Grandma's Funeral and War Stories on a Summer's Night

Grandma's Funeral


I have no concrete recollection of our trip north except we borrowed Charlie Savitch’s new car a 1956 Buick Special.  We had traveled south to Florida in a 53 Ford that was unreliable and I remember that we were involved in an accident with a police car on our way to the beach.  It probably still needed repair and I think that Dad was nursing it along until he could afford to buy a new car.  We left before dawn and drove straight through.  Three boys asleep in the back seat, with Mom riding in her nearly silent grief in the passenger seat while Mac smoked his cigar at the wheel.

I vaguely remember our arrival at Pop’s farmhouse.  It was miserably cold and wet and the corn field across the road was nothing but winter stalk stubble.  It rained throughout our stay including the day of the funeral and except for Pop and my older brother Bill who went out to perform the never ending farm chores, we were trapped inside the house.  My mother cooked, washed dishes and clothes, vacuumed, dusted and polished silver - all the things that Grandma would have done.  I tried to help when I could but my primary responsibility was playing quietly with my younger brother a nearly impossible task.  We all wanted to be outside or anywhere but trapped inside that house.

Grandma was born Dorothy Ellen Wells in 1900 in Kentucky which made her fifty-six or fifty-seven when she passed.  Her hair was thin and white and her lightly freckled face was pale, weathered and worn.  From my earliest memory she looked to be in her sixties or early seventies.  I guess we shared those genes because my hair and beard went white in my early fifties.  I’m not sure what caused her death.  I have a vague recollection of the mention of a heart attack, but I clearly remember my Aunt Edna specifically blaming Pop because, “… he let that poor woman work herself to death!”

She did work from before sunrise to after sunset everyday of her life.  Awake at four in the morning, she prepared breakfast while Pop did his morning chores.  After breakfast she washed dishes and went out to feed the chickens and collect eggs – not a few but dozens of eggs from the hen house.  They sold eggs to supplement the farm’s income.  She planted and weeded the vegetable garden.  She harvested and canned fruits and vegetables and made jellies and jam.  She cooked, she baked, and she did laundry in a galvanized wash tub, scrubbing clothes and sheets with a wash board, wringing them out, rinsing them twice and hanging them on the clotheslines in the yard to dry in the sun.  This was done with water hand pumped from the cistern and the well.  She quilted, made her own clothes on a pedal driven Singer sewing machine and carried lunch out into the fields.  She swept the floor with a broom, mopped and dusted and dragged the carpets out into the yard to whip out clouds of dirt and dust with a rattan beater.  She even churned butter, I know this; because feeding chickens, collecting eggs, weeding, picking, beating carpets and churning butter were some of the things I did to help her.  There was no electric washing machine, no gas dryer, and for years not even a vacuum cleaner so all of these tasks were accomplished by hand, with a minimum of mechanical assistance.

Even though I had no way of understanding it, I could sense that her life was an iconic transition from the America of the 19th to 20th centuries.  Whenever Pop and my brother Bill came back from hunting in the woods, I clearly remember her hugs in the warm kitchen where the faint scent of Ivory soap on her skin mingled with the odors of fried squirrel and sassafras root tea.  To this day I remember her smile and soft laugh and how I always did whatever I could to please her.

These memories came up throughout the time we stayed in Pop’s house.  I’m not sure about how it worked out but on the morning of the funeral, it was decided that brother Bill would stay to baby sit me and our little brother Rick.  I suspect we were so antsy that Mom just couldn’t handle the idea of dealing with us at the church and graveyard.  In any case she got Pop and Mac dressed in their black suits and they drove off into the rain leaving us alone at home.  

Bill wasn’t particularly pleased and as the hours passed, he grew more sullen and Rick and I became more raucous in our play.  We were literally running amuck playing tag and jumping over the furniture in the living room when we knocked a lamp over.  Bill jumped across the room and caught it just before it crashed to the floor.  His quiet disappointment and frustration exploded into rage and profane threats of what would happen when our parents returned.  Fortunately Bill let it all slide and during the wake Rick and I were occupied with play with our cousins.  We left before dawn on the following day and I remember nothing of our trip back to Florida or the weeks and months that followed except that for some reason Mom had a hysterectomy.

War Stories:


  DoD File photo possible taken by my Dad

 At some point during the summer the movie Twelve O'Clock High showed on local TV and we had a pizza party with the Savitch family to watch it with Mac.  After it ended we all went outside to sit and talk.  Charlie and Lottie told us all about life on the ground under Hitler’s Germany and Aunt Helen snorted and spat in her complete disgust for “…dat crazy lil’ houze painter from Austria.”

It was around midnight when Charlie asked Mac about the movie.  Dad took a pull on his cigar and after a long moment he said, “It was pretty good except for the mission over Schweinfurt.  We flew that second raid on Black Thursday in October of ’43 and that was the worst mission I ever flew – completely FUBAR from the get go.  We lost our fighter escorts going in and we came in to our bomb runs in two different flights strung out over a half hour, so the Germans got to refuel and reload and hit us again on the way back home.  The flak was so thick over the target you could barely see the planes off your wingtip and whenever you could see the sky there was another plane going down.  If you weren’t a believer when you took off that morning, you were praying to your Maker to get back alive that afternoon…”

After finishing his beer he continued… “The Germans claimed they shot down over a hundred, and the papers in London printed that we lost sixty in the air and another seventeen crash landed in England.  I think it had to be worse than that.  I know the head count in our group was short by nearly a hundred and the 305th lost 85%.  They gave us all medals for that mission and our crew got shipped back home to help sell War Bonds.  Maybe the only reason I got out of England alive, I guess somebody upstairs was lookin’ out for me.”

Although the family photo albums were filled with pictures from the forties including shots that Dad took during his twenty odd missions with the Eighth Army Air Force, he kept his medals in his sock drawer and as I remember that was only time that he every talked about the war.

except for attributed photos and text all content is copyrighted  © 2012 JKM

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