Saturday, August 1, 2015

1939: At The Edge of War

The nation was on the edge of another major world war in 1939, but I continued to enjoy my boyhood in Spencer. In September I transferred from Grove Street School to Pleasant Street School. My fourth grade teacher was Miss Viola Hastings, whom I liked very much. She married Frank Devereux a few years later. Because female teachers were not allowed to marry back in the 1940's, she left her profession. Mrs. Devereaux has been deceased for many years. (She was the mother of Jim Devereaux, owner of the Oakwood Christmas Barn on Route 31.

Sitting in the seat next to me in the fourth grade was a farm kid from Wire Village. He was small like I was, but a lot tougher. I immediately took a liking to Al Stebbins. He became perhaps my closest buddy until 1947, when he quit high school to join the Navy. 

It was Al who taught me to drive when I was 14, in an old Model A truck in the pasture of their farm. Al’s mother was a colorful character who chewed snuff and used to tell me, when I would get a little to big for my britches, that, “You ain’t stopped pissing yellow yet.” Al moved to the Iowa a couple of years ago to be close to his daughter, Debbie, and her family.

The 1939 World’s Fair drew my parents and Uncle Bob out of town. I have often wondered why, but I was not included in the trip. I guess my mother and father thought that I was too young to enjoy the festivities, so I stayed home with Uncle Nathan and Aunt Gertrude. Among others wonders, new phenomena called television was introduced there to the public for the first time. 

I sometimes find it hard to believe that I grew up in a world without television. Uncle Bob, a paperboy for the Spencer Leader, launched his journalistic career that year. I remember the picture of Bob sitting on his bike with a paper-carrying bag over his shoulder. The article he wrote was entitled, LEADER NEWSBOY’S IMPRESSION OF THE WORLD’S FAIR.I followed Bob into the “newspaper business,” getting my first paper route in the summer of 1941. It was a morning route starting on the corner of Mechanic Street and Main, going down Mechanic and up the hill to Prospect Street, over to Maple Street, down the hill, finishing on all the streets around Muzzy Meadow. 

I peddled the Worcester Telegram, The Boston Record, The Boston Globe, The Boston Post, and The Springfield Union. I did all this for the whopping sum of $3.50 a week, but I suppose that wasn’t bad for a 10-year-old kid. The best tipper on my route was J. Henri Morin, who always gave me 3-cents, “To buy a stamp to send your girl a letter, and 15 cents for you self.” Most customers only tipped 1 cent.

I always used to collect for the paper at Mahan’s Café on Friday nights, because the bartender, Scotty Thompson, would pay and give me a nickel tip; after all, it wasn’t his money. If Charlie Mahan, the owner of the saloon, paid me, it was only a penny tip. One of the more interesting people on my route was old man Savegeau. Once a bare-knuckle boxer in the Army in the Philippines at the turn of the century, he had the biggest hands I think I had ever seen. 

He was short and squat, with one eye. The old man used to scare the hell out of me when he would come to the door to pay me. People over the years have told me that he was as gentle as a lamb. Four of his sons were pretty respectable professional boxers during the 1930s. (One of the boxer sons was Cathy Savegeau, who was in Melanie’s class, father.)

That fall I had saved enough money from my paper route to buy a bicycle from the Eastern Cycle Co. on Portland Street in Worcester. I purchased a brand new bike for the grand sum of $18.95. It was a beautiful bright red, Harvard brand, with balloon tires, a light, a carrier on the handlebars, and -- best of all -- I bought it myself. 

Uncle Bob’s 16th birthday was Oct. 8, 1941, and that evening Mother sent him downtown to buy some ice cream. He borrowed my new bike to run the errand. He couldn’t stop on the bottom of High Street, crossed Main Street, and crashed head-on into a car coming up Elm Street. Bob’s leg was broken and his thighbone was shattered. He had to have a steel plate inserted in his thigh to hold the bone together. It has been almost 60 years since his accident, and he still has the steel plate. After the accident my mother said no more bikes for us. But, a couple of months later, my father surprised me by having my bike repaired. How happy I was!

Meanwhile, the winds of war are encompassing both Europe and Asia in 1939. The Austrians welcomed Hitler into their country with open arms. The Germans invade Czechoslovakia and Poland, and in June 1941, Hitler makes the mistake of invading the Soviet Union. It is the beginning of a long struggle between good and evil, but the war is still a long way from peaceful Spencer. Roosevelt is supplying Great Britain with a lot of the tools of war, but the United States has avoided committing troops to the struggle.

On Pearl Harbor Day, Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese Naval Air Force bombed US installations and most of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, territory of Hawaii. I can visualize it as if were yesterday, although it was 59 years ago. We had a large console radio situated against the wall in the dining room. 

As the report of the air raid was broadcast, I can see my father leaning on the radio with his head bowed down on the top panel. The next day, Monday, all the students at Pleasant Street School were let out of their classrooms, and we stood on the stairs between the two floors as we listened to President Roosevelt declare war on both Japan and Germany. We heard the President’s speech on a little radio we students had earned from the school the previous spring by selling seeds. The world would never be the same again. I was 10 years old.

Shortly after the war started, as his contribution to the war effort my father became an air raid warden on High Street. His responsibility was from Prouty Street south to Pleasant Street. If I remember correctly, Charlie Putnam was the air raid warden on the other half of the street. Remember, at the beginning of the war the people did not know what to expect. We Americans did not know if we would be subject to the same kind of bombing that England was enduring. 

During air raid drills the entire town would be blacked out; not even the light from a cigarette was allowed. Air raid wardens would patrol the darkened streets to make sure everyone was inside -- preferably in their cellars -- for shelter, and adhering to the blackout. Once in a while Gordon McMurdo and I would sneak out of our houses during a drill, and hide in the bushes. I guess it wasn’t too smart, but boys will be boys. Mom has told me that her father was also an air raid warden in Worcester. 

I believe it was on Thursday nights that my mother and a group of ladies, headed by Miss Cruickshanks, would do their part by rolling bandages. The bandages they constructed were sent to the theaters of the war to dress the wounds of the men injured in battle. Do you remember the framed citation that Grandma Civin had in her den from President Harry Truman? The citation was for her effort in making bandages. She never missed a week during the war.

A terrible tragedy hit our family in August 1942: Uncle Nathan Israel died of a massive heart attack. Nathan was just 40 years old. He left behind his wife, Gertrude, and his 5-year-old son, David. It took a long time for us to adjust to life without Nathan. 

David was badly afflicted with asthma, and a few years later, Gertrude asked my parents to buy out her share of the business, and she and Alice Duggan -- who had also recently become a widow -- moved to Florida. Gertrude felt the warm climate would be better for David’s health. David was more like a kid brother to me than a cousin. I lost my buddy forever.

Through the sadness, Spencer was on a war footing. Recycling came into being for the first time. We would pour bacon and other meat fats into tin cans and bring them to the A&P or First National markets to be shipped out, to be used to manufacture, I believe, nitroglycerin. The food stores would pay a penny a pound for bacon grease. 

There were scrap metal drives. I remember when most of the yard at Kleven Shoe was full of scrap iron. We bundled out newspapers, loaded our wagons, and took the paper to Tower Box to be recycled. Over 800 of our town’s young men and women served in the armed forces. Over 20 young men made the supreme sacrifice.

Service people from Spencer served on every front, from the beaches of Normandy to the bloody islands of the South Pacific. Arthur Gendreau was lost on a submarine in the Pacific. Bob Agard, the son of the superintendent of schools, was killed in a tank in Italy. Bob Begin, a US Marine (and Melanie’s classmate, Vicky Begin’s, uncle), was killed in action on Iwo Jima. Pliny Allen, the son Allen Squire Shoe’s owner, lost his life as a gunner on a B-24 bomber in one of the bloodiest air raids of the Second World War, the oil fields in Polesti, Romania. 

Also perishing in that raid was Arnold Krause, a boy from Brooklyn, NY, the son of one of my mother’s girlfriends. Arnold had come to Spencer to spend a couple of weeks with us around 1940, but he was so homesick that he went back to Brooklyn after a couple of days. All of the boys that were killed in World War II had so much to live for, but the evil in the world had to be stopped.

I could not mention events in Spencer during World War II without telling you about Elton (Jed) Prouty. Jed Prouty wrote a column in the Spencer Leader detailing the life and adventures of Spencer’s sons and daughters serving in the military. He personally corresponded with all the people of Spencer who were serving their country, telling them about events in their hometown. When I say all, I mean ALL; if Jed could get a service person’s address, he wrote to him or her. 

Jed was probably one of the most dedicated people I knew during the war. Jed’s wife, Annetine, worked for Grandma in the store as a salesperson for many years. There is a sad story that I must tell about Jed Prouty. He had been an alcoholic for many years, but kept so busy during the war years that he stopped drinking. I guess Jed was so busy writing he did not have time to drink. When the war ended, ex- servicemen returning to Spencer started buying their friend drinks. It was sad; Jed Prouty would go on benders. He would start his toot drinking at the Massasoit, which was the best bar in town. As the days of his bender went on he would keep lowering his standards as to where he drank. 

He would usually end up in Pete’s Café or the Windsor, two of Spencer’s less desirable saloons. One night, shortly after Mom and I married, we were coming back from Worcester, and we rescued Jed, who was staggering up Main Street in the middle of the road, and we took him home. Annetine used to tell Grandma that he was a wonderful, talented man, but when he drank he was no different than any other drunk. It is such a sad commentary.

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