Confessions of a soda jerk; or life’s embarrassing moments

Being a soda jerk could be educational.  Well, at least it was for me, a rather naïve teenager who spent three school nights a week and every Saturday and Sunday working at the neighborhood pharmacy, Whipp Drugs.  (For those familiar with the Milwaukee area, it was located at N. 72nd Street and W. North Ave. in the same building now occupied by the Chinese Pagoda.  The exterior looks much like it did in my teen years.) 

imagesI started in 1944, the summer I turned fifteen, when the mysteries of women and sex were still a fearful wonder, partly due to my mother who raised us under the strictest rules a Catholic child of the era could face.  She had lost her own mother at age eleven and by her high school years she had been shunted off by her father and stepmother to a convent to instill her with every rule in the Pope’s religion.  Thus, for example, under penalty of sin, you were not to eat or drink anything after midnight on the Sunday when you were to receive communion . . . and then, you couldn’t eat anything after receiving the host until you drank a glass of water.  God was watching and would penalize. 

Also, Waldemar Whipp, who owned the drugstore and lived above it with his wife, believed in the same strict rules of the Church. 

As excited as I was about being a soda jerk (and particularly with Mr. Whipp’s astounding suggestion that I could eat as much ice cream and drink as many Cokes as I wanted), I quickly learned that I was also a clerk, stocker and floor cleaner.  Usually I was the only employee in the store with Mr. Whipp; occasionally, he’d leave me alone while he went up to eat dinner with his wife.  (I even filled simple prescriptions!) 

My lack of understanding about sex was tested early on when a man aged about thirty asked for a strange item I had never heard of before.  My ignorance was testing his patience and he asked for the pharmacist; he was disappointed when I said he was not available (he was eating dinner).  Finally, he leaned over the counter and said, “You know, rubbers.”  Finally, thanks to boy talk at school, I knew that “rubbers” had something to do with sex, though I wasn’t sure what.  I knew it wasn’t something the Lord would approve.  Nor would Mr. Whipp who refused to stock them due to his Catholic beliefs. 

I told him we didn’t stock such things.  “You’re sure,” he thundered.  “I never heard of a drugstore not selling rubbers.”  He stormed out of the store. 

One dinner time, I was again alone in the store, jabbering at the soda fountain with a buddy who was enjoying a lime phosphate.ii  In walked an older lady, tiny and shy-acting.  She looked furtively around the store and I greeted her at the counter where we had the cash register. 

“I need a box of sanitary napkins,” she said. 

I pictured paper table napkins; I swear I’d seen a package of such dinnertime use labelled “200 Sanitary Napkins.” 

“Oh ma’am, we haven’t had those since Pearl Harbor,” I replied.  (Paper goods of all sorts were largely off the shelves by the early years of World War II.) 

The woman couldn’t have been more shocked.  “No, they can’t be.  I’ve bought them here before.” 

“You couldn’t have.  We can’t even get them from our supplier.” 

In the corner of my eye, I could see my friend (who was more knowledgeable in the mysteries of life) snickering. 

The woman leaned over the counter and in a very soft, almost whispery tone said, “Kotex.” 

“Oh Kotex,” I said out loud, causing her no end of embarrassment I’m certain.  My buddy bursted into outright guffaws. 

I knew Kotex, of course.  Mom had boxes of the stuff; also, one of my chores at the store had been to put the Kotex and Modess boxes into special brown paper bags made specifically for the purpose off hiding these female items from the public eye.  (I always wondered how they could find paper for such a purpose, when goods like toilet paper and facial tissues were always in short supply during the war.) 

Whipp Drugs – even though the strict Catholic Waldemar Whipp might not have wanted it that way – helped educate a simple boy into the ways of life.  – Ken Germanson.  Aug. 26, 2017. 

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A date which will live in infamy

Seventy-five years ago – Dec. 7, 1941 – was in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt “a date which will live in infamy,” so named because of the sneak attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor.  Most Americans may know the day from the history books as the historical event that prompted the President to declare war and place U.S. soldiers, sailors and marines into direct conflict against the Axis nations of Germany, Italy and Japan.

day-of-infamy-draft1-page1

Draft of President Roosevelt’s address to Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, declaring war. Click here to view.

You’ve got to be at least eighty years old now to have vivid memories of that day and the bloody battles and home front sacrifices that followed.

I was twelve years old and at about two o’clock on that dreary December Sunday was with my brother, who was just a year younger, pestering our dad to hurry up and get the train table set up in our basement.  It was a pre-Christmas tradition that dad would put our Lionel trains together on a ping pong sized table he had built.

Mom interrupted that father-and-sons annual event when she yelled down the stairs that the Japanese had attacked Hawaii.  My dad stopped what he was doing and yelled something back to mom and we could sense something was wrong.

“Boys,” my dad said.  “I think we’re at war.”

My brother Jerry and I reacted shamefully.  We hooted and hollered in glee, since war would be exciting and glorious.  We only saw soldiers using guns and shooting at the enemy, just like we did almost daily with our neighborhood friends, dodging in and out of bushes and from behind garages in our make-believe skirmishes  of “cops and robbers” and “cowboy and Indians.”

My dad was furious, firmly telling us how serious war can be and that people would be killed.  Dad had just missed being drafted into the Army in World War I, having been scheduled for induction on Nov. 11, 1918, the day of Armistice for that horrific war.  But he knew that tragic events lie ahead.

*****

Jerry and I, along with our youngest brother, Tom, felt the impact of Dec. 7th almost immediately when our bachelor uncle (who had lived with us and helped raise us) learned he was facing re-entry to the Army within weeks.  He had been drafted in 1940, but the Pentagon had decided to release draftees over the age of 28 in late November.  He had been home only about a week when the bombs fell.  He was back in uniform before Christmas and would spend four years in the states and the Philippines before we saw him again.

By April, 1942, the horrors of the war came home to roost; we had seen reports of the Bataan death march when courageous GIs sought to hold out to overwhelming superior Japanese forces only to be captured and put into a long march and starvation.  Reports came in of enemy submarines off the coasts of California and New Jersey.  In our inland city of Milwaukee, we had regular air raid drills.  Dad was made a block warden and was charged with walking around the neighborhood in his hard hat to look for families who may have left a sliver of light break into the darkness.  The nation was girding against bombing raids like those on London by German bombs in the Battle of Britain.  It was a bleak time.

As the war continued, I continued my junior and senior high school years just as kids had done years before.  But things were different with us wartime teenagers.  We studied about the war; we saw seniors being drafted before their graduation; we huffed and puffed through gym classes as instructors sought to prepare us for eventual service to our country.  The war finally ended in August 1945, just before my junior year.  We continued our usual teenage worries about whether the cute blonde girl I admired would agree to be my date for the prom or about how our football team would do against Shorewood. Always the war lurked in the background with such daily realities as limiting our use of the family car because of gas rationing.

More importantly, we couldn’t ignore the news reports, since we knew that unless the fighting didn’t end soon we’d soon be drafted into the thick of it.  Some of us also were saddened at the seemingly unnecessary horrors that developed against innocent non-combatants.  For me the most horrifying event came with the announcement on Aug. 6, 1945 that the United States – the country that we heralded every morning when we said the Pledge of Allegiance – had dropped the atom bomb with an equivalence of 100 blockbuster bombs on the citizens of Hiroshima.  See earlier comment.

With the simple reasoning that rules the teenage mind, we argued that there had to be a way to end to national disputes that usually turned to war.  With my two best buddies, we discovered something called United World Federalism.  It was the logical answer to ending wars forever.  Just as the United States was created into a federal government that controlled the armed forces, why couldn’t the whole world work in the same way, thus taking away from nationalistic governments the tools of war?

The idea briefly had wide appeal in the war’s aftermath with key supporters among a handful of politicians of both parties.  As we all know, the dream faded, leaving us with a largely powerless United Nations and giving way to power blocs such as NATO and SEATO.

*****

Today the world is in chaos.  Nations are hunkering down into their bunkers and growing more suspicious of each other while terrorists using religious fervor as a recruiting tool threaten all of us.

The answer to some, particularly in the incoming administration, is to arm ourselves to the teeth and to use the weapons as a simplistic way to defeated a supposed enemy.  In a way, those people remind me of that afternoon seventy-five years ago when my brother and I strutted around our basement yelling “hooray” because we could turn our playtime soldiering into the real thing.

Even today, I am shamed by our behavior in 1941.  The next four years taught me about the senseless horrors of war.  Surely, I reasoned, there had to be a better way. – Ken Germanson, Dec. 6, 2016.

 

 

Hiroshima: A memory persists for 70 years

Perhaps no date stands out more in my long life than August 6, 1945.  It was two days before my 16th birthday and it had been a warm summer day.  I had biked home, carrying my ragtag golf clubs on my back after playing 27 holes of golf.  It was six o’clock and my parents sat in the living room listening to a news report on radio. They had shocked expressions.

I heard the radio announcer state in somber words, describing “a bomb equivalent in size to 100 blockbusters.” What was that all about? I asked my parents.

My dad said that we (meaning the U.S.) had dropped something called an atomic bomb on a Japanese city called Hiroshima.  “It may mean the end of the war,” he added.

The relief I might have felt by the possible ending of World War II was blunted by my realization that our country had caused terrible devastation, even though at that time I th-2believed, along with just about everyone else that “the Japs deserved it.”  Hadn’t we sung — and hadn’t I plunked out the song on the piano — “We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap?”   (I feel shamed today to write “Jap,” but feel it’s needed here to show the tenor of the times.)

The concept of 100 blockbusters blew my mind. That would mean 100 blocks were destroyed by one bomb; the United States had instituted the use of blockbuster bombs on German cities late in the war and it was not until many years later that I learned of the terrible devastation Allied bombers had done to cities like Dresden.

President Obama has announced that he will be visiting Hiroshima at the end of May, the first US president to make such a visit since the tragic bombing more than seventy years ago. A debate has arisen over whether the President should apologize for the devastation.  Whether such an apology is necessary or not, it’s not mine to answer.

There are lessons we should learn from Hiroshima. I remember seeing early news photos from the bombing and noting there was but one relatively tall, slender building still standing among the devastation.

One year later, one of our next-door neighbor’s sons showed snapshots he had taken while in Hiroshima as a member of an army occupational force.  Even though his black-th-3and-white photos were of the tiny-size typical of the era, the impact couldn’t have been more striking.  There, standing like a lone sentinel was the same singular building amid the rubble, a tragic symbol of the bombing that cost some 200,000 lives.

More than anything else the killing of those Japanese citizens, including many women and children, dramatized the terrible losses that are foisted upon all of us by war.  A scene from Erich Maria Remarque’s famous book, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” has further pointed toward the terrible foolishness of war.  That book, written from a German soldier’s point of view during the First World War, has the hero seeking shelter in a bomb crater and finding a dying French soldier in the same shelter.  After a few tense moments, the French soldier dies.  Guiltily, the German soldier searches the dead man’s pockets, finding a wallet, containing a small picture of a smiling woman and a young child.  It was obviously the man’s family, a family not much unlike his own.  The German solder cries.

Some of us hoped immediately after World War II that we could take steps to end the terrible nationalism that brought about the wars of that Century; why not form a federal world government — modeled after the U.S. Constitution that in 1787 developed a process to bring together our disparate states into a central government that could ensure peace between the states?  The dream failed, though a hamstrung United Nations emerged.

Wars haven’t ended; in fact today’s world is spawning an epidemic of violence.  Now, however, added to the fear of one nation fighting another, we have tribes and terror groups that know no borders engaged in hateful killing sprees.

Those of us who preach peace and urge restraint on “revenge” and “retribution” are castigated as being “weak” and “dreamers.”  Let’s reject that: we recognize the need to sometimes bear arms to enforce peace, but we must resist the inclinations — so often stirred by ambition politicians — to act first in starting a fight, to use a pledge of “making America great again” as an excuse to start bombing again — and killing many innocents along the way.  Ken Germanson, May 15, 2016.

December 7th Memories

There are dates in history, for those of us who lived through them, we never forget.  Most all Americans over the age of 13 or so can tell you exactly where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, the day the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field were hit by terrorists.

For most Americans who are older than 55, the date never to be forgotten is Nov. 22, 1963, the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

But you’ve got to be 75 years of age or older to recall vividly Dec. 7, 1941, the day of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  That became clear today as December 7th passed with hardly a mention of the Pearl Harbor sneak attack that put the U. S. squarely into the throes of World War II.  It was a “Day that will live in infamy,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Congress as he requested support for declaring war on Japan, Germany and Italy.

For a 12-year-old boy in 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor was his initiation into the real world.  He soon would live through the bleak times of the first winter of the war when the Japanese took the Philippines, and our captured soldiers were forced into the cruel Bataan Death March.  He would see the real fear that the U.S. was indeed vulnerable to attacks, even as far inland as his home in Milwaukee.

He would be shocked at the destruction of London and other English cities in the Battle of Britain; he would be in awe of the damage U.S. “Blockbuster” bombs on Germany and then totally unbelieving at the destruction on Aug. 6, 1945 on Hiroshima with the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb.

The 12-year-old boy, growing into young adulthood through these years, looked ahead, seeing the war becoming interminable, with the prospect that he also would follow the uncle who helped raise him into the Armed Services.  He soon saw the stupidity and tragedies of war and would soon wonder: why must humans engage in such behavior?

Yes, December 7th is a date neither he nor any others of his age will ever forget.  He’ll never forget his mother yelling down to the basement where the boy and his brothers and their father were setting up the family’s train set to say: “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor,” and his father saying, “Oh Lord, that means war.”

At first the boy and his brother, then 11, jumped for joy, picturing how much fun it would be to “play solider” for real, only to be reprimanded by their father for insensitive behavior.  How soon the boy would learn how tragic war is!

It’s a date the boy will never forget; soon, however, his generation will be gone, along with their memories of this “Day that will live in infamy.”  Dec. 7, 2010.

If war is vital, why not all-out commitment?

As a teenager during World War II, I recall vividly how the entire population was involved in the War: my uncle who lived with us was drafted in 1940, my dad was air raid warden on our block, we contributed valuable pennies and dimes to War Stamps and Bonds. There was no escape from the War; even a trip to the movies brought a halt midway through a film while ushers passed buckets to collect our few coins for the “war effort.”

Every family was affected by the draft, including my high school friends who turned 18 and were snatched out of school for the service; they would receive diplomas in spite of failing to complete studies. Some were sent posthumously.

The draft continued after the War; it got me during the Korean War (Navy) and by the time of Vietnam young men studied like all hell to keep their student deferments. By the 1970s, we turned to an all volunteer army, navy air force and marine corps.

There was a war profits tax during World War II; wages were frozen and unions resisted striking. Harry Truman made his fame heading a Senate investigation on fraud committed by contractors during the War. In short, World War II required an all-out commitment.

Now we are told, the “war” in Afghanistan is critical to our nation’s safety. I’m wondering, if this war is so valuable, should we all not PAY for it, with a tax on high income, a war profits tax, and (regretfully) a draft?

When businesses find they can’t profit on war, when draft-dodging demagogic politicians can no longer wave the flag of patriotism, when young men (and in the 21st Century, women, too) are facing going into service, maybe our country won’t let itself be dragged into such unnecessary (in my view) conflicts.

Tell me if I’m wrong about this!

Read what the New York Times” Bob Herbert has to say.