by BARBARA KLAW
My FIRST days in Gladwyn convinced me that I had to get a job. I was determined not to fiddle away my days flipping through magazines in the palatial new USO club or lingering over cokes in the drugstores, like most of the Army wives in town. Since I was fresh from a war job in Washington, the idleness seemed immoral as well as boring.
Starting at the places where I most wanted to work, I made the rounds of the local newspapers and radio stations and was politely turned down when I said that my husband was stationed at the camp. Even pretending that he was part of the permanent cadre and teaching in a post school didn’t help.
“ All you girls say your husbands are cadre,”the managing editor of the Itaska Eagle said, not unpleasantly. “There can’t be that many cadremen at Hickory. No, you girls aren’t very good risks from the hiring end.”
My second choice was defense work, and I went to the local United States Employment Service office to find out what was available. I had written a lot about this organization while working for the Office of War Information in Washington. What I had written had mostly been built around such slogans as “Apply to your nearest U.S.E.S.” or “The right person in the right war job.” Convinced by my own propaganda, I walked into the employment office hoping to get a job on the production line in some war plant, where I could take my proper place as “the woman behind the man behind the gun.”
It was noon and there was only one person in the spacious, well-lighted office. “I want to get some information about defense work, I said. “Are there any war plants around here?”
The man, who was elderly and somehow a part of the chair and desk he sat at, handed me a blank.
I could see his bald head, shining through side hair which was carefully combed over it.
“Fill this out,” he said.
“But are there any defense plants here?”
“Yes,” he said. “There’s one. If you’ll just fill this out.”
“Could you tell me something about the work?” I asked. He looked at me curiously, and shoved the blank at me again.
“Fill this out, and we’ll try to place you.” He was obviously bored with the whole process.
“I’d like to find out something about the work available before I fill out an application,”I said, speaking very precisely.
“Lady,” he said slowly, “just fill out this blank. That’s all you have to do.” He spoke as though repeating an order to a very dull-witted dog.
“But what kind of work is it? What are the hours? Do they have any openings? What is the pay?”
It was impossible to puncture his routine.
“You can sit over there,” he said, pointing to a desk. “Just take this blank, and answer the questions, and give it back to me. Then we’ll let you know when something turns up.”
“I should like to know what kind of plant it is,” I said, unable to hide my exasperation. “I won’t fill out any blank without knowing what I’m filling it out for.”
“I’m not allowed to tell you where the defense plant is,” the man said sullenly. “I’m a government worker. I can’t tell you that.”
“But I didn’t ask where the plant is. I don’t give a damn where it is.”
He rustled the blank impatiently in front of me. I refused to look at it, swallowed hard, and decided to try again.
“Will you tell me something about the kind of work?” I asked.
“No,” the man said, almost pettishly. “You’re just supposed to fill out this blank. That’s the regular procedure.” I gave it up altogether.
“Well, can you tell me something about the U.S. Crop Corps? Do they need workers around here?” The Crop Corps had been the last campaign I had worked on for OWI before I left: “Food is as important as ammunition”; “Volunteer your services to help farmers meet their record production goals.”
The clerk looked blank.
“You know,” I explained. “The land army, to help farmers get in their crops. Is there a farm labor shortage here?” I remembered precisely the last time I had urged housewives to register with the U.S.E.S. for the Crop Corps.
“I don’t know anything about it,” he said defensively, slumping deeper into his chair.
“But the U.S.E.S. is handling it,” I insisted. “People are supposed to register with the U.S.E.S.”
“Not here. We don’t have anything to do with it,” he muttered. “Must be somewhere else, some agriculture place. I’ve never heard of it.”
That seemed to settle it. He sat up again, picked up the blank, and held it out to me.
“Now,” he said, once more the Civil Servant, “if you’ll just fill this out —”
I took the blank, rapidly tore it to bits, and stalked out of the office. I felt like apologizing personally to every person who had ever read my appeals to go to the U.S.E.S.
THE girl I sat next to on the bus going back home was too ecstatically happy to be ignored, and my anger melted away as I talked to her.
“See this box,” she said, running her hand over a dress box she held in her lap. “It’s my wedding dress. I’m going to be married this afternoon.”
It was already three o’clock, and the wedding was to take place at four in one of the chapels at Camp Hickory, she said.
“You know, Bill’s company commander is going to come to the wedding, and he’s given the whole company the afternoon off. Gosh, how will I ever get ready in time? I feel so dirty.” She had been riding on buses for two days, but she was very gay. “I hope there’s a bathtub where Bill got me a room.”
“Is he getting any time off?” I asked.
“Until reveille tomorrow morning,” she said.
“Are you going to stay here?”
“As long as my money holds out,” she said. “Then I’ll go back to my job in the shoe store at home, and save up some more.”
“Why not get a job here?”
“Oh, I couldn’t get anything decent, and anyway, Bill doesn’t want me to work.” It sounded inconsistent, but she was obviously proud of his protectiveness. I told her that I was in the process of job hunting.
“Have you tried out at the Post?” she asked. “Bill tells me that lots of wives work out there. Of course, most of the work is Civil Service, and you have to sign a paper swearing to stay for six months, but there are some other jobs — working at the PX’s and things like that.” She seemed pretty thoroughly prepared for life as a Hickory wife. I asked her how she knew so much about it.
“Oh, Bill’s been here for ages, and he writes every day,” she explained. “He couldn’t just write love letters all the time.”
I wished her happiness when we got off the bus, and went into the bus station to get a schedule. When I came out she was standing in the middle of the pavement, her dress box in her arms, and her luggage spread in a semicircle around her.
“Can I give you a hand?” I asked.
“Oh, no, thanks,” she said. “I was just kind of hoping that Bill would turn up, but I guess he couldn’t get off.” She stopped to glance at a soldier hurrying out of the bus station, but it wasn’t Bill. “I hope he comes in time,” she said. “I don’t know where to go, out at camp. Guess I might as well go to my room.”
I went out to the camp myself that afternoon — for a much less exciting reason — and got my first taste of Army procedure, my first glance at an Army camp.
We had to get off the bus at the gate, secure little white trip passes from the MP’s on duty, and catch the next bus going in — twenty minutes later. A girl carrying a baby waited for the bus with me. She was going to visit her husband at the hospital where, she told me, he was recuperating from Camp Hickory croupe. This ailment, officially diagnosed as nasal pharyngitis, affects all Hickory soldiers more or less constantly. The young mother was carrying a satchel of diapers, and one MP discarded his military bearing to hold it for her, while the other googled at the baby.
The long, straight highway into camp ran over absolutely flat country. We passed the regimental commanders’ houses, miniature suburban villas, cut to a GI pattern. We passed an obstacle course, and trucks driven by WACS. Finally the bus driver pointed out the Civilian Employment office, and let me off.
It was a square, dreary building, with a rail cutting off visitors from workers. The girls who worked behind the railing looked like the secretaries in any Washington office, except that they wore ankle socks, had more room to move around in, and didn’t seem to have any work to do. Soldiers, mostly officers, streamed in and out, stopping to get cokes out of the coke machine.
There was an information desk behind the railing, but no one was there. When I finally got the attention of one of the girls, she told me that the head of civilian employment wasn’t there that day, but the information attendant could answer my questions.
“She’s gone out somewhere,” the girl said vaguely, “but she’ll probably be right back.” I sat down and waited, talking to a nervous girl, nineteen years old, who was applying for her first job. She was overdressed, over made-up, and highly scornful of Gladwyn, her home town.
We waited for three quarters of an hour before the information girl came back, carrying a coke and wiping doughnut crumbs off her mouth.
She was short and stocky and wore a blue uniform, with a “Camp Hickory Service Command” insignia on her shoulder. Keeping the straw in her coke bottle between her lips, she looked up when I went over to the rail.
“I’d like to find out about jobs on the Post,” I said.
“Our only openings are in the camp laundries,” she told me, releasing the straw only long enough to speak.
“What kind of jobs are there in the laundries?”
“Straight laundry work,” she said. “Washing clothes. Folding shirts. Ironing.”
“Nothing else?” I asked.
She looked me up and down. “No,” she said. “Nothing else.” I have seldom disliked a girl so quickly and thoroughly. I thanked her, and walked out to wait for the bus home, thinking that getting a war job in Gladwyn demanded more humility than I possessed.
Two Gray Ladies in a car pulled up at the bus stop and asked me and a sergeant if we would like a ride into Gladwyn. They had just finished a shift at the hospital, they said.
Sitting in the back of the car with me, the sergeant asked what I was doing out at camp. I told him I had been to the Civilian Employment agency.
“Get a job?” he asked.
“No, they don’t have anything but laundry work, and I didn’t want that.”
“What do you mean?” he exclaimed. “Why, they hire girls every day for all kinds of work.” He asked me whom I had talked to. “Oh, that fathead,” he said, when I described her. “She’s too big for her buttons.” The Gray Ladies tittered in the front seat. He seemed to know all about the office, and I asked him if he had been at Hickory long.
“Sixteen months,” he said. “And they’ve been mighty long months.”
We drove into town down a street of new-looking houses. “This is what we call ‘mortgage row,’” one of the ladies told us, as though pointing out the sights. We drove past the USO club, and I asked them to let me off there.
I HAD a couple of hours before I expected Spencer, and having heard the USO had an employment service, I decided to try it.
The woman who ran it spoke softly and neatly, and had an immobile face that was rather chilling. I wondered momentarily how these social welfare agencies picked their employees. However, she didn’t quiver at the thought of my being a soldier’s wife, and she seemed to think there were jobs to be had in Gladwyn.
“Most of it, of course,” she said, “is night work. That is when all the stores need help because of the soldier trade.” She tended to reduce things to words of one syllable.
I said I didn’t see any point in taking a night job, as the evening was the only time my husband got in from camp.
“Do any of the wives take night work?” I asked curiously.
“Some of them have no choice,” she said.
“What do their husbands do?”
“Oh, they come and sit in the stores and restaurants and chat when the girls aren’t busy,” she explained.
We saw many such couples later — the husbands sitting in restaurant booths, sipping a cup of coffee, watching their wives hover over the late customers; a soldier perched at a sewing machine in a cleaning shop while his wife passed clothes back and forth across the counter to other soldiers.
The woman asked me questions and recorded the answers on a blank.
“Name, please?” I told her.
“Educational experience?” Before I could answer, she translated the question. “That is, how many years of high school have you had?” Her manner made me wish I had a Phi Beta Kappa key that I could twirl in her face. I told her I had finished high school, and also college, and immediately resented her new interest in me.
She did have some suggestions: looking after officers’ children, which I said I’d like to do; doing housework, which I wasn’t too keen on; and working at the Pet Milk Company on the edge of town. (I tried that the next day, but the office manager told me he wasn’t interested in “transients.”)
She said she’d let me know if anything more definite turned up, and I left, my determination to work rapidly fading. When I knew the USO officials better some weeks later, I asked one of them how this woman who ran the employment agency — a soldier’s wife like the rest of us — had been picked for the job.
“Oh, well, she has such good qualifications,” the worker explained. “She’s a college graduate.” I decided I had underestimated college.
It was after a week and a half of desultory job hunting that I decided to settle for volunteer work. I registered for a nurse’s aide course, which “will get under way any day now,” the Red Cross woman told me confidently. The course was still about to get under way six weeks later. I volunteered to work at the reception desk of the USO club two hours every afternoon — which involved asking soldiers and their wives to sign their names in the guest book — and registered as a junior hostess — which involved nothing at all, I found out later. And l went twice a week to make surgical dressings for the Red Cross.
It seemed like incredibly little to be putting into the war effort. At first I hated myself for being content, and I was amazed that the days passed so quickly. I still winced when I heard a soldier’s wife say: “Oh, I’m doing my share. Gosh, I’ve given my husband, haven’t I?” But I couldn’t argue any more, because I, too, had become one of the fiddlers.
ONE day when I was playing receptionist — or hostess, as the officials preferred to call it — at the desk of Gladwyn’s USO club, I saw a soldier come up the steps to the building, stick his head in the door, and retreat quickly. I watched him back up, study the large red, white, and blue USO sign above the door, and come in again.
Aware that I had witnessed the maneuver, he explained his uncertainty when he stopped at my desk to sign the register. “You know,” he said, “when I saw all these girls in here, I thought I must be in the wrong place.”
I understood the soldier’s confusion, for I had had the same reaction when I first came into the building. USO clubs, as I had always understood their function, were places where servicemen could write letters, relax, entertain themselves and be entertained. Not until I came to Gladwyn did I know about the second function of the clubs — as a daytime haven for servicemen’s wives.
All day long, girls climbed the steep hill to Gladwyn’s magnificent USO club, panting up the last of the broad concrete steps, stopping to register at the desk (an FBI regulation, club officials confided to a few of us habitués), and fanned out through the building. We didn’t jam the rooms as the soldiers did at night, but we used every facility constantly. By the time my daily shift at the reception desk started at five o’clock, the little meter that recorded the number of people entering the building usually read about 200, few of whom by that time of day had been soldiers.
The club, as the officials reminded us, was our home, and we used the large sprawling building as just that. There was nothing institutional about the rooms, with the exception of a neon sign over the snack bar. The main lounge had a large fireplace at one end and tall sunny windows at the other. Pine paneled walls, carpeted floors, and attractive furniture made it a handsome and comfortable room.
The wives gathered to talk on the couches and chairs, which were conveniently grouped for privacy. Some girl was usually picking at the piano at the far end of the lounge, undaunted by any conflict with the juke box or victrola in the music room. The club’s checkroom was manned by a club employee at night, but during the day it was unattended, and wives ran in and out of it.
In the library at the left of the main lounge, the girls read magazines and books, — but mostly magazines picked up casually from the long bench where they were spread out, — wrote letters, and collected in corners to talk. No rules of silence were enforced, though the peaceful, sunny room was usually fairly quiet.
To the right of the lounge was the “music room,” no doubt designed originally for serious music lovers, but used during the daytime for the inevitable bridge game, as unending as the crap games in the soldiers’ barracks at Camp Hickory. The players shifted during the day; when one girl drifted off, another with time to kill took her place. Kibitzers kept up the morale of the players by feeding the combination radio-victrola — an exceedingly wheezy machine. Through the constant music the thin plunking of pingpong balls could usually be heard from the vast gymnasium-like ballroom.
The club also provided us with a good many strictly utilitarian facilities, which were, in our transient lives, invaluable. A sewing machine and an ironing board were set up on the stage at the far end of the ballroom, and were taken down only on dance nights to make room for the orchestra. Wives who had never before sewed anything but buttons turned their hands to dressmaking to give themselves something constructive to do and to help stretch their greatly reduced incomes. Girls came in wearing and carrying the clothes they wanted to press, unable to afford Gladwyn’s slow and expensive laundries, and not being allowed to use the facilities where they lived.
The shiny white ladies’ washroom was used for more than the casual cleaning-up that it had been built for. One morning, for instance, I found a girl there brushing her teeth, with a whole toilet kit spread out on the window sill beside her. She explained that the bathroom where she lived “was just too dirty.”
“I got a can of Bon Ami and a brush and scrubbed my room when I moved in,” she said, “but gosh, I just couldn’t cope with that bathroom.” She shook a vitamin pill out of the bottle, swallowed it, carefully repacked her kit, and left the washroom. I saw her later at the snack bar, eating a breakfast of coffee and doughnuts.
And it wasn’t only because of fastidiousness that Army wives patronized the washroom. One day I met a short, hard-faced redhead in there, stripped to the waist, calmly washing her arms and shoulders. We started the inevitable conversation about living conditions.
“This is what I call a bath in Gladwyn,” she said. “ I haven’t had a real one in seven weeks.”
“No bathtub where you live?” I asked.
“Bathtub, hell, there isn’t even any hot water.” She was sitting on a stool washing her feet when I left the room.
The club was living, eating, recreation, and information center for us. There we received messages, for many of the houses we lived in had no phones or we weren’t allowed to use them. And club officials were tireless in tracking us down to report that our husbands had called or a friend had left a message. Many girls who lived on the outskirts of town met their husbands there at night to save the men a long hike. And there we got our money, since the banks in town wouldn’t cash our out-of-town checks. Without the club’s apparently limitless exchequer, we should have had an almost insurmountable problem in getting the cash to pay our weekly room rents.
When girls were on the room hunt — as most of us were most of the time — they made a point of spending at least a couple of hours a day at the club, asking friends if they knew of rooms, pouncing on girls who admitted that their husbands were about to be shipped. We made up a peculiarly frank, intimate, and changing society. We talked to other girls about everything, seeing each other almost daily, seldom knowing each other’s names. When a girl hadn’t been seen at the club for several days, it was assumed that she was gone, and with the exception of one or two close friends, the remaining clan of wives was interested only in the room she had vacated.
I suppose USO policy favored this daytime influx of females, for the building was certainly laid open to us, but among the club officials there was varying opinion. We were strongly defended, brooded over, and mothered by a succession of Y.W.C.A. program planners, but the director of the club itself, a Salvation Army major, told me that the Army wives frankly were a bother.
“All the time, we have to keep the building open for these girls,” he confided to me one day, while unpacking a case of Hershey almond bars in the kitchen behind the snack bar. “They’re here at nine in the morning, and they’d be here earlier if we opened any earlier. If it was just for the soldiers, we wouldn’t have to open till the middle of the afternoon. And you know, they’re noisier and messier than the men.” He shook his square head morosely, and walked over to a cabinet to stow away the candy.
It was true that the Major worked long and hard at the club, but neither his secretary nor the personnel of the other organizations which make up the USO believed it was altogether necessary. The Major was the kind of executive who felt his presence always necessary, and his final word in every decision imperative. He trusted nothing to his co-workers, who he once told me were “an irresponsible bunch of spinster women.”
But the club under the Major’s direction was an extremely hospitable and friendly place. If a soldier got rowdy — which seldom happened — the Major dealt with him himself, never resorting to calling in the MP’s, which he was empowered to do. “ I don’t want MP’s around here,” he told me once. “ There’s no point in having a club if the boys can’t use it to forget the Army.” The Major, basically, had the right idea.