Sunday, September 23, 2007

I'm being strangely tearful today ... yesterday was my birthday ... and ...

I'm guessing that this is the result of weeks of re-living the war years. I'm feeling an insistent rage that won't be quieted. It's almost as if I'm being two people simultaneously ... a 20 year-old homefront worker experiencing the humiliation of those years while being a respected elder American woman with every right to feel humiliated! Only problem is that this small body is a little crowded and this age-sharpened mind is rebelling at the imposition.

On Friday evening I watched the second documentary, "The Bay Area At War" I believe it was; the hour-long production of Channel KQED in San Francisco. I watched myself doing this truncated version of "Betty at War" and felt more anger than pride, and hated myself for not being able to enjoy the public exposure.

On camera was my longtime friend, Vangie Buell (I knew her as Vangie Elkins) of the old Berkeley Co-op days. She was telling the story of her father, a Filipino serviceman in the war who had been the cook of Admiral Nimitz. It was another of those tragic tales that illustrated the irony of "The Good War." Her father is buried at the Presidio in San Francisco after serving, eventually, as a fine musician in the Navy Band. The Admiral having made the exception for him and intervened so that he could do so. That was when the tears began to fall.

I was reminded of Mel Reid, my young husband, who refused to serve as a messman when he'd volunteered to fight for his country. I remembered his shame upon the return home to Berkeley after being "honorably" discharged after 3 days of shameful interrogation at Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois. He'd felt so ashamed and I'd felt so angry -- and here were all those tears sitting behind my eyes for 67 years waiting to burst forth. I hadn't cried then. I did cry on Friday night -- but not in shame but in rage! Mel went to his grave in 1987 still silent about his failure to serve his country in 1942. His country had failed him.

I didn't see the end of Friday's documentary. After a time I simply couldn't watch. The ego satisfaction of seeing myself on the small screen didn't hold up under the emotional stress of the painful memories.

I lay on my bed with Dorian on her futon beside me -- sound asleep -- and wondered how I'd make it through the next ten days of the Ken Burns documentary dominance of the airways; and the Home Front Festival next weekend? Soon after ten o'clock dear friend, cousin Doug, called and we chatted for a long time. I said nothing about my increasing distress. But having someone to talk with about almost anything before falling into a fitful sleep felt comforting.

Yesterday I kept an appointment with the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts actors who are going to be performing at next week's Reunion at the Ford Building. I listened to them doing readings from the Bancroft Library's oral history project transcripts. They were wonderful. The material was stunning and memorable. In the middle of that two of my co-workers arrived with celebratory birthday cupcakes and lots of singing of good wishes and I felt properly celebrated and a bit more relaxed. But I was surely aware of the growing storm inside.

(But then, unwisely perhaps, I went home and watched an hour or so of the coverage of the demonstrations at Jena, Louisiana, on behalf of the Jena 6.)

With spirits bolstered by the lovely tribute, I changed my mind about not attending the Richmond Museum of History's opening reception exhibiting a selection of the wonderful children's art from World War II. About 50 pieces of the 4000 recently discovered -- were tastefully hung on backgrounds of bright primary colors. This would be the community's first viewing of the work. I adore children's art. But the art didn't work its magic, and I soon found myself quietly raging inside. I looked around the gallery and noticed that I was the only African American in the room of perhaps 60 people. I recalled that the Maritime Child Development Centers were not open to black children and therefore, why would the African American community feel any relationship to any of this?

This city, after all, for African Americans is only 67 years old -- dating not from its founding in 1905 -- but from 1941, the time of the great migration west. Despite the fact that the old Carnegie Library building that now holds the Richmond Museum of History holds little of relevance to today's multiracial population. Its board of trustees and its staff does not reflect today's demographics at all. The building and its occupants cringe fearfully at the corner of old Fourth Street Park, a scarred and desolate hangout for the homeless, the disenfranchised, and the disaffected -- mostly black.

I could not keep myself from speaking out. When I noticed the guard sitting at the door -- a bulky man with enough armament hanging from his body to protect a regiment -- the anger grew. I was helpless in the face of it. And when the good Dr. Joe Fischer finished his lovely presentation, the words began to tumble out, "...has anyone noticed that we don't in any way represent the demographics of this city?" "Do you know that the period of these lovely children's paintings, according to the dates, was a time when black children were not served by the child development centers -- so therefore no nostalgic parents or descendants to view them with us?"

(I could see Jena, Louisiana's, worried parents of those youngsters facing sentencing, and Mel Reid, and Vangie's father; Ethel Dotson with whom I'd spent a hour only yesterday in a Berkeley hospital where she is terminally ill from cancer she is certain came from her years as a child in the wartime Seaport housing projects that had been built upon contaminated brown-fields; and I knew that they (those in the room) didn't know ... .but I wanted someone to forgive or to be forgiven by... .)

My challenge was taken up by Donald Bastin, the museum's curator, who insisted that none of this was true. That indeed, black families were not discriminated against. He brought forth from the group a former teacher (about my age) who insisted that this was an unfair charge and that there were black children in her classes. She told us that the problem was that you had to be worker at the shipyards in order to find a placement for your child. It felt useless to remind her that there were surely black female workers at the shipyards. Then I began to wonder if I were mistaken? If black women were not hired until late in 1944, would this explain it? I felt embarrassed, but then angrier at being unsure. But then I also knew that this was no myth. That black mothers and grandmothers in this community knew that they were not served by the Maritime Child Development Centers and spoke about it among themselves. It was acknowledged on our bus tours as well by our African American "tourists".

I then reminded myself -- after driving away to cry myself home -- that the period was filled with conflicting truths. That life does not live itself out in prescribed ways, and that I would drive myself crazy if I persisted in dissecting that period of utter confusion. That one cannot make rational the irrational, especially not in retrospect.

Better I should wait until next week's edition the National Park Service's magazine, Common Grounds, is released and I can read myself as I lived it 3 weeks ago when interviewed. Or, listen to myself as NPR reporter, Krissy Clark, and I toured Richmond for some upcoming air time soon. It all makes a kind of sense when I'm responding to questions of others about the period. It's when I sit alone with my own thoughts that it gets bottled up and implodes.

Just sobbed my way through a long distance conversation with my son, Bob, who was calling with a "Happy Birthday, Mom." He was wonderful and supportive and maybe the tears were just a case of "... but my birthday was yesterday and I didn't hear from you." Sometimes it's just that simple. And that complex.

Maybe... .