Life changes, and life endures, in wartime
"This is the saddest day of my life," I thought, as we drove toward downtown Los Angeles. The tenor on the car radio crooned mournfully, "I don't want to walk without you, Baby - walk without my arms about you, Baby."
"Please, Joe, turn it off," I begged. He snapped off the radio. I was close to tears. We were on our way to the bus terminal. My husband was leaving for Navy boot camp in San Diego. I was 21 years old, and Joe was 22. We had been married a year and a half.
It had been a good year and a half. We'd made a pretty little home in an apartment near Beverly Hills, where (like Candide) we cultivated our garden and felt ourselves the happiest of mortals. Joe graduated from UCLA, took a job as a junior accountant at $90 a month, and began studying for his CPA exam. He had the prospect of a good position after taking the exam.
I had finished all the requirements for a BA in English, except for the formidable English Comprehensive exam. One Sunday afternoon in December, as I was in the college library studying, someone rushed in and shouted that Pearl Harbor had just been bombed by the Japanese. Pandemonium!
At that moment all of our lives changed, forever.
"I know I must go," Joe said, "but I want to choose my own branch of the service." He went immediately to a Naval recruiting station and enlisted. After placement testing he was given a rating of Radioman Second Class. Our dinner that night was a thoughtful one, partly because of his enlistment, partly because I had recently discovered that I was pregnant, and partly because we hadn't yet informed our families of either of these events.
Mama cried when we told her. "But you're both too young - for a baby or for fighting a war."
"You're doing the right thing, Joe," Daddy said, but he looked sad.
The response from Joe's family, when we went to a big dinner at his father's house, was somewhat different. His dad hugged him and thumped him on the back.
"Congratulations, Joe. I'm proud of you. Congratulations on both counts." Then he shouted, "I'm going to be a grampa!"
Brother-in-law Fred muttered, "Oh no!" when we announced my pregnancy, but he was silenced by a cautionary look from his wife. Joe's little sister, Patsy, was thrilled about the baby. Joe's younger brother, Sam, said, "You'll be a 'Boot,' Joe. You'll have to go to boot camp, and have your head shaved!"
The scene at the bus station was even worse than I feared. Six buses were lined up on the street. Inside the cold, gray building, a pall of cigarette smoke hung in the air. Crumpled sandwich bags, paper napkins, and empty coffee cups littered the arms of the big chairs.
On the sidewalk outside, little groups of disconsolate, tearful relatives gathered around their young men. The recruits were equally fearful, but tried not to show it. They were also excited and eager. Some were there without families, accompanied by buddies who stood about, hands in pockets, scuffing at the sidewalk, laughing, and generally trying to act as though this were no big deal.
Joe and I stood hand in hand. I was determined to be brave. I would not break down and embarrass him. We told each other that it would be just a few weeks before I could visit him at boot camp. After that he'd be sent to Chicago for further sorting out and training. We said that everything would be all right. He suggested that if he were chosen for officers' training, it might be a long time before he saw action.
Meanwhile, he would learn interesting new things, such as celestial navigation, signaling, Morse code, and maybe even radar.
He sounded so enthusiastic that, against my will, tears flooded my eyes.
"Oh, Joe!" I cried. "Don't tell me what great things you'll be doing when we're apart, tell me that you love me and you'll miss me."
"You know I love you, Bets," he said, "And I'll miss you." He hugged me.
The men hoisted their bags, and climbed onto the buses. Slowly, slowly they pulled away. I could see faces at the windows, hands waving goodbye. I could see Joe mouthing the words, "I love you."
And then he was gone.
Weeks passed before we saw each other again. Boot camp was almost over. Families were to be allowed a few hours to visit before the men were sent to Chicago.
I drove to San Diego via the Pacific Coast Highway, skipping in and out of Army convoys as I went. Some of the convoy drivers waved as they passed by. The day was so fine and beautiful, the coastline so pristine and spectacular, it was hard to believe that all was not right with the world. As a reminder, I also saw many signs of war.
In addition to the convoys, there were groups of uniformed men standing in shelters along the highway, waiting to hitch a ride or to catch the next bus. I passed through little towns - San Clemente, Oceanside, Carlsbad - where lunch stands advertised "Good Cheap Meals for Our Buddies," or "Free Coffee for Our Boys." A sign in a cleaner's shop in Encinitas read, "Military Uniforms Cleaned & Pressed - While U Wait."
My mood swung between anxiety and eager anticipation. Would I recognize Joe? Had he changed? Had he missed me, as I had him? What would happen to us next? These thoughts haunted me all night as I stayed in San Diego with friends.
The next morning, in the camp, some of my questions were answered. I did recognize him. When I saw his "buzz" cut, I cried, "Oh Joe, they cut off your lovely hair!" We hugged each other frantically and kissed. He hadn't changed. He had missed me terribly.
But neither of us could imagine what life had in store for us next.