War Is With Us
World War Two, the defining feature of my parents’ generation, affected my generation too. Maybe more than we know.
The Sound of Nazis
I was 15 going on 16, a sophomore in high school. It was 1965 and the Sound of Music was opening at the Capitol Theater in downtown Yakima. My mother offered to drive me and three girlfriends to see it.
Did my mother already know the story of Maria Von Trapp? Probably she knew of the post-war memoir or the 1959 Rogers and Hammerstein stage musical (she subscribed to the New Yorker magazine after all.) But whenever she learned of the story she must have wanted to see it. She had worked as a Red Cross “donut girl” in Europe during the war, passing out donuts to the troops on the front lines in Italy, France and Germany. She had lost her fiancé to a German land mine just days before they were to be married. She had witnessed the liberation of Dachau.
My girlfriends and I didn’t know the story. We were just excited to see the movie.
What a treat! We lived on the west side of town, out amidst the orchards and ranches. Our high school sat in the middle of an apple orchard. So getting anywhere required a car, even though in those days the school bus did pick us up and drop us off daily, but only after an hour spent driving around in the sticks.
The town of Yakima, Washington didn’t yet have a mall and so people still got dressed up when they went downtown to go shopping or see a movie at the Capitol Theater. When it was built in 1920 it had been the biggest and most ornate theater in the Northwest with seats for 2000.
By 1965 girls and women were no longer required to wear dresses, hats and gloves downtown. At school we were required to wear skirts, but on Saturdays we could wear play clothes—pedal pushers (zippers on the back or side only) and penny loafers with ankle socks. My mother still wore housedresses, even to clean the house, but she put on a polyester pantsuit to go to the movies.
We were teenagers, no longer children—young women really. Ponytails had metamorphosed into sleek pageboys and flips, which required sleeping on huge hair curlers. I had just converted to the popular flip, like a pageboy but flipped up at the ends instead of under. Beehive hairdos were in. You achieved a fuller look by ratting the hair, then combing over until it looked smooth.
We looked at the Simplicity pattern catalog to see what the new styles would be; Simplicity was remarkably prescient about fashion. Then we would just sew it. A-line dresses were comfortable and exceedingly easy to sew. Paisley was big. Hip hugger bell bottoms were popular and I made myself a pair with bright flowers in pinks and yellows.
Music didn’t move me like it did some others. I didn’t like my mother’s opera records or any of the odd assortment of 78 rpm records in her collection. As for popular music I just went with the flow, collecting 45 rpm records and playing them on a tiny square record player. The Beatles were big and we danced to “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.” My favorite 45 was “Chains” sung by the Cookies, a three-member group of Black women.
my baby’s got me locked up in chains
and they ain’t the kind that you can see, yeah
I didn’t know then that it was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.
I was a bit of a skeptic even then, irritably literal and unimaginative. My friend Susie had gone to the Beatles concert in San Francisco the year before and told me she couldn’t stop screaming while the group was singing. I asked her why girls do that. She couldn’t explain it; she said you just felt like it. I tried hard to understand but I really didn’t get it. Why would anyone scream while listening to music?
However, we were singers. We had formed a group called The Nonettes in eighth grade (there were nine of us). We sang Hootenanny songs like “500 Miles” and popular songs like “Winter Wonderland.” We hadn’t yet heard the Rodgers and Hammerstein music from the Sound of Music but we would learn it, since we were buying the Hi-Fi 33 rpm album after the show.
I was drawn into the musical immediately. What teenage girl would not identify with Maria—too exuberant to be a nun, too in love with the natural world to be ladylike. Did my girlfriends and I see ourselves as a problem to be solved?
The captain was like everyone’s father—militaristic, distant, full of orders, strict. But it was hard not to like the nuns even if they did kick Maria out of the convent.
We knew that booing at the movies was rude behavior, but we all booed silently when the baron’s lady friend and the children’s stepmother-to-be appeared. She would make a terrible mother to those children! Maria was so much better.
When the Nazis came on screen I heard what sounded like a low murmur coming from my mother. “Krauts,” she growled under her breath.
Then during the scene where the family is hiding from the ersatz boyfriend, she snarled, “Bastard.”
I felt myself flush. Talking in the movie theater was strictly forbidden and everyone sitting near us could hear my mother. They were turning around to shush her. Had my mother set out to embarrass me in front of my girlfriends?
I turned to frown at her. She sat on the edge of her seat with a death grip on the arm rests, her face twisted in anger. It was only then—20 years after the end of the war—that I began to see the depth of trauma my mother and many of our parents had experienced. Joan’s father, a bomber pilot, lost his mind. Rachel’s parents, having survived a concentration camp, could not talk about the war. My father and others viewed parenting as an extension of basic training.
It would take many more years to understand how my girlfriends and I—the next generation—were also deeply affected by the war that ended before we were born. #
“We are all at fault for allowing it to happen”
My mother wasn’t able to talk about the Nazis’ crimes against humanity until the program QB VII came on TV in 1974. Then she wrote this letter to the editor.