Laura's War

Laura's War

by Laura A. Hoffman

ISBN: 9781418483050

Publisher AuthorHouse

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Memoirs

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Fall 1942

I met Wayne on September 24, 1942, at the beginning of my last semester at the University of Illinois. I walked home from my last class that day, smelled the aroma of burning leaves in the crisp air and passed groups of giggling children happily jumping onto piles of leaves, playing King of the Mountain. I tried to recapture the feeling of wonder and happiness which I had experienced every Fall of my life at the start of a school year. But news I had just heard from a classmate marred my happiness. My friend Bob had been killed in the war. He had been in my classes, and his fiancee Cherie was also my friend. I felt shaken and unhappy, almost melancholy, much like the mood on campus. Students in uniform, many of them the servicemen who had taken over the dormitory I lived in the year before, seemed to crowd the campus. The boys in ROTC often wore their uniforms. The full effect of the war had come home to me.

How different from last year! I fell in love with everything about the University from the moment I enrolled a year before. Campus life surpassed my dreams. I loved the atmosphere, my friends, and the excitement of living in a dormitory on a university campus. Journalism classes in feature writing fascinated me and made my curriculum of studies almost perfect. I relished every moment of every day.

Boys outnumbered girls at a ratio of five to one. I had many friends on campus and never lacked for dates to school dances, movies or just having a coke at the local hangouts. But my main interest always remained the same, earning my university degree and getting a job. In a few months I would realize my dream of being graduated from the Journalism School at the University of Illinois. I didn't want to even think about a relationship that might stop me from reaching my goal. No boy had managed to interest me for very long, and meeting the love of my life was not in my agenda. I loved my family, but I wanted to get a job and be in charge of my own life. Especially since in my early years my schooling had been so bizarre and out of my control.

Chapter Two

My Early Life

Because of my father's work we moved frequently and I attended kindergarten in three cities, my birthplace Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Flint, Michigan and finally Chicago, Illinois. By the time I entered third grade I had attended eight schools. I always felt like an outsider. We did not stay in one place long enough for me to make friends, and I clung to my older sister Bronia. She read aloud to me as I looked over her shoulder, and because of her patience I learned to read and do simple arithmetic problems before my fifth birthday.

My parents were loving and bright. My mother quoted Shakespeare which she had read in her native Polish language during her school days in Europe. My father, a glass blower and creative artisan, blessed with the talent of most of his ancestors, loved his work. However, my parents had a limited command of the English language and did not understand the necessity for credentials and transfer papers when a student went from one school to another.

Twice when we transferred to new schools my sister assumed the responsibility for placing me in the proper line for my grade and inadvertently on each occasion put me in the line for a class a semester ahead of where I belonged. I kept up with the school work, the teachers never realized the mistake, and I remained in the advanced class.

However, each time we transferred to a new school I suffered a feeling of loss. I cried until my sister, brought in from her class, hugged me, dried my tears and consoled me.

She lost patience with me only once. One day, on our way to school, we stood on a corner, waiting to cross the street, and for some unknown reason I tore my hand away from hers and darted into the path of a car. Frightened, I lost my footing, fell face down, and suffered a bloody nose. All traffic stopped, the ashen driver and a crowd stood over me, including my sister who admonished, "Get up," and then added "I'm going to be late for school!" Apparently at that moment she had enough of being a surrogate mother. Obediently, I got my sorry self up and trudged off to school with her. My horrified teacher took one look at my bloody face and arranged to have me brought home.

Because of my accelerated curriculum, I finished grammar school just before my twelfth birthday and high school before my sixteenth. My parents supported my desire to go on to college, but because of my young age, they felt it not advisable for me to attend a large university. I envied my good friends who chose to attend the University of Illinois, but knew it was useless to suggest that school for me. My parents checked with friends and the parish priest and decided I would attend a convent school, Mt. St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas.

Chapter Three

Off to the Convent

I had never attended a parochial school before and found the regime very intimidating. The nuns rigorously managed our scheduled lives. A loud bell awakened us at 6 o'clock, "Time to get up"; another bell at 6:30, "Line up for mass in the school chapel"; at 7:30, "Don't be late for breakfast." We had classes all day, study hall late in the afternoon, dinner at 6 P.M., study hall and then bed check at 9 P.M. On Saturdays we were permitted to go into town to see a matinee movie - in twos.

We could sleep later on Sunday. On that day we attended Mass at 8 A.M. in the Sisters' chapel in their convent quarters. I actually liked Sundays. The high ceilings, fragrant and highly polished wood paneling, heavy benches, incense and candlelight made the chapel look and feel like a centuries old monastery. The nuns chanting Latin prayers in their dark and protective chambers lulled me and gave me a feeling of peace. Their humility amazed me. These were the same sisters who sternly taught and regimented us each weekday. Many of them had doctorate degrees in the curriculum they taught, but they also worked in the kitchen, served our meals and did our laundry.

Everything about the school, including the regimentation and the emphasis on religion seemed foreign to me. I never felt totally comfortable accepting without question all the dicta of religion. At Easter I wondered if perhaps Jesus had just been in a coma before he "arose from the dead?" When translating passages in Latin class I questioned why Roman poets and historians had not written about that religious period in history. I did take part in the school plays and operettas and even played the part of Mary Magdalen in a passion play about the last days of Jesus. Once during one of the early rehearsals, I seductively swung my hips as I walked on stage and with downcast eyes and in a lilting voice lisped my line, "My name is Mary, Mary of Magdalen." Everyone exploded in laughter, including the nun directing the play, who immediately suggested, "Save your talent for comedy for an appropriate play."

My life, though sometimes rewarding, differed totally from the freedom I had in Chicago and I continued to suffer discontent. I felt constrained in my actions and thinking. Sometimes the boys from the neighboring St. Benedict's College came to dances held in our school gym, properly chaperoned by a line of nuns, of course. I met a boy named Paul at one of these dances. He played football on the college team and although this gave him BMOC (big man on campus) status, his shy friendliness belied this, and I liked him. He invited me to be his date for the reciprocal dance at his school and met the bus provided to take the girls from the Mount to the dance. Before leaving, the dean admonished us not to leave the premises of the dance during the evening.

I admit I acted stupidly when Paul suggested we go down to the corner drugstore to have a coke, and I said, "Okay." We came right back to the dance after being gone all of 15 minutes. All of us had been encouraged to tell of any infraction of rules, and a schoolmate reported my escapade to the dean. My punishment was confinement to the campus grounds for the next two weeks. I did not think the punishment fit the crime, but I did follow all the strict rules for the rest of my time at that school.

Paul found out about my penalty and telephoned often to commiserate. Later he invited me to all his school dances and to be his guest at the football games. We remained good friends, even after we both left Kansas. He was a talented athlete, and a national football team recruited him. When on the road, he sent picture post cards from the cities where his team played, and when he came to Chicago we met for dinner once. Then he got on with his life just as I did mine, and we lost track of each other.

I yearned to be at the University of Illinois the whole two years spent at the "Mount." My high school friends wrote and charmed me with details of their freedom. They could meet and be with friends, wander all over town away from the campus if they chose, go home for all holidays and even some weekends. What a difference from my existence! My school, hundreds of miles away from Chicago, and too far away to get home except at Christmas, seemed a prison in comparison. How I wanted to join my friends!

Chapter Four

The U of I and I

After two years at what I have always referred to as the convent, I found a way out. I stayed home for a year, took an accelerated course in typing and shorthand, got a job and took some classes at the University of Chicago. My parents finally agreed that I could enter the University of Illinois in September, 1941. All the credits I earned at the University of Chicago and the Mount were accepted by the University, so I needed only three more semesters of college to get my degree. Expenses were a big consideration, but tuition then was minimal at a state school. I had become an excellent typist and charged moderate fees for my work, so I attracted enough jobs from professors to earn my own spending money.

I lived in this perfect world until Sunday, December 7, 1941. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, our country suddenly plunged into war. Details blared from the radio that morning at breakfast in the dorm dining room. The boys were eager to march to war against the enemy - a great adventure lay ahead. The girls were frightened and confused about the future. The next day everyone listened as President Roosevelt described "the day of infamy," and declared that the state of war now existed with the Empire of Japan. The following day, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.

None of us could imagine how the war would affect us and what might happen in our own little world. We felt an overwhelming and understandable apprehension. Our nation, unprepared for a war of global proportions, belatedly rushed to increase the size and training of an army which ranked seventeenth in size in the world. How could the United States, barely emerging from a crippling depression, pay for all the obvious necessities to fight a war?

Gasoline rationing had already begun, and almost as important to women so had rationing of nylons. In a short time each person owned his own ration book for sugar, butter, meat, canned goods and shoes. My dad joined our neighbors in planting a vegetable Victory Garden.

To add to the turmoil, I and the majority of students living in university-owned housing received notices of eviction. Servicemen needed the space. I lived in a University dormitory and thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie among the residents, especially the girls on my floor. My roommate, a Florida resident, held a scholarship because of her swimming prowess and competed as a member of the university's women's swim team. She regaled me with stories about how the coach had her hold back when opponents lagged a lap behind, so that those contestants would not be humiliated. The day we moved into our room she grinned as she offered me one of the Cuban cigars her brother-in-law gave her as a joke, a going-away present. We both knew a ban existed against smoking in the rooms, but I accepted what I considered a dare with, "I will, if you will." We both lit up, inhaled deeply, blew smoke out the window and got violently ill at the same time. That was the beginning of our friendship. We always had fun together and really enjoyed all the time we shared a room.

After the strict rules at the Mount, I thought the girls' curfew of 10 p.m. during the week and midnight Friday and Saturday nights very acceptable even though male students had no time restrictions.

Boys I'd known in high school often invited me to their house dances and parties, and I loved going. If I could not accept, I asked girls in the dorm if they were interested in accepting dates with my friends. I provided a fortuitous date for my roommate - later she ended up marrying the boy.

Then the war began and many of the dormitories, including mine, became housing for the Army, Navy and Air Corps. These soldiers and sailors had special programs established for them on campus and numerous university classrooms accommodated them. Servicemen also enrolled in regular classes leading to a college degree. Men in uniform became a normal part of the campus scene.

Evicted dormitory residents had to find housing on their own. My dormitory roommate decided to go to school in her own state. I found a room in a newly opened boarding house. It looked like a typical Midwestern wooden farmhouse with a long porch that reached across the whole front. It had been a family home, certainly not designed to house twelve girls. Our housemother and the cook had rooms on the first floor. Both the second and third floors each had one bathroom and three bedrooms, each bedroom shared by two girls. Some mornings timing got a little tight for the bathrooms, but most of the time we managed to get along without a squabble

All the residents were displaced and new to each other. One of the girls, immersed in Eastern religion, suggested naming the house "Nirvana." The rest of us did not have a clue about what the name meant but thought it had a nice ring to it. So we looked up its meaning in the dictionary, "a state or place of oblivion to care, pain or external reality," thought it interesting and comforting, and we agreed to name our new home "Nirvana."

Chapter Five

The Halcyon Days

The first time I saw Wayne that auspicious September afternoon, I sat on the porch of Nirvana, lazily pushing back and forth on the swing while sadly contemplating the tragic news of Bob's death. I thought my friend Cherie must be devastated. And what about Bob's parents? Everyone had said goodbye to him only two months before. I sighed as I turned my head and caught a glimpse of Wayne leaving Miller's, the little cafe across the street. I didn't pay much attention and didn't realize he had paid any attention to me until the telephone rang and the girl who answered came out to the porch to say the call was for me. He had asked to speak to the tall, dark-haired girl. Another tall, dark-haired girl lived there too, but he added, "The one with the auburn hair," so she knew he meant me.

When I answered the phone, he told me where and when he had seen me. Of course I was flattered, but more than that, he amused me when he modestly described himself as "very tall, very thin and very nice." I remembered seeing him. He made me laugh and managed to wipe away my melancholy mood. He sounded interesting. I thought, "Why not?" and agreed to meet with him for coffee at Miller's.

We talked and laughed the rest of the afternoon. He had a great sense of humor and was smart and clever. He certainly differed from most of the callow youths I knew, and I liked him very much. Also, his six feet, five inches made me feel not-so-tall walking beside him.

Whatever happened to my lack of interest in a relationship and resolve to take control of my own life, and how could my determination evaporate so completely! Did the war make the difference?

From that first day we became almost inseparable. When not together, I would smile recalling something he said, felt a glow when I saw him, and a sharp pang when we parted.

Every day seemed bright. We pretended not to be affected by the war, even though we knew that as an officer in the ROTC Wayne's next step would be the Army. Those were carefree days. We were getting to know each other and in the first blush of falling in love. The halcyon time.

Neither of us had much money but we never gave that a thought. Just being together was good. We didn't need money to have fun. During the day we met between classes and walked together to the next class. Sometimes we hiked out to the apple orchards adjacent to the Agriculture School. We picked the apples and sat under the trees munching away. Could time have dulled my senses or were those apples juicier and did they really taste sweeter than any fruit since Eden?


Excerpted from "Laura's War" by Laura A. Hoffman. Copyright © 2004 by Laura A. Hoffman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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