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.

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