The states and I were growing up at the same time. The end of WWII and Korea marked the end of “The Depression” that had darkened our parents’ childhoods. People had jobs and money to buy what they wanted. There were new cars, new houses, new suburbs, education (thanks to the GI bill). Children had toys, went to the dentist, and didn’t have to walk three miles to get to school in the winter.
There was television to take the place of radio. There were other new inventions like washing machines without wringers, refrigerators replaced iceboxes, and cars became convertibles, Medicine was better. Penicillin had been invented during the war, so people didn’t die from infections and pneumonia. Everybody seemed excited and happy. The U.S. was a superpower. We had saved everybody from the evils of Hitler.
Children were all going to have a good education, go to college, and live a happy life. God was on our side. Old people would have pensions, Social Security, and cures for diseases. We all would have homes, TV’s, cars, and a real chicken in a real pot. No more pie in the sky. In the suburbs no one talked about the bad things. Racism, poverty, justice for all, differences, or other wars were pushed out of the minds of the middle class. Life would be perfect, just like those shows on TV. My parents dived right into the fifties with delight.
We arrived in Park Forest toward the end of the summer. It was a new development. All the houses looked alike. Row after row of sameness, houses and duplexes varying only in color lined the streets. Every one had a one car garage and one car to put in it. People got along with only one because most of the fathers rode a train into the city or Loop where my Dad also worked. Every morning my Mom and all the other moms would drive to the station. Fathers boarded the trains and joined the other dads walking on the concrete into the tall buildings. Most moms didn’t work. They stayed home and took care of the children. They would clean, cook meatloaves and casseroles, and make a home.
Television reflected the time. Howdy Doody with Princess Summer Fall Winter Spring told the kids to be good and study hard. Superman was heroic and invincible. On the Cisco Kid, the sidekick Poncho was a kindly but courageous buffoon. Even dogs and horses were brave and admirable. Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, Silver and Trigger often saved The Long Ranger and Roy Rogers and prevailed against injustice.
My world consisted of the Park Forest suburbs and its elementary school. I first became aware of the “baby boom” when we moved to Chicago. I was actually two years too old to be a part of it, but I still suffered from its repercussions. All schools in the country were overcrowded because of it. My school had two sessions every day. The morning session ran from about 7:30 A.M. to 12:00 P.M. The afternoon session ran from 12: 30 to 5:00. I got the afternoon session.
The school was new, new but already obsolete. It had been built without the recognition of the growth potential of the suburbs and the virility of the returning soldiers of WWII. My Mom took us to the school to register us on that late September morning and discovered that this overcrowding had mandated the split shift. This meant that my brother was to go to school from 7:30 to noon and I was to go from 12:30 till five PM. Nothing could be done. Since school had been going on for 5 weeks, the office told my mother that we just had to take the schedule that was offered.
My mother was horrified. The school’s schedule was a precursor to her broken back. She would have to take my Dad to the train at 5:30 a.m., return home, get the children up, fix breakfast, take Mike to school, have me around all morning, fix lunch, pick up Mike and drop me off, have Mike around all afternoon, fix dinner, pick me up, pick up Dad at the train, serve dinner, clean the kitchen, get us put to bed, and go to bed. It was a curse. The woman who had had a maid and a house boy would never have a moment to herself in Chicago. It was no consolation that other women in the neighborhood had similar schedules and more children.
The first day of school arrived and my brother left for his shift. I was lonely and bored. My mother gave me some chores to do. I had to match all the socks and clean the bathroom sink. After my chores were completed, I went outside. It seemed that I was the only kid left on the street. It looked like that all of the kids had the first shift but me. It was not a happy revelation. I went back inside read one of my books to my doll and straightened out my doll house. Finally, it was lunch and school.
My mother dropped me at my classroom. She left then to pick up Mike. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Smith or something. I stood there, the new girl, and looked back at the eyes that stared at me. Mrs. Smith introduced me to the class. I think she was trying to be kind and help me get socialized. “Students, this is Linny. She has just moved here from Japan. Let’s all help her feel at home in our class.” Thirty two pairs of suspicious eyes stared at me. I was led to a desk and sat down. Mrs. Smith began the spelling lesson and later we had a math drill.
When recess time came I walked out to the playground alone following the others. The boys stated up a kickball game. Most of the girls were clearly avoiding me. Finally, a group of five girls came over to me. “Hi” I said.
“Are you Japanese?” asked on of the girls. She had on a yellow dress with a white sash.
“No,” I answered. “I’m American.”
A girl with dark straight hair and black eyes grimaced unpleasantly. “Well, you look Japanese to me,” she spat out, “and your eyes look funny.” She pushed me, and they all ran away laughing. I didn’t understand what they meant. I knew that I didn’t look Japanese. I looked like almost all of the other girls except for Gina, the girl with the dark hair and two girls who had brown hair. Everyone else, like me, seemed to have long blond hair and blue eyes. No one talked to me for the rest of that day.
I had always had had friends at school in Okinawa and Japan. Susanne and Suzette, identical twins, had been my best friends in Kobe. Their dad was a Captain in an infantry division. (I would never see them again, but I didn’t know it then.) But here, in Chicago, I was shunned. No one wanted to sit by me. I was never chosen to be part of a group until the last pick, when no choice was offered.
Finally, October came and everyone was talking about the annual Halloween parade at school. I listened to the excited chatter of a group of girls in my class while sitting on a swing next to the jungle gym where they squealed and gushed about last year’s parade. It was to be held on the Saturday before Halloween which was on a Monday. It was going to be “so fun” and “the prize was ten dollars for the best costume.
I started thinking about what I would wear. It had to be spectacular and different. If I could win the prize for best costume, maybe the kids would like me and want to be friends. Fugiwara, our houseboy in Japan, had given me a beautiful Japanese kimono for the Festival of the Dolls ceremony the year before we had moved. It was silk, with pink, yellow, and white flowers.
I also had a pink sash, or obi, and crimson velvet socks with toes that I could wear with my wooden thongs. It was a costume that no one else would have. I was sure I would win. Finally, the kids would see me. Needless to say, I was too naïve to understand that my feeling toward the Japanese culture were different from my classmates and teachers. I would soon learn.
That Saturday morning it started to snow. “You’ll have to wear your storm coat over your costume, Linny” said my mother. “I wonder if they’ll still have the parade on the playground.” Certainly, they’ll move it inside to the gym. Dad and I are taking Mike and going to the store. You’ll have to walk to school.” They left and I went upstairs to don my costume. It was perfect. I just knew it.
When I went downstairs, I noticed that the snow was falling much faster. I went to the hall closet and took my storm coat off of the hanger. Then I realized. No one would be able to see my outfit if I was wearing the storm coat. Also my boots. I have to wear them instead of my lovely Japanese thongs. Mom was probably right, I thought. They would certainly move inside for the parade, so I’d be all right.
The wind chilled me as soon as I stepped out the door. Snow was falling very fast now. “Oh well,” I thought. “It’s only five blocks.” The wind whipped around me as I started out, head down, determined. I had on a hat and gloves, boots, and my storm coat, and my silk kimono under it all. I was freezing. I remember thinking. “This is a blizzard.” Nevertheless, I continued on. My hands and feet rapidly became numb. My nose hurt and felt like a Popsicle.
Finally, through the blowing snow, I saw the school ahead. I quickly ran toward the front door. It was locked. “Where was everybody,” I wondered? Then I heard the kids shouting. The noise came from the playground around the back. I turned and trudged toward the shouts and laughter.
The parade had started already. There were clowns, lots of ghosts, witches, and cowboys and cowgirls. One boy wore a giant box. He was a parcel post package. He was being congratulated by several parents and teachers. “What an original idea! You did a great job.” He probably had his snowsuit on under his disguise. He looked happy and warm. It was too late. He had won. No one had even seen me or my costume. I turned and struggled home in defeat. My tears and the snow made my face wet and chapped. My dreams of being popular were crushed like the kimono under my storm coat.
Four months later we moved again. Dad was transferred to Kansas City. In Kansas City I also found that my world view was different from my peers. Someone asked me on the playground if I was a “rebel or a yankee”. I remember saying a yankee.” I had heard of a yankee. I was to discover that was the wrong answer. I didn’t understand until I had turned thirty and took a college American History course.
I was to live in Chicago again with my parents three years later for another six months. I don’t have any memories about that time. We didn’t live in Park Forest, but in Glenview. I never saw any of those Park Forest kids again. I don’t remember any of their names. I’m sure they don’t remember me either.
I do know one thing. I never ever believed after that day that I would win anything and I never have. I’m not a person who gambles. I’ve never had a lucky streak. I learned not to expect much of others. I watched them more than I knew them. As we moved around, I learned about people, love, friendship, redemption and hope in books, but books end too. I had very few friends, and those that I had I didn’t value very much. It was easier. We would move on, and the people I met were forgotten. I became proud of my independence.
I admire people who still know and have friends that they met in grade school or middle school. I can’t imagine it. Mostly for me, friendship is a foreign concept. The few women or men with whom I’ve become friendly as an adult don’t seem to last. Usually it seems they become too needy or want to change me. Or I get busy. So I move in my mind. I can’t really blame them. I’m not really a good friend. It’s too easy for me to say good bye.