper Air Force Captain came to the typing pool. We all suddenly pretended to type something.” Smile. “Work had been slow after the 8th.” She smiled at me again with one of her damn pauses. I kept silent. I could play the game. She went on:

“The Captain asked: ‘Who’s the one who speaks English here?’”

“No! You must be joking!”

“Nope! I kept my eyes glued to my keyboard. See, I’d not… exactly… lied, but let’s say I ‘d ‘exaggerated’ a tad when I joined the Air Force as an auxiliary. On the sign-up form, I’d ticked the box next to ‘Foreign languages spoken’ and written ‘English’ ”.

My mother’s English was flawless but that was after 8 years in India, and 25 years abroad. After the war. I wasn’t sure of the quality of her English in 1945…

“English?” I asked. “In Brittany, during the war, in German-occupied France?”

She laughed. “Well, you could almost be executed for speaking English. ‘Suspected intelligence with the British enemy’ and all that. But I had a self-learning book. Well hidden in the house. And I knew a few people in the Resistance who spoke some English and gave me classes. So, I managed. Not very well, but better than many of our dear compatriots, as you know…”

“I know. English is still not their forte. And the Captain?”

“The Captain repeated: ‘Which one of you speaks English? Come on! I haven’t got all day!’ I lifted my eyes from the keyboard. Raised my hand.”

My mother went on: “The Captain said: ‘Ah! It’s you! Get up. Come with me.’ I took my notepad and my French-English dictionary, just in case. Maybe he wanted to draft a memo in English. I rushed after him. He turned around and told me: ‘Meet me in an hour at Villacoublay. Here are your orders.’ “

“Villacoublay?” I said. “The Air Force base, south of Paris?”

“Yes. I was dumbfounded. But what could I say? I was just a small typist, a WAC. He was a Captain. So, I went along. Then he looked at me. Up and down. And said:

‘Make it an hour and half. You can’t go in that sorry uniform of yours. Give me your notepad.’

“He took out a gold-tipped fountain pen from a breast-pocket under a bunch of ribbons.  He looked young but had certainly earned his share of medals. He scribbled and signed a note, handed the pad back to me. ‘Here. Take this note to the store, get a pair of new uniforms. Yours is a disgrace. And shoes too. Then take any Jeep to Villacoublay. Show them your orders. Meet me there in an hour and half sharp.’ “

It was my turn to be “dumbfounded”. What did the Captain want? Villacoublay? The Air Force base? Another uniform?

“Why another uniform?” I asked my mother.

“Again, think ‘WAR’. France had been occupied, bombed and ransacked for 5 years. There was shortage of everything. Even decent clothes. My uniform was coarse, thick wool. My shoes were practically cardboard! So I went to the Air Force store in the basement. They handed me two brand new uniforms, of the finest, most delicate, softest wool I’d ever seen. Fitted me like a glove. And the shoes! I couldn’t believe it. ‘Des mocassins en chevreau!’ Flat-heel fine leather shoes. I had never seen shoes like that either. I ran to my locker. Grabbed a toothbrush, a pair of panties, stuffed them inside my bag, took the first available Jeep to Villacoublay. The Captain was already waiting. Looked approvingly at my new uniform. A man of not so many words he pointed at a military airplane nearby, engines already running, we hopped on and took off!”

To be continued…

Berlin

The Motherless Ones

Not just poets and heroes lose mothers.  Some lose their mothers to childbirth, still others to drugs and some when they are rescued from women who fracture the skulls and clavicles of children not old enough to walk.

William Cowper at the age of six lost his mother. His baby brother was the cause. They lived the only two of seven to survive childhood in Cowper’s family.

William grew close to his mother’s family, he attended school and studied Latin. It is said that he fell in love with his cousin Theodora, but his uncle refused to let the two marry. From time-to-time he suffered depressions that on occasion plunged him into insanity and stays at the asylum. He tried to commit suicide multiple times but destiny and friendship prevented his success.

At a post-adoption support group we started attending my husband and I listened to the stories of women who became mothers to orphans. These women had many years of experience behind them and a learned patience and strength I marvel at. One woman spoke of a 5-year-old Chinese orphan who tried to strangle her as she drove down a highway. The girl was so frightened, so possessed with an animal fear she could not be convinced of safety in her new home.

These motherless ones often have difficulties. My husband and I leave these meetings with an odd sense of elation. Children do progress (maybe not in the ways we dream for them) and adoptive parents do often survive. No longer do I think it’s that weird to have a child who has been institutionalized. After reading only a small portion of my child’s files I wonder why more children aren’t institutionalized.

The devoted lady who has run this support group for years asks me, “Yes, but what do you love about this child?”

I know she asks because so often these meetings become places where we laugh and vent and paint horrible pictures of all we’re going through with these motherless children.

William Cowper went insane. Did the first spark of insanity come at the loss of his mother? Who knows, but he went on to write some of the most beautiful hymns and poems. He inspired Wordsworth, Coleridge and Martin Luther King Jr. who often quoted from ‘The Negro’s Complaint‘. He befriended John Newton (who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace“) and became an ardent supporter of the abolition movement in England.

Cowper recovered his sanity for long periods of time allowing for his hymns and poems to be written. Broken children can be incredibly scary to adults. One is tempted more often then one wants to admit to desert. Cowper had people in his life who came beside him, but he had something even more important.

The lady asked me again what I liked about this child who has upset my writing and reading schedule, hurt my animals and threatens to rob my sanity with her incessant talk.

In the quiet of the basement room in the municipal building surrounded by folding chairs under ugly fluorescent light I remembered the day last week when this girl read the neuro-psychological evaluation because she thought I was hiding something from her. She read about her sister’s broken bones and so much more that only now she was beginning to remember and understand.

On the drive this weekend to drop her off at camp she looked out at the blue sky and the soft Adirondack Mountains that seemed to go on forever, one soft peak after another. ‘Let’s worship God for this,’ she said. ‘God did this. Isn’t that great?’ she asked me.

I told the lady at group that I loved how this motherless child cut to the core of things. I told her how I loved how despite being broken physically and shattered mentally she still wanted to get up each day and worship God. If I think about God at all it’s usually with complaint.

Everything is a cliche, you see. Special gifts are given to special children. Beauty can often survive great suffering. Redemption is real. Oh, it’s so boring sometimes.

But sometimes it’s not.

“I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” Ray Bradbury

Soaking up words in close quarters.

Soaking up words in close quarters.

After a month of turmoil, unemployment, sick animals, writing dead-ends and slugs on the potato plants, I’m itching to spend a glorious day out of the heat at the public library to peruse files of long forgotten people, steal their spirits and bring them home with that satisfied feeling that I’ve learned something. Even as the world goes mad and evil takes strong footholds, something in us  produces books and free libraries.

How about you? What’s your fondest memory of a public library?

Smiles and Books

Smiles and Books

“People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.” Saul Bellow

http://mentalfloss.com/article/51788/62-worlds-most-beautiful-libraries

Books I’ve Known And Loved

railroaded_news

IMG_0013

I could go on about this book FOREVER!!! If you love intrigue and corruption, avarice and stupidity all assembled in a breathtakingly well-researched and witty BIG read, then here’s the book for you. If you like flawed though strangely lovable characters, then again, here they are presented to you on a silver platter. There’s the intellectual railroad man, Charles Adams and the blustering, risk-taking old grump Collis Huntington to begin with, but it’s Richard White’s depth of knowledge and insight into humanity (about the fairest book I’ve read about anything in a long time) that steal the show.

As you know, I hate easy answers, simple villains and preachy one-sided visions of humanity and Richard keeps everyone in perspective. This is no Howard Zinn good worker vs. evil corporate manager fantasy. Everyone’s corrupt from top to bottom. Everyone’s blind to their own flaws. America’s youth and all of the waste and foolishness that came with it bursts from the pages! Yes, I adore this book.

It even explains what a short stock is in a way I understand!! Now that’s something. You might wonder if it is a depressing story (I felt like giving up on life after reading Zinn’s junk), but this book is too full of wit–as if the author has the sense of humor of someone who doesn’t expect people to be anything near perfect–just interesting.

Richard White Interview

Railroaded

Clara Driscoll: A Secret Genius At Tiffany Studios

Wisteria Lamp, designed by Clara Driscoll. The Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany, by Martin Eidelberg, et al. Vendome Press, New York, 2005.

Wisteria Lamp, designed by Clara Driscoll. The Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany, by Martin Eidelberg, et al. Vendome Press, New York, 2005.

A NEW WOMAN come to life! Clara Driscoll was the sort of gal who bicycled around Manhattan in a short skirt (above the ankles), actively followed politics and happened to design some of the most beautiful pieces of American decorative art for her boss Louis Tiffany like the lamp above. Her letters seem to suggest that she may have come up with the nature themed lamps altogether. Louis Tiffany is quoted as saying,  “A lamp may be as much an object of art as a painting or a piece of statuary. In fact, it should be,” but as Susan Vreeland notes, never mentions who first designed them.

The artist at work. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The artist at work.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This doesn’t mean he didn’t appreciate Clara. Although at first he was adamantly opposed to hiring women, he had a small group of them who handled the intricate glass cutting of some of his projects. After Clara’s husband died she went back to work for him.

Once it became clear what a talent she was “he rewarded Clara by giving her ever greater responsibility, an expansive budget, considerable artistic freedom, invitations to his home studio, and in the summer of 1907, a deluxe three-month trip abroad to photograph and sketch in Brittany with Tiffany himself and several other artists from the firm. For as long as he was able, he defended her imaginative but costly designs against the more pragmatic assessments of his managerial staff and eventually a strike of the men’s department.”  Breaking Tiffany’s Glass Ceiling

Unknown artists on Tiffany roof.

Unknown artists on Tiffany roof.

“. . . this is rather difficult work, but when one has a fondness for a certain brand of industry, she does not pause when a difficulty must be overcome.… The work is a new departure for women, and I believe that they like it. For myself, I am exceedingly fond of it, much more so than of mere designing.”

 

 

Nothing New Under The Sun: Immigration

Happy Immigrants

Happy Immigrants

Even honey bees are an invasive species. Plants, insects and people tend to move–and take over. Populations explode and people jostle for position. Mrs. Astor of the late 19th century had a big house in NYC with a ballroom. People naturally wanted to attend her soirees. If you were “in” you were one of “The Four Hundred” which only meant that you were one of the 400 people who could fit in her ballroom. Do any of us have dinner parties without considering how many chairs we have?

That's a lot of people!

That’s a lot of people!

Lower Manhattan was littered with old, once regal mansions chopped up for new immigrants. And at first everyone was sort of okay with it. The island could handle the influx and since many of the new people spoke English they didn’t seem so alien.

This did not mean that a Mrs. Astor wanted to live right next door to some working class shlub. But lets not do the easy thing–the setting of the rich against the poor. The middle class and the already established working class started feeling a bit uneasy as the century wore on. As one of my uncles once said when people were discussing how disgusting the beaches were on Coney Island, “Who cares, we can just move to nicer beaches.” Some of us didn’t have the funds to move at that particular moment and I suspect that many New Yorkers who watched the surge in immigration through the 19th century felt some alarm.

NYC Immigration rates went something like this:

1830: 14,000

1835: 32715

1840: 60,609 (or a 20% addition to the city’s population in one year)

1845: 76,514

1856: 212,796

and so on.

Stats from Mrs. Astor’s New York

“Taxpayers were asked to welcome a very different kind of immigrant; usually untrained, largely illiterate, demanding free public services, practicing a different religion . . . the native poor and the taxpayers resented that immigrants could apply for relief.”

Does it all sound familiar yet? I grew up in a town where a bunch of kids who didn’t do well at school could depend on decent (not great) paying jobs landscaping other people’s yards. Suddenly those jobs were given to non-English speaking illegals and there was some resentment directed mainly at the landscaping company owners who’d started as the less than successful high school kids, built a company and now profited off the cheap labor of the immigrants.

I can personally understand why desperate people would want to flock to a country advertizing free everything but I can also understand the graph below:

I guess we're all a bunch of intolerant jerks.

I guess we’re all a bunch of intolerant jerks.

Graph swiped from Pew Research

Healthcare Gone Crazy!

Disease, Filth and Mayhem!

And You Thought Women Couldn’t Build Bridges: Emily Warren Roebling

Courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art

Courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art

 

Here’s a happy story for a change: During the Civil War Emily went to visit her brother then commanding the 5th Army Corps at his headquarters and fell madly in love with Washington Roebling, the son of John A. Roebling who designed the as yet to be built Brooklyn Bridge. Washington obviously felt the same way when writing to his sister about Emily he said,  “Some people’s beauty lies not in the features, but in the varied expression that the countenance will assume under the various emotions. She is…a most entertaining talker, which is a mighty good thing you know, I myself being so stupid.” (ASCE)

They got married after a whirlwind romance, traveled to Europe to study bridges, had a baby and came home only to find that John A. had died of tetanus leaving Washington to complete the construction of the bridge!

Luckily Emily had studied right along side of her husband because soon enough he developed a horrible case of the bends  (caisson disease) and became bedridden. Now  Washington didn’t want to lose his position so the task of carrying out Washington’s duties as chief engineer fell upon Emily. She saw to it that the bridge got done, gaining a first-rate, hands-on education in the process and some even wondered if she’d been secretly responsible for the bridge’s design (all of this being rather scandalous).

And what a lovely bridge it is.

And what a lovely bridge it is.

“At the opening ceremony, Emily was honored in a speech by Abram Stevens Hewitt who said that the bridge was

…an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.”  (Wiki)

 

Now isn’t that nice?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lose a Battle, Rape Some Girls

She deserved it.

She deserved it.

“The next morning as they were breaking camp they were attacked by a war party of Cheyennes led by Chief Medicine Water. John and Lydia German, their son Stephen, and daughters Rebecca Jane and Joanna were killed and scalped. The Indians then took any goods they deemed usable and set the wagon afire. Captured and eventually taken into the Texas Panhandle were Catherine, age seventeen; Sophia, twelve; Julia, seven; and Addie, five. The Germans were victims of the Cheyennes’ retaliation for their losses at the second battle of Adobe Walls on June 27.

After a scouting party from Fort Wallace came upon the scene of the massacre a few days later, the military campaigns against hostile Indians in the Panhandle were intensified. In the meantime, the German girls were subjected to exposure, malnutrition, and occasional maltreatment as their captors traveled southward. Catherine, in particular, recalled instances of gang rape by young “dog soldiers” and indignities at the hands of Cheyenne women, particularly Medicine Water’s obnoxious wife, Mochi (Buffalo Calf Woman). Eventually Julia and Addie were traded to Grey Beard‘s band, who for the most part neglected them. Grey Beard steered his following down the east side of the Llano Estacado, while Medicine Water joined with other groups and moved down the west side, probably crossing at several points into eastern New Mexico.

Is it fun to gang rape?

Is it fun to gang rape?

By November 1874 Grey Beard had set up camp north of McClellan Creek, about ten miles south of the site of present-day Pampa. On the morning of November 8, Lt. Frank D. Baldwin‘s column charged the Indian encampment. So complete was the surprise that the Cheyennes abandoned the village and left most of their property intact. Riding through the deserted camp, William (Billy) Dixon and other army scouts noticed movement in a pile of buffalo hides; they were astonished to find Julia and Addie German, both emaciated and near starvation. Dixon later recalled how hardened scouts and soldiers turned aside to hide their emotions as the little girls sobbed out their story.”