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November, 2016

The Power of Words

by Julia

(Reproduced from a draft written in the fall of 2016 for Waco's Heart of Texas Storytelling Guild.)

I have been thinking of the power of words. You are here tonight because you expect to be entertained. Perhaps you might laugh or maybe even cry. Our storytellers will bring words alive for you.

I will tell you of the first time I knew the power of a word. I was about four or five, when I heard my aunt talking to my mother. She said, "I still remember how excited you were when Julia was only nine months old. She pulled herself up in her crib and called "Mama, Mama." You were so thrilled you went all around the neighborhood telling about it. Well, my Mother said, "I thought it proved she was smart when she pulled herself up and called for me when she was only nine months old." When I heard that I was pleased; I was old enough to understand what smart is. When I started school, I did well. After all I was smart, and that was important.

Words can build us up, but sometimes tear us down.

In 1922 when I was born, all the houses on my street had an indoor room where there was a toilet and bathtub. My grandfather, doing most of the work himself had put in the facility but had not put in a lavatory. Our kitchen sink fulfilled that function, and in addition to washing ourselves it was used for washing dishes, pots and pans, cleaning garden vegetables, pulling feathers and cleaning a dead chicken, and even rinsing a mop after cleaning the floor. These were my thirteen-year-old chores.

I remember my grandfather, who worked for the Katy Railroad, coming in to get ready for work. He had what he called a razor strop hanging on the wall by the sink. He sharpened his straight razor on it and proceeded to shave. After shaving he would finish washing up; only Saturday was complete bath time. In summer it was hot so the window by the sink was left open. I spent many hours at that sink.

We had a radio and my grandfather and grandmother listened to news, religious music, such as the Stamps Quartet, or country, such as Gene Autry. By that time I had discovered opera and light classics. Not knowing the words, still I would sing loudly as I thought an opera star would. I dreamed that some rich person would come by and recognize my talent and pay for lessons.

My grandfather by this time was rather deaf and it didn't bother him. However one of our neighbors came by and I heard him say, "John, why don't you stop that granddaughter of yours from that awful caterwauling. It sounds like a sick cat, only louder.

Those are words not easily forgotten, especially when my grandfather replied, "Well, you see Bill, I won't get much pension and I've been buying houses to rent out when I quit the railroad. I've already gotten the houses on either side of me, and I think the people across the street are about to give up."

Yes, words can hurt. I didn't want to ruin my grandfathers retirement plans but I sang more softly after that. I also had to accept that I wasn't destined to become an opera star.

Years went by. Our country was preparing for war. I married an officer in the Army. Shortly, he was sent to Drew Field in Tampa, Fl. It at first had only bare fields, and the soldiers slept in tents. The camp newspaper every week had a picture of the largest rattlesnake killed that week. Gradually they got the barracks and offices built. My husband's main job was to investigate the men who would be trained to operate the secret early warning system, known as radar. Only those completely trustworthy were admitted into the program. The men were working 7 days a week and often 12 hours a day.

Julia early in her marriage to Leon, about 1942

My husband had convinced me that my main contribution to the war effort was to shine his shoes, polish the brass on his insignia and belt buckle, and wash his summer uniforms. I had no washing machine but used wash tubs, hung the clothes out to dry, starched them, and then ironed. It was very hot, and usually a clean uniform each day was needed. He said that often officers would stop him to ask where he got his done; they looked perfect. It is a wonder that he didn't tell them his wife was so anxious to help in the war effort she would do theirs also.

One evening he put on his pajamas early, exhausted. He said his toenails needed trimming but he was too tired. Once more I was to help with the war effort. I set to work, and in moments he was fast asleep. A devil spoke to me; it said: "You shine his shoes, polish the brass, keep up his uniforms---clipping toenails is going too far."

I got my manicure set and got out my very red nail polish. Those toes looked bright and red. I pulled the covers up and went to bed myself. My plan was that after his initial shock I would remove the polish. However we both slept late, and there was no time. All should have been well until he came home that evening.

However, a surprise inspection was called, meaning that the men had to remove all clothing, including shoes, and, wearing only a raincoat, line up to have a doctor make sure they were in good shape. Ordinarily only the enlisted men had to do this, but this time the officers had to join the line. I suspect that if I had been available just then I would have been in danger.

At midmorning my husband rushed up the stairs to our apartment to get his shaving kit. An ambulance was waiting, and the orderlies gave him only enough time to get the kit. The examination had revealed that he had a hernia. I can't help but think that the doctors at Drew Field thought it would be great fun to send an officer with red toenails to be seen at McDill Field. At that time Drew had no hospital and all surgery was done at McDill. On the other hand, there might have been another kind of evaluation they had in mind. The operation was scheduled for the next day, and before the surgeon could get a look at the red nails a kind nurse removed the polish.

So I learned that words can have unintended consequences. When my husband was buttering me up trying to make me feel important about helping with the war effort, he never expected that he would be known as the officer with red polished toenails.

(Thanks much, Julia, for the use of this poignant and amusing story, another to add to your collection. By now there must be at least a couple books' worth. Appreciate too your keeping your kids and later their families entertained with such anecdotes through many decades! Larry)


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