Robert E Lee Prewitt

“The best bugler in the G-damned United State Army,” so said First Sergeant  Milton Warden, a soldier of the 298th Infantry Regiment, 25th Division stationed on Oahu in December 1941. A line spoken about Robert E Lee Prewitt, a character in James Jones novel “From Here to Eternity.” Made into a film, a quite wonderful film, in 1953. In the film Prewitt plays the greatest rendition of Taps ever recorded. He plays it for his dead friend Maggio and as an ode to the “Crummy Life” of the soldier.

Taps refers to the three traditional rim-shots, or taps played on the drum at the end of the call.

It ends with the words, “All is well, safely rest, God is nigh…”

To all our troops who gave up their lives for our country. Rest in peace.

The bugle call, “Taps”, was likely composed by Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, who commanded 3rd Brigade, 1st Div in the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac during our Civil War. Butterfield wrote the tune at Gaines Mill, Virginia in 1862 after a bloody battle in which his division suffered severe losses and he, himself was badly wounded. Gaines mill was one of the seven days battles fought near Richmond Virginia. My great-great-grandmothers young husband was killed there as was his brother. The third brother had died at Bull Run. Butterfield himself was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In the Civil War Brigadier Generals led from the front and suffered enormously heavy casualties on both sides.

Within a year of its composition it was being played by both armies, Confederate and Union.

The actor shown above, Montgomery Clift learned to play the bugle for his roll in the movie though the recording was actually made by trumpeter Mannie Klein. Klein was a swing band trumpeter and played for such greats as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Paul Whitman and in the fifties, many West Coast Jazz groups. He played the bugle parts in “Here to Eternity” and Picolo Trumpet on the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

The book on which the movie was based almost perfectly encapsulated army life at Schofield Barracks, Oahu just before the of WWII. The characters are based on the old depression era professional army. These are the men that fought at Guadalcanal and the early island battles of the Pacific war. Almost all were killed or wounded holding back the Japanese while America geared itself up. There is a great debt owed their memory.

James Jones, the man who wrote “Here to Eternity” was an enlisted man who served during the war and was in fact, a shadow of these men and their times. He enlisted at 17, lying about his age. He served with the 27th Division at Schofield, witnessed Pearl Harbor and was wounded at Guadalcanal.

His book is considered to be one of America’s best wartime chronicles, ranked along with other combat veterans who wrote after the war.

Joseph Heller, B-25 Bombardier, “Catch 22,”

Kurt Vonnegut, Scout, 106th Infantry Division* “Slaughterhouse five,”

Paul Fussel, 2nd Lieutenant, 103rd Infantry Division “How I learned to Love the Bomb,”

Norman Mailer, Reconnaissance, 112th Cavalry, “The Naked and the Dead,”

Herman Wouk, Lieutenant U S Navy, USS Zane, “The Caine Mutiny,”

J D Salinger, Counter-Intelligence Unit U S Army France, “Catcher in the Rye.”

John Hersey, War Correspondence, “Hiroshima,”

Roald Dahl, Fighter Pilot, “The BFG,”

Eugene Sledge, Marine Rifleman, “With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa,”

Martha Gelhorn, war correspondant, she was the only woman to land at Normandy on June 6th 1944. She was the first writer to enter and report on the Dachau Death Camp. She also served in Korea and Vietnam.*

And James Michener, Lieutenant U S Navy, “Tales of the South Pacific.”

I’ve walked through this quad at Schofield and yes it still exists as do the bullet holes from Japanese machine guns. It will give you the Chicken Skin, particularly at night when it’s filled with ghosts.

Whatever your personal views on war and the U S Military, this war was fought for all the right reasons. Not every war has been but the boys and girls who served in all of them and died for it deserve your respect today. They paid the highest of prices for you.

Note: She was also one of Hemingway’s wives and the only one to dump him for which she deserves a medal.

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The Milkman

Part four

Barbara and her mother sat down on sofa. Side by side on the sofa. “Mother, I don’t know what to do? I’m scared, What should I do.”

“Barbara, you have to tell him. This is a small town not like Santa Barbara or Long Beach. People here will not look on a divorce lightly. You have to tell him. If he or anyone else ever found out, well, you can’t just let it go. If this relationship is that important, George has to know.”

The next time the were together she waited until the end of the night and then she found the courage to tell him. She told him all of it.

He didn’t call for a week.

Four years earlier Barbara had a boyfriend in Santa Barbara. She loved her life there. She lived in what was still a pretty small city, a city defined by wealth and privilege. It was like night and day when compared to Taft or Bakersfield, a couple of hardscrabble oil towns where she had lived growing up. She’d met a teaching pro at the Montecito Tennis club where she played when she could. She hung out with a crowd of high school friends who were financially better off than her parents and it was exciting to have a glimpse into theat life. At seventeen it must have seemed the weight of that existence, the constant moving, leaving friends, and then having to repeat the cycle all over again and again and again could be over. She felt she was in a place where she could stay a long time, as her father was fond of saying “We’ve lived in practically every hellhole in the state and I’m tired of it.” She was too.

As if to drive the point home they moved several times in the two years they stayed in Santa Barbara. Houses, apartments and even motels. Bruce was hoping for a promotion and expected to leave Santa Barbara and finally when they were living out in Goleta it happened. He was drilling out at the Elwood lease on the old Dos Pueblos rancho when they called and ordered him down to Long Beach and Signal Hill. The family was headed out again and Barbara didn’t want to go.

Her solution was to marry. Her parents weren’t happy, particularly he father, but she was determined to stay. After all she was eighteen and she could do what she wanted. Her father though that he was a poor choice and he let her know it. He had now spent nearly twenty years in a hard job with hard men to handle and he wasn’t particularly sensitive to her wants. There were some hard words spoken but she went ahead and married anyway. Bruce was hard on her about it. Her mother perhaps less so, her own mother had been divorced, though she was a fiercely independent woman and really didn’t care what anyone thought. She was entirely different than her granddaughter. Nevertheless Barbara was left to fend for herself. Neither Barbara nor her parents backed down.

Self Portrait 1937, Shannon Family Photo

He was a good looking guy, athletic and personable on the surface. He worked as a tennis pro and as a bellboy and bartender at the Biltmore Hotel. It was a ritzy place in the thirties and catered to the wealthy, movie stars and politicians. A short drive from Los Angeles, its Spanish California revival architecture set in 22 acres of land tucked between Butterfly Beach and the Santa Ynez foothills in Montecito would have been a paradise for a girl raised in the oil patch.

Barbara was a cocktail waitress and they lived in the workers bungalows on the hotel grounds. Barbara’s family saw them occasionally on the holidays. Her parents missed her but these gatherings were often strained by the disapproval they had difficulty hiding. In 1940,she and her husband came up to Arroyo for thanksgiving staying in the old motor court north of town. There is a picture of the family taken in front of it, everyone looking directly at the camera except Barbara. Here husband has his arm around her shoulders, a cigarette dangling from his fingers while she looks to her right. She looks desperately unhappy. She has the look of the thousand yard stare, something seen on the faces of soldiers who have seen combat. It’s prophetic.

Later that year her aunt Martha who lived in Goleta while her husband worked the Elwood Oil Field saw her niece walking down State Street in Santa Barbara. Martha crossed the street to say hello. Barbara looked unhappy and sported a black eye she had unsuccessfully tried to cover with make-up. They spoke just a few words, shed some tears and both continued on their separate ways. When Martha returned home she told Elmer and he said we need to call Bruce and Eileen and tell them, so they did.

Bruce got on the phone and called her in Santa Barbara. It was a rough conversation. She cried over the phone and Bruce was very careful not to tell her “I told you so,” instead letting her talk herself out then telling her that if she wanted to, she could come home. And so she did, arriving the next day, stepping off the Greyhound Stage at the depot in Taft. She was welcomed with open arms.

Bruce and Eileen helped her get a divorce, not a common thing in California at the time. Roughly two divorces per thousand couples were asked for and granted. People saw divorce as a failure both ethically and morally. “You must be attentive to your spirit and you must not be unfaithful,” Says the Bible in Malachi, the 39th and last book in the old testament. The feeling that divorce was a failure was common belief and that women were considered more at fault than men. It wasn’t the Scarlet Letter but it was close. Things like this were kept secret for shame, deserved or not. Barbara divorced him for good reason but the shame would have been entirely hers.

To top it all off she needed twenty-five dollars to legally change her name but didn’t have it and neither did her parents. She had to keep it. She very carefully stowed the marriage license at the bottom of her trunk and never spoke of it. It remained there until her death. Hidden away for fifty-four years, unknown to us.

Then after a week, George did call. It was alright. It was all put right.

Off on a date. The cat that caught the canary, Short Street Arroyo Grande. He’s grinning so hard his teeth must hurt. Shannon Family photo.

Jack and Annie Shannon and brother Jackie adored Barbara as Bruce and Eileen did George. Some common sense and a great deal of love made it alright. Bruce, Eileen and Patsy were to leave for Long Beach and Barbara didn’t want to go, but this time for a good reason. She stayed in the little house on Short Street and her new friends cheered her on for George was quite the catch and they all knew it.

George was a man of good character, he never lied, he would wave at you on the street even if you weren’t looking and I was once told by a man who knew him well that he was the “Finest man he ever knew.” A child can never know his parents as young but I saw the way men, and particularly the generation of women who watched him grow up treated him. Those old girls were indicators of the esteem in which they held him. I used to go with my dad to buy birthday presents for my mother. I Can’t remember anything he ever bought her, but in Louise Ralph’s dress shop, Louise and Florence fussed over him like a couple of mother hens, gently nudging him toward the perfect gift. I certainly remember that. The way they treated him said a lot, even to a kid. My mother was the recipient of a running commentary of hints and nudges, for a married woman can no more see a single man stay single than she can stop her own breath.

Things got serious in ’42. George was growing tomatoes for the army at Camp San Luis and Barbara was working steadily downtown and for the both of them the future looked bright. No need to worry about the war, he was deferred as essential industry and it seemed to both of them like it was inevitable. It was and he asked her if she would marry him. She said yes.

For those of you who have lived in small towns you will know what newspapers were like eighty plus years ago. Each and every event in town was chronicled, births, deaths, who was visiting out of town and where the boys in the service were. They printed addresses and phone numbers too. Marriages were a pretty big deal. The weekly Herald-Recorder made a science out of them. First the betrothal, then the bridal shower and finally the nuptials.

Arroyo Grande Herald Recorder 1943

In the wedding announcement above Barbara is listed as Barbara Hall which was her maiden name. When she signed the wedding register she would have to use her married, legal name and the paper would surely pick up on that.This presented a problem. Barbara’s divorce was not to be divulged, ever. It would open the door to sniping and moral judgements that neither family wanted to see. The question was, what to do? Run away, elope?

Elope it was. Georges mother Annie and family friend Billie Records would stand up for the couple so it was decided to motor up to Salinas and get married. They took dad’s little gray Plymouth coupe and my grandparents Chevrolet sedan and made the drive. My grandmother made the arrangements with the minister through the First Presbyterian church in Arroyo Grande of which she had been a member for over fifty years.

Marriage by a minister with only two people in attendance doesn’t take long and they were soon taking pictures and even made a short film celebrating the event. Eighty eight years later you can still view the little film. There are hugs for the new mother-in-law and Billie. A kiss by the newlyweds after which Barbara turns away from the camera in embarrassment and George takes his pocket handkerchief and grinning with absolute delight wipes off his wife’s lipstick, another big squeeze, a handshake with the minister who appears equally delighted. They say their final goodbyes and were off headed for San Francisco on their honeymoon.*

Billie Records, The New Mrs. Shannon, George Shannon and Annie Shannon, Salinas CA 1943. Shannon Family Photo

They avoided judgement and there the secret lay, hidden from view for over half a century.

They stayed together for 54 years until my mother passed away in 1997. Cancer is cruel but they hung in it together. Barbara’s friends came to say goodbye, some of the same girls who celebrated her marriage those many long years ago.

Barbara, George and Billie. Shannon Family photo.
Friday March 26th, Arroyo Grande Herald-Recorder.

Epilogue:

Barbara was 79 when she died, young enough that many of her friends outlived her. Her funeral was a big one. The kind where people come to celebrate the life of friend, a well known community member, some one who spent her life working downtown in a very small town like ours. She knew everyone and they knew her.

Her only surviving sibling, little sister Patsy came down from Shingle Springs to say goodbye. If you’ve forgotten who she is, she’s the little girl Barbara took for a walk so it wouldn’t seem as if she was trolling Traffic Way for George. She didn’t fool anybody especially George. Who hitchhikes just a block from home. The rules of romance are immutable though and lovers must do what they must do. George used to tell us that story at the dinner table, he with a twinkle in his eye and she with a blush. We loved her the more for it.

A lingering death, a funeral, a wake are exhausting things. After Barbara was laid to rest aunt Patsy and her children had to leave for home and it was decided to meet at the Apple Farm for breakfast before they went on their separate ways. After eating we all sat around enjoying coffee and a little catch up when Aunt Pat turned to me and said, “Did you know your mother was divorced?” I was absolutely stunned. I was fifty two. My brothers and I kept wondering how did we not know this? They kept a secret for fifty three years, fifty three years and never told anyone.

Barbara’s family knew of course and Billie Records, my grandmother Shannon too but no one else. As far as we know not a single soul in Arroyo Grande knew of it and if the did they never spoke where we could hear them.

When I was a baby I lay in a crib with my life long friend Dwight as our mothers drank coffee and chatted in the kitchen. His mother was always a special friend of my mother and as I grew up, mine too. She was a kind and generous person and raised her son to be the same. Years after my mother passed he and I spent some time together and I told him the story and then he told me that his mother had been divorced too and he never knew until after she died and he found the divorce decree in her private papers.

In todays world where no one can or cares to keep secrets it seems to me that something has been lost. Mom and dad weren’t afraid of it. What they were afraid of was the effect it might have on their children and families. They weren’t the only ones either. So have we lost something? Tell me if you can.

George and Barbara Shannon, at my wedding. Shannon family photo

Notes: The honeymoon letter my mother wrote is in the index under “Letters.”

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The Milkman

Part three

“Mom, Mom, there’s somebody at the door.” Eight year old Patsy yelled as she ran into the kitchen and began yanking at her mother’s apron. “There’s a man at the door.”

“Just a minute, Patsy, hold your horses please,” she said, wiping her hands on the apron and turning for the front door.

Bruce and Eileen had just returned to the little house on Short Street the month before, bringing Their daughters Barbara and little Patsy, the Midlife Surprise with them. Surprise it was too, supposedly Grandma had locked herself in the closet and cried all day when she found out she was pregnant again. Her youngest was already fourteen and it all seemed too much to bear. Little Patsy turned out to be a delight though and she got over it.

Bruce had been transferred by his boss at Signal Oil to oversee oil production in the Santa Maria and Price Canyon fields. They had had to wait for the renters to move out and stayed in the old Arroyo Motor Hotel on South Bridge Street. Eileen and her daughters had made the miracle Thanksgiving dinner that fall of 1941 in the tiny motor court kitchen, cooking the turkey and fixins’ on a single hot plate. Twenty two years an oilfield wife teaches those kinds of skills. Make do with what you got, learned the hard way.

Great-grandpa Hall and Patsy behind the motor hotel. Runels house in the distance. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

Eileen had called the Hillcrest Dairy as soon as they moved in and opened an account to have milk delivered. They had had milk delivered from the Shannon’s dairy when they had lived in Arroyo Grande in the early thirties. She picked up the phone and dialed 223 F-13, smiling to herself, remembering their slogan, “You can whip our cream but you can’t beat our milk.”

When she headed for the door she heard whoever was at the screen knock politely again. As she neared the door she saw a tall young man with a shock of dark hair standing there and smiling.

“Mrs Hall?” he said, “I’m George Shannon from the dairy and I have your bill.” Eileen saw that he was looking at Barbara, doing the I’m not looking but still looking as young men do. Not exactly sly but just getting a gander at her.

“Why don’t you come in while I write you a check?” She turned for the kitchen to get her purse and checkbook, walking back to the rear of the house her low heels clunking on the wooden floors.

George waited in the front room. He was looking out of the corner of his eye at the girl sitting on the sofa and playing solitaire at the coffee table. She looked up at him and smiled, laying down the Jack of hearts on the Queen.

Eileen could hear a conversation in the front room so she took a few more heartbeats to get the check written before calling from the kitchen, “Barbara come and get the check and give it to the young man, will you?”

Barbara went back, took the check and then handed it to the milkman, George, and smiled again. He smiled back, took the check and said “Thank you,” and walked out the door. Barbara watched him from the doorway and when he got in his car, he looked back and she was still standing holding the screen open. She smiled again and waved. He smiled too.

Eileen Hall, my grandmother was nobodies fool. She came into the front room and she could smell the ozone left from the lightning strike. Zap. Mission accomplished. She though perhaps the hook was set.

Hillcrest Dairy Builds Better Babies, 1928 Calendar, phone 223 f-13. Shannon Family Trust photo (c)

After he was gone Eileen and Barbara talked a little bit about it. When George was talking he mentioned a his schedule, what he did each day and Barbara remembered that he brought milk into the creamery next to the Methodist Church each day. After a couple days when he hadn’t called or stopped by she thought she would try and force the issue so she took her little sister and walked up Valley Road toward Marsalek’s. She knew he’d be coming down to the creamery and about what time. Patsy was along so it wouldn’t be too obvious what she was up to.

Sure enough the old dark blue Hillcrest Dairy truck came along and he pulled over. She tried to appear casual as if nothing was going on, like she hadn’t even seen him. George offered her a ride home so she and Patsy climbed in, Barbara next to George and Patsy on the passenger door.

The milk truck, 1938 Chevrolet Panel parked on Short Street. Shannon Family Trust photo(c)

Remember that Arroyo Grande had hardly a thousand people at the time. That included people living in pretty distant outlying areas and the town itself was pretty small. Barbara’s home was just about a block away. George would have been pretty dense if he couldn’t read the situation. When the truck rolled up to the house, George reached across and pulled the door handle for Patsy to hop out. She climbed down and ran into the house. Barbara lingered. When she came in the door Eileen asked her what had happened and she smiled from ear to ear and said, “He asked me out.”

And so it began. Once a week or so George would show up at the door and the two of them take in a movie at the Mission theater on Bridge Street, sandwiched between the bus depot and the telephone exchange on one side and an old Saloon on the other. They went to first run movies of the day such as Walt Disney’s Bambi, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby which my dad particularly liked, being a life long fan of Crosby’s voice. They saw Casablanca there too.

The old Arroyo Grande hall known as the “Rat Race” had slowed down because of the war. Harry Chapek, a lifelong friend of my dad had joined up on January 21st and was training as a 5th Armored Division tanker. He had fronted the house band at the hall since high school but with so many boys gone already local bands were hard to come by. They danced there too when they could.

Weekdays touring big bands came to the Pismo Pavilion where George and Barbara danced to Benny Goodman and Woody Hermans “Thundering Herd.” The managers would spread cornstarch on the dance floor to make it easier to glide and slide when twirling to the Lindy and the Two-Step Foxtrot. There was The Ward theater in Pismo and the pleasures of dining at Plessa’s restaurant or drinks and dinners at Matties where Mattie herself would tell ribald stories to the customers waiting for a table.

Mattie Belle was from Texas and a “Corker,” my grandfather said, meaning she was loud, profane and knew all the little town secrets. She had the gift of remembrance and she could remember a person she hadn’t seen for twenty years. “Jack, how are you,” she’d say, “Let me buy you a drink.” The secret was, that if she could get one in you, you’d buy more, wherein lay the profits. As for the secrets, a secret well kept is a lever. She kept her girls down in the cribs on Hinds Street where she collected information as well as currency. It’s the secret to being a good operator and the security needed to stay in business and out of trouble. It was a wide open town in the early forties and if you needed it you could get it. If they didn’t have it , it didn’t exist.

Dad had it made with these places because his family delivered milk to all the restaurants and cafes, grocery stores and homes in all the five-cities. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. Barbara was charmed.

For a girl raised on the go, moving and shedding friends was what she was used to. Dating a man who was firmly rooted and the recipient of all the friendliness and care a small town can lavish on a person was a wonder to her.

Our little town was so small that you could contract all your business in just one block. Barbara left her home and walked across the swinging bridge on the way to work. She was the Jill of all trades at Cornelias dress store. She could stitch and sew, she had a marvelous eye for color and she could charm, the residue of a life trying to find the popular girls and boys in each school she ever went to. “Corny” Conrow treated her as a daughter. Barbara was starting to feel as if she was living in a place where she belonged, not just passing through. She liked it.

The Conrow’s were good friends of George’s parents and played cards with them once a week. No doubt Jack and Annie heard about this new girl George was seeing. Cornelia liked her very much and they would have known that. The Women’s Club, The Rebekahs, the bridge clubs, local festivals was where women shared what they knew. This new young woman was being investigated. It’s a little town thing. Is she good enough for our George? In a place like this you marry everyone. The good is shared, the bad is locked away. It’s like a Mafia.

She soon knew everyone on the block. The Pruess’s who had the Rexall, Hilda Harkness who owned the other dress store. Buzz Langenbeck and his wife Vareen, he cut men’s hair and she gave women their perms right behind the pink curtain at the rear of the barber shop. Clair Gibson down at the bank on the corner. There was Madsen’s hardware store, The Greyhound bus stop and cafe, The Quitman’s in their little men’s store and Bill Zeyen selling workingman’s clothes just up the street. Across from Cornelias was Bennetts grocery where “Rusty,” a confirmed redhead and his wife Muriel held court in their apron’s. Judge Jerry Dana presided over his municipal court and was fond of leaning out of his second story office window and waving to folks on the street.

She told us kids that in those days, women didn’t smoke on the street nor wore trousers, it was just too daring. Men tipped their hands to the ladies, never swore where a woman or child could hear them and kept their business to themselves. A safe place to be with kindly people who made you feel welcome.

As George was doing his courting he was slowly changing from formal dates at restaurants and theaters to the more mundane but even more important time together doing the ordinary. He would pick her up dressed in his boots and jeans, she in “Overhauls”, her hair up in a blue bandana which was becoming the fashion for young women and off they would go in the old milk wagon hauling milk and cream to the Golden State Creamery or running the routes to the grocery stores. There is an old movie film where she runs around the truck, laughing, and climbs in the passenger door as George smiles and waves from the drivers seat. Thats how she met people like Jack Ford who owned Ford’s Market in Pismo Beach or the Montgomery’s who had a little corner market in Oceano. They delivered to the old CCC camp down by the Southern Pacific tracks which was being converted to an R & R Center for the tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors flooding the county and filling all the new training camps to capacity. The war was everywhere and it was busy changing the entire population. As my father would say, Adolph Hitler stamped out the depression just like stepping on a bug.

Early in 1943 things between them were getting pretty serious. When a young man writes songs for a girl its all over for him. He has willingly put his foot in the tar baby. If you think you know your parents, well, you only know the version standing in front of you. You really only know what they let you see. That younger version is packed away somewhere, a place you will likely never go. The sad tale is, most never have an opportunity to dig that young person out, either because they never ask or when they do, it’s “Oh, you don’t want to know about that. It was long ago.” A child who listens carefully to adults gets glimpses of those people but most of that life is hidden from them. When they talk to you, everything they say is censored to some extent. Snippets from their lives are presented as lessons for you to learn. They are building character and only some blocks fit.

Stay Away From Love by George Shannon, 1943. Shannon Family (c)

In the fall of forty-two, Bruce was promoted to Chief Drilling Superintendent for Signal Oil and Gas. This meant a move to Long Beach and the end of the families Arroyo Grande adventure. Barbara was not happy. She thought things were going so well that she didn’t want to leave. She had her job and she had George. She wanted to stay.

Part Four next.

Barbara and her mother sat down on sofa. Side by side on the sofa. “Mother, I don’t know what to do? I’m so scared.”

“Barbara, you have to tell him…..”

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