Saturday, July 23, 2016

From out of the war

Mason at five years old. The cap cried out for
a red star that was added later. ©2016 Mason West.
After World War II ended, my parents, like most young adults, moved around a bit as my dad tried to figure out how to parlay a brief naval career into something more permanent on the land. It didn't help that everyone in the US had been in the armed forces and were now, in the post-war years, looking for a job and a path in life.

My dad enlisted enlisted on 12 September 1939. Most likely, he wanted a steady, dependable job that he could keep until he retired. His enlistment was more than two years before the US entered WWII. I've pondered other possible motives. Maybe he wanted to stay out of fox holes, or maybe it was my dad's equivalent of going to Canada to join the RAF. But I doubt that.

Yet Germany had invaded Poland on 1 September, and England and France had reacted by declaring war on Germany on 3 September. As a result of the escalating tensions in Europe, ten hours after Britain's declaration of war on Germany, a German U-boat mistakes the SS Athenia, a trans-Atlantic passenger liner, for an armed armed merchant cruiser, torpedoes it, kills 128 passengers and crew, including 28 Americans, and sinks the ship. The Germans worry that this unintended provocation will draw the US into the war, as the sinking of the Lusitania had helped bring the US into WWI, but Roosevelt nevertheless insists that the US will remain neutral. Even so, I can't help wondering if my dad didn't see one news reel or read one newspaper between in those eleven days between the Germans' trip to Poland and my dad's trip to the Navy Recruiting Station in Houston, Texas. Did he really trust Roosevelt's assurances that much? Of course the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor two years later changed all that, so, to make a long harrowing story short, my father had, by 1945, had enough of the Navy and was honorably discharged on Saturday, 13 October 1945.

My dad is on the far right.
My mother, with her seven sisters, had a plethora of brothers-in-law who were eager to help my father find permanent employment. My parents moved to Houston where one sister and brother-in-law were. That brother-in-law had been in the Navy and served around a naval air station, so he was a logical first choice, a brother in arms. Fortunately the work opportunities there didn't pan out or I might have been born and raised in Houston and been a completely different animal.

Another brother-in-law, who had served as an infantryman in Patton's Third Army in France and Germany, had gotten on with the Austin Police Department, and he thought he could get my father a job there too. So by 1950—less than five years since his discharge—my father's dream was realized. He had found the job he would keep until retirement in the late 1970s.

He started as a uniformed police officer whose duties included directing traffic at Sixth and Congress. Now Sixth Street is the main drag of the music scene and the high voltage cable for SxSW, the big annual festival that brings every musician and music businessperson in the entire solar system to Austin, but back then it was just a major thoroughfare, and my dad's intersection was the busiest in town. After returning from Houston, the rented a house on the northern fringes of Austin on Link Avenue on the corner with Koenig Lane, a cross-town thoroughfare. The area was bursting into life with the guaranteed mortgages of the GI Bill. From there, my mother had a straight shot west on Koenig a mile and a half to the new HEB grocery store that had opened on Burnet Road, and I remember riding around in the kiddie seat of the basket as she pushed it around harvesting goods from the shelves. As a family we've had a continuous relationship with that grocery store for over sixty years.

For over twenty years they had only vehicle between them, so if my mother needed a car on a certain day, she'd have to drop him at the police station and pick him up when his shift was over. Although winters are generally mild in Central Texas, there are some bitter cold fronts that come through, and on at least one occasion my brother had to walk to school in bitter weather.

I was born in November 1955, about 285 gestation days after Valentine's Day, a likely foam baby, 12 years after my brother was born. The average pregnancy lasts 280 days, but then I've figured not from date of last menstruation as doctors do but from likely conception. By then my parents were renting a house where the back yard abutted the back side of businesses along the Interstate. Though the buildings along the freeway blocked some of the noise, I became aware that there was some monolithic structure full of cars nearby—my first awareness of humans as a society of builders—and of course I sometimes rode with my parents to places and we crossed or even passed down the speedy lanes of the Interstate, so I'd seen it with my eyes from various angles and had a three-dimensional map of it in my head.

Once, just barely old enough to figure out that the block could be circled, I set out to walk around it. So there I was, three feet tall and toddling the sidewalk that ran between the parking lots of those businesses and the Interstate. But before I got halfway around, the shoelaces on my right shoe had come undone, and I had no idea of how to retie them. So I turned around and went back with that loose shoe flapping all the way.

Afterwards I confessed to my dad what I had done, but I was probably deep in my speech crack-up, and he didn't understand me. He said only, "Oh? That's nice." But he was never as aware of the potential perils surrounding a three-year-old.

One time he took me fishing, and while he was casting along the river bank, I somehow leaned too far toward the water and fell into a swift current. I remember feeling wrapped in a chute of chilled water and being carried swiftly away—rarely does anything happen in nature so perfectly with this cartoon quality of peril accompanied not so much by fear as curiosity—and my dad swam out to rescue me. The whole scene had a cinematic quality to it—a setup, crisis, denouement—like a two-minute movie. I asked my dad about it, and he remembered it clearly and said, "yes, I had to jump in and swim out to you because you were being carried away."

Then there is a blank in memory until I get home, where I have a brief memory of my mother in her work clothes asking what happened. I barely remember my father giving out his condensed narrative, but no more. I remember nothing of my mother's reaction, but I suspect she raised her voice or was somehow emotional, not because I remember it, but because all memories from the time that we were in that two-bedroom rental by the Interstate are somehow tied to emotional tension. I was not yet continuously cognizant.

Two roosters that I had as pets from Easter chicks until it was
time to sell them to someone who would fatten and eat them.
I had learned to talk in more or less the same way that every kid does, but then came the speech crack-up. Suddenly my ability to pronounce consonants went haywire. My S mutated into a lazy H, and G must have been swallowed whole.

Fortunately for me there was a free speech clinic at the University of Texas where graduate students in speech pathology working as interns taught me how to make all the phonics of English speech all over again from scratch. This relearning and rebuilding of my speech process cleared the crack-up before I started first grade, where I would have been laughed at were it not for the free program, and if it hadn't been free I wouldn't have gotten it at all.

In February 1961, during the time of speech therapy, my dead found a deal on a house in that zone of GI Bill tract housing that was under construction when they lived on Link Avenue. It was a hodge-podge of a house. An occupant had built a family room—we called it the den—on the back of the house, and since the original back door of the house was at the end of the kitchen, we had to walk through the kitchen to get to the den, an awkwardness that has never been resolved. What had been the original garage was converted to a bedroom, into which one stepped down by nearly a foot, and this room with its own entrances provided my brother with a bedroom. Beyond that was a small utility room, where my mother had her washing machine—she didn't have a dryer until later, and in this time she hung damp clothes on a clothes line in the back yard. The utility room had a door that opened into the back yard, and this provided my brother with a private entrance to his room. Then beyond the utility room a new garage had been rather careless tacked on, but my parents never used it as a garage but as storage. Today it is crammed with a compulsively collected assortment of things spanning nearly a century.

In the summers, the neighbor boy and I ran around self-propelled and largely undisciplined like a couple of shirtless savages through the summer. We got deeply tanned, and knew nothing of air conditioning in this savagely hot state for the first ten years of our lives. It was only when my dad decided that he was tired of becoming sweaty again immediately after bathing before work that he decided to buy two window units to air condition the house. So we gained from air conditioning as accidentally as an innocent bystander loses from a bullet during a drive-by shooting. I knew what air conditioning felt like because stores and movie houses had it. The neighbor boy's father had a massive window unit that cooled their entire house. The dad had a ranch about an hour outside of town, and he'd go up early, feed the cattle, and do whatever else needed to be done, and he'd be back in time to watch mid-afternoon baseball games. I would lie shirtless against the hardwood floor, soak up the coolness, and enjoy the sweet scent of the cigar smoke in the air. My friend's father was always home in time to watch a baseball game, about which I didn't care, but I liked the ambiance around it and the coolness of the room. Before becoming just a rancher, he had worked as a carpenter, and during the war he had been with the Seabees, the Civil Engineer Corps of the US Navy.