Saturday was World War 2 Heritage Days, an event in Peachtree City, GA honoring those who served in WW2. Veterans wear their uniforms or at least a hat to indicate their field of service.
My daughter travels around to various events, portraying Betty Grable, and let me tell you: she has the legs and the voice and the hair to pull it off. Years ago I bought a 1940s era dress just because I liked it. It’s hung in the closet since then, but on Saturday morning, I pulled it out and put it on, along with my black gloves, a 1940ish pocketbook, and the cutest hat you’ve ever seen, all topped off with shoes to die for (and by the end of the day, my feet almost had) (died, I mean). My hair is now too long to hold pin curls, and I didn’t know how to do victory rolls, so I decided I’d just tell the stitch nazis (women who delight in pointing out inadequacies and unauthenticies) to (a) bug off or (b) that I’d been out picking cotton that morning and simply hadn’t had time to do my hair. Thank goodness I didn’t hear from the stitch nazis, but I’ll have you know that three men asked me where I bought my dress. Not cross-dressers, mind you, just men who say they find shirtwaist dresses (accessorized with black gloves and a purse that snapped shut with an attitude) like mine sexier than today’s dresses. Here she is, my daughter, singing the national anthem.
Later when she sings The Armed Forces Medley, veterans stand when she gets to the theme song for their branch of service. These fellas were able to name the song Anchors Away in three notes.
This is my mother’s boyfriend, Walter, cheering as his song – Army Air Corps – ends. Loyalty runs deep.
Speaking of loyalty, this is Helen Denton telling some young girls what it was like to be General Eisenhower’s secretary. Though she joined in hopes of meeting a man, she had some pretty important jobs during her tour of duty . . . some things she couldn’t talk about for 50 years – not even to her husband – because she’d promised she wouldn’t.
Re-enactors don period attire and engage in immersion imagination as the veterans watch and remember, telling stories and shedding tears all along the day. The re-enactors spend an awful lot of time and money doing their research and trekking to these events. They take history seriously, and do not tolerate revisionists well. Their equipment and uniforms are authentically correct but they are not government-issued like the originals.
When they’re not in character, you see things like a German giving a ride to US military folk . . . and they are all smiling. This vehicle, by the way, was a gift from the driver’s wife one Christmas. Yes, really.
When they came home, the veterans were told they could wear their uniforms for 3 months until they found a job and got settled. They were given special pins to wear to indicate that they had served and were now discharged, reacclimatizing themselves into society. Though the pin had an official name, the veterans called it The Ruptured Duck. All veterans were given a Ruptured Duck pin Saturday morning. This is my 98 year old Uncle Joseph receiving his pin.
And this is Walter receiving his pin.
The hangar is filled with rows of tables filled with ribbons, pins, uniforms, photos, and other memorabilia on Saturday. In one corner of the hangar, young women have set up a 1940s kitchen, complete with the cutest stove I’ve ever seen, a ringer washing machine I’m glad I don’t have to use, a wooden ironing board that looks like it positively salivates at the thought of pinching fingers, a Hoosier cabinet that reminds me of the one in my Aunt Rene’s kitchen, and a small kitchen table from that era. I like that there was some attention shone on the domestic arts of the time.
There’s a camp show that is performed word-for-word from the transcripts of camp shows of the era. This is Thomas Eastin (the best of the good guys, if you ask me), a college student who’s been portraying Bob Hope for several years.
When the whistle sounds at 4 o’clock, tired volunteers find a second wind and leap into action, clearing the hangar of military paraphernalia and transforming it into a ballroom for The Swing Dance. The tired young re-enactors change into their dress uniforms, and just as they must have back in the 1940′s, line up to ask pretty young women to dance. I look at the young men in those WW2 uniforms and think about how the 93 and 94 year old men sitting across the table from me were about that age when they trotted off to war. How did their mothers ever stop crying?
When I interviewed him for the book I wrote about him, my father-in-law told me that he received his marching orders the same day he was to graduate from Georgia Tech. Said the school moved the graduation ceremony up, making it earlier in the day so graduates would have time to gather their belongings and take their leave into the wild blue yonder and beyond. He said he and the other graduates walked up on stage, received their lambskin, then stepped off the stage and immediately received their orders. In the space of the few hours separating graduation from shipping out, many of them – including my father-in-law – got married.
But it’s not just the young re-enactors who take to the dance floor. Here’s my mother dancing with Walter while Alison sings “Kiss me once and kiss me twice, and kiss me once again. It’s been a long, long time . . . ”
At one point during the evening, this 94 year old veteran was dancing with Jenny (left) when Alison went up and in the spirit of fun, staged a cat fight for his attention. Is it just me, or does this fella seem to enjoy all the commotion?
In the end, he chose Alison, I mean Betty Grable. His daughter cautioned Alison to hold on to him tightly, but there was magic in the air that night, magic that took his body back in time – maybe not to a foxhole, but he sure didn’t need any help finding his way around the dance floor.
Freddie hails from Long Island, New York and travels around the country making appearances as JFK. This is my mother being totally won over by his charming personality. Look out, Marilyn. You may be able to sing Happy birthday, Mr. President, but you can’t cook like my mother.
We can argue that memory is construct and fallible, and we might agree that we’d rather war be the last avenue taken rather than the first, but surely we all agree that there’s nothing like learning about history from the lips of those who lived it. You can’t learn history like this from books. You just can’t.