“You almost hit Mr. Slemmons with a yellow toy tractor you tossed over the railing from the deck,” Mom told me on numerous occasions over the years. “After letting loose a string of cuss words, he yelled up to me, ‘Control that child.’ He was not happy!” She apologized profusely and worried that Dad’s job and their first home was in jeopardy. No more toys on the deck.
Mom delighted in setting up the garage apartment on the nursery. Dad recruited his brother and his high school friend Jim Connor to heft furniture up the outside steps. A round oak table and matching chairs came from Grandmother’s basement, but Mom picked out new maple bedroom bedroom suite and a matching couch and two chairs for the living and dining area. They celebrated with a dinner on the deck. Jim brought beer, and Mom made spaghetti and a salad. They talked about old times—the years before the war. At 24, Dad was the oldest of those watching the pewter sliver of river fade to gray and black, then disappear into the dark tree line merging with the darkening eastern sky.
“Your Dad filled out when he was loading sod, shrubs, and trees onto trucks, digging holes and trenches, and installing irrigation pipes,” said Mom. She added with a wistful smile, “His shoulders broadened, and he got stronger. Tall enough, handsome for sure, he became darker during the summer. Tall, dark, and handsome.” She nodded to confirm her assertion.
Dad enjoyed working outside. Mom knew he was home when she heard him kicking the mud off his boots outside the door before pushing open the door, slipping them off, padding inside to for a kiss, and showering before dinner. Sitting on the deck as the sun set, fireflies blinking in the twilight, and soft breezes displacing the heat of the day became their favorite way to end the day. Mom remembered those two years as good times for her and Dad, maybe their best.
By the spring of 1945, an Allied victory was in sight. Headlines heralded good news every day. The Remagen bridge across the Rhine was taken, our Russian allies were entering Berlin, Mussolini was killed by Italian partisans, and Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. After all the gruesome death and destruction, there was no irony in embracing this as good news.
On V-E Day, Mom and Dad drank beer, danced on the deck, and listened to a deliriously happy crowd in Times Square where a sailor kissed a young woman in a backward bending ballet pose captured in an iconic photo. I slept in peace.
Dad breathed deeply of the euphoria permeating the air after V-E Day. The horrors that American troops found in Auschwitz and Buchenwald reaffirmed the justification for the war. Landscaping for new homes was his part in building a bright future for his country now that the menace of Mussolini and Hitler were gone. Tojo would follow them into history sooner or later.
Over the busy summer, Dad progressed from laborer to truck driver and then crew chief. Suppliers and builders liked the young veteran. Soon he was preparing estimates and conducting final inspections for Mr. Slemmons. Orders were pouring in, and Slemmons was adding crews to meet the demand. Economists and people old enough to remember the Great Depression doubted that all the returning servicemen could find jobs, but Dad and others in his generation brimmed with a frothy optimism. Dad envisioned expansion of the nursery and entry into paving, fencing, and lawn maintenance. He saw himself behind a desk in the office. He wouldn’t be wearing the blue serge suit, but he would be in management. These plans would be developed during the winter months when business slowed.
Mom said it all changed on a cool morning in the fall. Mr. Slemmons introduced Captain Slemmons of the Army Air Corps and two of his fellow officers to Dad and the work crews. Mr. Slemmons beamed with paternal pride as he announced that they would join him at the nursery as soon as they mustered out. Dad went through the motions of his work day without his usual enthusiasm. That evening, Mom said he angrily told her that Slemmons had betrayed him. He spoke of going to a competitor and taking customers with him.
Mom listened patiently and nodded emphatically when Dad asked for affirmation. He paced and ranted for over an hour. Finally she motioned to a chair and said, “I understand everything you’ve said, but please, I’m begging you, please don’t do anything rash. We’re lucky to have a place to live by ourselves. Promise me you won’t quit this job until you’ve got another one.” Dad hesitated, but he promised. She thanked him with a kiss.
When Grandmother heard about Dad’s new competition at work, she renewed her plea that Dad enroll at Ohio State. She pointed out that he could even go to medical school with the GI Bill and his VA pension, but Dad was on a different road to success. Schemes for new businesses scrolled through his head as he wrestled shrubs from the truck into holes lined with peat and labored through landscaping assignments. He knew he would soon be behind a desk with his name on a triangle of stained walnut beside pictures of his wife and son. Even Grandmother would be proud of him.
Another of Mom’s favorite stories was the Sunday when her brother, my Uncle Bill Stephen burst through the door while we were having supper with Mom’s folks on 18th Avenue. Deeply tanned by the Pacific sun and pleased with his surprise arrival, he distributed gifts from the Soloman Islands, his last posting.
Uncle Bill Stephen was impatient to begin the life he planned during the long humid nights beneath palm trees. In short order, he investigated prices for farms in Southeastern Ohio. He was tired of taking orders and wanted to be his own boss. Owning a farm promised independence. Although he grew up in Columbus and had no experience in farming, Uncle Bill was an optimist in a time when returning servicemen brimmed with hope for the future. His wife, my Aunt Josephine, shared his enthusiasm for this new beginning. Financing was available through the G.I. Bill. He reclaimed his old job as a brakeman on the Pennsylvania Railroad as he awaited word on his loan application.
Dad’s high school buddy, Jim, often came by after the dishes were washed and I was tucked into bed. He began his evenings at The Clock bar downtown and when the men that stopped on the way home for a shot of Cutty Sark or a tall draft beer began to clear out, Jim bought a six pack of Gambrinus and came to our house.
Dad held forth on his latest business scheme or job prospect. Jim downed several beers and offered words of encouragement. Mom gently kicked Jim out at 10 o’clock, because Dad’s work began early. Her next challenge was to slow Dad’s monologue and get some rest.
One evening in late September, Jim reported a conversation with a guy at The Clock Restaurant who said American Airlines was hiring agents. Their offices would be at Port Columbus, the name the Chamber of Commerce had given to landlocked Columbus’ airport. Jim pulled a folded brochure from his vest pocket showing a young man wearing a modified Navy officer’s dress blues. In the background a DC-3 was taking off into a blue sky with a few soft clouds.
Dad was ready to join. He told Mom it was a new industry “just getting off the ground.” After pausing for acknowledgment of his pun, he went on to say, he wanted to “get in on the ground floor.” She greeted his second pun with a groan, and encouraged him to look into what sounded like a good opportunity.
Two days later, Uncle Bill Calvert attempted a wolf whistle as Dad walked toward his car in his tailored suit. Bill drove and listened patiently as Dad explained all the advantages of becoming part of the aviation industry. Bill had a term paper to write so he would wait for Dad, but he mainly watched planes land and take off.
The office was in a new wing of the airport. A petite blonde in a two-piece suit asked if she could bring Dad a cup of coffee. She directed Dad to a seat in one of the modern chairs around a low, oval-shaped table on a plush rug. As he sipped coffee, he looked at pictures of airliners aloft on the walls.
A tall man with streaks of gray hair, approached him and introduced himself as Rob Cramer and led him to an office. In response to a series of questions, Dad summarized his education, military service, and his interest in becoming part of American Airlines team. Mr. Cramer seemed pleased with Dad’s answers. Finally he cleared his throat and leaned forward and said, “Unfortunately. Bob we have more than enough applicants for our positions here, but you would be a such good fit for our team that I would like to offer you a position in Indianapolis where we begin service next month.”
After further discussion, Dad assured Mr. Cramer that he was definitely interested in the Indianapolis opportunity. There was further discussion. Mom was hesitant to leave family and friends, but open to an opportunity that thrilled Dad. Grandmother made one more argument for college and everyone said they would miss Dad, Mom, and the first grandson and nephew who recently celebrated his second birthday.
In a month, we all boarded an American Airlines DC-3 for the flight to Indianapolis. Mom said I looked out the window with no apprehension while she squeezed Dad’s hand who wore a fixed smile as they flew to a new life in Indianapolis.