Friday, October 3, 2008

Chapter 8 More About Cadet Life

Chapter 8

I knew that wherever I might be transferred while in the service, Addie Leah would go with me. We were therefore forever trying to save train fares for future transfers. If we had enough money Addie Leah would go along. If not, she would have to return home. Either way we had to have some money for travel.
When my class was sent to Santa Ana, California, the next step in cadets, we were sent on a troop train. It took four days. All troop train movements were secret, and no one would ever tell us where we were going. It was up to the rumor mills and pure thought if we were to dope it all out. Troop trains were sidelined for any traffic, going in either direction. Meeting trains was OK, but when a train load of cattle passed going your way, that was really demeaning.
We guessed in Iowa that the troop train would be going to California, and via Ottumwa. As the train was standing in the rail yards there, some guys came rushing in hollering that my wife was at the back of the train. Sure enough Addie Leah and three other wives had guessed where we could be overtaken, and had found us! We were so happy to see each other again so soon after the most recent tearful goodbye! I don't remember now how long we were able to see each other there, but that goodbye was much easier than the earlier one. Addie Leah had demonstrated she could find me against all the odds, and she gave me hope that we were capable of getting together despite the best plans of the U.S. Army.
Troop trains are really boring. I matched pennies about 12 hours a day, and came out ahead by 19 cents. When it comes to coin flips, stick with heads.
In Santa Ana, a destination confirming all rumors, I was restricted to the base for 6 weeks, but after that I could spend Saturday night off base. We had a room at the “edge” of town; address 916 S Broadway, now a place well in the center of things. Our landlords were religious people, and liked Addie Leah (who didn't?) and this paid off handsomely for us a bit later.
While I was at Santa Ana, Grandmother McComb became ill, and the folks asked the Red Cross to request from the Army a leave for me to come home. This was of course a silly idea, but it was a natural one to originate at home, and why not try it? Well, it worked! An event right out of fantasyland! I first heard about it when the army came to tell me the leave had been granted. Released from the base, I raced to our room in town and we gathered everything together. The decision was this; if we had enough to buy two round-trip train tickets, Los Angeles to Wichita, we would, and Addie Leah could return to California with me when the leave was over. If not, we would buy only a one-way ticket for her. In those days a round trip ticket was a lot cheaper than two one-way tickets, and we knew we could never afford the latter. I had $15 in the bank at home, but naturally couldn't get at it now. We took a bus to Los Angeles, hoping and praying that we could buy two round-trip tickets. Mine would be a lot cheaper than Addie Leah's because I could get a military rate, but we could not guess the fares sufficiently close to know what the situation might be.
At the ticket counter in the Los Angeles Union Station, the clerk calculated the fares, and then we began to count out the money--a good portion of it in small change. Guess what? We were over the needed amount by 50 cents! Hallelujah! So we'd buy two round-trip tickets, thank you! Then the clerk, having watched us demonstrate our cash shortage, tried to talk us out of our decision, and into buying two one-way tickets only, reminding us that we could always buy returns when we got home. No, we said, knowing that there was not enough money at home to do that. So with tickets in hand, off to the train we went.
Now in 1944 all trains were loaded to capacity, and then some, and trains always left people behind to catch something later. There were usually twice as many people for each train from Los Angeles as seats and standing room available. So the train, not yet loading when we approached, was surrounded by a huge mass of waiting people when we got to it. My stomach sank--there was no way we could make that train! We'd just arrived too late and there were far too many ahead of us. And then a porter arrived on the outside of the crowd where we were, said he'd take our suitcases, get on the train and save seats for us! Hot Dog! He did just that, crawling through a window, and stayed with our luggage until we managed to get aboard despite the crushing crowd. And now, for the porter's tip. He awaited, very expectantly. My two quarters, that had appeared so ample a little bit earlier, now looked like nothing, as indeed they were! Fingering them slowly, I decided that the difference to the porter between one quarter and two would probably be slight, whereas the difference to me would be worthwhile. So I split with him. I did not explain because there was no opportunity to talk past the look on his face!
The trek to Kansas began nearly on time, and we arrived in Wichita 22 hours late, on the third day! We were in a car with many marines, and I eventually learned that if I were asleep, they would gather around Addie Leah for animated conservation, and would give her candy bars. She accepted them very graciously, and then saved half for me! Thus I managed to pretend to sleep during our hungrier periods. In Amarillo, milk was for sale at the RR station, two for fifteen cents. So we arrived in Wichita with a dime and right at midnight. Dad wondered if we would like to get a bite to eat from the all-night eatery before we started to Zenith, and we both said YES! The food was great!
Ten days of magnificent leave followed (three days were already gone) with Grandmother doing reasonably well, and Addie Leah and I spent our first consecutive nights together. Our return tickets put a real glow over every day. When it came time to return, I had closed out my bank account, and we arrived at the railroad station with $15--lots of money compared with the 25 cents we had the week before. Just as we were getting on the train, Dad asked me if I needed any money, and dug into his pocket, producing a $10 bill. Wide eyed, and with a gulp, I assured him that we had plenty. You understand by now that I still wished to avoid any event that could be construed as confirming that we had married too young. I was absolutely adamant that I would make it without help from home. As an aside to grandchildren who might one day read this, let me advise you that whenever help is offered, take it.
Now, when we got to Santa Ana, where were we to go? We had not been able to pay the rent on our room when we left and had told our landlady to rent our room to somebody else. But with luck, we hoped, she would fail to find a renter, and would still have the vacancy. This was manifestly ridiculous, for any room available could be rented in a few hours. So what happened? Our landlords wanted Addie Leah back and saved the room for us! The following week I was paid again, we began saving for the next transfer, and all was well.
Because I had lost ten days of training, I was transferred to a younger squadron. But this squadron was really something. There had been so many aviation cadets in the system that the Army had decided to experiment by putting people together in novel ways. A squadron might have all cadets of the same height, or age, or whatever. But this squadron was put together on the basis of IQ—everybody in it had a paper IQ of 140 or more, as I recall. Whatever, the difference was truly amazing. The place was filled with laughter, truly great jokes, inspiring vocabularies, and regular attempts to out-wit the system, though in retrospect, not that big a deal!
Each week an “E” flag was awarded to one squadron on the base, and there were more than a hundred squadrons. For one week that squadron could fly their flag in every formation, have some extra privileges and in general lord it over everybody else. However, it seemed to be silly to compete for it, for what chance did you have if every squadron’s 96 guys appeared to be just like any others? Ah, but they were not the same! Example: The “E” flag squadron could challenge other squadrons to a track meet, and could choose which events they wanted to include or exclude. Can you see the possibilities? I happened that I could do a standing broad jump over a broom handle held with both hands farther than almost anyone, so that event was added to each contest. Any cadet who had a specialty was seized upon to hone it. After winning the flag for the first time, we proceeded to amaze everyone by winning it twice—none had ever done that before—and then for the third time. So for the last three weeks of our careers in Santa Ana we were the “E” Squadron.
I was transferred from Santa Ana to Navigation School in Hondo, Texas. Very pleased with the decision to make me a navigator, I confess that I was quite surprised. I had always said that navigation was my preference, but never expected that to come about, given the obvious that Army Air Corps decisions almost always seemed to be random.
We arrived not on a troop train, but a commercial train, and actually ate in a dining car. This was WWII travel beyond all previous experience.

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