I’m just completing my 75th flight path around the Sun. Most men on this planet circuit the sun sixty seven times before their ticket to ride expires. Math has never been my thing, but I can read a simple longevity chart. I’ve been dragging my feet on finishing the family blog because I expected to get smarter and better organized as the universe expands. Things don’t always turn out like you expect.
I’ve been reading letters my parents sent to each other when my father was Chief Pilot and a flight instructor for the Civil Air Patrol in Manhattan, Kansas, and my mother was home in Fairmount, Missouri with her demanding clutch of four young children. There are quite a few letters so I was surprised to find they were all written in a short span of four months between March and June of 1944. The country was in full war mode and many items were in short supply. The military used graphite as a lubricant so my parents scrounged for soft lead pencils. Good writing paper was also hard to come by so some of the letters were written on odd scraps of thin paper with such hard lead that they can only be read under a bright light.
The letters reveal that my father joined the Civil Air Patrol to do his part for the war. He was respected by his base commander for his experience and safety record. He often complains of the paperwork and the Kansas storms that kept him and his students out of the air. There were hundreds of pilots being trained in Manhattan and many were eventually used to shuttle military personnel and supplies. Although Civil Air Patrol planes were unarmed they did fly surveillance flights along coastal waters. It was a Civil Air Patrol pilot that spotted a German U-boat off the coast of Cape Canaveral that was subsequently destroyed by the Air Force.
There are interesting insights into small town life and concerns regarding the war, but the letters primarily deal with family matters. They don’t answer some of the compelling questions I have about my parents, but they show an unwavering blind love they had for each other. The “Love is blind” proverb applies primarily to my mother who never questioned any decisions my father made though some might have appeared unwise to an objective observer.
Most of the letters start with Dear Sweetheart, Honey, My Darling Husband, My Dearest Wife, etc. Every letter reveals the pain of being separated. If my father had a pass, and his old car with bad tires was running, he would drive home on the weekends. Several times he took the dreaded five hour bus trip. Often the week end visits were followed immediately by forlorn letters written the following day. I can’t imagine the trauma if my dad had been in the Air Force and sent overseas on the standard eighteen month deployment
My mother writes a note at the edge of one of the pictures of her and my father when they were dating. “We dated four years and always behaved ourselves.” The last thing any child wants to think about is their parent’s sex life; even though that child’s very existence is prima facie evidence his parents had one. I know that the word behave had a very narrow and specific meaning. The word “behave” didn’t include the time they were kicked off the Independence trolley for a public display of affection. We all know what she meant when she said we “behaved.” I won’t delve further into this briar- patch of subject matter. I confess I did check the marriage date against Dale’s date of birth. My mother’s integrity remains intact! My judgment for checking could be questioned.
The letters include interesting insights on my three older siblings. Most of the letters to my twelve year old brother Dale involved efforts to toughen him up. Dale had decided not to go out after dark because of wild animals. He was also terrified of the rooster, possibly warranted. My brother might have had more instinct for self preservation in his nature though than our father. In one letter to our father he encloses a newspaper article about a plane accident and cautions him to be careful. Dale also had more gut feeling about the future tragedy than our mother, although she relates one dream where Leonard sees his grandmother and steps over a line and disappears
Here’s a short letter from my dad to Dale.
“Dear Dale, you better get toughened up cause when I come home I got a new hold I am going to pin your ears down with. Listen, you Pole Cat, why didn’t’ you answer my last letter, for 2 cents I would come home and give you a punch in the nose and you would probably see stars.
Maybe if you are a good boy and help your mama real well I may not be as tough on you. I might just poke you once.
Say, did you pass in school. why don’t you write me and tell me how you came out, and what you are doing in the Cub scouts. Love Daddy”
I am a frequent subject of the correspondence because I’m the newest member of the Sherman household. I’ve learned detailed information on when my teeth came in, when I was potty trained, and when I was circumcised. I find I was a biter like my sister Sherry, that I peed on objects indiscriminately, and even though there were competent Rabbi’s in my ancestry, my foreskin was detached unceremoniously by an alcoholic Presbyterian doctor.
Halfway through July in 1943 I was one of over 3 million babies born in the U.S. My brother Dale was born in 1933, my sister Judy in 1936, and my sister Sherry in 1938. Somewhere in that five year interlude between Sherry and me my mother miscarried. I don’t know the details. Last, but not least, my sister Ruth is born a year and half after me in 1945.
Our Puritan forefathers, I should say foremothers, had an average brood of eight to ten children. Today the normal is 2.5 children, the exact number attainable only if you share a kid halftime with a neighbor. In 1944 my mother dreamed she had a set of twins followed closely by a set of triplets. The dream didn’t seem to bother her but the prospect of adding multiples drew an alarmed response in a letter from my father.
I think my three sisters would agree with me that our mother deserves a posthumous award equivalent to the Nobel Prize for her patience and physical endurance in rearing us. I’m sure our deceased brother Dale would agree. Our mother was always the primary caretaker, but her parenting became an even tougher solitary task after our father’s accident in 1946.
Our mother had an inherent loving nature, but there were times that we tested it.
There were times I’m sure she would have liked to abandon one or more of us on someone’s doorstep. Usually punishments for our garden variety of sins were administered by my mother in a non-corporal but effective manner but there were times she had to think outside the box. There was one isolated case of water boarding. I think she was field testing a behavior modification technique on my sister Judy, when all else had failed. In another incident my bare buttocks remembers being on the receiving end of the backside of a hairbrush administered by my mother with Old Testament ferocity. When Sherry was biting Judy and leaving bruises mother suggests she might have to bite her back.
With each advancing year I regret that I was such an unappreciative whelp at the time I was under my mother’s tutelage. Only now do I realize the total dedication she had to her children. She was the constant guiding force in our universe, a force like gravity that pulled us in and kept us from going astray.
According to the letters I’m reading the world revolved around me for about a year and a half as the newest member of the household. Then my sister Ruthie showed up and I was bumped to an outer orbit. My older siblings had their own individual times at the center of the universe, but sadly most of those tales are not documented in the letters.
My sister Judy would have been eight years old in 1944. Here are a few excerpts from my mother’s letters regarding Judy.
“Judy had a little skinned place on her knee this morning and tried to pretend that she couldn’t walk, but I finally got the poor little invalid off to school, much against her will.”
Another excerpt: “The last two mornings Judy has been so mad because I made her put on galoshes that she said she was going to walk to school real slow and be late. Yesterday she started off walking as slow as she possibly could, but when she heard the school bell, you should have seen her coat-tails fly!”
This is a short letter from Judy to dad.
I love you very much. How are you today? I hope you are O.K.
Danny is a bad boy.
What can we do?
Love from Judy Jo Sherman
Talk about calling the kettle black. I notice Judy doesn’t mention that she had broken a window in the Linhares home up the street. Mother writes “I thought little girls didn’t do things like that.”
My mother wished she had kept a list of all the funny and odd things that my sister Sherry would say as a child. At least one is preserved in the letters I’m reading.
“Sherry told me that Mr. Thurman was getting ready to burn another house –I said – Why Sherry, what makes you say that? – Well, mama, he’s a ‘sawing again.”
Sherry must have thought Mr. Thurman built houses only to burn them down again. Maybe Sherry missed her calling as an insurance fraud investigator although Mr. Thurman was probably innocent of arson.
Sherry liked her personal space and seemed to set her own agenda when it came to kindergarten.
“The kids seem to feel pretty good, only Sherry cried and wouldn’t go to school today, but felt good as soon as the danger of school was over.”
In another letter:
“Sherry decided to stay home and play with dolls. I let her be the judge of what she feels like doing.”
Part of mother’s leniency with Sherry is because she had a cast on her arm. While laying on his back Dale had balanced Sherry on his feet, then tried to flip her over the clothesline. The result was a compound fracture of Sherry’s radius and ulna.
Here’s a letter from Sherry to dad.
“I love you very much daddy, tomorrow I am going to use my puppy pencil.”
As for me, here are a few of the many comments from mother’s letters proving Judy’s assertion that “Danny is a bad boy.”
“Oh, Oh Danny is in the flour.”
“The next two years are not going to be restful in any way.”
“Danny is a wildcat in his jeep. He tore through the house this morning, banged into furniture, pulled out books, pulled out the bread pretzels and crackers, and the newspapers in the back hallway – all in about ten minutes.”
In other letters: “Danny is upstairs stomping and shaking his bed. Dale, Judy and Sherry are up there laughing at his tricks.”
“Danny is rip snorting around here, anybody that gets in his way it’s just their hard luck.”
My dad recommends in a letter to mother that “You may have to put the wildcat on a leash to keep him on the reservation.”
In the next blog I will share some of the poetry my parents wrote to each other in the 1944 letters, and one poem to the family that details how he resolves a frightening mid-air engine failure.