"Welcome to the henhouse, Honey," said my husband, as he paid the taxi driver and turned me by my free arm toward our new home. I was holding our sleeping 4-month-old baby in the other arm. I hadn't believed Joe when he told me over the phone that we would be living in a henhouse on a former chicken farm in Newport News, Va. Only the war could have reduced my living condition to this level, I thought, as we approached the whitewashed wooden building.
He had called me two days before from the shipyards at Norfolk, Va. "Honey, housing is incredibly scarce here. All I could find is in Newport News, out in the country, on an old farm."
"Well, I won't mind living in an old farmhouse," I said. "Might be fun." I occasionally had fantasies about being a farm wife. (Chickens, a duck pond, and a nice pony for the children.) "Is it furnished?" As we moved around the country in wartime 1944, sticking together as best we could, we were without furniture, except for a small baby crib. Taken apart, it fitted into our huge old steamer trunk.
"Well, sort of," my husband paused. "And, Bets, we won't be living in a farmhouse. We'll be in a henhouse." He must have heard my gasp, because he hurried on. "Oh, it's all been cleaned and sanitized. It has one main room for eating and sleeping, and sort of a kitchen, and a shared bathroom with the apartment next door." There was a long silence. Could I share a bathroom with strangers?
"It's the best I could do, Bets, I've looked everywhere. But if you think we shouldn't," he hesitated.
"We'll take it," I said. There was no place else to go, and the thought of returning to California at this point, without Joe, frightened me. And so, he had met me at the train station at Norfolk, and we had taxied here. We walked up the path, and at 2 p.m. on a gorgeous late summer day we began a strange new interlude in our lives.
We had to stoop to enter the doorway. The walls, of plain boards, were newly whitewashed. In our one room there were three small windows, up high, covered with wire screening. There was no way to close the windows. Just as well, I thought, for there was a faint chicken smell to the place.
The area near the front door, and under one window was designated as the kitchen, with a sink, a small gas stove, and an icebox. There was a cupboard, a wooden table, and four chairs. Across the room, under another window was a single iron bed, of the type that opened out to make a double bed. A folded, lumpy mattress covered it. A chest of drawers stood on one side.
"Joe, where in the world will I put the baby? Our trunk won't be here until tomorrow?" I was tired from managing the long train trip alone with the baby, and was close to tears. Joe dragged two chairs together to the other side of the room, pulled out a dresser drawer, placed it across them, and put our still-sleeping infant in the drawer. I was aghast. He hadn't even dusted out the drawer!
"You sit tight. I'll go up to the manager's office and locate some sheets and blankets. And I'll find out where I can get some food and ice." He gave me a hug, and he was off.
"Hello there. May I come in," called a cheery voice. A thin young woman with cropped sandy hair and a jolly freckled face stood in the doorway. She was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
"I'm your next-door neighbor, May Belle Trevor. I saw you all arrive and I thought, oh-oh, someone's gonna need help."
"Come in. Please. And have a seat." I blinked back my incipient tears and introduced myself.
"You're Navy, too, aren't you? I saw your husband. I know this place looks like the pits, but you'll get used to it. More or less." She looked toward our makeshift cradle.
"And you've got a baby. Makes it all worth while, somehow, doesn't it? Keeping the family together." She tiptoed over and gazed upon my child.
"His name's Tommy," I said.
"He's darling, and such a good sleeper," she said. "What I'm really here for is to invite you all over to our place for supper. It won't be much. Just pork chops and apple sauce. You can walk right through the bathroom there. Bill will be glad to have another guy to talk to. See you all at six, OK?"
Speechless, I nodded.
As she was leaving through the bathroom door, she looked back and said, "If you hear loud snapping noises, it's because we've put mousetraps around." And then she was gone.
Joe returned with sheets and blankets. A mousetrap snapped in the bathroom just as he walked in, and he went to look. Silence. Then a loud flush. He came out shaking his head. "Poor Bets, I don't know what I've gotten you into."
I said, "Never mind. We'll manage somehow. Our things will be here by tomorrow. And the good news is we've been invited to our neighbors for dinner."
The Trevors were a blessing. Their kindness and generosity were unending. For the duration of our stay, May Belle and I took turns cooking and serving dinner. They were country folks from Arkansas who had never known anyone from California, and seemed to regard us as a pair of rather glamorous exotics. My husband, a radioman 1st class, had been to Radio Materiel School in Washington, D.C., and had studied a new device called radar while there. Bill Trevor was a seaman.
He said, "They'll have you an officer before you know it, Joe."
"I hope," said Joe. (It turned out Bill was right.)
Our trunk arrived early the next day. We unpacked it, and put together the crib. The baby buggy arrived also, an old rattly thing made of steel and heavy canvas. Taking the baby for a walk was its secondary function. I used it to bring the marketing home from the little store a block away, with Tommy's head barely visible behind the groceries. When we moved from one place to another, I boxed whatever wouldn't go into the trunk, and, leaving my son with a kind neighbor, trundled huge packages to the Post Office. Sometimes I had to make three or four trips. On the last one I always boxed up the buggy and sent it forward.
Meanwhile, I slowly absorbed my surroundings. The countryside was lovely and peaceful. The soft summer air, the flowers and fireflies at twilight, the dozen shades of green in the woods around us, and the musical Southern voices of the people, so like Mama's, all enchanted me. Tending my baby, and welcoming Joe home from the Naval yards each evening, kept me busy enough. I was in a pleasant somnolent state.
"You're like a broody hen in your henhouse." said Joe, kissing me.
So I was. I was living for the moment, grateful for the slow pace and the tranquility of our lives. Later I would consider the dark shadow of Jim Crow, and the terrible wars raging far away.