Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Finding my community

Writing alone is perhaps the norm, and I for one never thought of this activity as community work. Discovering that this is false must mean I've taken a giant leap forward, from blogging to visiting another's blog, to sharing my work, to finding a local group to exchange headaches, joys and ideas with, to becoming the reader for another's work. Community.

I'm enlightened this week to recognize several things without too much effort:

Many of us, some who are, hands down, walking away, are incredible writers who don't seem to know it.
Some of us are out there working without a net, sure we're merely roller skating on familiar cement, but are actually walking a tightrope.

A few of us are so sure we must produce perfection right out of the box, and sure we can't, of course, that we teeter constantly on the brink of despair....I'm a lousy writer, no one wants to read me, I have nothing to say, yadayadayada, or we do have something to say that someone else will reject out of hand, responding to his or her own reality, which has happened to me with this blog....and I don't have enough readers to count on one hand. Followers, maybe, but not commenters. Don't misunderstand, if you're reading. I'm thrilled someone wants to take me on about something, anything at all.

Name them and claim them. I remember as a girl, a teenager, William Warfield came to the local teacher's college to sing, among other things, Ol' Man River. Our town had a pretty nice hotel, and he wasn't allowed to take a room there because he was a black man. WHAT???!!! Even as a kid I knew that was wrong. Who could be such an ass? In truth, we lived in a time full of asses. It meant that when Martin came along, I'd march with him. The President of the college took Mr. Warfield home with him and put him in the best bedroom in the house, his own.

Out of this comes a Constitutionalist, a patriot, an American recognizing we have a lot of work to do, a long way to go to perfection, a muddle of leaders who are no longer sure how to get us there. We need all the help we can get and that includes all those who have been wronged, to show us how to continue now to be right. I don't need to defend myself here; I don't need to make excuses, rewrite my own history, pretend the nation, which still is the greatest on the face of the earth, and possibly doomed to be short lived, isn't besmirched with the fact that we are not currently the best generation. And I reject personal guilt out of hand. I have my own injuries. My own detritus to overcome. My own boat to row. So how about we stop complaining about the boat, our seat in it, and its location, and dip an oar into the water to propel it forward.

How about we get to the basic understanding that nothing purports to be fair, that "fair" is not a rung on the ladder and no one gets to determine what's fair. I only know that for most of us, life doesn't seem fair. Well, that's life. I only know that in this country, we all have the same opportunity, sooner or later. For women, it might not always seem so......take memoir: men write memoir. Women? They whine on paper. Who decided that? Fair? Nah. Not. So for some of us it's harder. But it's not impossible. Used to be impossible. Look back and see how far we've come. And kiss the ground. No kidding.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The surprising paths of memoir

I know what all memoir writers finally know: that what we think we're writing about is actually the path to somewhere else. "What exactly happened" is, you might guess, perhaps not the overriding question. I began with the belief I was writing about abandonment and abuse, no small business of course. Then it morphed beyond just the story of me and my feelings held within a sphere of victory over tragedy. That would be story enough. It began to dawn that I was tasked by more, a whole lot more. Here was the story of a World War and I was intimately acquainted with the major players in my corner of the world. And at last I got down to it: Mama was the villain, and the heroine and the strength and the misery, all at once.

In a world gone at least nuts if not mad, she navigated with her kids hanging on for dear life, not understanding and not informed. The message was indirect but clear: hang on. It wasn't pretty. She had terrible tools encumbered by her own loss of dreams, her own disappointments, her own bad choices. Her life was never ever a picnic. Some folks just know all that. Memoir writng taught me how to learn it.

And so the thing has again morphed and I must recenter the work, for though I am the star, she is everything else in the book. Resurrecting her is a process carefully done. Mother was and is fierce. Was and is warrior material. Was and is the dominance in my memories. My beloved little brother is my comic relief.

We survived her and we did it with her help. I suspect she was multiplied  many times over in the cauldron of her day, filled with women answering the call, broadening their  horizons, discovering themselves and when the job was done, were sent home to be nothing again. The gallons of coffee, the endless unfiltered Camels, the repetitive scrubbing and polishing and waxing of already clean and shining surfaces was only the smallest indication of her boredom, her seeking to find purpose, her recognition that she'd been put out to pasture before she could even enter the race..... all those things conspired to define her days as meaningless.

But this is what she didn't know: Mama and six million women planted the seeds that give today's women ultimate freedom to be, do, have anything their hearts desire. The large majority of them lie in their graves or shortly will, without the solid recognition of what they did and why they did it, and what their legacy is. The boom boom girls of the nation right beside the Rosies of Riveter fame held the world together, provided the ammo and the hardware, the ships and the jeeps to give the win to a great nation fighting for the freedom of strangers on foreign shores. No medals, hardly any recognition, and none in their day of sacrifice, not much marks their passing. But I'll fix that. Mama will bloom in my memoir and probably end up being the star.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The surfacing of things forgotte

As I worked on the rewrite of my memoir, I polished the initial story about my stepfather in WW2 on the beach at Normandy. I read it to my husband who then asked me what my mother was doing while he was trying not to die. I looked at him, puzzled. "You know what she was doing. She was working at the munitions plant in Maryland." He said, "Yes, but what was she DOING?" Ah. Yes. What was she doing?

She was a boom boom girl. She  made explosives for the US Navy. In the strange twist of time and space and generation my husband would later be sending submarine heads to the same proving ground for testing against attack.

He was looking for the detail of her days as, along wth 6 million of the nation's women, she dropped everything to contribute to the nation's war effort. She also needed the paycheck. A new widow with two kids and one coming, she jumped at the chance to tuck us into an orphanage while she took a job so lucrative she could send most of her money home to her sibllings, to pay their basic bills, to repair the roof, to buy their food.

She was trying to survive powder poisoning, the loss of all her teeth, and to live through the numerous explosions. Gun powder and nitro were as dangerous and challenging as the young Lochinvars processing through the Proving Grounds at Aberdeen. Men in uniform were everywhere until the moment they were sent to the front. But until then, they romanced everything female that breathed. The same women, I should add, who kissed them in the evenings and made bombs during the day.

My mother was more senior than the girls she supervised. They were little more than children, most of them eighteen or so. Mom was nearly thirty years old, probably why she got the job she had. She often worked back to back twelve hour shifts for the extra pay. She filled her personal time visiting her children at the orphanage, and dated some of the men who took her dancing at the USO club the governnment finally built just for them. The locals were forever grateful because all those girls on the streets on Friday nights disrupted the place until the weekend was over. The plants worked all shifts 24/7, but with rotating time off, the streets were clogged with kids with nothing else to do and no place else to do it.

There was a hospital on site, which more or less tells you what the danger level was. There was a hospital in town too but by itself wouldn't handle the volume of injuries that would occur if there was a massive explosion. And of course you know there was.

In May of 1943 there was a major blow. Depending on which report you read, the death toll was 15 to 25, with the injuries coming in at about 125. I don't know where my mother was that day. Working? On leave? In some other part of the site? She talked about it, often, but I never knew if she was  in any proximity to victims. The girls were expected back at work the next shift, as if nothing had happened. And back they went.

Current research on this part of her life keeps me waiting for someone else to do their job and glean their own files for data I need. I wish I'd paid more attention to the stories she told when I was little and hurrying to put my roller skates on. Replaying her in my mind has a tale of skips and glitches of memory I wish I could recall. I scramble now to find lively old ladies who were there and still remember such a provacative time in their lives, who want their stories told, and there are a good many. I just need to find them. Because there is a greater story. Their gift to the nation, their freedom to adventure and produce holds the kernel that I believe sparked the liberation of women two generations later. They were sent back to their old lives, a thing impossible. Oh yes, they kept house and had babies. But they harbored a serious interest in the freedom they tasted. Dreams they throttled down. Lives that overrode their own. The Rosies and the boom-booms were forever changed. And my daughter and I are their fine result. Six million women called to something more, something so momentous and so valuable is a lot of women who had to rethink what the female role was and could be. It took a while and we're still trying to get there, but we do know what it is. Nearly 70 years later, we know and we're gaining on it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Looking for the Boom Boom girls

Here I am, whipping along writing my memoir, reading rewrites to my husband, who asked me what was my mother doing while her soldier was trying to hold himself together...literally, on a beach in Normandy. I knew what she was doing, literally. She was making bombs and mega bullets at a munitions plant. Yes, he said, but what were her days like? And just like that, I had a whole new chapter to write. Seems I'm not gaining on this, trying to tighten 120 k words down to something reasonable. I don't know yet where reasonable is.

There are more stories here than I suspected. A day's worth of net searching readily show me there is interest in this period in the lives of a generation of women, but bits and pieces, not hinged together with any completion of a tale.

Six million women kept the nation together while all able bodied men went to war. I'm trying to piece together 900 of them , with few of them still living. Means I'm going to be collecting their conversations from sons and daughters, like me.

Anybody reading this is welcome to tell me anything they ever heard from mom or grand mom or an aunt.

I have my own recall of my mother's conversations about that vivid part of her life, and in fact I was actually in the barracks (she called them dormitories)with her for a weekend as a small child. My memory of that is full of girls and clothes and bandanas and curling irons and all the paraphernalia girls need to convine themselves they're beautiful.

What I need are the stories of others. Any help out there?

Mom made ordinance and lived through five explosions at Triumph. The 1943 disaster killed at least 15 and injured 125 people. Was she working that day? Perhaps not. She was a supervisor, at least ten years older than the average worker, and a widow. She often worked double shifts of twelve hours each.

But she did experience that daner, for she described being blown right through a wall, or across a room, or through a door. She developed powder poisoning and her skin was a sickly pea green for months and all her teeth fell out.

There must remain others with their own tales. I'd love to hear them.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Nation's Birthday

I'm looking forward to July 4th with true passion. In a time when it would seem we have only the weakest of grips on all that we hold dear as Americans, I claim all those sentiments about my country that go right along with Mom and apple pie.

I was raised to revere my nation, my freedoms, and my religion and to see those things as parts of the same whole. Rooted firmly in middle class values, I never saw and don't ever see that elites have anything to offer me except their contempt and their condescension.

This America was founded on valuable principles that celebrate our differences all the while it insists we sing the same songs from the same songbook about  our future and how we get there. Doesn't matter at all what our national origins are, or were. What we hold in common are certain truths to be found in our Declaration of Independence, that marvelous instrument that makes the perfect case for freedom. As a body of believers in that document, we even fight for other countries filled with people yearning to breathe free and want to do it on their own hallowed ground. We have real trouble getting our heads around the very idea of a despot and resist it whenever it tries to hold the stage. We're not about despotism. Not for anyone. Certainly not here.

I'm a Constitutionalist. I don't think it is now or ever will be irrelevant to "the times" or to anything else so pretentious as those who would trash so noble a set of ideas. Even attempting to go there in my presence will label you and call down heaps of hot coals from my mouth to your head. To badmouth this work even while you are enjoying those freedoms it provides for you is my idea of the ultimate contempt.

I treasure my flag, my documents, my freedoms, my nation and hardly abide anyone at all who thinks they can audacioulsy tell mourners anywhere on earth, let alone in the national cemetery that they may not say "God bless you". You and whose army? Get off the planet. Some no-account pomposity in a uniform thought she could fly that airplane. Don't think so. She should be directed to, you guessed it...the Constitution of the United States, her employer, by the way.

I think that each and every one of us should be required to study the history of our origins and take a test to  pass or fail, and if failed, then to take that course until the material is mastered. Better men than those who breathe our free air today fought and died to have the freedoms we abuse without a thought. 

I am a patriot, no surprise, I'm sure. I don't believe our differences of origin matter a fig. Keep your traditions and those things of your nationality that tell me more than just the color of your skin. Share the recipes for Italian cuisine, and tell me where to buy those spices that make schwarma schwarma. Teach me, Muslim woman, to make up my eyes with the cosmetics you use. I can't see much of your face most of the time, but I experience serious envy of your skills with makeup. I believe having you in the mix in America, no matter your background, enriches the delicacy we call the United States of America. But when push comes to shove and the tough stuff begins, and it will, I want you to be standing shoulder to shoulder with me as an American.  You are not my guest here. You are my equivalent, not more, not less. Don't expect or demand your beliefs and your traditions over mine. Freedom is not open to interpetation. Our documents, written by men who prayerfully and with fear of the God they credited with this land, wrote these things, gave us complete instruments to open ourselves to our differences while at the same time defining our common course. No choices here, folks. If you don't like what that means, you need to find a different country.

In a land of so many choices, we have the unique ability to make one choice: to protect and defend our freedoms. That is what July 4 is about. Light a candle. Bake a birthday cake. Celebrate the most unique country in the whole world, a place where is does not matter who you are, what your status, rich or poor, a place of freedom. Don't you dare forfeit what has been so hard won. If you don't understand it, get busy. I can't afford a single person here who does not understand freedom. Where you are free to be free, but not at my freedom's expense. There is only one thing to remember. Your freedom may not be superimposed on that of anyone else.

Celebrate with gusto. If you know nothing about the building of this most special of nations, buy some books and read them. I continue to be amazed at what our own children are not taught about America's origins. Ask yourself who is it that thinks they have no need to know? See, if they don't know basics, you can sell them any truth. That, folks, is a plan. A very ugly plan with a very ugly purpose.