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Elementary, my dear… Olly olly oxen free! Or is home still safe?

By Sydney Stevens

Observer columnist

Published on January 2, 2018 4:28PM

During World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol kept watch on the Peninsula’s ocean beach. Photographer Charles Fitzpatrick’s called his iconic image “Night Patrol.”

Espy Family Archive

During World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol kept watch on the Peninsula’s ocean beach. Photographer Charles Fitzpatrick’s called his iconic image “Night Patrol.”

We grew up knowing that Dorothy was right. When she chanted, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home and clicked her heels together, all her troubles melted away and she was back on the farm with Aunty Em and Uncle Henry. Home! Safe!

For me, “home safe” was here on the Peninsula with my Oysterville grandparents. I don’t remember ever feeling unsafe. We were never cautioned, “Don’t talk to strangers.” There were no strangers. Nor was I ever given a key to the front door “in case we aren’t back yet.” The door was never locked. Was there even a key? And, besides, someone was always home. Where else would they be?

We played outside (usually down at the bay) until someone’s mother (usually mine) blew their whistle to come for lunch or for dinner or just because… I don’t remember ever being scared of anything except maybe of the cow that I thought was a bull because of her ferocious-looking horns. And I was just a little scared that one time when we decided to go into the woods about dusk to see if Jimmy Andersen really did have a real Stradivarius violin that he played as the sun set every night.

Beginnings of fear

Life was good. Life was safe. And, so it remained until the beginning of World War II and the outside world grew nearer. We were given instructions that the ocean beach was ‘Off Limits’ at night. And there were Beach Patrols — Coast Guardsmen on horses that were kept at their ‘base’ at the Moby Dick Hotel. Driving at night had to be done without lights or with headlight covers with small slits in them so only a bit of road right in front of you showed.

As the months went by, our Japanese friends ‘disappeared,’ my grandfather’s vegetable garden was being called a “Victory Garden” and, “for the war effort” we kids saved the tinfoil that was part of the packaging on cigarettes. (Unfortunately, no one in my family smoked so my sources were limited.)

In the autumn of 1942, my uncle Willard wrote from New York: We were amazed at reports of impending bombings and actual blackouts in the Oysterville area. New York is talking about practice blackouts, but it hasn’t gotten beyond the talk stage yet.

The “bombings” he referred to were the practice targets set up in the bay for use by bombardier trainees flying out of McChord Air Force Base. I don’t remember much about that — did I even know about it?

I certainly didn’t know that ‘the wreck’ of the Solano about a mile down the beach from the Oysterville approach was also used for strafing practice. I’m pretty sure Gary Whitwell and the Robertson brothers didn’t know that either when they snuck out there to go fishing that time and got stranded until the next tide. They thought their moms would be ‘mad’ if they knew. Maybe ‘terrified’ would be another word.

My mom told me, years later, that she was afraid I’d be “scarred for life” by the occasional blackouts. Apparently, I wasn’t because I have only fond memories of pulling down those blackout curtains and huddling around the woodstove for warmth. We played board games. We popped corn. We felt safe — most of the time. Perhaps it was because we were children…

It wasn’t always summer

Unfortunately, it wasn’t always summer and I wasn’t always on the Peninsula. We lived in Alameda, California, an island with the Naval Air Station on one end and us on the other. My folks both worked in war-related jobs -- my mother for General Engineering Shipyards and my dad with a Class II-A draft status (men necessary in their civilian activity) for his work as head of the Catalog Order Department at the West Coast Headquarters of Montgomery Ward Company. The war never seemed far away, though I’m sure they tried not to talk shop at home. “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”

As I remember, the blackouts were nightly and we sang “When the lights come on again, all over the world…” We took in boarders — young women whose boyfriends or husbands were “at the front” and they, too, worked for ‘the war effort.’ I remember watching them paint lines up their legs to simulate the seams in silk stockings and I loved helping them make necklaces from colored macaroni — all that they could afford or, maybe, all that was available.

Looming large in my memory, too, are rationing stamps and waiting in lines — for bread at the bakery on baking days and for meat at the butcher shop on delivery days. Two pairs of shoes a year were allowed for kids! (We all wore those ugly brown oxfords because they lasted longest.) But the emotion attached to all those memories was more pride than fear. We were helping. All of us. There was a sense of togetherness and a feeling of accomplishment. Or maybe that was my childlike impression.

It wasn’t until the Cold War came along and people began building bomb shelters that I remember feeling not so safe. And then, when I began teaching in California, I had to sign a contract that “if the worst happened” during school hours, I would stay with my students; I would not go home or try to unite with my family. Yeah. Right. But I signed it and somehow the worst didn’t happen.

Olly olly oxen free?

Now I’m back here on the Peninsula. Home! Safe. “Olly Olly Oxen Free” still resounds and we needn’t be afraid. Or so I’d like to think. We do lock our doors nowadays, though, and there are many ‘strangers’ among us. We call them “tourists” here on the Peninsula and try to make them feel welcome. The beach has been ‘open’ night and day for generations, but we seldom come home with glass balls after a walk along the tideline. It’s more likely that we are carrying a sack full of debris — plastic detritus washed up from the depths or left behind by the thousands who have ‘discovered’ our place of safety.

The biggest threat (or at least the one that gets our attention) is the much-hyped tsunami that happens every 300 years. It’s overdue, we are told. There is no way that you could get off the Peninsula in time, we are told. We may have only twenty minutes, they say.

In Oysterville, we joke that the highest ground is at the cemetery. That’s where we’ll go. We’ll hug a tree and, if the worst happens, we’ll be where we’re supposed to be. “Tsunami Humor,” we call it. Still… that’s about the worst fear we all have. Except for our neighbors who are threatened by ICE. Except for the bomb threats from across the Pacific. Except for the cyber-attacks and the mass shootings we hear about all too often. Except for alarming reports from the Other Washington. And except for increasing evidence that democracy is broken.

Still… when you live on the Peninsula, it’s easy to believe Dorothy was right. There is no place like home! And it might just be the safest haven.


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