In My OpinionMarch 28, 2000

by Caroline Porter

The good old Army days (in grade school)

Do you mind if I reminisce for a column? Let me tell you about the years my mother, brother and I followed my father around when he was in the Army during World War II. He volunteered in his early 30s because he was patriotic and probably felt obligated to use the military officer's training he received at Knox College. Many of his friends had already left.

About halfway through my first grade year, my mother left our comfortable home in Kewanee with two children to be close to our father in North Carolina. Because it was wartime and rubber was scarce, speed limits were about 35 miles an hour. There were no Interstates. Mother drove four days to get to Carolina Beach, on the east coast. My brother, who is three years older than I, was the sensible mature ''man'' on the trip, helping read maps, etc.

One day we were driving by a long caravan of Army vehicles and the soldiers were whistling and yelling as we passed by. Mother couldn't figure out why there was so much commotion until she looked back and saw me, at the age of six, leaning out of the window, waving and throwing kisses at the troops.

Another time she and my brother finally found a place to eat lunch, only to discover that while they were busy reading maps, I had marked every inch of my skin with with red crayon. Mother says she just took me into the restaurant the way I was. We arrived at an inn on the beach in Carolina Beach, and lived in one room with two full beds and shared a bath with another family. The inn was filled with Army wives and children who saw their husbands and fathers about once a week.

Our yard was the beach and Atlantic ocean. I remember being sick a week from a sunburn so bad my right arm was swollen to great proportions and covered with blisters and I couldn't walk because my feet were swollen and hurt. From then on I played and swam fully clothed. At night we pulled down the shades because of the possibility of German submarines lurking off the coast. Days were spent hearing the booms of huge artillery guns discharging, practicing on targets we could see in the sky. For this little girl, it was a pretty exciting life.

School was a nightmare, though, because my first grade class was already doing cursive writing and I had just learned to print. I couldn't read a thing written on the blackboard. I had my tonsils out, missed some school, and begged my mother not to send me back for the last few weeks. She relented -- and the truth can finally be told. I never finished first grade.

One Wednesday night my father didn't arrive with the rest of the guys. With the exception of him, his entire unit had been shipped overseas. He was assigned to an Army camp near the huge Naval base at Norfolk, Virginia. Mother packed us up -- we could only take what fit into the car -- and off we went to find a place to live in Portsmouth.

The day we were looking for a place to live it was brutally hot and humid. After driving around awhile in the dust a pretty young woman emerged from one of the row apartments and with true Southern hospitality, invited us in for lunch. To this day I can savor the cool lemonade and fresh sandwiches she served us. But I couldn't understand her. She kept saying to us, ''Hep ysef.'' which I finally figured out was ''Help yourself.'' She was Dottie Martin, who lived with another gorgeous southern gal, both wives of servicemen. We became great friends.

That year I was in second grade and had five different teachers. Our classroom was so overcrowded, with 50 or 60 students sharing desks, that teachers didn't last long. It was survival of the fittest. Most of the Army brats went to private schools, but not us. Southerners didn't cotton to Yankees very much in the 1940s, and every talent show we had on Fridays I was forced to sing ''Dixie.'' And I didn't understand why Lincoln's birthday was not a holiday.

But we did stay a whole year in one place. Again we packed everything we could into our car and I started third grade in Claxton, Ga. -- a place with pecan trees in the yards, but we lived in two rooms of a big southern home chopped up to accommodate Army families. We literally had no kitchen sink -- just a table with a faucet hanging over it and a pan under the faucet. Our eating table was right next to the bathroom of the next apartment and we had some pretty sickening meals. The outstanding feature of school in Claxton is that my brother and I were the only children who wore shoes.

After six weeks my father appeared unexpectedly and announced we were heading temporarily back to Kewanee while he went to Judge Advocate school, where as an attorney he learned the ropes of military law.

Then it was off to Tomah, Wisc., home of Camp McCoy. Prisoners of war were detained there and I felt a little sick at the sight of those men behind the fence. Of course I never had to face them on a battlefield. I finished third grade and spent the first half of fourth grade in Tomah, where my claim to fame was being a good marbles player and being assigned the role of a skunk cabbage in our class play, where other students were roses, violets and tulips. Talk about preparing a kid for politics.

While celebrating my mother's birthday at the hotel in Tomah we heard the war was over. I gratefully finished fourth grade in Kewanee and sure was glad to be home in my beloved ''hog capitol of the world.''

Thanks for listening.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online March 28, 2000

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