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John Boston: The SCV’s December War, Part III

How Beige Was My Valley

Posted: December 27, 2008 5:23 p.m.
Updated: December 28, 2008 4:55 a.m.
"I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?'"
- Eve Merriam

I was enjoying coffee recently with a friend and local mucky-muck. We're both in our 50s and agreed: In our lifetime, we had never experienced anything quite like this current America, careening wildly like a great dented top.

Spoiled with being born in the richest country in the history of civilization at the seeming apex of its might and splendor, we were of the generation not truly tested.

Our demographic's battle cries involved burning brassieres, along with sex, drugs and rock ‘n' roll.

Looking back, I can't even describe the time as sexy. Frenetic? Yes. Libertine? Yes. Classy? Not really. Very deep or courageous? Not remotely.

Just prior to the first week of December 1941, we were grunting our way out of the Great Depression. Frightened of potential double-digit national unemployment and all that it brings today?

In 1932, unemployment was 25 percent, with more than half "underemployed." That's where you have a job, but with a severe pay cut.

The second near-knockout blow came nine years later. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

We felt the reverberations of those bombs here in Santa Clarita, not knowing if the Pacific invasions would continue their momentum and reach our agrarian borders.

Around 1900, the SCV had been named one of the top 10 military targets on Earth. The SCV was the "hub of the wheel," at the center of major highways, rails, petroleum, water, electrical, communications and natural-gas infrastructure.

Our mountainous terrain made us a smaller Afghanistan. If you could hold the SCV, you could effectively cut off California and the West Coast.

In December 1941, we pulled together. We invented and reinvented.

Almost overnight, the smallish fireworks factory on Soledad Canyon Road called Bermite turned into one of the country's biggest munitions providers. About 70 percent of the workforce were women. And they had rather suffered through unusual working conditions.

For one thing, all women were subject to strip searches before shifts to make sure they weren't wearing anything silk. That included underwear. If a recalcitrant bomb-maker didn't want to be searched, she was turned over to a couple of meaty female supervisors who sometimes would flip a girl upside down to check if her foundation wear was the kind that caused sparks.

Once inside, workers were literally chained to their work areas with thick rubber anklets as ground to ensure no electrical charges ignited rooms filled with mountains of gunpowder.

Homemakers brought in coffee cans to local markets, filled with cooking grease, lard and butter, which were used to make explosives. They joked that the government wanted more household grease, while limiting people from buying the very food items that produced it.

Today, we still have a yearly emergency day produced by the city. It was born from the wartime kabuki theater of early World War II in which mock battle scenarios were enacted.

The very first one had 1,000 locals pretending the American Theater had been bombed, leaving an 18-foot-deep crater. The Saugus Train Depot had been "wiped off" the map and pretend German arsonists were captured, questioned and pretend beaten.

Not so funny was the fate of local conscientious objector Clarence Compton. While he could not take another's life, he took his own, via monoxide poisoning in a distant canyon.

Today we fret about the government monitoring suspicious Internet activity and illegal phone taps. Back in the early 1940s, we had about 500 phones in the greater Santa Clarita Valley and all calls went through the Newhall switchboard.

One local sailor, home on leave, had gotten drunk and was making some rather inventive 2 a.m. romantic suggestions to his Newhall girlfriend. The horrified and spinster operator, Holly Hubbard, called the cops.
The seaman was arrested, not so much giving up state secrets, but for ribald speech over a party line. Fancy 2008: we suffer a culture and economy of surround-sound pornography.

Air-raid sirens were installed and we became used to high-pitched wails just before 8 p.m. each winter night, mandating the valley go dark. The cost of leaving your porch light on during a blackout might be just about the value of your house. The fine was $300 - or 50 days in jail.

We still had those towers - and the sirens, now geared for nuclear war drills - when I was in junior high in 1964.

Undoubtedly one of the signatures of 2008 is stress. It comes in part from uncertainty. In 1941, for Mary Tysell, who ran the local Red Cross, stress came from overwork and grief.

She had been working around the clock since Dec. 7 and finally collapsed and was hospitalized. Mary had lost most of her family during the German bombings of London.

Around the same time, a local school principal was drafted - but not before receiving three big and tearful send-off parties. Because of his position, he was given a few months to get his work in order, find a replacement and report for duty.

He returned a month later, chagrined and embarrassed. Seems he was born with one foot three sizes larger than the other. Instead of adapting and issuing him one size 13 and one size 10 boot, Uncle Sam stamped him unfit. He returned home - without a job, labeled no war hero, but 4-F. Who knows. Maybe he was just lucky.

For the Santa Clarita Valley, World War II lasted not quite four years, and there are enough stories to write our own book.

I am still haunted by the odd happenstance, karma or just dumb, evil luck for two local men. One was a Navy pilot who had been shot down twice and had been involved in numerous European dog fights.

He came home a hero, married his high school sweetheart and she immediately got pregnant. He still worked for the Navy, training pilots in San Pedro. He died in a routine accident in 1946.

Same year, a Newhall Army sergeant, recipient of numerous medals including the Purple Heart, married his high school sweetheart on leave in 1943. They had one young child.

He had been wounded in the Pacific and was involved in hand-to-hand combat in the jungles. He was adapting nicely to civilian life and was driving home from hunting in Pico Canyon.

A carload of high school kids veered over the center of the road and hit him head-on. He died en route to the hospital.

I always wondered: Did the wives, families and friends ever enjoy peace, trying to figure out the will of God, luck or the Fates?

In 2008, we live in interesting times: trying to get a handle on who we are, always just falling short while trying to reinvent ourselves. It's an interesting dance, but one done without the benefit of someone trying to kill us.

A December 67 years ago, Santa Clarita survived martial law, the upheaval of families, confiscated homes, shortages, blackouts, death, war and a Christmas whose major casualty was diminished expectations.

I think we're going to pull through just fine this December 2008.

John Boston has earned 117 major national, regional and California awards for writing. His work appears in The Mighty Signal Sundays and Fridays.


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