The Army Couples
A Civilian Remembers World War II
by Kendra Palmer
As I rearranged boxes, I spotted a photograph of me taken during World War II. I was about eight years old. The large photo — impressively marked Official and printed in an Army photo lab — reminded me of the young soldiers and their wives who, desperate for housing, rented an upstairs bedroom from my mom and dad during the war. John, a young Army photographer took the posed photo of me standing properly at the foot of our living room stairs. He and his wife were one of the many couples who stayed with us for a few weeks before he shipped out.
My family lived a few miles south of Windsor Locks Army Air Base and Bradley Field, Connecticut. Thousands and thousands of GIs flowed into the base for training and indoctrination. Housing for married soldiers was in short supply.
My dad was ineligible for the service because of a heart defect. To contribute to the war effort, he volunteered as an air raid warden. During blackouts, he patrolled our cul de sac and its eight cookie-cutter Cape Cod houses. The worst threat he experienced was two neighborhood dogs. He was bitten only once.
My mom converted the master bedroom of our two-bedroom, one-bath house into an efficiency for military men and their wives. I still can’t imagine how six of us managed with one bath.
Mom furnished the room with a hot plate, two easy chairs and a small table with chairs that overlooked our backyard. An antique canonball double bed covered with a spread of fringed white popcorn crochet, made by my grandmother, stood at the other end of the room. We shared the kitchen refrigerator, the couple having half of the tall shelf and all of another. More than once my mom asked with surprise where a certain item on the dining table came from. My dad, looking guilty, said he never could keep track of which was theirs and which was ours. We all knew it was really a way for dad to taste a new and different food.
Many of the wives were newlyweds from the Midwest. Young and pretty, they told me stories of the farm in Iowa and their brothers and sisters. I thought of the couples as prince and princesses. One wife regularly walked home from our town library with an armload of books. One cried a lot; perhaps she was homesick or had morning sickness. Another couple was older and had children back home.
There were delightful couples like John, the photographer, and his wife. They babysat my brother and me, and they sometimes shared meals with us. Another couple ate their dinners out most nights at the local diner, where they developed friendships with other Army couples. Sometimes the men used taxis; sometimes they car-pooled. After checking with mom, one couple often invited friends to play cards. I would hear gales of laughter coming from their room and notice frequent trips to the refrigerator for beer. I was fascinated by their lifestyle and sat on the stairway, listening, until my mother said Kendra!
Inevitably, after a few weeks the sad day came when the GI shipped out. There were tearful farewells — for all of us — and the wife headed home. For us, the excitement renewed itself; another young Army man would rent the room and send for his wife.
Sometimes my mom and dad heard from the couples. Sometimes we heard about a new baby. Sometimes we heard the saddest news of all: a GI was not coming home.
Out of the box with that old photo poured memories of a faraway time when my all family tasted new and different lives, though we stayed home in Windsor, Connecticut. Did any of those couples remember the house they stayed in those final weeks before they parted? I remember, and I thank them.
Kendra Palmer reflects from North Beach. This is her first story for Bay Weekly.