Evelyne died when she was five. There in the August cornfield with open blue skies above, her life ended. She was on her back, trying to catch her breath. Each short gasp bringing in the pungent smells of fear, dirt and him. Evelyne struggled as he easily pinned her tiny body between the corn stocks with his teenage frame. She wanted her mother. She wanted him to get off. Her cries were silent and not heard. Not by anyone. Not even the crows casting shadows over them as they scavenged for food.
“Don’t tell your mother, or she’ll spank you hard,” he said zipping up his Levi’s. Evelyne could still hear the sound of the stalks swishing and crackling as he walked away pushing them aside. She lay there in her rumpled play dress, sobbing in fear until his steps faded away and only silence was heard. It ends there. That’s all she ever would remember of that summer’s day while playing hide-and-seek with her cousins on Grandpa’s farm, and life as any little girl should be allowed to have, well, for Evelyne, it disappeared when she was five. I am Evelyne.
My husband and I have often talked about our childhoods and about our years growing up and we both have come to the same conclusion. We had, in our opinions, the ‘luck of the draw’ to be born and live through the best years so far in our American history. Who knew?!
The wings of Capitol Airlines were carrying me far away from the mundane existence in the steel town where I grew up. I was eighteen and I was never coming back. I was free. At last! Free to live my own dreams, on my own terms. I never wanted to think of those fourteen wasted years of my life in Ohio again.
Youth. Oh my. Youth! Such hubris. How could I have known then that those early formative years on my grandfather’s farm in Bloomingdale and later, the good fortune to live and be educated among an ethnically diversified community like the steel town of Steubenville, Ohio during the 40’s and 50’s would, in hindsight, be the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
I grew up having no fears. I can’t remember ever being afraid of anything, except maybe disobeying my parents. We never locked our shiny new blue Plymouth in the garage out back. Not even when good times brought a powder blue Cadillac convertible in its place. I knew the front door would always be unlocked when I arrived home from the YMCA Swing Haven at night and I easily traveled by myself everywhere on the bus at all hours and walked the two blocks from the bus stop to my home. I felt safe. I was safe.
Our neighbor’s doors were always open to all and it seemed we were always either delivering or on the receiving end of casserole and cake exchanges from one to the other. We genuinely cared about one another. Neighbors were extended family in our blue collar neighborhood. If ever needed, help was just next door at the neighbors house.
High school jobs were easily found for us. My first was in Denmark’s, a family owned department store, where the owner knew my name. I started at Christmas as a wrapper and worked my way up to sales in lingerie. Customers didn’t seem to be agitated during the long wait for the canister carrying their money being sucked up the vacuum tube to accounting and back again with their receipt and correct change. People had patience. We all seemed to take life in stride.
Our high school had our great football team and marching band that gave our town additional purpose and pride beyond the fact that we produced steel that was helping rebuild the country.
We didn’t have to worry about drugs back then. The worst worry for us girls was not having a date to the prom because we had to wait to be asked. The worst whispers were about the boys and ‘wild girls’ who would go to the coal pits outside of town to smoke cigarettes, drink beer and fool around or the girls that would go to “visit” their out-of-town relatives for nine months.
We studied, jitterbugged, ate square pizza and Coke, went to the drive-in and necked and had swirled ice cream with the curl on top at the local Dairy Queen and watched Ed Sullivan on our RCA televisions Sunday nights with our families.
Our parents earned a good living and were prosperous. They had hopes for the future. We as teenagers never had any doubts that we could reach and achieve our dreams. The world was ours if we were willing to work for it.
And the reality of it is, it was all true. Our generation was afforded the best environment for achieving and witnessing the greatness of the American people and their dreams. We were a town of all nationalities, all colors and I never thought or was taught there were any differences between us.
I do believe, though, that our diverse community along the Ohio River was not unique. It was a softer and more gentle time of hope for the future in America. No one thought that it would disappear. Not here.
How were any of us to know we were so very fortunate living in those special times and that this recipe for living would never be duplicated ever again.
It was summer. It was hot. It was Friday night in 1953. My friends and I boarded the bus downtown to our local YMCA and scampered down the outside stairs to the basement Swing Haven. It was the place to be. The rainbow-lit juke box would be blaring and swinging with Dean Martin, Perry Como, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Eddy Fisher and Hank Williams. We could count on it. Our teenage hearts were pounding with excitement as we entered the darkened abyss.
Duck-tailed boys on one side and poodle skirts and pony tails on the other. The biggest worry for us girls was that we would be left standing alone and not get picked to dance.
Basically, what I am trying to say is that, other than being rejected by the opposite sex, we had so few fears in those days. We rode the bus alone at night and walked home on dimly lit streets and came home to unlocked doors. No cell phones or alarms. My parents never worried that I would be anything but safe in Steubenville in 1953.
At the same time a world away in Berlin, my pen pal Ursula, was living an entirely different life.
Dear Sandra, Berlin, 7th Juli 1953
I have the letter from June 18th not can send to you. Here in the sovjet-sector from Berlin we had a big demonstration of all people here. I send now the letter from the west-sector (american-sector). I hope very, that you now became it. Escuse me, that is so a long time continues.
Please write me directly, therewith I wait that the post goes. The next letter send me please to my aunt in the west-sector of Berlin.
Sincerely yours, from Ursula Thie
On June 16, 1953 construction workers on Stalinallee in East Berlin downed their tools and went on strike. The initial strike spread quickly: by the morning of June 17th 40,000 demonstrators were marching in East Berlin, with a wave of similar strikes and protests recorded in numerous cities.
By the afternoon, the situation had escalated to such an extent that Soviet tanks had rolled out onto the streets of Berlin, the conflict leaving more than 40 dead and 400 injured. By the evening it was over. Seven hundred protestors were arrested for their involvement. The level of discontent took both the East German authorities and the Soviets by surprise. And people like Ursula were caught in the middle just because she lived in a sector given to the Soviets.
Ursula lived through the violent fall of Berlin in 1945, loosing her father. The Soviet Army held little interest in taking prisoners, which seemingly played well into the German mentality of “fighting to the last”.For her hard times were a well-etched part of her 17 year old life so far. She seemed to take it strangely in stride.
The letter I received from her written during the uprising talks matter-of-factly about the mini-opera houses, cinemas and her life living in the heart of ‘the chief city’ of Germany. In closing, she notes that in Germany the modern music of bogies, bops, and other dances grows. Jazz has only found ‘some friends’. They like waltzes, fox trots, polkas and tangos.
Little did we both know that the world would in time become smaller and smaller with an internet click melding each civilization and one another.