Several years before he died, my father started writing about his life. While I knew about his memoirs, I didn’t get a chance to see them until I inherited a copy. I always knew that my father had a great sense of humor; however, I didn’t know what a droll storyteller he was.
In honor of Father’s Day, my father will be writing my blog post, albeit posthumously. This is one of my favorite passages from his memoir, written about living during World War II in Philadelphia.
By H. Richard Bahner
My mother, Betty, was always active in the Parent Teacher Association. She served as president a couple of times, and was always asked to take part in various charity drives. I remember one period during which my brother, Ted, and I were introduced to soap sculpture. We did a hell of a job on a lot of large-sized cakes of P&G’s Ivory Soap. Jack Griffith, who was the husband of Aunt Marion, my mother’s sister, sold for P&G in Cincinnati, Ohio. Maybe he shipped us samples? The unusual thing was that some of our creations looked pretty good.
At that particular time, Mother was soliciting for The Red Feather, which was The Community Chest, and later became The United Fund. The badge given to contributors that year was a single, red-dyed feather which men and women pinned to their jackets, blouses or dresses. I don’t know if our neighborhood, Uptown, was especially short of philanthropists that year, but Mother had a lot of extra cellophane-wrapped packets containing a contribution receipt card, a small red feather and a folder describing the plans of the association. I remember how the red feathers jazzed up our simulated marble objets d’Ivory, especially my handcarved Ozzie Ostrich. Our soap sculptures would have been a hit at any Communist exhibit.
While Mother was PTAing, Father was the Air Raid Warden for almost the exact area that Mom had collecting rights over. For Dad’s Air Raid Warden headquarters, the Civil Defense Office rented a storefront previously operated by Joe No-Last-Name, who sold cigars, cigarettes, candy, soda and magazines. Joe looked like an ex-convict, or at least how I imagined an ex-convict would look, and when he left the store one night and never came back, I figured that he was locked up again and back in jail.
The storefront was used by the Civil Defense people as the office/meeting place/storage room for the Air Raid Warden’s official emergency equipment. Ted and I served as messengers. I was underage, as the regulations said 14, but Dad was the Head Warden of our post and in charge of giving out the cumbersome-looking, white-painted helmets, armbands, flashlights and whistles, and no one questioned his judgments as there were more warden candidates than equipment. My Boy Scout membership helped ease my intrusion as, with all Scouts, first-aid training was mandatory.
The manufacturers of hand-held spray equipment made an automatic killing from the Civil Defense procurement people. Four- to five-gallon-capacity tanks with hand-operated pumps were the first line of defense against German or Japanese firebomb attacks. I couldn’t see any benefit from pumping water on a magnesium-fed incendiary fire, but a little knowledge from a freshman chemistry class is guaranteed to bring doubt upon the wisdom of the acts of your elders. Shoveling sand on the area around the incendiary would probably smother it out, but water was available, and sand was 60 miles away at the Jersey shore.
The chance to display their naked power came to the wardens during the actual air-raid drills. Following the clarion call of the air-raid siren, all available wardens would report to their posts to collect their equipment and any special orders. Then they would report to their assigned neighborhoods and render assistance. Since anyone remaining on the homefront who wanted a job got one, most of the workforce was involved in the war effort, or serviced it. Thus, the most effective time to hold an air-raid drill was in the evening, as this provided the experience to the greatest number of people, and it also gave the Civil Defense people an idea of the level of blackout compliance practiced by their subjects. Most of the air-raid drills occurred between 9:00 and 10:00 at night.
I well-remember running important messages between post headquarters and the wardens of our sector. This would put me right out in the dark of things, on the scene, to observe the wardens flying up and down the streets notifying transgressors of their flagrant blackout violations, resulting in the flagrant violators shouting back 1940’s vintage riposte from within the faultily blacked-out houses to the pompous-ass wardens, who particularly resented being called pompous-ass wardens.
Watching someone attempting to write down names and addresses in the dark is a sight to see at anytime, but especially when the transcriber is an incensed officious official in a state of rage who is determined to cite the wrongdoer in his report. When that official would attempt to conceal his person in an entranceway and dispense just the slightest bit of light from his flashlight, he would often be discovered by neighbors of the culprit, who would loudly question, from behind their blackout shades, just whose ass was going to the slammer.