World War II penetrated into the lives of everyone, young and old. It even reached into the small village in the Sand Hills of Nebraska where we lived. Dad tried to enlist in the military but was rejected. “Teachers and school administrators are automatically ‘4F’”, the draft board told him.
Rationing was in force during the war, so the needs of a small town had to be addressed in other ways. By growing fruits and vegetables, Dad felt he was doing his part for the war. He decided to expand his hobby and grow “victory gardens,” as they were called, which supplied not only my family but our neighbors. Besides, Dad, figured, gardening would give his boys a way to burn their energy during the summer months.
First, he identified several vacant lots suitable for growing vegetables and offered to share the vegetables free of charge to the owners. Next, he turned to the Earl May seed catalogue to research which vegetables would grow best in which lots. This he approached like a research project — like a modern-day Google search.
A verbal agreement promised to pay the two older boys 50 cents per hour and David 25 cents per hour since he was only 4 years old. We were expected to work approximately four hours each morning.
Soon Dad was supplying Selmer’s Grocery Store for the town’s needs in vegetables, and I was going door to door with my Radio Flyer wagon. Dad over-planted a few vegetables, such as cabbage, peas and potatoes, but this was corrected the second and third years.
One summer Grandma Larsen died, and Grandpa Larsen, who was living in Modesto, California, was left alone and totally helpless. So Mom took the train to California to take care of Grandpa. “He’s so helpless, he doesn’t even know how to boil water, and it looks like I’ll be here through the canning season,” Mom wrote back.
Having Mom gone during canning time was a problem. Who was going to take her place? When it came time to can the peas, we faced a bumper crop of the critters.
The biggest chore with peas is shelling them. Dad found an article in the Farmer’s Almanac on how to shell the peas using a wringer washing machine. My brother Spike and I picked peas, and then we took them inside to Dad. He had rigged a device on the washing machine so that the peas slid down a chute into the wringer. When the pea pods hit the wringer they popped open and the peas shot backward, hitting a backboard that Dad rigged up. Then they bounced off the backboard and fell into the cold water in the washing machine tub while the empty pods went through the wringer and became waste.
It worked beautifully. Dad could shell peas faster than Spike and I could pick them. The harvest timing was perfect so that very few peas were squashed by going through the wringer. In one day we canned 120 pints of peas. When we wrote to Mom she couldn’t believe it.
Another time Dad over-planted cabbage and we had more cabbage than the town could eat. We had a German neighbor named Otto Henry who lived next door and he proposed that he and Dad make sauerkraut with the extra cabbage. Dad said, “As long as we make it in your basement and you get the crocks.”
So Mr. Henry got several 10-gallon crocks, and they cut up the cabbage and prepared it for fermenting. Sauerkraut is simply rotten, fermented cabbage. It was very smart of Dad to suggest that Mr. Henry make the kraut in his basement, because the smell was horrendous for several weeks. I didn’t even like going into the house because the smell was so strong.
In a couple of weeks the crocks were opened, and Dad and Mr. Henry tasted the kraut. It was better than they had hoped for. We sold sauerkraut to most of the town and still had enough to can in fruit jars for the winter.
The women of the town got into the war effort as well. For Mom, the canning was a big task because previously she canned just for our family’s needs. Her part in the war effort was to save all cooking oils and turn them into the ration board so they could be converted into glycerin for military use.
In addition, the wives and mothers learned to cook in spite of rationed coffee, butter, cheese and even canned goods. A substitute for coffee was invented, called Sanka, and Scandinavians like Mom and Dad learned how to get along with that. Meat was also rationed but not in areas where there were a lot of cattle ranches. The sugar ration was never enough for canning fruit, so Mom canned the berries and peaches without sugar.
Women also put stars in their front windows. A blue star meant there was a son or husband in military service. This could be replaced by a silver star meaning he was missing in action or a gold star meaning her loved one was killed in action.
Overall, rationing impacted our lives the most. The rationing of gasoline was complex with different quotas for different occupations. Farmers and doctors got the highest allotment. Dad’s quota was quite small. There were no unnecessary trips, nor vacations because there was insufficient gasoline available. Each month we received a booklet of stamps that allowed for eight gallons of gasoline.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, gasoline was the first item to be rationed. Scores of items were added to the rationed list, including tires and even typewriters. No one grumbled about rationing, for it was one way everyone participated in the war effort.
Even children were a part of the war effort. One Saturday each month was set aside for scrap collections. We walked the highways looking for pieces of iron or rubber and turned them into the ration office. Everyone who participated received free entrance to the movie theater. If a bonanza of metal or rubber was found and turned in, the participating kid got a war bond, worth $25 after maturity.
Enthusiasm and patriotism was part of life every day. Not all patriotism was good. In class we were asked to write a poem that contained the words “slap a Jap.” Our town was composed primarily of Scandinavians and Germans and no Japanese. We never considered local Germans as the enemy. Such prejudice was probably more likely in the cities than in a small town of 800 people. I heard on the radio that the Japanese were herded into camps and their stores and homes were destroyed, but this had little meaning to me until I married a Japanese lady years later. This left a festering sore in the minds of the Japanese even to this day.
When the announcement of Japan’s surrender came on Aug. 14, 1945 — V-J Day, as it’s called — my family was moving to Sioux Falls, S.D., and we had no radio in the car. Stopping in Sioux City for gas, Dad presented his ration book. “You can put that away,” the station attendant told him.
“What do you mean?” Dad asked.
“Haven’t you heard? The war is over. Japan has surrendered after we dropped two big bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rationing is finished.”
We were all shocked. After filling the tank, Dad just sat without starting the engine.
“What’s the matter?” I asked Dad.
“I’m just giving thanks.”