My grandmother Hall insisted that her children write her once a week and I remember my mom sitting at the kitchen table with a freshly opened letter before her and penning a reply for the return post. There was nothing out of the ordinary in these letters, the cast of characters nearly always the same, the day to day things that people communicate to one another. The said nothing profound, just passed along the news of the family and friends they had in common.
My mom and dad were married in 1943. During the war people didn’t make much of a fuss about a wedding. For a young farmer and his bride there would’nt be a fancy trip to an exotic location, ration cards and jam-packed troop trains would see to that. Being modest people that kind of difficulty didn’t bother them, they just took a little trip to visit relatives and friends.
Barbara and George Shannon on their wedding day
The following letter is from mom to her new mother-in-law Annie Shannon in Arroyo Grande. Writing from the Olympic Hotel on Eddy St, she described some of the sights and sounds of wartime San Francisco. San Francisco would have been familiar to my dad and his parents. My grandparents had both lived in the bay area from 1904 to 1918 and my dad had studied at Cal Berkeley in the early 30’s.
The subtext of the letter revolves around the events unfolding in the city and in the family in 1943. Mom mentions leaving the car in the garage. Rationing of gasoline had taken effect in December of 1940 and though my grandparents dairy and my dad’s military deferment as a farmer gave them access to more rationed items than usual, gasoline and rubber for the cars and milk trucks were in short supply. You could only own 5 tires per car or truck, having extras was not allowed. Dad said they would drive the tires until there was no rubber left, just the fabric cord or the inner liner was left. You had to take in the old tire in order to buy a new one. The first nonfood item rationed was rubber. The Japanese had seized plantations in the Dutch East Indies that produced 90% of America’s raw rubber. President Roosevelt called on citizens to help by contributing scrap rubber to be recycled, old tires, old rubber raincoats, garden hose, rubber shoes and bathing caps. A person or business was issued a ration card and sticker for the car which allowed a specific amount of a given item to be purchased. The green ‘B’ sticker was for driving deemed essential to the war effort; farmers, for example, could purchase eight gallons a week.
In movies taken at their wedding, the car, a 1936 Chevy coupe has the sticker plainly visible on the windshield. They drove from Arroyo Grande to San Francisco, across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley and my great aunt Sadies home, then up to Watt’s Valley to see Mariel and Ray, and finally, home, a distance of over 600 miles today and longer then, before our modern roads. They must have used about four weeks of gasoline, a great indulgence, but of course, such is the course of true love.
The newlyweds at Mariel and Rays’ in Watts Valley, March 1943
This was the first time that dad met both of them. Dad immediately recognized a kindred spirit in Ray and began a friendship that lasted all their lives. Mariel, though, was enormously pregnant with their first child, Bruce, and had what we might say was the proclivity to pass enormous amounts of gas at any time. What an introduction to new family that must have been. I wish she was around so I could ask her about it. I can just hear her laugh, haw haw haw.
Both my folks mention the crowding. Photos of the city at the time show the sidewalks jammed with sailors and Marines. There is a March photo of the Palace hotel dance floor so crowded that it is a wonder anyone can move. In March 1943, the battle for Guadalcanal had just ended in February and the buildup for the Marine invasion of Tarawa was underway and San Francisco, indeed, the entire bay area was fantastically crowded with men and ships. Add to the population the workers at the wartime shipyards of the East Bay, the naval bases packed around various cities in San Francisco bay and it is easy to understand why the sidewalks were so crowded. It’s a wonder they could get a hotel room at all.
Ships at anchor San Francisco Bay in early 1943
Though unstated, worry about family members and friends serving overseas was certainly a concern. Two of my dad’s cousins were serving in the Pacific as well as one of his closest friends. My mom’s uncle Marion, cousin Donald and her brother Robert were also in the military. Her cousin Donald Polhemus was to be lost at sea in December of 1944. Arroyo Grande was a very small town in 1943 and most young men of draft age were already in the service or soon would be. My grandmother Shannon saved an old Arroyo Grande Herald Recorder newspaper from 1943 and in it there is a list of local service men and women that runs four full pages. It would have been impossible not to know someone in the service. In fact, a local boy, Jack Scruggs died on the Arizona. I went to school with a boy whose father was trapped on the capsized Utah.
The image that opens this story is V-Mail from my dad’s friend Jim Moore who he grew up with. It’s just the kind of folksy newsy letter the family received from the many young men they knew serving overseas. Jim was a Navy Lieutenant serving on a LST in the western Pacific and though the ship had and would continue to serve in extremely hostile waters, the mail itself was just as casual as it would be if he was writing home from college. The truth of his life at war was something best kept secret, not only because it was but because Jim’s thoughts were at home, a place he could not be. Every V-Mail we haves like that. Home life, a place the couldn’t be.
The passing of the art of letter writing, I think is a kind of tragedy. Instant communication is just that, instant, but its gone just as quickly. Much is lost. Here then is the text of mom’s honeymoon letter.
March 21, 1943
George says “You write,” so here goes. We’re having a wonderful time. We’ve left the car in the hotel garage so haven’t used any gasoline.
The Emporium Department Store. Now Bloomingdales.
Yesterday we walked one end of Market Street to the other. We went through The Emporium, looked at everything and didn’t spend a cent. Then we were so tired we went back to the hotel and took a nap. It wasn’t a Sunday afternoon but we took one anyway.
The Olympic Hotel still stands today. Its near the the city center, three blocks from Union Square.
Last night we made reservations at The Palace for dinner and dined with the best of the, maybe I should say, the rest of the upper crust. We had a lovely dinner. Steak. We watched the floor show and danced and everything. The show was on ice. You know, skaters. They were pretty good too.
The dining room in the Palace Hotel.
What I liked best, tho, besides the food, was just watching the people.
There are more people here on the streets at night than I’ve ever seen before, even in Los Angeles.
George called Sadie yesterday, and we’re going there for dinner at one. It’s 11:30 now, so we’d better get going.
We’re leaving the big city tomorrow, and going to Fresno. Home on Wednesday. It’s nice here, but Arroyo Grande is so much better.
We haven’t had time to write to anyone else, so say hello.
We’ll see you Wednesday or Thursday. Thank you for being so nice to me.
Lots of love,
Barbara and George
(Mr and Mrs George Shannon)
Looks nice, huh?
PS (This is in dad’s hand)
Tell little Jug (Dad’s Brother Jackie) to run our farm the way I told him or I will demote him when we return. This is the busiest place I have ever seen. You can hardly walk down Market St either day or night. We are getting ready to leave for Sadie’s for dinner so must go.
The phrase “Thank you for being so nice to me,” resonates. Mom grew up as an oilfield brat, never settled for long in one place and to be folded into a family and community that had deep roots must have seemed a miracle to her. She now had, as small towns do, friends by the score and a family that would cherish her all of her life. My grandparents adored her for who she was and she would be the only daughter-in-law they would ever have.