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Grace Stinton

“I don’t know of anyone who went to a nursing home when I was a kid.  They were all taken care of by relatives.”

When my friend told me she knew a woman who had been a “Rosie The Riveter”, I was very excited.  I have interviewed many men who served in World War Two, and women whose husbands had, but not yet a woman who had been involved in the war effort herself.

Grace had me to her home, and the first thing I noticed was the color on the walls.  Turns out Grace is a very talented quilter, and is pictured in front of a massive tapestry she designed and sewed depicting a scene from the Wizard of Oz.

Grace Mary Stinton was born September 16, 1922 in Tiverton, Rhode Island.  She lived on the east cost for her younger years, moving to Kentucky and then Michigan later in life.  After the depression she was lucky to get a scholarship to go to Providence College for her undergraduate, and another for her Masters degree at Clark University in Massachusetts.  Her family was poor – her dad entered a Veteran’s Hospital as she graduated high school (he served in World War One) – and even with the scholarships, she had very little.  She asked that her Masters scholarship be deferred a year so she could teach Social Studies in Connecticut and save some money, though it wasn’t until after her 9th child was born that she was finally able to finish the degree.

“I don’t think that [job] would even be allowed, now, with the safety and security laws… It was fun for one summer but it’d be terrible if you had to [be a riveter] for a long time.”

As mentioned above, Grace spent time working as a “Rosie the Riveter” during the second Great War.  This took place one summer working to support herself during college.  She spoke in great detail about it:

It was during this time that a friend put together a blind double date for her.  The man was Mike Stinton, whom she married.  Though Mike was from Michigan, they didn’t move there right away.  Shortly after their engagement, he shipped out (it was 1944) to help finish World War Two.  When he returned, they married and made the move.

Grace’s girlhood was marked by a good deal of time spent on  her grandparent’s farm.  It is something that we discuss often in this project – the distance between families in modern life.  In this short clip, she describes her childhood:

The famed building featured in “The Little Brown Schoolhouse” book was right in Grace’s hometown.  In fact, she frequented the schoolhouse to get books to read.  She admitted she would check out an armful of Oz books on Saturday, read them all, then return them and rent even more before they closed to read throughout the week.

“Families were a lot closer, and generations stayed together.”

I always ask how things have changed during an interview.  I really liked Grace’s response.  She focused on family, but not in a Conservative America kind of way.  Rather, she highlighted our ability (or lack thereof) to share with and care for family members.

As I transcribed her interview, I wondered if I should have simply uploaded Grace’s entire interview.  When I broached the topic of technology, she concisely described the things she’s seen, her childhood versus the way things are today, that I couldn’t help but publish the rest of interview.  I usually edit myself out, but in this case, you’ll hear me ask each question.

“I can still remember the first time I saw television… the first thing I saw was a very big fat lady singing, and all I could think of was, ‘this would have been so much nicer on radio where I could have been imagining the whole thing.'”

Yoko Mossner

“I have my family in Japan.  [Now] I can pick up the phone, and dial it, and talk to them.”

Yoko is a Japanese native.  At the time of our interview, I’d already interviewed with Marion Graff, who was on the USS West Virginia at the time of the signing of the treaty between Japan and the Allies, and he had given me a copy of the Articles of Surrender with each nation’s leader’s signature.  I keep it with the folder I use to stay organized, and at the end of Yoko’s interview, I decided to show it to her.  I wasn’t sure how she would react – I was worried it would upset her.  Instead, she asked to make a copy, and clearly appreciated it.

Yoko (Ito) Mossner was born in Toshima, Tokyo, Japan in May of 1933.  She lived in Tokyo with her parents until they both passed away – her father from a supposed ulcer when she was seven, and her mother from breast cancer when she was eight – at which point she moved to her grandparents with her older brother and sister.  She loved to read, fold origami, play with her siblings with a rubber ball against the wall, and coloring.  She was six when the war started, and ten when Tokyo was evacuated in lieu of bombing.  The government moved the youngest children to Nagano Prefecture in the mountains to shield them from the activities of the war (Aug 1944 – Oct 1945).  Yoko described it as a kind of boarding school set up in the resort.

“Some terrible bomb was dropped … We have to surrender.”

I asked Yoko what it was like during the war, to live in the country that experienced the bombings.  She told me that she was very protected from the war being that she was so young.  The schools became somewhat militarized – they marched and did trainings – everything was controlled by the military. The authorities reported that they were winning, and maintained that story during the majority of the war.  But after a while, things became rationed.  All the men were gone, having been drafted.  She remembers that every few days families would gather to send yet another son or father away.  One evening in 1945, she heard their caretakers whispering that a terrible bomb had dropped, and they supposed they’d have to surrender.  That was a shock because Japan had never surrendered before.

When she returned to live with her grandparents and siblings (her siblings were too old to go to the school outside Tokyo – Yoko later commented that the war didn’t effect her much, at least not compared to her siblings who lived through the bombing of Tokyo), they moved to Odawara, her mother’s hometown.  Food was still rationed for a long time – it wasn’t until high school that she noticed things getting better.  There she finished school, during which her grandparents passed away.  Upon graduating, she went to vocational school in Yokohama, and then got a job there.

The job was at an American Army Base where, from what she told me, there was an office and laboratory that worked with petroleum.  It was there that she met her husband, who was from Saginaw, Michigan.  He had been drafted during Word War Two, and sent to Japan.  In 1957, Yoko moved with her husband to Saginaw where she still lives and works as the curator of the Saginaw Japanese Gardens and Tea House.  That is where we met, and she served me tea at the beginning of our interview.

“In High School, we took a school trip from Tokyo to Osaka… it took all night to get there by train… Now, a bullet train [gets you] there in three hours.”

Yoko has been back to Japan since she moved to the United States.  She says it’s completely different.  The high rise buildings and overpass highways stunned her – Tokyo was never like that before.  And the bullet trains are phenomenal.  She couldn’t believe the comfort they provide during their quick journey.  She said it was like sitting in a living room.

“When I came here, the people didn’t know much about Japan… They thought we only eat raw fish.”

When asked how things have changed over the 50 years Yoko has been in the United States, she started by saying people understand Japanese culture better, now, and then marveled at the technology.  She and her husband didn’t have a television at first, and purchased a black and white one to start.  She loves the ease of cooking her microwave provides, and noted that computers are changing things, now.  What she really got excited about, however, was a washer and drier – especially the drier.  While she lived in Japan, they washed clothes by hand, and during the rainy season it was nearly impossible to dry them.

Yoko had some wise words in regards to the changes we’re seeing due to technology and what we should mind as it grows.

“We don’t have enthusiasm for the future, or hope.  Because we are too affluent, and we have everything.  It comes so easy, so I think we probably lost the spirit and desire to do something to better yourself, or better your country.”

Rhea Currie

Rhea Currie

“In 99 years, there’s not much I can say hasn’t changed.”

Rhea was referred to me by a friend, and I was impressed the moment I met her.  A small woman (probably only 4’11”) with a huge heart, she welcomed me with homemade cookies, declaring that she always sends people away with a box full.  As you can see in her portrait, she is a lover of books, a topic we were able to meet on right away.  With a cold glass of water, we sat down in a pair of beautiful arm chairs in her vaulted living room, and began the interview.

Rhea Wark Currie was born July 29, 1916 in Peck, Michigan, near Lake Huron.  The only states she has ever lived in are Michigan and Florida, which she visited with her husband during winter.  They always lived on a golf course in Florida, because her husband loved to play golf.

“It was a quieter time.  People stayed put more than they do, now.”

Rhea was born early enough to vaguely remember World War One, something remarkable for any living person today.  Her father wasn’t drafted because he was a government employee at the State Department in Washington DC (he later was diagnosed with a lung condition and was told to live in the country, so moved to Michigan as a Postal Worker).  His only sibling was a sister, who, of course, was not drafted.  Rhea’s mother had several siblings, but they were mostly farmers.  Her main contact with the war, then, was through conversation and news clippings her dad took that talked of their friends who went to war.

She told me that the Great Depression wasn’t talked about in her family.  Really, the Depression didn’t come until she was entering college.  What she told me she later found out about that time made me tear up:


She loved to roller skate with her friends and cousins near home.  When she was twelve, a new highway had just been lain, which she had been explicitly told not to go on.  But one evening she and three of her girlfriends chose to skate down it, and realized their folly as the sun went down and they were quite far from home.  They decided to turn around and go home, but they were scared they wouldn’t make it before dark.  A car soon appeared and they got excited since they were tired and scared.  It turned out to be Rhea’s father.  Her friends scrambled into the car, but she was not permitted.  He remarked, “I’m sorry.  You were not to come out here, tonight.  You skated out, and you will have to skate home.  But I will not leave you.”  He drove next to her the entire way.

Rhea met her husband while at school at Alma College. They moved to Midland, MI so he could work at Dow Chemical and use his degree in chemistry. She got her degree in teaching, and taught until their first son came along, at which point she began volunteering at the Red Cross answering phones (during World War Two). She says Midland still feels like a neighborhood, though the town has grown into a vibrant small city.  I could tell she loves it there, and she is deeply involved in the community as a volunteer to this day.

“I’m just not getting [the electronic world].”

Rhea does have an iPad and uses it quite a bit for email, but she still feels like an outsider to the technological era we’ve entered.  She remarked that every other change came about gradually, so people could keep up.  She feels electronics have taken off like a rocket, which has made it hard for her (and others) to learn them.  Rhea finds it funny that when she does her banking she never sees the cash.

“Every evening at five o’clock, [we] sat down wherever we were, and [my husband] would have his martini, and we would play gin rummy.”

It seems like “we lose the personal” due to the electronics that we’ve created.  Rhea continues to attend a card group every week, and was annoyed to that effect as one of the ladies would bring her tablet and continually interrupt the game to show pictures.  Rhea finally told the acquaintance to please keep it put away during the game because that’s what they were all there for.

Rhea also remarked that technology is changing how families are brought up.  She observes them on family night at the country club, and can see that there is no interaction between family members, even during dinner.  Everyone is absorbed with the screen in their hand.  She honestly wondered to me if they ever speak to each other.

Her son, teaching a class at New York University on Communication, reports that it is so strange that the class is necessary.  But the students are stunned by the lessons in class.  They just haven’t been socialized in the common-sense ways those aged post-25 seem to take for granted.

She elaborated on all this when asked what we’ve lost to technology.


Rhea does admire how we can stay in contact with people in other places, things happening in other countries, and the ability to be empathetic to the goings on elsewhere.  She doesn’t remember doing so, even after World War Two, when there was a good deal of suffering after so many towns and cities had been decimated.  Today, we know when another country is in hardship, and can react in a meaningful way.

“There have been more changes, through the years, except I never think of myself as 99 years old.  I still drive, I still am very active.  There was a gal at the hospital… that kept asking, ‘Why won’t you join our service?’ and I responded, ‘I am too old.’  She said, ‘What do you mean you’re too old?’ I could not go into the room of a 60-year-old woman dying of cancer, and try to cheer her up… nor do I want to go into the room of a very ill 30-year-old who sees me as this healthy old lady with white hair.  Am I wrong?”

Virginia Dare Sears

“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:

Bettilew Turk Gaskell

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.

Podcast

Episode 26 — Ida Mae Harris

Conway, SC
Born 1920

Ida Mae Harris passed away last week, only days before I was to meet her again at a signing event in her city.  This is a special podcast edition to honor her life.  She speaks about the Depression, and gives very good advice for enjoying the richness of life.

Episode 9 – Juanita Laush

Portland, OR
Born 1923

“I had to type eight carbon copies, and always at 5pm, my boss would find something to change.”

Juanita worked most her career in medicine.  She first started as a Red Cross Nurse during the War, then went on as a Medical Assistant, eventually co-authoring a textbook on X-Ray and running her own business.  Naturally, she talked a lot about how medicine has changed for the better.

To donate to the Alex Atkin surgery fund, please go to GoFundMe [now completed].

Episode 1 – Virgil Westdale

Grand Rapids, Michigan
Born 1918

“It was as if the Statue of Liberty were saying, ‘Welcome home, soldier.  You won the war.  America is still free.'”

Virgil Westdale is one of my favorite people and a fellow author.  He served in the most decorated battalions during World War Two — still more decorated than any other to this day.  In this episode, he tells the story of how he got home after World War Two was over, including liberating a concentration camp.