"What can I do to help the war effort?" was a question young women in their 20’s asked ourselves during World War II.
I decided to apply for Red Cross recreational work. Within three weeks, I was in Washington, D.C involved in a two week crash training program. We were taught to a different phase of recreation every day; crafts, production of talent shows and skits, games of all kinds, various types of programs and newspapers and the operation of projectors and recorders. We found ourselves working from home from 8 a.m. until close to midnight with short breaks for lunch or supper. The main object of the training was to give us an introduction to every possible activity that could be included in a good hospital recreation program. Another object was to teach us to supervise the many volunteer workers, especially the Grey Ladies, older women passed 50. The end of the program had a series of required shots.
I was sent to a Naval Base hospital. Since I was the newcomer, the other two recreation workers helped to make the transition easy for me. The Grey Ladies were all competent and anxious to cooperate. Two of them came to the base five mornings a week to help the fellows with handcraft. Since our budget was quite low, the Grey Ladies also provided many supplies. Hundreds of billfolds and change purses were tooled and laced with their help. Some of the ladies came in once or twice a week to talk to the patients, write letters for them, or run errands. Others used their talents to entertain their patients.
Once or twice a month we got outside entertainers through the national Red Cross office. While I was there, Kay Kyser, Akim Tamirov, Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes and Helen Keller were some of the entertainers. The biggest hit was Frank Sinatra, who seemed to be just "one of the guys."
The weekly bingo games on each of the wards were enjoyed by many. The cigarettes that we gave for prizes, and the refreshments of cake and ice cream always pleased the patients. Many clubs the surrounding area gave parties for the wards once a month.
The patients in the orthopedic wards were the most enthusiastic about writing, producing, and acting in talent shows and skits. They worked with us on costumes and scenery, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. I can still remember the night we dyed hundreds of yards of cheese cloth in the washing machine for costumes. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful, and they were all dried by morning.
On birthdays, or sometimes when a patient was feeling very low, we would offer him a special treat, a chance to make a recording to send to a loved one. He not only got to send a gift to that special person, but he was usually fascinated by his own voice and the mechanics of the procedure. The extra attention he got from us probably helped him too.
The personal contact of the Red Cross workers, visitors and entertainers seemed to help the patients the most. It was very heart warming for me too when a patient made small talk to keep me with him or when he showed in other ways that he appreciated any little thing I did for him. Sometimes I am reminded of the patients of a sister, cousin or friend. I still have an oil painting hanging in my kitchen that one of the patients, John Ward, gave me when he was released from the hospital. Because he had no canvas, he had bought a bread delivery board on which to paint his home in the country as he remembered it. When he gave it to me, he said, "Please remember the talks that we had together." And I do. But I also think of so many patients who were not as lucky as John. And I feel thankful that I was given opportunities to help in a small way to lighten the load of those who gave so much for their country.
It was a hot July afternoon in the Houston, Texas Union Station during World War II. Shafts of sun poured dusty rays from sky lights above onto waiting room benches, varnished and stiff, where travelers sat in unairconditioned discomfort. On tracks outside trains grind to a halt, hissing steam hotter than Gulf Coast air.
I was a volunteer at the U.S.O. Troops-In-Transit canteen booth. Usually there were four of us, today only two, Barbara and I. We were here to dispense refreshments, rest, information to soldiers coming and going from every corner of the nation. It seemed as if all of America was at war.
I remember my mother in World War I, a Red Cross Canteen volunteer who, with other ladies in our town, stood outside the C B and Q station, dressed in starched white uniforms, dispensing coffee and doughnuts to doughboys on troop trains going "Over There." The Yanks were coming to win that war. And they did.
Our USO comfort station was scantily equipped with a refrigerator, hot plates, coffee urn, large stone containers for cold drinks, a cot, a few chairs. No big donations today other than five crates of lemons. "Wouldn’t you like to hand-squeeze all those?" quipped Barbara.
A soldier walked in, on furlough from jungle warfare, suffering from malaria, jaundice, his face as yellow as a lemon. We bedded him down on the cot. He slept. Woke up, wanted to talk. "Jungle war. Hell. Killed my buddies, Fred, Jim. Joe buried in tropic mud. I left ‘em. Going home. They aren’t. He sipped a drink. Slept against us, carrying a two year old child. "Any milk for my baby?" Hers was the all-familiar story, waiting for a soldier husband d whose train never arrived. "Napped on waiting room bench. Money is gone. Took from my purse. Can’t even get back to Arkansas, where I am from." She sobbed. We sent her to the adjacent Travellers Aid booth for help.
An interlude of quiet settled down. Sun poured hot through the window panes. Little dust motes swam in the air. "Something’s going to happen." I thought. It did. A puffing, iron engine braked outside at the train shed. Noises, voices shouting commands. A troop train schedule showed that none were scheduled until 7 p.m. A young Lieutenant hurried them, "Ladies, we have just 25 minutes. Can you provide drinks, etcetera for 200 men?" His eyes met Barbara’s and mine. Then he spotted the crates of fruit. "Lemons!" he cried. "Right-O. I’ll supply the manpower." He hurried out to the platform.
A make-shift kitchen was set up in our limited space. Action Soldiers cut lemons, extracted juice with two citrus squeezers, manned the coffee urn, served lemonade and doughnuts to 200 fresh recruits from Missouri. "Ma’am," one said, "I hear you got rattlers in Texas as big as elephant trunks. Here’s sand in your eye, Bill." He gulped down his Vitamin C. In 25 minutes flat, it was over as the train backed out of the station carrying 200 soldier boys to who knows where. "Now for KP cleanup." We inspected the canteen. It was spotless.
The soldier on the cot woke, stood up, scratched his head. "You know, I had the strangest dream. Thought I was back in boot camp, hearing a lot of guff from a bunch of raw recruits. I kept smelling the lemons. Lemons! My God!" What did he mean by that? He thanked us, and disappeared in a crowd boarding the Southern Pacific eastbound.
Four relief volunteers arrived at five. They asked how we made out, just the two of us. "Just saw the two of us squeezed crates of lemons." I said. They looked puzzled. Explanations followed before we left our post.
Whenever I smell lemons freshly squeezed, I remember hands, military hands, destined to go where steel winds blow, gallant in their gestures to us on that humid July day in the old Houston Union Station, now demolished.
This excerpt was taken from "Wartime, A Memoir" by Katherine Staples and Jim Torn.