In the summer of 1945 I was eleven years old, just finished with sixth grade. Summers in Pennsylvania grew long back then, isolated as I was on a farm two miles from the end of the city bus line. Because I had two older sisters, the well filled bookshelves tended toward stories of girls. For compensation I had the travel adventures of my hero, Richard Halliburton, and the delights of Stevenson’s Jungle Book, as well as whatever else I could find at the New Castle Public Library. On hot afternoons, if nothing else appealed to me, there were always the volumes of The Book of Knowledge, with lots of pictures and short articles about everything under the sun.
During summers of World War II, Dad augmented his slim teacher’s salary by working in factories. That summer, at age 51, he was working at Universal-Rundle, a manufacturer of washbowls and toilets. Mimi, my mother, was visiting her mother in Texas for several weeks. We children were not told why, but Mimi was probably depressed and feeling lonely because of the isolation of life on the farm with gasoline rationing and only one car. During those years Mimi was often in bed for weeks at a time. I can remember weeks when I came home from school early to fix her lunch and my sister Ann cooked the evening meal.
Jean, my older sister, was already living and training at the local hospital in the nurse cadet corps, about which she has written a memoir. Ann was at home for the summer, having finished her junior year of high school.
One day Dad told me that I had a chance to travel to Alabama to live for a month with my Uncle Joseph and Aunt Verna and their daughter, Eleanor Jo. Always ready to go somewhere new, I looked forward to riding Greyhound buses and changing from one to another. Essential clothing was soon packed into a suitcase made of hard cardboard, and we were off to the bus station. I remember my ticket as a long row of tickets folded together, each one for a leg of the journey.
I boarded the bus in New Castle for a two hour ride to Pittsburgh, where I had my first change to make. I can’t be sure exactly how many changes the whole journey required, but I recall changing buses in Louisville and Nashville. Mapquest now tells me that my journey was 935 miles, with a non-stop driving time of 15 hours. Add to that, bus changes, rest stops and meal stops, and at least one missed connection, and I feel sure that I spent at least two nights riding on buses and waiting in bus terminals.
Buses were crowded in those days, when Germany had already surrendered and we were hoping for the end of the war with Japan. Service personnel in uniform had priority in boarding buses, and after them came whoever could get to the door of the bus. There were no organized lines, and when a bus swung into the loading lane the crowd would rush forward to board. At those major hub points, every bus was loaded to capacity, even with standees and even in the middle of the night. If I failed to get onto the bus, I had to wait for the next scheduled bus, perhaps several hours later. I knew that I would eventually reach my destination, but there was no way to tell Uncle Joseph when to expect me.
It was in those southern bus stations that I first saw “colored” and “whites only” waiting rooms, rest rooms and drinking fountains. Dad had warned me and cautioned me not to say anything about them. I don’t know how “colored” people managed to get seats on buses, but I think a few seats were marked by a sign and reserved for them in the back. Looking back at that time, I have to remember that there were no interstate highways; we were often on two-lane roads. There was no thought of stopping over in a hotel, so I rode through the nights, sleeping in my seat when I had one. The bus would make rest stops every couple of hours, and I had a little money in my pocket to buy refreshments.
The final change was in Montgomery, and then there was the short run to Tuskegee. Somehow the Hensleys met me and took me to their little home. Joseph was a captain in the U. S. Army Air Force Intelligence, stationed in Tuskegee at the air base where colored soldiers were being taught to fly and maintain their own, segregated units of fighter planes. Now the brilliance and courage of the Tuskegee Airmen is a well known and documented story, but I imagine that in 1945 Joseph would preferred some other post. I was only in my uncle’s office one time, and from the window I saw the airmen drilling on a field. That was the nearest I came to them, and I don’t know whether they ever came into the town.
As a married officer, Capt. Joseph Hensley lived off the military base in a rented house. The rooms were easily counted: living room, kitchen, bedroom, bath. Eleanor Jo slept in a child’s bed in her parents’ room. I slept on the living room couch, except that if there were evening visitors, I went to sleep on the big double bed and woke up when Joseph walked my sleepy body out to the couch.
Taking care of the house would not have tired Verna out, but she followed local custom and hired a colored woman to clean in the mornings and fix lunch for us. It was strange to me to see that while we were eating, the hired woman was waiting to eat her lunch alone.
None of us except Joseph had much to do. Eleanor Jo was three years younger than me, so we were often at odds with each other rather than playing together, at least as I remember it. (As an adult, she was a sweet person and a strikingly beautiful woman.) I don’t remember any boys in the neighborhood. While I was used to farm work and lots of outdoor life at home, I was a chubby boy and completely indifferent to sports. I remember Joseph making an exasperated remark about how I would be healthier if I sweat more. Growing up with the Hensley brothers both older and younger, Joseph must have sweat plenty when he was a boy.
One book I pulled off of Joseph’s bookshelf was Hendrik Van Loon’s Story of the Bible. That was my first exposure to the idea that the book of Genesis is not scientific and historical fact, and I laid the book aside with disgust. I remember saying, “I don’t know why someone would write a book about the Bible when he believes so little of it.” My fear of heresy outweighed my curiosity about new ideas.
One place I would like to see again is the little museum installed in the laboratory of Prof. George Washington Carver at the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. I remember it as two hot, dusty rooms filled with exhibits of the many products that Carver developed, chiefly from peanuts. I was dropped off there and picked up later, so I remember being completely alone in the museum.
A lieutenant who served with Uncle Joseph was kind to me and took me to see the mansion where he rented a room. Grey Columns was built in 1857, and it is now the home of the president of Tuskegee University. Our friend, whose name I have forgotten, rented an upstairs bedroom. What I recall about it was his collection of classical record albums, larger than I had ever seen. He let me see the parlors with their antique furniture, and that remains my principal impression of antebellum life apart from the movies.
Tuskegee had fewer than 13,000 citizens, a large majority African-American. The movie theater sold tickets to the main floor for white people and to the balcony for colored. There was no cooling system, there or anywhere else, so the balcony must have been really uncomfortable. A calendar of shows was posted outside the theater so that you could look ahead and see what was coming. There was one movie I was excited to see, Stormy Weather, with Lena Horne, whom I had heard on the radio. When I talked about it at home, the answer was, “Oh, you can’t see that. They only let the colored in, and they can sit on the main floor and the balcony, both. It comes back every few months, just for them.” That was a little taste of what it meant to be excluded because of my race.
At home I was used to the New Castle News, which printed maps of military progress nearly every day. In Tuskegee I think the radio was our source of news. The two atomic bombs fell on August 6 and 9, and we struggled to comprehend what that meant. On August 14 at 7 pm, we heard from President Truman that Japan had surrendered. Immediately the little town exploded with noise. Cars ran up and down the street with honking horns. We went out onto the streets like everyone else just to walk around in a mood of celebration. My indelible memory is of a colored woman walking in the middle of the street and shouting in a high voice, “Thank God, my boy is coming home!”
Those are my memories from 1945, few but vivid.