“We got to New York nine days late, and there was a whole crowd of people on the pier. And then I saw that Statue of Liberty… that really, really meant something. I saluted her and she seemed to be saying to me, ‘Welcome home, soldier. You won the war. America is still free.'”
When one meets Virgil, the first thing s/he notices is his confidence. His eyes sparkle, and if you look closely, there’s a bit of a kick behind them. During the interview, Virgil and I decided to take a break to get a cup of coffee from his building’s concierge desk. When we exited the elevator to the main floor, we encountered three women sitting on a bench. We said hi, and the woman sitting in the middle responded to Virgil, “We like the way you walk. You look like a teenager.” She hit the mark. Virgil has a swagger.
Virgil William Westdale was born January 8, 1918 on a farm in Millersburg, Indiana. If that sounds familiar, I’ll tell you why – Virgil is Virginia Sears‘ younger brother. Virgil, like his sister, is half Japanese, and was born with the name Nishimura, meaning “West Village”. He grew up on the peppermint farm Virginia discussed during her interview, and learned to drive at age nine in order to be a help. He confirmed that soon before the Depression, peppermint oil went sky high, which gave his father enough money to buy their own farm at the border of Michigan. He said he used to stand on the border of Indiana and Michigan, which he thought was pretty good.
Virgil chose to got to College after working a couple years out of high school. He moved to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. There, he discovered a flying program – $40 for lessons and private license. He thought it’d be pretty great to be able to fly, but didn’t have $40 to spare. A few weeks later, a friend, who was working, loaned him the money. He took to flying like a duck to water.
At this time World War Two was well under way. Virgil was sure the draft was coming, and chose instead to enlist. He immediately shined. He was the best in his class at acrobatic flying, and, a year later, took the instrument test and commercial test within 24 hours of each other – something he could hardly believe later in life when his daughter asked about the story. He was moved up to instructor, and began training new recruits. Unfortunately, the prestige didn’t last. In his words.
Virgil faced more discrimination due to his heritage after that. He was moved to the 442nd Infantry in the Army, an all Japanese company. Most of his peers were second-generation, not part Japanese like him. Due to his European roots on his mom’s side, he was one of the tallest in the company. After a time, he was put in the 522nd Artillery of the same regimental combat team.
They were sent overseas, at first to Italy, and eventually France and Germany. When they were first deployed, no European Commander wanted them, but they became one of the most successful and decorated regiment in the history of the military. They were responsible for rescuing the Lost Battalion, of which Virgil describes mixed feelings due to the number of men lost versus those rescued. They were among the first to reach and help liberate Dachau Camp, a Jewish Concentration Camp in Germany. It was one of the men in his company that shot open the lock on the gate. Virgil recalled seeing several men in striped clothing eating a dead horse.
When it was time for his company to return home in September of 1945, Virgil wasn’t allowed. He believes it was due to some animosity from his Commander, but he’s not sure. He had enough points to return to the United States, but was told to stay behind. Instead, he was given papers for return in November. It was cold. Very cold. They rode in an open air truck, and were told to sleep on a cement floor in a warehouse during the trip to the Atlantic Coast. Virgil was strong headed, and wanted to sleep someplace warm, so he and a friend wandered into the night, and encountered a Nazi group. He wanted so badly to get home in time for Christmas, but the ship encountered a massive storm in the crossing. I’ll let Virgil tell the full story, because his account is amazing and the homecoming very emotional.
Virgil learned to tap dance at age 75, and still dances in recitals today. When he retired from work, he grew antsy, and so joined the TSA to keep busy, from which he retired at age 91. He holds 25 patents from his career. In 2009, Virgil wrote a book about his life called “Blue Skies & Thunder“, which you can buy on Amazon to read more about his life.
Onalee passed away on October 3, 2015 in Riverview, Mi.
I met Onalee years ago. She is the mother of a phenomenal woman I call my sister. Onalee is 3/4 Ojibwa, and my friend would often refer to her as a “happy little indian”. Onalee has a kind face and a big heart, and has brought her family through a lot over the years. It had been a while since I’d seen her due to health troubles, but she was just as I remembered.
Onalee Jean Cable was born January 6, 1930 on Mackinac Island at home. I should say at this juncture that Mackinac Island, to this day, does not allow motorized vehicles onto the island. It was so during Onalee’s time, and they were very fond of bicycles. Her father earned some money by providing a horse and buggy transport service – he’d pick up the goods from the bay that had come in on ships and carry them to their destination.
The family was located in what was known as “Indian Village” aka. Harrisonville, where the natives were pushed from the coast by the British after they took the fort in the late 1800’s, and they were poor. They had no running water or electricity. Every day, they would go ‘up the hill’ to her grandparents house to fill a tub of water to use for drinking, bathing, and washing dishes and clothes. Her family didn’t have water supply of their own until Onalee was about 7 years old.
At that age, the family moved to a house nearby that had water. There was no toilet or tub, however. Her father put a ‘two-holer’ (aka. outhouse) in the yard, himself. The tub came later. Onalee felt the contrast as if they went from living as paupers to kings.
Onalee’s family mostly ate from their garden or from foraged berries and nuts around the island. In the summer, her mother would offer each of the seven children a dime for five rows of vegetables weeded, and that dime was enough to go see the show (movie). The berries were often used in pies that her mother would sell at a local gambling house. Onalee recalled a time when her sister wanted so badly to go to the show, but hadn’t done any gardening that day. She egged Onalee on and on, pushing her higher and higher on the swing. “Go ask ma for money – go!” But Onalee wouldn’t. Her sister finally pushed her so high that Onalee’s foot hit the board full of fresh pies resting in the window to cool. Her brothers and sisters scattered everywhere, and Onalee was left to take the blame. Those were the good pies. The crust was made with lard.
The schools on Mackinac Island only went through the 10th grade in those days. To complete high school, one had to get to the mainland, usually St. Ignace (today’s launch point for the ferries), and the school board would pay for the ferry fee (the five mile Mackinac Bridge wasn’t built until 1957). As you can imagine, the ferries weren’t able to run in the winter – Lake Huron would freeze in spite of its great size. Onalee’s family couldn’t afford to board her or her siblings, nor fly them over the ice. Here, in her own words, she describes how they would get to school.
Despite their financial hardship, the family was the first to get a phone in the Village. Onalee’s father served as an Air Raid Warden during World War II, and was given the phone in order to communicate when there was an alarm, and go to the other homes and ensure everyone turned out their lights for the blackout. Onalee still remembers when she heard they were going to war. A neighbor boy came running up to the window and yelled inside, “We’re going to war! The Japs hit Pearl Harbor, and I’m enlisting!”
Onalee gave birth to the first of her seven children at age 16. She and her husband moved to North Carolina for his military term, and then to Wyandotte, Michigan, where they stayed. She can remember riding in a car for the first time, and being so frightened of hills which the horses she grew up with would not have been able to handle. When the children were older, she got a job at the local phone company, connecting calls. Some may not remember, but one couldn’t simply dial a phone number and have it go through – the phone was connected to the operator who would place the call for you. The phone company eventually moved to computerized connections, and jobs were cut. Onalee’s career at the phone company lasted 22 years.
“When I went to high school, that old car wouldn’t start [in the winter]. And every day I was late to high school… I hated driving up to the front of the high school, ’cause all the kids could look out and see you coming in late.”
Sitting in front of a woman who is over 100 years old brings an amazing feeling. Virginia has seen so much, and has amassed so much wisdom, one can’t help but be in awe. It’s hard to imagine meeting anyone who was born before World War One, but there she was in front of me.
Virginia Dare Sears was born January 27, 1915 in a farmhouse in LaGrange, Indiana. The doctor came to the house to bring her into the world. She smiled as she recalled what her mother told her about her older sister, who was two at the time of her birth. Her sister was so nervous about Virginia’s being born, her mother instructed that until she heard the baby cry, Virginia wasn’t born yet.
Having been born before the Great War, Virginia has lived through many events we’ve only heard about in history books, so I wanted to know what she remembered. She didn’t have much to say about the War since she was still very young, but she did remember the Great Depression. I found it interesting as she described her family’s start as tenant farmers, which reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath. They were lucky enough to have a good crop one year, and bought their own farm before the crash, though they almost lost it. Here is what it was like:
I was struck by Virginia’s description of what it was like to live with an early car. I knew they were difficult to start at times, but it was interesting to hear the differences between winter and summer, and how its stubborn starter would regularly make her late for school.
Virginia told me her father was Japanese. He came to America when he was 15 — his parents had died, and his older brother didn’t want to take care of him, anymore. He met his wife after a time in Colorado, whose mother asked them to farm their land in Indiana. Because they’re last name was Nishimura, Virginia had a hard time finding a job in the early 40’s as the second War was starting. The family eventually changed their name to Westdale, but this story takes place before that change. Here she describes the discrimination, but also a beautiful gesture her university advisors made for her career. It made me well up to hear.
The last thing we discussed are the gays. She told me of a little girl that she came up with whom they called ‘odd’. I supposed that the little girl was gay, but Virginia wasn’t explicit in her description. She simply said that the kids avoided the girl. She followed up by talking about today’s society, that gays can marry and adopt, and how different that is. I really appreciated a perspective that has 100 years behind it. I don’t know if age alone gives a person the best understanding, but I think it makes a difference. In her words:
“When I was growing up, you just voted, and that was it… You might hear them on the radio, but not much.”
I met Ann in happenstance through a family member who caught wind of this project. She was very polite with me, but only had a few minutes to talk since she was on her way to a luau party.
Virginia Ann House Veren was born February 11, 1931 in Birmingham, Alabama. She has lived all over the South, as well as in Calgary, Canada.
Ann states that she had a wonderful childhood, that they were poor but that she didn’t know it. She spent her time reading from the library. She would keep up with the summer reading programs. Her family didn’t have a car, then, so she would cart the books around with her.
When she was younger she enjoyed listening to the radio with her grandmother, who lived with them. It wasn’t until High School that they got a television, in black and white. She recalls that heating was by coal, that travel wasn’t as plentiful and simple, and the phone systems were different.
Something I have heard from others is the worry about cursive (Palmer) writing leaving our culture. Particularly in reading old letters. Ann puts it another way.
Most of all, she appreciates that medicine has changed in a large way. Doctors made house calls when she was a girl. She used to be told to stand against the wall when she was little, and the doctor could put his arm behind her back. She didn’t know it was scoliosis – there wasn’t a word for it, then. Here, she explains the strides medical has made in her life:
One of her final points in how technology has changed us is in politics. I hadn’t considered it, before, but she’s absolutely right. We have technology in voting stations, but also in interviewing politicians and getting to know their policies. She explains it better in her own words.
Finally, Ann echoed something I’ve heard many times already during this project. She notices that our youth are so involved in their iPhones and technology that they may not be able to effectively communicate. She started by commenting on the crook of their necks, but expanded by saying, “You learn a lot from other people … You have to be able to communicate with the lowest of us, and the highest of us … and have compassion.”
Her wrap up was to say that she feels a lot of young people want just what she and her peers accomplished throughout their lives, but they want it now and without all the work. This comment touched on a prevailing view I’ve noted on Facebook and other mediums about the perceived laziness of the new generations – that new hires don’t work as hard as the seasoned ones. A friend stated just last week that a teen hire asked to go home after only two hours because he was ‘tired’, but the 56-year-old on staff came back over and over asking what he could do next. It’s not my place to say whether this is an actual trend, but one worth noting in tandem with Ann’s comments.
When I arrived in Birmingham, AL, last week, I didn’t have any interviews scheduled there. I didn’t have any connections and I had been unable to crowdsource nominees for that area. So I started talking about the project with strangers, and hoped I’d find a connection that way.
On the last day of my three day visit, I met Barbara. We sat across from each other at a coffee shop we had both chosen to get some work done. She commented on my earrings, and we got to talking. I told her I was out of town, and that I was working on a book about the history of our country as experienced by the Silent Generation. She was instantly interested, and soon shared that her grandmothers were still alive, in town, and had beautiful stories to tell.
I wanted to interview them, but I was short on time. We had a five hour window, but Barbara was confident she could make it happen, and she did.
I met Bettilew, Barbara’s maternal grandmother, at a retirement home that happened to be just across the street from the road on which she’d raised her children. After our talk, I had the pleasure of driving by the houses she spoke of.
Bettilew Turk Gaskell was born January 4, 1925 in Prattville, AL in her grandmother’s home. Her grandfather died when she was young, so her mother, father, and siblings all lived with her grandmother there in Prattville. She spent her entire life in Alabama. During childhood, she loved to dance, and took lessons in ballet and tap. She also took piano lessons from her mother, and enjoyed singing.
Bettilew met her husband when they were 14, and would go on group dates throughout their teen years. They did not marry before World War Two, however, but he wrote her every day. She said that she has over 500 letters he sent her during his term in Germany. Her husband was a guard of German POW’s before the Nuremburg Trial, and she told me of her husband’s witness to the suicide of one of the POW’s which became an international spectacle. Here she tells the story of the prisoner Robert Ley.
What was really interesting to me was that the family still has had the same phone number since they got a phone in the 1950’s. I told Barbara at the end of the interview about Google Voice so that they might save the phone number even after the land line goes away.
A story arose revolving around the phone number. In the early 1950’s, Bettilew had a maid named Ethel that helped with her children and kept the house tidy. Ethel worked with the family for 23 years. When Bettilew brought up Ethel, her daughter (Gail) and granddaughter (Barbara), who were in attendance, joined the conversation to affirm Ethel’s role in their family, that she and her children were a part of the family even though she didn’t live with them.
Ethel eventually stopped working with the family as she got older. One day, years later, Bettilew got a call from Ethel’s daughter, whom she knew well. Bettilew was happy to hear the familiar voice and was eager to hear how Ethel was. The news wasn’t good. Ethel was ill and not doing well. She had been delirious for a time, but every so often would speak a series of letters and numbers. Since our phone numbers aren’t structured like that today, it took Ethel’s daughter a while to understand what she was saying. It was Bettilew’s phone number, memorized from her time working for her. Here, they speak about the call and the presence Ethel had in their lives.
Bettilew really highlighted that travel has changed a good deal since her childhood, and especially since her grandmother’s time. Her grandmother was from Georgia, but there was no car, so they were unable to visit family. Bettilew thinks we’re lucky that transportation has gotten so much faster, safer, and more convenient so that we can travel.
Bettilew recognizes that technology is interrupting are ability to have conversation. Even when we’re talking on the phone, we interrupt ourselves to answer another call, to look at a notification, or to dual speak with someone else that is in front of you. She sees her great grand children already using cell phones to play games, and wonders how it will affect them as they grow.