Published by Tin Whiskers Publisher (www.TinWhiskersBooks.com)
Available October 1, 2015
Chapter 1, Section 1
There was a bit of nervousness and apprehension in Josephine Troyer’s voice. From the radio in the background, the refrain of Martha Tilton singing I’ll Walk Alone drifted to the dinner table. Gerald Troyer sat across the table from Josephine. He was slightly turned with the newspaper held up in front of him, catching up on recent events around the world. Boldface type on the front page announced that the Allies had landed in North Africa in Operation Torch. It was Sunday, November 8, 1942, and the Troyers were just sitting down to supper.
“…I’m gonna go down to the thresher plant and apply.”
Pearl Troyer was bringing supper in from the kitchen. She was in her mid fifties, like Gerald, with graying hair that she almost always wore in a bun. She had round, wireframe glasses that on occasion one would find her peering over the top of when she was scolding with her eyes.
The grandfather clock in the front room chimed once to indicate half past the hour. At six-thirty, the night sky had already settled in. Gerald folded the newspaper, smoothed the few remaining strands of hair over the top of his head, and squared himself up to the table. Pearl set down a serving bowl of soup in front of him, and he took the ladle she offered. Living with wartime rationing required simple meals, and the soup was no exception, made with potatoes and dried, rolled beef. As the steam from the soup drifted upward, the sharp smell of garlic and onions subtly permeated the dining room.
“What on Earth for?” Pearl asked, smoothing her apron with both hands. She continued, chiding Jo over the top of her glasses as she spoke. “That plant is no place for a lady. The air down there is thick with soot, so thick that everybody working there is covered head-to-toe in it. Foul, it is. And the men there have foul mouths. They could cuss out the devil to make him blush. A young lady like yourself should be looking for a proper job…if she feels the need to work.”
The factories in Blooming Grove, like so many others across America, had switched production to war matériel. Blooming Grove was located near the end of the first third of Route 66, south of an S curve winding between two moraines. As the road weaved through this natural chicane, it descended slightly into the small depression where the town lay, straddling a river that provided the town its birthplace.
“I hear they are really shorthanded. Besides, with the rationing and all I figure if I got a job, I could use the money to at least help out around here. Maybe buy some chickens and keep them in the backyard for eggs, something like that.”
Blooming Grove was typically Midwestern, its size determined by who described it. For those who lived on the surrounding farms, Blooming Grove was the end-all, be-all of hustle and bustle. In the early days of the 1940s, dozens of boys from these farms would stream into town weekly, and nearly as quickly stream out of town, making the Blooming Grove train station or bus depot the last sight of home as they headed first for boot camp, then to Europe or the South Pacific.
On the other hand, people from the large cities, such as Chicago or Saint Louis, would think the town to be a deprived collection of houses, not worthy of consideration of any sort. For most of those living in Blooming Grove, those not teenagers, it was the perfect size, a grand town nestled between what once were the great forests of the east and the vast prairie to the west, a town of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. The bounty of American grit and determination flowed in from the nearby farms, the mines and mills to the east, and the forests of the north and flowed out as goods and nourishment for a nation.
“After you and Alfred got married, we asked you to move in here when he shipped out—and of course you graduated and couldn’t live out in the state building anymore.” There was a sternness to Pearl’s voice as she continued. “You’re kin now, and we certainly aren’t going to ask you for money.”
Like so many thousands of other young boys and girls—1.8 million couples in 1942 alone—Josephine Hatcher and Alfred Troyer got married in those few short days between high school graduation and the beginning of boot camp. June of 1942 was a busy time for churches, synagogues, chapels, and justices of the peace.
“I know that,” Jo replied. “I didn’t mean it that way. I just…well…I’m feeling a bit lost, like I need to do something. To help out, I mean.”
Jo tipped her head a bit, knowing she had offended the Troyers, and unconsciously rubbed the divoted scar above her right eyebrow. She looked down at the table, slowly turning her soup spoon over and over on the cloth napkin next to her bowl.
“You know, I’ve never really had any family, and I want to help out somehow.”
Jo had been a ward of the state. She had been given up for adoption at birth, the product of bootleg liquor and teenage hormones. Jo grew up in the orphanage in town—the state building as the locals called it. She had always felt the Troyers, especially Al, were really the first not to treat her as such.
“Hon, you do a real good job helping me around the house.” Pearl offered Jo the ladle for the soup. As Jo took the ladle, Pearl continued. “Think of it as practice for when Alfred gets back from the war. Not many girls your age get the opportunity to practice, you know.”
“I think I could be doing more, something for the war, if I worked at the plant.” Her words were as firm as she was on doing this. She had grown up having to look out for herself, and this was about what she wanted. “Besides, Al’s in the Pacific, and rumor is, most of that stuff the plant makes ends up there. It’d be like I was helping Al.”
“What would you do?” Pearl’s voice teemed with distaste, as if biting on a tart cranberry, for the thought of Jo working in a factory. “They don’t have any secretarial staff to speak of, ‘cept that Rose Ellington, and you don’t know how to do any of the work the menfolk do. Besides, it’s so filthy, you’d never be able to get your clothes clean. Just thinking about it I can smell the odors from those factories hanging over the river down there. Putrid stench it is. The smell’d get all in your clothes and hair. And your hair…Lord, what a mess you’d have with that.”
Pearl worked hard keeping a good house and raising her son. In return, she expected her husband to provide for her. It’s what she expected of Jo, too. A job of any kind, let alone working in a factory, would not allow Jo to keep a good house, even if she didn’t have her husband around at the moment.
“I’m sure I could learn. I’m sure most of those men didn’t know what they were doing when they started, either.” Jo’s voice raised and quickened a little, her excitement starting to bubble up. “Plus, the plant is hiring women. I see them going to and from everyday.”
Pearl thought about how to make her point stronger. War or no war, a daughter of hers should not be traipsing around a factory with strange men and women of questionable behavior. Jo was an adult, yet still showed an adolescent self-interest and lack of concern for the world around her. Pearl would have to put her foot down. But she was not Jo’s mother; was it her place to grant or deny Jo permission?
“Well, if you think you must, I guess.”
Pearl looked down at the table as she replied. Jo had seen the same telltale sign of disapproval in Al. Jo again unconsciously rubbed the scar on her forehead throughout the uncomfortable pause that followed. She was going to apply at the plant whether or not Pearl approved, but having her approval—tacit as it may be—helped tame her apprehension.
“Just don’t tell Alfred,” Pearl continued. “He has enough to worry over without thinking about you running around in a factory, with all those men and those ladies…running around in slacks…closer to men’s trousers than a proper woman’s clothes. Frightful.”
The emphasis Pearl added confirmed to Jo that she shared the same view of women who chose to work in industry as so many others did. They felt it was okay—usually—for a woman to hold down a job as a secretary or teacher or, if she wanted to be in the medical profession, a nurse. But it was a completely different story if a woman wanted to work in industry, especially if she was viewed as taking a man’s job.
However, war production needed workers, and the war needed men. This meant women were needed in war production. So the following day, Jo would take the same first step as tens of thousands of women across the country would take that year. She would apply for a factory job as a war worker. It would be a life-changing step—Jo knew that—but neither Jo, nor Pearl, nor Al had any idea how much her life was about to change.