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Reflections November 2017

Puttin' on the Gritz

A Quarter's Worth

By Cappy Hall Rearick

My earliest years were spent listening for air raid sirens, watching Mama count out food rations, and wondering why some man named Gabriel Heatter was so angry at the world. My brother and I ate silently (because in those days children were seen and not heard), while Mama and Daddy spoke quietly of a distant relative who had lost a leg in the war or a neighbor's son who had lost his life.

The creamy silk kimono slipped over my head and slithered down my straight-as-a-stick body. Goose bumps popped out on my arms, making me shiver. The soft, intoxicating fabric lapped me up in cool luxury – so different from the utilitarian cotton fabric of the 1940s.

Inching myself toward the mirror hung high on the wall, I stood on a chair to look at myself. The reflection put a grin on my face.

The kimono was cherry-bomb red. Embroidered oriental designs flitted like butterflies over the top and down the sleeves. Black satin frogs attached themselves to the front of the bodice as if marking a territorial lily pond in the silky-smooth fabric.

Uncle Buddy, only a few hours back home from active duty in Guam, had burst into our house the day before. His gift to me? The tiny silk kimono that perfectly fit my four-year-old bones.

Ignorant of the war then raging in Europe and in the Pacific, I had no way of knowing that more body bags were sent back from overseas than miniature silk kimonos or other souvenirs brought home to kids by those in the military.

Red silk pajamas as light as the breast-down on a wren, were glamorous to my child's way of thinking. Much more so than the heavy blackout curtains that Mama lowered each time an air raid siren broke through the peace and quiet of home. Softer, too, than the wartime fabrics she bought to sew my dresses, and a lot more fun than trying unsuccessfully to ride my brother's skinny black Victory bike.

World War II would be over before the end of that year. Peace treaties would be signed and reconstruction begun on a war-ravaged continent. Even so, my brother and his friends would continue to play Army. They would strut through backyards, ramrod straight, swinging souvenir bayonets taken from dead Japanese soldiers or donning helmets left behind by a dwindling German army.

But my silk pajamas were kept safe and pristine in a mahogany chest of drawers. In years to come, they would remind me that beauty is always attainable, even in the midst of chaos.

My earliest years were spent listening for air raid sirens, watching Mama count out food rations, and wondering why some man named Gabriel Heatter was so angry at the world. My brother and I ate silently (because in those days children were seen and not heard), while Mama and Daddy spoke quietly of a distant relative who had lost a leg in the war or a neighbor's son who had lost his life.

I watched from my window as my brother and his friends morphed into pint-sized soldiers yelling "Geronimo!" before mowing down the pretend enemy with their pretend Tommy guns.

After the war, we watched movies of men being tortured by the other side, fingernails torn out with rusty pliers, bamboo stakes driven into ears, horrors incomprehensible to sane people.

We cringed into our theater seats during those movies and later while in our beds we experienced one nightmare after another, if we slept at all. Even so, the next time a war movie came to town, we went to see it. We stood in line for however long it took, holding a quarter tightly in our sweaty palms, eager to plunk down the cost of learning how to hate.

Twenty-five cents was all it took.

 

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