Daily Archives: June 21, 2015

A World War II Wedding

Elise White & John (Jack) Farrell

Elise White & John (Jack) Farrell

During World War II it was required that all all members of the military wear their uniforms at all times. That is why the wedding photos of my parents have them in uniform. My father as an Army Private and my mother as a Navel officer. (That’s right, she was the higher rank).

My mother was able to get special permission from an Admiral to be allowed to wear a wedding dress for the short ceremony. However, as soon as that was over she had to immediately get back into uniform.

And where did they fight the war? – in New York City. That’s right, New York. My father was in medical school, and the Army drafted the entire school and assigned them to keep taking classes. Many students, including my father, had been trying to quit medical school to join the Army so that they could fight in the war. However, the top brass in the Army decided that they needed new doctors a lot more than they needed new riflemen.  The Army solved this problem by simply drafting the entire medical school.  His whole life, Jack Farrell felt guilty about spending the war in school, even though he had been given no choice.

My mother, Elsie White, was actually the one with the exciting wartime career. She joined the Navy and due to her aptitude with symbols and puzzles, was assigned to a a secret code breaking unit.  It was in the sub-basement of a building on Church Street in New York. To even get to it, you had to go past Marine guards, down a long elevator ride to the sub-basement; through a steel door and past another set of Marines.

Once you got past security, you entered a long windowless room filled with rows of desks. There, men and women from all different backgrounds worked trying to break the numerous Japanese and German navel codes. Elise was the ranking officer, so she had the desk at the front and was in charge of the group.

In the back there was a tiny, shy woman who never spoke to anyone other than to say “good morning” and “good night.” The other people in the group thought of her like a little skittish mouse. One day Elise was sitting at the officer’s desk and the shy mouse woman came up and spoke to her in a voice so faint it was almost a whisper. “Excuse me mam. I think I just broke the Japanese code.”

It turned out that the little mouse-woman had broken a major Japanese Navel code  As a result, the mouse-woman got a promotion and the entire unit received a commendation.

On the same day they got their commendation, my mother also got an official reprimand letter, for not wearing her .45 caliber automatic while on duty. Fully loaded, it weighed 10 pounds, and she kept it locked in the desk instead of wearing it.  Her logic was that if the enemy got past the two sets of Marines, down the elevator and through the steel door, she was not going to be able to stop them. The Navy, of course, did not agree with this logic and the reprimand stayed in her file.

It was more that 25 years after the war before my mother was legally allowed to tell us any of these stories. That’s how secret her work had been. As children, my sisters and I still had a hard time believing her war stories. We saw a tiny 95 pound woman puttering around the house. We just could not picture her as the Officer of The Day, sitting at the front desk of the code breaking unit with a loaded .45 caliber strapped to her side.

King School Class of 1971

It seems impossibly long ago. In fact,  44 years ago. Rapidly closing in on a half a century. Yet somehow I remember everything from King School in Stamford Connecticut much more clearly than many events that have taken place since. The events of those years make a lasting impression on a person.

In fact,  I have written a number of stories on  this very blog about my time at King. If you click on the links below you can read some of them.

  • The Last Connecticut Gentleman is about  the real Merritt K. Sawyer. At school he was a feared tyrant. But I knew him out of school in quite a different context. (By the way, as our English teacher, Mr. Sawyer would have hated that I began the prior sentence with the word “but.”).
  • Running For Cake is the story of our wresting coach Aaron Hess (Woody) and his quest to turn us into Spartans.
  • Guns In The Attic is the story of one of my fellow classmates and the strange and wonderful air force in his attic.
  • Mr. Yang and the Electrical Banana is about our math teacher Jackson Yang and his struggle to make sense out of the incomprehensible lyrics of Donovan Leitch.

Of course, there are many other people and events that come to mind whenever I think about King. There was our Senior English teacher Mr. John Savin Hoffecker, whose love for teaching  was so great that  he gave up a successful law career in the South to teach English in Connecticut.  Savin felt that no class was complete unless he had told us a story about his days in the Old South. I don’t remember many of the books we read in that class, but I do  remember every one of his stories.

There was Malcolm Wilmott who taught Earth Science and who had been a race car driver  in England before becoming a teacher. He was always frustrated with being the person assigned to ferry students around in the school’s underpowered Volkswagen bus.

A number of people from King have written comments to this blog about  the King School stories, and I would love to hear from more. I was looking at the King website on line today and saw that it has changed tremendously, yet somehow remained the same.  It is now co-ed and combined with Low Heywood Thomas.  Some of the physical attributes of the place have changed, but the sheer youthful exuberance of the students remains the same.

When I graduated from King I was happy to leave. It was time to move on and find new adventures. Frankly, having gone there since sixth grade I was tired of the place. But now, when I look through the old yearbook I remember it for what a unique experience it really was.

In the movie Radio Days Woody Allen spoke about how he can still remember the old-time radio voices, but as he get older each year they seem to get a little fainter. I find just the opposite. As I get older, my memories of King seem to get stronger.

Now that I am as old as the most senior teachers were, I can somehow look back at the school with a different perspective and see it in its entirety.