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Oct 27, 2022

The Greatest Generation, Part One

Courtney Hampson

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In 2009, shortly after my Aunt Madeline died, my Uncle Al Pohlig wrote a letter to his (then) nine great grandchildren, which was then shared with his many nieces and nephews as well. It was a brief (he considered 17 pages brief) history of their lives, a gift as we grew older, so that, in his words, we would “know something about us and what shaped our lives and made us the way we are.” Uncle Al passed this summer at age 97. His goal of being the last living World War II veteran wasn’t realized, but he has left a lasting impression and a story for the ages. This is his story, told in his voice, interpreted by me, his great-niece who grew up lucky to be surrounded by “Uncle Al,” his humor, his quirks (only buy American), and his stories.

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We are not aliens, but we came from a different world than the one you know. Nor were we space travelers, but we were from a different period of time. One that you know nothing about.

Five main things shaped my life: my family and where I lived, the Great Depression, joining the Army, getting married, and our son Steven’s crippling by polio and his early death.

I do not know where to begin, so I may as well start at the beginning. For me, the beginning was October 22, 1924, and for your great grandmother, it was September 9,1927. We were both born in Newark, New Jersey.

“I lived at 111 11th Avenue with my Mother (Mom) and my father (Pop) and had two brothers and three sisters. (My sister Virginia died of polio when I was an infant, so I never knew her.)

We lived third floor right; the Ryans lived third floor left. Mrs. Ryan had six or seven kids and was a widow. Second floor left was the Gashlands, also a widow with five kids and her mother; and the Eidels lived second floor right and had nine kids. The people in the bottom two apartments were always being evicted for not paying their rent, so there were dozens of families always moving in and out over the years.

“Everyone was on government relief except our family (the Pohligs) as my father had a job. Those on relief got a monthly check from the government and canned food marked “not for sale.”

“One-eleven 11th Avenue was a tenement with six apartments and many kids to play with. Our apartment was called a railroad flat because all the rooms ran in a straight line from the kitchen to the living room. We all shared one bathroom. My sisters shared a bedroom, as did my parents, but the living room was also the boys’ bedroom, we slept on a pullout couch. We were the only family that did not use our dining room as a bedroom. We had a coal stove in the living room and one in the kitchen that we also cooked on in the winter. We had a gas range but only used that when the coal stove was not being used. There were two more tenements on our block, with more kids to play with.

“We had an icebox in the kitchen, but my father would move it out onto the back porch so we did not have to buy ice in the winter. No one in our building owned a refrigerator, as they were too expensive. We also had two large laundry tubs with lids on them that served as our countertops. No one in our building had a washing machine or clothes dryer; they were too expensive. My mother and the rest of the women had to wash all the clothes by hand and used a wringer to get most of the water out before hanging the clothes on the line to dry.

“When I was about 10 years old, my Grandpa Gee gave my mother some money to buy a washing machine. The “Easy Washing Machine” was the first electric washing machine at 111, so all the women in the building came up to see how it worked, as they were sick and tired of having to use a scrub board. After the water emptied, you still had to run the clothes through a wringer, but this one was electric. It had a warning device on it to hit a bar on top if the clothes got caught in the wringer, but some of the women were afraid they would catch their boobs in it and were a little scared of it. [Here is our first hint at Uncle Al’s sense of humor.]

“Our bathroom had no heat in it except that which came from the kitchen stove, so we all only took a bath once a week, on Saturday nights. No one had a shower, just the tub. I took my first shower when I joined the Army at 18 years of age. Since heating water cost so much money, we three boys had to use the same water, then my two sisters got clean water for their bath, and my parents each got their own clean water. Speaking of the bathroom, to save money, my mother saved the tissue paper that oranges came wrapped in, and since oranges were cheap in season, we always had orange tissue paper for wiping. And believe me, tissue paper is not the same as toilet paper.

“We did not have it too bad until my father went on three days a week of work at three days’ pay. In those days, most places were closed on Sundays; they were called the blue laws, so the stores were not open except the Jewish delicatessens that were closed on Saturdays, as that was their Sabbath. My father only made $22-$25 a week, and a work week was five and a half days.

“We had meat on Sundays and what was left over we had on Mondays. My mother made beans, baked macaroni, fish cakes, or sometime hamburgers. Three days a week we had soup and always lots of bread with apple butter. All our vegetables and fruit were bought fresh from pushcarts or horse and wagons that came around every day in the summer and fall. In the winter, we ate canned vegetables.

“Every family in our house was on ‘The Book’ at Levy’s. When we ran out of money before the relief or pay checks came in, we went to Levy’s and ordered whatever our mothers needed and would say, ‘Put it on the book.’

“There was a deli on our street, and two chain stores a few blocks over, but you needed cash to buy from them. There were no supermarkets then. When my father was paid and the others got their relief checks, we paid Levy’s. No one in our house had a phone, so if our relatives wanted to reach us, they would call Levy’s and Bernie came to tell us.

“Everybody was like family in our neighborhood, even our landlady, Mrs. Abrahson. She used to cry on my mother’s shoulder when she had to evict someone. When Mr. Eidel could not pay their rent, she had him paint the hallways or apartments so that she didn’t have to evict them; that was his trade, but no work was available.

“The rent was $16 a month, but we only had to pay $12 because we cleaned the hallways; and when a first floor apartment was empty, my mother would show it to people and screen them so no bums moved in. Mrs. Abrahson would give my mother $10 for renting it. The two of them were always gabbing and drinking tea out of glasses.

“Only one man owned a car on our block so we could always play in the street. We played stoopball, corner ball, kick the can, hide and seek, and marbles. The girls played jump rope, double Dutch, and hopscotch. When it rained hard, we played board games on the porch. Eleventh Avenue was on a hill that ran from 10th Street, so in the winter, we could sled from 10th Street to 12th Street, but we always had someone on 11th Street to warn us if a car was coming. A trolley line further complicated 12th Street, so you had to make sure you stopped before the tracks. We boys made skate boxboards by putting a half of a skate on the front and back of a 2×4 and a box with a broom handle to steer with and go everywhere since no one had a bike. We had no televisions in those days, only a radio, and there were no good programs on until nights, so we were always outside playing.

“We kids had to take turns washing and drying the dishes. Since I was the oldest, I had to go down to the cellar to get the coal. Our cellar had no lights in it, so I had to use a candle, and it would always seem to blow out. It was spooky down there, especially at night.

“On Saturdays, we boys had to go around the back of stores looking for wooden boxes or ask people who had trees in their backyards if we could pick up the dead limbs. You need wood or charcoal to start a coal fire. The Eidels always bought their coal in 25-pound bags at Levy’s. We all had two bins down in the cellar, one for storage and one for coal. Coal cost $12-$16 a ton delivered, so we always had coal, but the Eidels could not always afford it. Billy Eidel told me his father made him crawl over the top of our coal bin and take some of our coal at times. When I told my parents, they said they knew but did not want the Eidels to freeze to death, and I was never to tell anyone else. By the same token, when my father was only working three days a week, the Eidels gave us some of their ‘not for sale’ food.

“Mrs. Ryan and Mrs. Gashland were widows on relief, so the relief agency paid to have coal delivered, but the Eidels had a man in the house, so they did not get free coal.

“When supermarkets started when I was about 10 or 11 years of age, all the boys made wagons using old carriage wheels. Then we’d hang out with dozens of other kids asking people if we could take their orders home for them, as most people did not have car.

“Whenever it snowed, we would shovel sidewalks for 10 or 15 cents, but we would go over to Grandmother Pohlig’s house first, as their landlady always gave us 25 cents.

“I never knew any kid that got an allowance from their parents; we only knew about it from the movies. If you wanted money, you had to work for it. We collected newspapers and sold them to the ragmen. We would always look in garbage cans for deposit bottles over in the nicer sections of town—two cents for Pepsi or Coca Cola, three cents for milk bottles. That is how we got money for the movies or comic books.

“We boys were supposed to empty the pan of water under the icebox. If we forgot, my father would walk out in the morning in his bare feet into the water, and it would run down to the Eidel’s kitchen, and we got in trouble with my parents. I also had to go down to the ice dock on 6th Street to buy 10-cent pieces of ice, as the icemen charged 25 cents for a 10-cent piece delivered. My parents had no checking account, so I had to walk downtown to pay our gas and electric bill, which was about three miles away. If it was raining, my mother would give me 10 cents to take the trolley, but I would run both ways and keep the dime. [Oh, Uncle Al was thrifty.]

“Most times, the mothers would get together when they needed bread and they had money, and Billy Eidel and I would have to go over to the day-old store and buy six loaves for us, 15 for the Eidels, six or seven for the Ryans and Gashlands. The day-old store was about one and half miles away from our house, but they also had five-cent packages of Drakes Cakes and would give us each two for buying that much bread.

“One day, Billy and I saw an ad for chopped meat for 15 cents a pound at a new butcher store that opened on Orange Street. Our butcher charged 25 cents a pound for chopped meat. We talked our mothers into make hamburgers that night and then ran to Orange Street. That butcher put their chopped meat in little trays, but we dumped the meat into the paper and threw the trays away. I made 20 cents and Billy made 50 cents, but when our mothers cooked them, they shrunk to the size of a half dollar, because they were half fat. Our mothers said they would tell our butcher about it, but the poor guy did not know what they were talking about; he would never sell anything like that. We never did that again.

“My sisters, brothers and I went to South 8th Street School from kindergarten through eighth grade. My father and Aunt Florence went there as children and so did my Grandmother Pohlig as a little girl. After the war, my brother Edward still lived there, and their oldest girl, Barbara, went to South 8th Street School. I think the school is still there and is over 125 years old.

“Speaking of old, one day Mrs. Gashland’s mother heard us kids arguing about who was the greatest president, Washington or Lincoln. She told us that when she was a little girl, her parents took her to the train station where she lived because the train taking Lincoln’s body back to Illinois to be buried was going by and hundreds of thousands of people lined the tracks to view his casket. We kids could not get over that we knew someone who had seen Lincoln’s casket.

“I quit school when I was 17 and got a job at the A&P Supermarket—by changing my birth certificate, because you had to be 18 to work full time. I was paid $21 a week but had to give my father $15 board. That was all right with me, as I still had $6 plus tips to live on.

“Then the war broke out in 1941, and the young men went to enlist, and the stores started to hire women to work there. The women couldn’t unload the trucks, so it made it harder for the men who were left.

“Of all the guys I hung out with, the 18 year olds joined the Army and the 17 year olds joined the Navy. Because of my bad eyesight, the Navy rejected me, so I had to wait until I was 18 to enlist in the Army. I was afraid to use my changed birth certificate.

“On October 22, 1942, I enlisted in the Army, and two days later, I was in Ft. Dix, New Jersey, a soldier. I had never prayed for anything so hard, as being able to join the Army. Since I had enlisted and was not drafted, I was “regular Army,” meaning I could choose my branch of service, and I chose The Armed Forces. I was sent to Camp Campbell, Kentucky to the 12th Armored Division. We were the first troops in Camp Campbell, and I ended up in the 92nd Cavalry Reconnaissance. After basic training, we lived in the field for about two months and then were sent to Camp Barkley in Texas.

“Now the job of the reconnaissance units is to go ahead of the tanks, and when they get shot at, they radio back, ‘We found them,’ (if they are still alive, that is). About that time in Africa, they discovered that the enemy would let the tanks pass them, then the Infantry would jump out of their foxholes, hit the tanks in the rear, and knock them out. So, they needed Infantry to protect the tanks from the rear. They asked for volunteers for the Infantry who knew tank operations, and I volunteered.

“I was sent to Mississippi, but I had to take Infantry Basic Training, which was just like the Armed Forces Basic training except we walked everywhere. It started with 10-mile marches, then 20-mile forced marches with full field packs. I was assigned to the weapons platoon as first gunner of a 60 mm mortar gun.

“Me and my second gunner took turns carrying the gun on forced marches, and since the two ammunitions bearers did not have to carry any ammo, the four of us took turns carrying the mortar.

“That changed big time when we went overseas. Since the ammo bearers could only carry nine rounds at a time, they made the second gunner an ammo bearer too, and I had to carry the gun all the time by myself.  I didn’t know then how much the 60 mm mortar weighed, but decades later, my grandson’s father-in-law sent me the specifications of the gun and it weighed 42.5 lbs. I also had to carry all my regular equipment and daily rations, which probably weighed 50 or 60 lbs. more. At the time, I only weighed about 130 lbs., and I was carrying 100 lbs. It was hard to do, but we hardly ever went more than five or 10 miles a day.

“There were only two times I came very close to having my ticket punched. One was in New Market, Germany in an Eberhard Faber pencil factory, and before that in France.

“We had been brought back to a rest area and were well behind the lines in an open field. We were running around trying to dry our socks and towels when we noticed three American fighters trying to shoot down a German fighter, but he kept dodging them. We stopped and were watching the action when all of a sudden the field we were in became the resting place of all the 50 caliber bullets they were firing at the German. I never saw the ground around us get so shot up, like it all suddenly became alive, but we all ran for the woods, and no one got hurt. We had to live in the open in our foxholes or pup tents at night when we were in France because the French were our allies. But once we crossed the border in Germany, we had to chase the Germans out of their houses at night so we had a dry place to sleep.

“As the Infantry has to carry everything on their backs, the only extra clothing we carried was an extra pair of socks. We wore one pair and the other pair we carried under our shirts to dry out for the next day. Whenever we could, we would wash our hands and face and brush our teeth, but we had to put our wet towels back into our packs or gas mask; it never got a chance to dry. After four or five days, a wet towel stinks. We could only bathe when they took us back to a rest area every few weeks and set up showers in tents, so everyone did smell of odor in the summer.

“In the winter, the Russians discovered if you massaged feet at night, you would not get trench foot, which develops when the feet are wet and cold all the time. So, we were supposed to massage each other’s feet. Well, my second gunner did not want to massage my feet, and I definitely did not want to touch his dirty feet, so we each did our own. When our sergeant came around to check to see if were doing it, we lied, like everyone else.

“Another big problem for Infantry was toilet paper. We only got three sheets in each ration or nine a day. Because we did not live under sanitary conditions, we had dysentery most of the time; we called it the “G.I.s.” So, toilet paper was always a big problem. When we were pulled back to a rest area, we had to dig a slit trench for a toilet and the supply sergeant would put three or four rolls of toilet paper under #10 cans. Everyone would rush to wrap up big bunches of it because we were always short. We had to carry our paper in our helmet liners to stay dry and be able to get it in a hurry. [More Uncle Al humor.]

“Our helmets came in two pieces, the plastic liner and the steel helmet. It was very heavy, but we also used it as a washbasin, a scoop for digging, and as a stool to sit on, as the ground was always wet. If anyone in our platoon ran out of toilet paper, you had to share yours. If you said you had none, later when you had to go and they saw you going, it would make you look bad.

“The war ended for me when we reached the other side of the Danube River near Linz, Austria. We were kept in our divisions to be sent to fight the Japanese, but the war ended just as we were being sent to the ships to take us to the Pacific. Thank God.

“President Truman used the atomic bomb and saved hundreds of thousands of American soldiers’ lives, probably mine included. Nowadays, they are condemning him for doing it. Do not listen to them. I do not know if I could have lived through another war, and none of you children would have been born.

“I was discharged on March 3, 1946 and went back to high school to finish my fourth year. I was 23 years old when I graduated from high school, but I was not alone. There were three other ex-G.I. in my graduating class. After I graduated, I got a job in the accounting department of a paint plant and started going to night school in New York for traffic management.

“My family had moved during the war, so I used to go back to my old neighborhood on 11th Avenue after work to be with all my old friends who were still alive. A group of us used to crash weddings and Bar Mitzvahs to meet girls and get free drinks. That is how I met your great grandmother. [It does not surprise me that Uncle Al is the original wedding crasher.]

“I knew my future brother-in-law Harry [my grandfather] because we hung out together. I had a car, he did not, and he knew that Jackie Eidel and I were going with two girls that lived past where his girl, Betty, lived. [Betty was my grandmother.] When we heard Harry was getting married, we decided to crash his wedding reception.

“We never went to any wedding, just the reception, but this one was being held in a backyard. We usually waited until the meal was over and the dancing and drinking started, so we planned to crash pretending we had come to congratulate him. Madeleine and other girls were there. There was no dancing, just food and drinking, so we stayed. After it was breaking up, Madeleine and two other girls were going to the Polish Hall to dance, so we tagged along. As the evening progressed, so did our drinking, and I made a date with your great grandmother to take her to the movies on Monday night. Before I went to pick her up on Monday, I asked my friends if they remembered her name; they didn’t, and I could not remember it either. I went anyway.

“Her mother answered the door, and I said I was there to take her daughter to the movies. Her mother called, ‘Nunni, the fellow from the wedding is here to see you.’ I almost fainted. Nunni … Nunni, that’s not the name of the girl I came to see, but your great grandmother came to the door, and I was so relieved. She had just washed her hair and had a towel wrapped around it and she said she did not think I would remember making a date because I was a little tipsy at the time. But she said she would still go to the movies with me.

“I still didn’t know her real name, and when we got into the car, I asked her why her mother called her Nunni. She said that was her family’s nickname for her.

“Her name was Madeleine, and I never forgot her name again.”

To be continued.  

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