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Happy Winter Solstice!

I have a Winter Solstice tradition to share with you. I hope you enjoy it and are happy – like me – to see longer days coming.

When I was much younger, my mother and I attended services at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church, one of the oldest places of worship in the country, where I was in the choir. My family had a long history with the church, with many of my ancestors christened, married, and eventually buried there. Like many places in the Northeastern part of the country, history oozed from every brick and cobblestone in Philadelphia. I suspect the major reason I went to church was that I loved the music so much.

Swedish colonists established Gloria Dei in 1677, five years before the founding of Philadelphia. The church has maintained many Swedish traditions. One of them is the Lucia Fest, a custom that is a mixture of Christianity and paganism. It celebrates both the birth of the Christ child and the winter solstice.

The Lucia fest at Gloria Dei was, and still is, a beautiful enactment. From the entirely candle-lit church, it begins with a procession of little boys and girls dressed in red as tomptegubbars (Santa’s elves), followed by the stjärngossar (star boys), and Lucia’s court of young girls dressed in long white nightgowns with green wreaths on their heads, carrying lighted candles. Finally, they are followed by the girl chosen to be Lucia. All of the participants sing traditional Swedish songs a capella as they proceed down the aisle of the church. Just thinking and writing about it gives me goosebumps. At the old building that was Gloria Dei, besides the performers and the audience, there were a lot of unobtrusive firefighters on the scene, just in case.

In homes throughout Sweden—and parts of the US where there are many Swedish immigrants—the custom is for the oldest girl in the household to arise early and walk through her house on the day of the solstice. She wakes her family, serving sweetbreads and coffee, singing along the way. Lucia represents the lengthening of the days and the return of the sun. And, later, the arrival of the Christ child, as the light of the world.

In my sixteenth year, I was chosen to be a Lucia. I sang solo in Swedish while wearing a crown of seven lighted candles, signifying the seven known planets at the time this custom began. Even after all these years, I still remember the words. In spite of being scary, it was also exhilarating.

A very young author and her mom – trying to be Swedes.
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Heartbroken

This just breaks my heart.

These young people that were killed in Kabul were our grandchildrens’ ages. Many of them were Marines, as my mom was. They were stationed at places where she served – Camp Pendleton, and Camp Lejuene. One was in the Navy, as my dad was. They were all far too young to die at the hands of violent extremists who don’t care about their country or its people. Only about their ideology.

The world is just too crazy lately.

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Author Fair This Weekend!

I’m very pleased to be part of Copperfield Books’ Author Fair this coming weekend – Saturday, May 29 – from 11:00 AM to 4 PM. I’ll be joining about twenty other authors, from all genres, local to the Northwest Houston area, near Champion Forest. Copperfield’s is an independent bookstore who does a wonderful job of packing a lot into a little.

We’ll be set up in the parking lot at the corner of Champion Forest and Louetta. You won’t be able to miss us. And why would you want to?

Come join us!

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She Was Ahead of Her Time

In 1948. President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. It opened the way for women to be permanent, regular members of all the armed services – including the Marines. My Mom beat him by five years, by becoming one of the first women to be accepted into the Corps in 1943.

Happy International Women’s Day, Mom. Wish you were still here with us.

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Her Name Was Irene Helen

Her family helped establish our country. They fought in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the War of 1812 (which Canadians tell us we lost), the Spanish-American War, and World War II. Various family root stocks settled in parts of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in the 200 years before her birth. They produced a lineage that was strong and resilient.

After the birth of two brothers, she was a surprise and a great gift to her parents, having been born on their sixth anniversary.

Although some would call her unconventional, she was fun-loving. She and her brothers played ukuleles, sang, and put on skits in the family living room. When wallpaper was stripped to be replaced, they drew cartoons on the plaster walls. I can fondly remember seeing them when I was a young child and that wallpaper was removed again. But those skits used to embarrass me horribly when I was a sophisticated teenager. I think I know where any creative juices I may possess came from.

Good at math and supremely well-read, most people assumed she had a college degree. She certainly had a life degree and was one of the most articulate people I’ve ever known.

Men’s heads turned when they saw her. She was beautiful as well as personable. And unfailingly pleasant. A positive person when life threw her lemons. And she caught a lot of them.

She made history when she became a Sergeant Major in the US Marine Corps during World War II. Up to this time, the Marines were the last bastion of males only among the services. She was:
• among the first of eight women to be sworn into the Corps in Philadelphia.;
• in the first class of Women Marines to be trained at Hunter College;
• chosen with thirteen other women out of hundreds in her boot camp group to attend the inaugural class of Women Marines in First Sergeant’s school;
• one of the first Women Marines to appear in uniform in Philadelphia. It caused quite a stir, and was featured in the local newspaper;
• the first of four women to make First Sergeant;
• the first woman to replace a male First Sergeant.

She was highly intelligent, even though she never finished high school. One of her greatest accomplishment was to see me do well in school and graduate. Assignments were pored over and she constantly encouraged me to be “better” than she was. She was chest-thumpingly proud when her only child got a B.Sc. in Chemistry and an MBA from The Wharton School. It was perilous for anyone who might have asked how her child was doing during that time.

She was an indefatigable single mom, who took care of me, her invalid mother, her father and ran the household like a Marine. She somehow managed to balance everything while maintaining her equilibrium. And her sense of humor.

Our family lost her in 1985. The world lost an unheralded heroine who paved the way for others. I still miss her and can never thank her enough for the impact she had on my life.

Her name was Irene Helen. And she was my Mom, the Marine. Happy Birthday to the USMC!

Episode 6 of Irene’s Story – The Arrival of the (In)famous Clarence

Irene heard that some of the Women Marines in Camp Lejeune would be going to Hawaii. Irene was thrilled since she and her good friend Gerry were slated to go. They made all sorts of elaborate plans and even did a little skit with their fellow Feathernecks to celebrate. Their outfits of straw skirts and leis topped off with goofy masks and signs that said “Honolulu Here We Come” were the hit of the celebration.


Unfortunately, they made plans too soon, and learned that “the Corps” sometimes worked – or didn’t work – in mysterious ways. Gerry shipped out in November 1944, leaving poor Irene stuck in North Carolina with the roaches. But in December, just as she was about to have a Christmas leave with her family in Philadelphia, she got orders that she was being shipped to San Diego. That was the first step.

San Diego was a major disappointment to Irene. The Marine Corps base back then was a staging area for the troops going somewhere else, mostly the Pacific. There were waves of them who had to have muster rolls prepared and payroll records initiated, changed, or updated. Unfortunately, her staff there wasn’t like the top-notch crew she had at Camp Lejuene – or as large. And, the constant flow of troops was as never-ending as the California sunshine.

On top of that, Irene was conscientious to a fault. Because of her exceptional experience at Camp Lejuene, and the fact that she excelled at her job, she suspected that the Corps was keeping her from going to Hawaii. Instead of a workload of the two assignments that she handled at Camp Lejeune, she had three in San Diego: one as Acting Sergeant Major; Adjutant (an assistant to the Commanding Officer, or CO); and First Sergeant. Her feelings were likely well-founded. Those responsible were short-handed and they couldn’t afford to lose her. She began working 12- to 18-hour days again and started to burn out. Her superiors finally told her to slow down – which she reluctantly did. Meanwhile, her good friend Gerry had shipped off to Pearl Harbor, so she didn’t even have a buddy to gripe and share late-night snacks with.

Eventually the workload lightened up significantly, and life got easier in San Diego, so Irene could enjoy a bit of time to herself. She made one weekend trip up to Los Angeles with some other Feathernecks so she could see first-hand what Hollywood was all about. They went to The Brown Derby, Sardi’s, the legendary Clifton’s Cafeteria, and saw Grauman’s Chinese Theater with its celebrity footprints and handprints. In spite of its supposed glamour, she wasn’t impressed with Hollywood, and thought it seemed like any other smallish town. Irene was a big city girl, after all.

But right at home, the Marine Corps base had occasional dances, which she thought were much more fun than Hollywood, and she went to as many of them as she could. At least they were easier to get to, and less expensive. Best of all, they played a bigger variety of songs than “Pistol-Packin Mamma.” There were new tunes too, like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” that she could jitterbug to and “Sentimental Journey” for those dreamy slow dances.

Among her other duties, Irene scheduled the Marines who were on her muster rolls for physicals and dental checkups before they shipped out, so she had frequent contacts with those who were responsible for scheduling at those facilities. Clarence was now stationed at the Dental Clinic in San Diego, performing duties as a Dental Technician, and one of his responsibilities was scheduling. They spoke to each other frequently by phone. For weeks, in addition to setting appointments, they laughed and joked and engaged in some serious flirting with one another.

On one occasion, Clarence told Irene, “I heard you need to have all your teeth pulled. I’m so sorry to hear that, but I’m just the guy to be the technician to assist when you get that done.”

Irene was pretty clever too, so she shot back at him, “Listen, buster, if you even think about doing that, I’ll send a platoon of my Marine buddies over to rough you up.”

They both enjoyed the verbal foreplay, and worked hard at coming up with more outlandish things to tell each other.

Episode 5 of Irene’s Story

In February 1944, Irene was promoted to Tech Sergeant. A Tech or Technical Sergeant was similar in rank to a gunnery sergeant and other technical ranks with which it shared its insignia. Then in March, she made First Sergeant. By this time, she had 120 women in her company plus nineteen Drill Instructors (DIs) – all men, of course. She developed strong friendships with those DIs, who referred to her as “Top.” She learned about leadership and how to get people to do what you want them to do. Within the first year or so of her Marine Corps career, she had racked up an impressive collection of achievements:

• the first woman to leave Sharpe & Dohme to join the Marines
• among the first of eight women to be sworn into the Corps in Philadelphia
• one of the first class of Women Marines to be trained at Hunter College
• among the first group of Women Marines to appear in uniform in Philadelphia
• one of the first group of fourteen chosen from boot camp to attend the inaugural class of Women Marines in First Sergeant’s school
• the first of four women to make First Sergeant
• the first woman to replace a male First Sergeant

Irene (fourth from left) and her fellow Feathernecks arriving in Philadelphia. Photo Philadelphia Inquirer

Life at Camp Lejeune did have its bright spots, however, and the Feathernecks (along with the Leathernecks) got liberty as long as they behaved. They’d frequently go into the nearest “town,” Swansboro, which had a population of 454 in 1940. Not exactly a metropolis. There was a great little restaurant there called Captain Charlie’s, where those Yankee girls learned how to eat Southern, from fried green tomatoes to grits to hushpuppies to yummy fried catfish, and crisp, succulent fried chicken. And, it was a change from the base. The locals loved seeing the women Marines, who were still a novelty then. I suspect this is where I learned my love for Southern food, although the only ones I remember my Mom cooking as I was growing up were fried green tomatoes. But I can easily make a meal out of grits. Especially if they have lots of butter and cheese in them.

By August of 1944, there were fewer recruits, so Irene’s company began scaling back. They were down from 139 to 37 at this point, and because one of her clerks had been transferred, she was putting in 12- to 18-hour days just trying to keep up. It started to get really old really quickly. The only saving grace was the food on the base was significantly better, and she and Gerry had friends who were cooks and ran the mess hall. So, even when she worked late, she could always get some food, and especially some goodies like cake, brownies, and cookies. Irene loved goodies.

During her time at Camp Lejeune, she met Carl, a fellow Marine who was a Chief Pharmacist’s Mate in the Quartermaster Corps. The Quartermasters were responsible for logistics, but served alongside the fighting units so they were in just as much danger. Irene and Carl fell deeply in love. They went to Swansboro and ate great food, along with Gerry and whoever she could round up to go along. But there were several hitches. For one, there was a war going on, so personal planning was complex and uncertain at best. More importantly, Carl had a tricky personal situation. He was married, but separated, when he met Irene, and he was very up-front about it. He swore that he’d soon be divorced, but he said that his wife kept dragging her feet on signing the papers.

Irene had finally met who she thought was Mr. Right – if only he was not married. The situation was far from perfect.They both decided to enjoy life while they could, even if they were in limbo. They had a great time together until he was shipped out, first to San Diego, and then to Iwo Jima. He was in the 5th Division, which was the group that sustained the highest casualties of any Marine Division anywhere in WWII. Irene heard from him sporadically, but the last letter she received was in November 1944. She dreaded knowing what that meant, and even pulled some strings to see if she could get any kind of news of him, but to no avail.

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Episode 4 of Irene’s Story

Irene outside the Recruit Depot HQ,
Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Note the sergeant’s stripes.
Personal photo
.

In July, Irene became a newly non-commissioned officer – a Sergeant. Her class was composed of 75 Marines: 61 men, 14 women. She was one of the first women in the country to obtain that distinction. Irene did it with a final grade of 94.5. Not bad for a high school dropout. She was in her glory.
Then reality hit. Irene and the thirteen other newly-minted Featherneck Sergeants were assigned to Camp Lejeune in New River, North Carolina, where the heat and humidity were worse than Philadelphia There was no air conditioning, and the barracks had flying roaches in addition to hot and cold running water. These were the so-called southern tree roaches, not like those smaller, more civilized roaches of the Northern cities that knew their place was on the ground. They had a bad habit of dive-bombing the women while they were in the showers, resulting in a nearly constant barrage of screams. The male Marines thought it was hysterical. The Feathernecks failed to see the humor in it.

In addition to the roaches, there were squadrons of mosquitoes, and platoons of chiggers, which can’t be seen but make you itch like crazy. The Feathernecks arrived in the summer, so they were exposed to the worst that coastal North Carolina could throw at them, with temperatures in the 100-110-degree range, and humidity levels to match.

Camp Lejeune back then was out in the middle of nowhere, and was referred to as the “Hell-Hole” by anyone who’d had any experience with it. The reality was worse. It was situated in Onslow County, North Carolina, roughly five miles from the rugged beaches that would be used in training exercises for the Marine Expeditionary Forces. This elite group played a massive role in the Pacific in Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. But, before the Marines came into North Carolina, the area was composed primarily of tenant farms, and many people who lived there still got supplies by boat, just as generations before them had.

Irene was used to the environments of Hunter College, the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and the Ben Franklin Hotel. All of them were sophisticated, amenity-filled places to live in. She especially missed the food, which was excellent in those places, and there was lots of it. That wasn’t the case in North Carolina, at least not at first. The base was somewhat undeveloped when it was established and built in 1941, and even by 1943, with a population approaching 40,000, it was dramatically different than the near-city it is today, with its 180,000 residents.

However, the “girls” learned to see the positives, and by 1943, the base actually had some decent buildings, all red brick with white trim, so at least it was attractive. One of those buildings was a recreation hall, with dart boards, pool tables, and a dance floor with a jukebox. That contraption seemed to be fixated on one song – “Pistol Packin’ Mamma,” a 1943 number-one song with words composed by Al Dexter, and it played incessantly. But it was certainly appropriate with all those female Marines, who’d had pistol and rifle training and knew how to shoot as well as pack.

The Marine Corps was also new at this Women Marines game, and when Irene arrived, there were no assigned quarters, and no one appeared to have any idea what she and the other “girls” were supposed to do. They eventually figured it out, and Irene was assigned to the Recruit Depot, responsible for payroll and muster rolls for every group of new recruits who came onto the base.

Muster rolls were registers of the officers and men in a military unit. Back in the 1940s, before computers, it was an avalanche of paperwork, with handwriting and typewriters being the norm for recording data. Just keeping up with the mountains of those records for filing was a nightmare. Every time a new battalion came in, Irene and her company had to pack up the documents from the previous group and start the process all over again for the new group.

Within a few months, she was promoted to Staff Sergeant, and inherited some men in her company. They got on well, and they loved being “bossed around” by their pipsqueak “Sarge.” She settled into her role, and made friends among the troops, both men and women. She also had a good woman Marine friend named Geraldine. Gerry was from Chicago. They met at Hunter College and went through First Sergeant’s school together. They were the best of buddies. Gerry even had a car, which they lovingly named “Penny the Passionate Pontiac.” Gerry went on to make a career of the Marine Corps, and was the first woman Marine to attain the rank of E-9, Master Gunnery Sergeant, in 1960. It was the highest non-commissioned officer rank in the Corps.

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Episode 3 of Irene’s Story

Irene loved the routine and the intellectual stimulation, but her petite stature, at five feet one and one half inches, gave her some grief during her training. Of course, the women were to be issued uniforms, but because her group was the first, there was no readily available inventory. These included both winter and summer dress uniforms, along with caps, shoes, and blouses. The Marines had Lord & Taylor working hard on it, but what they eventually got was for taller, larger women, so tiny Irene had to have hers altered significantly, delaying her uniforms’ delivery and nearly scuttling her chance at further training.

            She did well, finishing in the top of her class. All that hard work and her native intelligence paid off. She was chosen to go to First Sergeant’s School.  Those Marines were no dummies. They knew a good thing when they saw it. She also picked up a lot of Navy and Marine jargon, like MMRLH, which was posted on envelopes. It meant Marine Mail Rush Like Hell. Once she learned it, it appeared on the bottom of the envelopes for every letter she mailed back home.

            Best of all, First Sergeant’s School was in Philadelphia, at the U.S. Navy Yard, less than two miles from her family. Although she couldn’t stay with them, it was closer than the Bronx, and she had some spare time to spend with her mother and father during that two-month training period. The Marines put their candidates up in the Ben Franklin Hotel, so they had a pretty nice place to stay.

            The Clerical School at the Navy Base published a little paper back then called The Pen & Bayonet. The troops trained in the Clerical School would go on to become Clerks reporting to a First Sergeant, exactly what Irene and her fellow classmates would become. When she and the other First Sergeant candidates arrived, Irene and a friend wrote an article called “Hello, Fellow Marines.” In it, they introduced the “girls” and penned a little ditty to be sung to the tune of the Marine Corps hymn that summed up these pioneering women perfectly:

You can tell a girl in the Marines,
You can tell her by her walk.
You can tell a girl in the Marines,
You can tell her by her talk.

You can tell her by her manner,
By her attitude and such.
You can tell a girl in the Marines,
But you cannot tell her much!

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VE DAY

From the DAR Newsletter:

“Today, May 8, marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (V-E Day), which signaled the nearing of the end of World War II…

With the approach of the Allies and the death of Adolph Hitler, the Nazi empire surrendered unconditionally on this date in 1945. It marked the end of six long years of a terrible warfare that had cost millions of human lives, destroyed whole cities and brought mass suffering to all of Europe. In preceding weeks, the intolerable cruelty and incomprehensible horrors of Hitler’s death camps had been revealed.  But finally, the Allies had cause to celebrate – the enemy was defeated and had capitulated.”

Both of my parents served – my dad in the Navy, who was on the USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attack hit – and my mom in the Marine Corps, holding down jobs that freed up men to go and fight. I’m very proud of both of them.

So take a moment today to think of all of those Americans and our allies who fought and died so we could be free.

Although we are all dealing in one way or another with Covid-19, one day we will have our victory day.