(Note: This piece first appeard in the 2011 St. Paul Almanac)
A memoir by Patricia Cummings, Becketwood Member
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, I was 3 years old. Two years later, my silver-haired father, Verne Cummings, was drafted into the Army. He was 35 and the father of two.
After basic training, Dad was assigned to Special Troops, Headquarters Company, 8th Infantry and spent the next two years in Europe. Dad always said he was assigned to Special Troops because he knew how to run a movie projector. Even though he had never finished high school, Dad was quickly promoted. After the German surrender, Sergeant Cummings led his squad to liberate one of the concentration camps. After they had seen the camp, the GIs marched the town’s mayor and his cronies back there to see the horror of it firsthand. I remember Dad saying with disgust, “They all claimed they didn’t know. How could they not know!”
One time when Dad came home on leave, he brought matching rabbit fur jackets for my little sister Marilyn and me. Mother didn’t let us wear those jackets too often because they shed terribly, but the softness of the fur lingers in my memory. Another time, our next-door neighbor took dozens of photos of us with Dad in his uniform. Those black-and-white photos still exist and help me to remember the few war stories Dad told us, but the stories of our life on the home front in St. Paul are the ones I remember most.
While Dad was gone, we stayed in the little stucco house in Highland Park. Mother’s job was “to keep the home fires burning” and that’s what she did. To supplement her allotment check, Mother moved Marilyn’s crib into my bedroom and the three of us slept there, so she could rent out the front bedroom. I remember only one renter—Rose, a small, pretty blond with a sunny smile. Rose’s husband Sammy was a naval officer in the Pacific. Rose was pregnant and when she went into labor, Mother, who prided herself on always being in control, helped Rose out to the garage and into our car. And then Mother drove right through the closed garage door. Somehow, she managed to drive to the hospital and both Rose and her new baby were fine.
When our water heater stopped working, Mother had to buy a new one. It was the first time she had ever made such a big purchase and she was very proud when the new heater started producing hot water. By the end of the war, Mother had figured out how to singlehandedly run every aspect of our household. This made for some understandable tension when Dad came home expecting to resume his husbandly dominance, accepted as the norm back then.
During the war, everything was rationed. We had red tokens for meat, stamps for sugar and flour, coupons for gas. Mother did her shopping at Fort Snelling where we bought groceries at the Commissary and drugstore items at the PX. We saved everything for the war effort—tinfoil from gum wrappers, bacon grease, newspapers, metal. Even rags. We had a victory garden in the vacant lot next door where we grew vegetables in impeccably straight, weed-free rows. Mother wasn’t happy with our neighbor Bea who shared this garden space because Bea just threw in a bunch of squash and watermelon seeds and let them grow wild.
Although Minnesota is in the middle of the continent, we often heard air raid sirens, warning that some far-flying enemy planes planned to drop bombs on us. The federal munitions plant in New Brighton could be a target, after all. Once, in the middle of the night, I woke to the sound of loud rapping on the front door. A civilian air raid warden stood there, chastising Mother, who had fallen asleep on the sofa with the lights on. Our little house had created a security breach.
When the war in Europe was over, our war on the home front was over, too. We drove out to Fort Snelling to meet Dad’s troop train, but soon learned that it was going to be delayed for hours. So we went back home and Mother put us to bed. In the middle of the night, the bedroom door opened, the light went on, and Dad was standing there in his uniform. I jumped up on the bed, trying to get to him, got tangled in the sheets, and fell down before he caught me up in a huge hug. Dad was home for good and our family was complete again. I had just turned seven.