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How the Hen House Turns: A Mothering Instinct During WWII

on November 12, 2014 - 7:19am
How the Hen House Turns
A Mothering Instinct During WWII
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

In the spring of 1943 we moved seven miles, from San Leandro. Calif., to an apricot orchard on Madeiros Avenue. It lay on 40 acres of rolling hills just outside the city limits of Hayward.

Those were the days when my mirror was telling me that 6-year-olds have big ears that stick out in front of braids that are never long enough. The horrid mirror also was saying that 6-year-olds have knobby knees that wiggle and frown beneath skirts that pull up too short or hang down to long on one side or the other.

Of course, with my ears flapping around and my knees sticking out, I couldn’t go to live in a new place! All the good reasons for moving were nothing compared to my terror of having to meet strangers with all my knees and ears erupting.

However, my brother Hal had asthma. I knew he would breathe easier in the country—away from the city. Also, Pa wouldn’t have to drive all the way over to Alameda to work in the shipyards. He would be at home running our Victory Farm—when he wasn’t off in Castro Valley building houses. Ma wouldn’t have to worry about losing World War II ration books anymore; we would have a cow for milk and pigs for bacon and lots of chickens. And, “Best of all,” Pa said, “Boots will have room to run free.”

The last argument terrified me. Boots was too young; she’d get lost. Why would our new pup want to run free? She would want to stay close to me, wouldn’t she, at least until she grew up? Maybe my knees would be okay by then.

As I look back, I realize how strong my mothering instincts were. What a powerful drive it is in us Homo sapiens females. Most girls play with dolls, and we all took stuffed animals to college in those days. My particular version of the caring instinct expressed itself in caring for animals.

As we drove from San Leandro to Hayward, I sat in the back seat of our ’38 Oldsmobile and held onto baby dog Boots so she wouldn’t “fall out the window.” Somehow I would keep her safe, even way out here in the hills. I would feed her and walk her and protect her from the cold and keep her from falling in the mud and save her from World War II, if it ever got to us.

Boots was a “shepherd-mix.” She had been nothing more than a ball of thick black and brown fur when Pa brought her home for Christmas four months before. He had found her at the dog pound (They call them shelters now.), and I was sure he had saved her from a horrible early death.

The thought was a hazy, spooky one—just like most of my awareness of the war, which was nothing more than a murky, far-off terror that came to us in tension-filled radio newscasts, and Mickey Mouse posters, and balls of tin foil we made from gum wrappers, and ration books filled with gray stamps, and three steel ball bearings that Pa had brought home from the shipyard for us to use as marbles.

Once in a while the realization surfaced that my twin cousins, Bob and Bill, were actually in the war, fighting with real bullets somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. They had been gone nearly a full year. Along with half their high school class of June 1942, they had enlisted immediately after graduation. Pa’s sister, Auntie Margo, had to give her permission for them to go. They were only 17 at the time.

The war seemed very far away as I clutched Boots in my arms. I remember how much I loved the way the soft white fur on her chest matched the lower half of her legs and paws. I hung onto her collar. Her doe-brown eyes squinted into the wind, and her half-bent shepherd ears blew straight back, making her brown muzzle seem long and narrow, like a collie’s. (Lassie of “Come Home” fame was a collie; they don’t get around much anymore.) I pulled her paws off the window and rolled it up so she had to pull her head in.

Looking out past Boot’s smiling face, I noticed that the tall white houses had suddenly disappeared and the city street had narrowed to a country road. Green fields sprinkled with yellow mustard flowers dipped toward the distant San Francisco Bay as the road wound into the hills. I took a deep breath. We were on our own now, way out here. I hoped Pa knew where he was going.

Suddenly we came upon a gigantic black hedge on the right side of the road. It was more than 15 feet tall, shaped into a perfect rectangle, as if trimmed by huge clippers. Pa slowed the car. Surely he wouldn’t go behind that monster hedge! But he turned right into the middle of it, through a break in the cedar branches that was as neat and square as any normal gate.

“This is it,” Ma said, and Pa smiled.

I gulped and stared all around, looking for the giants that had clipped the hedge. Apricot trees stood in rows like disciplined soldiers, and Boots ran happily through the orchard. When I caught her, we sat together wondering if the small green fruits on the trees would know when to turn orange. Life on my beloved Victory Farm had begun.


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