Mama was ten feet tall

What does a young widow do when she’s got two kids and a bun in the oven, and a World War breathing down her neck, and no income?

She buries her beloved, tucks her kids away in an orphanage, delivers her new baby and when he’s old enough (three years old) she knocks on that orphanage door again and adds him in. She turns her back at the screaming and crying, hardening her heart to let her do what must be done.

She sells her house, boards a bus and off she goes to make 40 mm rounds for the US Navy, where she earns a bundle, enough to support her widowed mother and her siblings still living at home. She works a 70 hour week….against the federal law at the time…but no one was looking. Ninety two ammunitions plants were scattered across the nation. Her plant won the winner pennant for highest production most months. As it flew over the plant her heart swelled with quiet pride. In her time there the installation suffered five explosions. Sometimes people died. Well. Nitro is unstable.

She lost all her teeth to powder poisoning, but none of her fingers. The work was tedious, requiring intense concentration. Rows and rows of young women packed the material into metal tubes that would become the arsenal aboard naval ships to destroy the enemy on the high seas. The women, on their breaks, massaged each other’s necks and shoulders and lower backs.

Relief from the grinding production schedule came from across the bay at the proving grounds at Aberdeen on the Chesapeake in Maryland. The attraction was the high male count based there. She danced with anyone in a uniform and did her bit for morale. Much of her free time was spent writing letters to soldiers at the front. It became her avocation, feeling a strong sense of duty. She was faithful to her calling.

One of the men she met was a jitterbug wizard. As blonde and pale as she was dark, she enjoyed his company, his dancing, and his automobile. Hardly anyone had one. His was a yellow convertible with red leather upholstery, the chick magnet irresistible. An only child, she took him home to her mother and her eight siblings. The traffic in and out of that house was like a small hotel.  He immediately belonged. They all loved him. Winner.

They knew they should marry, just like the countless couples in Elkton. All the men were going to risk their lives. The justice of the peace was busy every lunch time. Young women stayed up all night sewing wedding gowns. Aberdeen was a six week prep for the front. Her sweetheart would board the bus to take him away in a blink. She wanted to marry him. He said no, that she’d already been widowed once. He wouldn’t risk her to that again. He doubted he’d return. He swore he’d marry her if he returned.

For thousands of young people death was a permanent threat. They were so busy working for the war effort that the subject was a specter only in the night after warm arms and passionate kisses had only postponed their fear. Snatching moments of denial of their reality provided isolated islands of escape. All day, for hours and hours across the land, women built the weapons of war. Women built airplanes and flew them on test runs. Women who’d hardly ever been five miles away from their homes. Girls from the mountains of Tennessee. From coal country. From countless dairy farms. They shed their girlhood readily, stepping headily into their work, learning to manage the elixir of freedom. The longest line in town occurred every payday, with women waiting at the post office for their turn to send their paychecks home to their parents. For the time, they made lots of money with no place to spend it. They became the support of their families, and took pride in their ability to do it. They learned there was more than a cook stove and an apron for them. They learned they could contribute. They discovered pride.

We are blessed with reams of stories of the men who fought and so often died in this effort.Who held the country together while the men were gone? The women stepped up to keep the nation going. They were unstoppable.They deserve more than the few accounts written on their behalf.

 

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