Saturday, October 31, 2009

Going to the Movies, 1945 style

Same letter to Mom, written on October 9, 1945 from Oakland, Calif, says the writer saw two movies: Three Strangers and Love Letters. He recommended Love Letters: "I enjoyed it, and I think that you will too when it finally gets to New York" (where Mom lived).

I looked both movies up. Good thing movie plots have changed. Three Strangers strains credulity. Peter Lorre is the rogue/romantic lead, but that's not the weird part of the story. He and two friends, Jerome (played by Sidney Greenstreet!) and Crystal, buy a sweepstakes ticket together just before the Chinese New Year and make a pact to share any winnings. Of course the ticket is a winner but Crystal refuses to give money to Jerome, so he bops her over the head and kills her. Somehow Peter Lorre winds up with the winning ticket but he wants to go straight so instead of cashing in the ticket, which he fears would reveal his previous life of crime and connection with the other two in the pact, he burns it. Alas, this isn't available on Netflix as yet so I can't judge it for myself.

Love Letters is also preposterous. Two soldiers are serving in Italy during WWII. Soldier #1 asks #2 to write love letters to his girl, Cyrano de Bergerac style. Of course the girl (Jennifer Jones) falls in love with #1 on the strength of letters written by #2. Back home, girl and solider #1 get married but #1 is boozy and abusive. One day when he's beating up his wife, the wife's stepmom stabs him. Stepmom has a stroke...wife gets amnesia from the shock of the death...pretty convenient, wouldn't you say? The Jennifer Jones character is convicted and serves a year in jail. Soldier #2 hears the story, visits with her, and they fall in love. Again, this isn't on Netflix, but I'm not sure I'd want to sit through it in any case.

Letter of October 18, 1945 mentions "A Song to Remember" which is a biopic of Frederic Chopin, starring Cornel Wilde as Chopin. Ruby, writing to Mom, says "I was favorably impressed with Cornel Wilde. I think that he will go places, and very soon at that." And that's exactly what happened. Too bad so many of Wilde's early films aren't available on DVD as yet.

Letter of October 29, 1945 says: "I saw Rhapsody in Blue and enjoyed it, if only because of the Gershwin tunes. I like them very much, altho I too think that the picture was a little too long. Cab Calloway is too noise for me. I don't like him at all." The movie was 135 min long, and since the main movie was accompanied by a short, a B movie, a newsreel, and who knows what else, it made for a long night in the auditorium.

Michigan Rummy

One of the letters written to my mother in 1945 says: "Poker may not be your strong point, but then I don't think that Michigan Rummy is either." Not a very cut-throat gambling game, but lots of fun and not demanding, either.

Mom and Dad taught us Michigan Rummy as we grew up and it was a favorite rainy-day family activity, using pennies for the jackpot and pot for each "money card" we hoped we could play from our hands. We had an official set with a tray to hold the pennies for each pot and money card, so we needed only a deck of cards and we were ready to play.

Today the Gorgeous Game Girls in my town play Michigan Rummy when we want to laugh and talk. No official set, just little bowls to hold the piles of pennies for each money card (especially the 9 and 10 of spades). The money cards we use differ from the Pressman Toy and Brikker & Brett versions, however. There was no real rummy angle to this game when I played as a child, and we don't play it as "rummy" today either.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ancestors Hidden in Plain Sight

If my ancestors in the old country never owned land or held an important job, their ordinary everyday lives might be invisible to my present-day genealogical researcher's eyes. Hidden in plain sight, just farmers or peasants or peddlers--who knows? But their lives are important to me and I hope I'll come across some tiny clue to their existence, other than cemetery inscriptions.

Being unimportant might have been an asset during the years when villages were sometimes considered part of one nation or empire and then became part of another nation or empire later as a result of war or political shenanigans. Religious beliefs played a role as well. Then there was the matter of not being eager to lose sons to military service. I can understand why my ancestors might not have wanted to be very visible. But I still hope I'll get a glimpse of their lives and aspirations through my research.

Even ancestors who lived in this country in this century are sometimes partially hidden because they weren't "anybodies." This week I got the marriage certificate of a relative who came to the US just after the turn of the 20th century and got married in the Cherry Street Synagogue in Bridgeport, CT, a place that no longer exists.

According to the certificate, Sam worked in a factory at the time of his marriage. Wonder whether the factory is still there? Wonder how Sam met his future wife, Anna? I know he later opened a grocery store with another relative in Astoria, NY. But how and why did he get to Bridgeport? What did Anna think of moving away from her family? I'm still trying to puzzle out these ancestors' movements, let alone their motivations. Hidden in plain sight?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

September 1945: Big Strikes in Big Apple

One of the letters written to my Mom comments on her apparent mention, in her letter, of the big elevator operator strike of September, 1945. According to the book Working-Class New York, this was a huge strike of elevator operators, maintenance people, doormen and others, a strike that brought business in the Big Apple to a virtual halt. Time also covered the strike, quoting both NYC Mayor LaGuardia and New York Governor Tom Dewey on their successful efforts to get labor and management back to the bargaining table.

In those days, self-service elevators were practically non-existent, so having the operators go on strike meant no elevator access to offices and showrooms on high floors in tall NYC skyscrapers. On the other hand, because of mandatory wage freezes during WWII, many workers were anxious for raises, and the strikes reflected this pent-up frustration.

The Empire State Building, having been accidentally hit at the 78th floor by an airplane in July, 1945, was just getting back to normal when the strike posed new problems for commercial tenants and their visitors (not to mention mail carriers). I wonder how many office workers climbed 20 or 80 or even 90 sets of stairs to go to work every day? One story tells of a big group of stockbrokers (on the 31st floor of the Empire State Bldg) ordering sandwiches and giving the delivery person a $75 tip for walking up all those stairs!

Interestingly, my Mom's friend in the Navy writes that there are plenty of strikes in San Francisco, the big city closest to where he is stationed. He also mentions major fires in the area, the result of prolonged drought. "You will probably see pictures of the fires soon in the newsreels" he writes, since at this time the major news outlets were newspapers, radio and newsreels shown in movie theaters.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

WWII letters to Mom


Ruby Wasserman, the husband of one of Mom's best friends, wrote her from 19th Battalion HQ, USN TADCEN, Shoemaker, Calif. during the summer of 1945. Ruby was a Seaman 2/c and called himself a yeoman striker, meaning he was trying to move up in the hierarchy. He took training courses to learn to do clerical work "Navy style" as he put it, and be able to type 40 wpm without looking at his hands. This huge Shoemaker camp wasn't far from Hayward, CA, east of Oakland; it housed many battalions.

Ruby's letters talk about the wild celebrations after the US accepted Japan's surrender in August, 1945. He also yearns for discharge but must wait while the armed services calculate the number of "points" he has and the number he needs to qualify. Points are awarded for number of months in the service, number of dependents, etc.

His roommates are younger men who aren't working as hard as he to get ahead and "do not as yet realize that if they are kicked out of here they will be sent to sea." Ruby wants nothing more than to have his wife and child join him in California until he gets discharged--unless, of course, he gets out of the Navy soon and can return to his family on the East Coast. I skipped ahead and I know Ruby gets out in 1946, finally.

Putting all the letters in order, it seems Ruby wrote Mom every 3-4 days or so--not uncommon for friends during that period. At one point, Ruby's wife Sarah wrote Mom every other day and sometimes every day!

By the end of 1945, the letters will begin to talk about my father's appearance in Mom's life. Looking forward to transcribing those letters. Meanwhile, there are small hints of my Mom's life in these letters sent to her at the end of WWII, such as questions about her changing jobs or her parent's plans for a brief summer getaway.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Idle Gossip Sinks Ships

Over the years, Mom saved dozens and dozens of letters from a few close friends and relatives. I'm still transcribing a few every day. Just looking at the envelopes is an education in history. The envelopes of letters sent by one friend, writing from an Air Corps training camp in Goldsboro, NC, are stamped "IDLE GOSSIP SINKS SHIPS." The dates are late 1942 through mid-1943. The stamps are purple with an eagle holding its wings high and the phrase "WIN THE WAR."

I'd like to find some of these people: Eleanor Rohs Weinberger, for instance, or Sgt. William W. McCreedy. Wouldn't they or their descendants like to know what they were thinking about 65 years ago?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

FamilySearch Labs

Wow! Tom Kemp of NewsBank.com gave a wonderful talk to my local genealogy group last night. Lots of great tips and ideas to get us back to our keyboards for more research.

Among the many online gems he mentioned was FamilySearch Labs, a site with lots of almost-ready-for-prime-time tools and resources.

Try Record Search, where you can search by location and name to find ancestors in specific places or go broader by not narrowing the search. This goes beyond Census data to include death certificates and other original documents. Yes, you can click to see an image of an original document, not just the indexed data. I'm going to get busy typing in the names of some hard-to-find ancestors and take a look using this interesting tool. Will report back!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Letters to my Mom

I'm transcribing letters written to my mother in the late 1930s and into the 1940s, by one of her closest friends and, later, by the friend's husband as well and a few other folks. What an incredible way to learn about my Bronx-born mother's thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes, disappointments, and fears.

Thank goodness for Google--I can look at the streets where Mom once lived, where her correspondents lived, and find out about places where they vacationed, such as Scaroon Manor on Schroon Lake, NY. That was pretty far from the Bronx, in distance and in other ways as well.

Mom's alma mater was JHS 60 in Bronx, NY and James Monroe HS in Bronx, NY. The JHS is no longer there, apparently, and James Monroe isn't a high school any longer. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, this was a busy and crowded area of the Bronx; it wasn't the "South Bronx" that today is so notorious for high crime, etc.

One letter, dated August 1941, refers to the good men already being "with Uncle Sam"--an eye-opener because I was under the impression that the movement to join the armed services didn't happen till after Pearl Harbor, not before.

How lucky I am that Mom saved this treasure trove of letters for decades.