My father was drafted into the US Army in 1945. This was toward the end of the war, and he had been considered exempt up to then, being married with two children and working in a critical war-related industry. However, by then the Army was in such desperate need of men that if the draft board shook your hand, and it was warm, you were classified One-A! He was drafted and sent to Camp Blanding, FL for basic training. Now at the time, gas was rationed, as well as many other things. So, my mother borrowed gas coupons from everyone in the family, and bundled me, age two and a half and my younger brother, age 18 months into my Uncle Haik’s 13-year-old Dodge and headed south to Florida! That was a gutsy thing for a young woman to do back then when Highway US One was just a two-lane road for most of the way and hotels and gas stations were not what they are today!
When we finally got to Camp Blanding, my mother managed to get a cabin at a “motor court,” the predecessor of modern motels. Many of the other army wives were there, so she had plenty of company. They shared babysitting duties, laundry, shopping etc.
One of the stories she told was about the milk. It was all imported from Wisconsin, and normally sour when it arrived in Florida. Occasionally dad could get fresh milk from the PX, but that was a rare occasion. Now back then, baby bottles had a very narrow neck, and you stretched the rubber nipple over the bottle. It turns out that the baby bottle neck was the same size as a coke bottle, so when good milk was not available, my mother would simply put the nipple on a bottle of Coke and put my brother to bed with it! He didn’t mind at all, but in later years, every time he did something crazy, my father would say “What did you expect? You raised him on Coke!”
One of my earliest memories was playing on our old 1932 Dodge. It had long curved front fenders that made an excellent slide. In New Jersey I could spend hours climbing up on them and sliding down. That doesn’t work on a black car in the hot Florida sunlight when you’re wearing shorts and sandals! I climbed up on top of the fender and it was broiling hot, and I couldn’t get down, so I just climbed up on the roof and shrieked until someone came and rescued me!
My father, being an old clamdigger, was an excellent swimmer, so they made him a lifeguard at the recreation area lake. Now this was no man-made lake, this was a wild Florida lake that just happened to be there when the Army arrived. It had all the original critters that all Florida lakes had, including alligators, water moccasins and coral snakes, as well as the less deadly creatures. Dad said you’d be swimming along and a four-foot-long water snake would swim past right in front of you!
Mom tells a story about how one of the guys would get a 12-hour pass so he could go off base. She was the only one with a car, so she would drive onto the base, pick up the guy and bring him back to the motor court so he could spend some time with his wife. Then she’d take the pass back onto the base and repeat the procedure with another of the husbands, and so on, so a lot of the guys got off base with the same pass. At the end of the 12 hours, she’d reverse the procedure and take them all back to base. (I’m proud to say that the same sort of thing was going on when I was in the Navy in the 1960s!)
Those were the stories I heard for many years, but as she got older, my mother admitted that she hadn’t had to borrow gas coupons from anyone. It seems that Uncle Lou ran the printing plant in the state penitentiary. He wasn’t a prisoner, just a state employee who ran the plant. That was where all the gas ration coupons were printed and some of them just happened to make their way into my mother’s hands! It’s not who you are, it’s who you know!
Back to the 12-hour pass story, mom mentioned that on the husband shuttle using the same pass, toward the end of the evening, the guard on the gate, who had seen her going back and forth all day with different men said, “Excuse me Ma’am, but I get off at midnight.” She said, “Oh, well have a nice evening.” It wasn’t until much later that she realized that he must have thought she was a hooker!
Back then my mother was a real “looker,” with a pretty face and a nice figure so I can’t fault the fellow’s taste, but the thought of her being a lady of the evening is hilarious! (If anything, she would have been the Madam!)
Afterword: Several years ago, I had business in Jacksonville and had some time to kill. While driving around the beltway I saw an exit for Blanding Boulevard, so I got off and headed out into the country. Eventually I came upon a sign for “Camp Blanding.” It seems that 800,000 men had been processed through there before being sent off to war in Europe or Africa, and although the base is now used by the Florida National Guard, there is a museum to commemorate them, but that will be the subject for another column.